THE STORY BEHIND HISTORY’S SHORTEST WAR
Wars can drag on forever. History tells of the Hundred Years’ War, the Eighty Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War. For us, the 2001-2014 Afghanistan War was America’s longest conflict. (Although it’s often hard to tell when a war is really a “war”; click here to learn about some of Uncle Sam’s undeclared wars.)
Yet sometimes wars wrap up with surprising swiftness. Take history’s shortest war. How long do you think it lasted? A year? A month? A week? Not even close.
Get ready to learn what took place during all 38 minutes of the Anglo-Zanzibar War – the briefest ever.
It was fought on a single Thursday morning (from 9:02 to 9:40 to be precise) on August 27, 1896. Here’s how it happened.
In the closing days of the 19th Century, Africa was a colonial grab bag. Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and even little Belgium were snatching up big chunks of the Dark Continent. The Brits especially had grand plans. They dreamed of an unbroken string of colonies on the eastern side of the continent stretching from Egypt down to South Africa.
The Sultanate of Zanzibar was an island nation in the Indian Ocean, near modern Tanzania. The British had recognized its sovereignty in 1886, and for ten years everyone played well together. Then the Germans started meddling, hoping to turn Zanzibar against the Brits.
Sheikh Hamad bin Thuwaini had ruled the country as Sultan for four years. He liked the British. But some members of his Inner Circle didn’t. And wouldn’t you know it, the Sheik died suddenly at age 39 on August 25. It’s widely believed he was poisoned by his cousin, Sheikh Khalid bin Barghash, who immediately proclaimed himself the new Sultan.
Then the fun started.
All day on the 26th, diplomats talked back and forth. It was rapidly becoming obvious negotiations wouldn’t settle the crisis.
British officials decided to snuff the new royal regime in its cradle and began planning accordingly. The Sultan responded by barricading himself inside his palace and turning it into a fortress.
Say what you will about the British, but when you make them mad, they don’t fool around. And the new Sultan had ticked them off.
By the morning of the 27th, the Brits’ patience had run out. They sent the traditional demand that the palace surrender. The Sultan replied, “We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us.” The Brits quickly answered with, “We do not want to open fire, but unless you do as you are told we shall certainly do so.”
Five minutes later the order was changed to “commence bombardment.” At exactly 9:02 the firing began.
When the guns fell silent at 9:40, the palace and adjoining harem were piles of rubble.
As for the new Sultan, he and his closest advisers took off when the first shells hit, running to the nearby German consulate. They were smuggled to German East Africa and granted asylum. British troops later captured the ex-Sultan during World War I and exiled him to St. Helena, the same barren island where the deposed Napoleon had spent his last days. (Click here to read about a crazy plot to rescue the former French emperor.)
And so the Anglo-Zanzibar War was over almost as soon as it began. A British sailor was slightly injured; he was his side’s only casualty.
But if this farce sounds like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, think again. Some three thousand defenders, servants and slaves were barricaded inside the palace. More than 500 of them, one of every six, were killed or seriously wounded.
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