The Shortest War In History Lasted 38 Minutes

When the ruling sultan on the British protectorate of Zanzibar died and his nephew took over, the British gave him an ultimatum: clear out of the palace immediately.

He opted for not doing what British asked, blockading himself and his assembled army in the palace. What transpired next, history records as the Anglo-Zanzibar War, the shortest war in recorded history.

The British wanted to end the slave trade, a major source of income for Zanzibar.

There were tens of thousand (around 60,000) slaves on the island. It would take decades of patience and a little bloodshed for the Brits to get what they wanted.

The Sultans Of Oman

When the Portuguese settled in Oman, modern day Tanzania, they established control of the island.

That was 1499, but in 1698, the Sultans invited the Portuguese to kindly bugger off, which they did.

In 1858, Sultan Majid bi Said declared Zanzibar an independent nation, which everybody accepted, including the British settlers in east Africa (modern-day Kenya).

The Slave Trade

The Brits had their eyes on their long term goals of ending the slave trade, which included trafficking from Zanzibar.

In 1873, they threatened the sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, with blockades if he didn’t end the trafficking. Zanzibar’s sultan took his time to think about it.

In 1890, Ali bin Said, the new sultan banned the domestic slave trade but didn’t ban owning slaves in Zanzibar. This was enough for the Brits, at least for a little while.

Zanzibar and Britain enjoyed a period of peace after this.

The same year, the Brits and Germans agreed to terms of land control, granting Germany control of the land we now cal Tanzania and Britain control of modern day Kenya.

The island of Zanzibar remained sovereign, but under Britain as a protectorate. Everything seemed well.


The sultan after Ali, Hamad bin Thuwaini, took the throne in 1893. He recognized that Britain provided protection he needed.

The Zanzibar fleet of boats totaled one. Their palace, built in Zanzibar Town on the African side of the island was big, but not fortified.

With his small army, Sultan Hamas was no match for the Germans (or anyone else for that matter) if they decided to take the island. Not everyone in Zanzibar saw things Hamas’ way. Dissenters wanted the Brits out.

On August 25th, 1896, Hamas died suddenly, suspiciously. The Brits believed his nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, the man claiming succession, may have had a hand in it.

Khalid was one of the dissenters who did not like the British. When they demanded Khalid step down, he assembled citizens and the army in the palace, ready to fight.

The War

Even with 2,800 armed men, Khalid was no match for the British Navy. Zanzibar had a couple of machine guns and one Gatling gun in the palace. In the harbor, they had some old canons, gifted to Zanzibar from the Germans, and their one sloop.

The British navy was dominant even against worthy foes.

August 27th, 1896: after many warnings and attempts to end the situation with diplomacy, the British opened fire on the palace at 9 am.

After 38 minutes (or 45 depending on which historian you ask) it was all over.

Around 500 people on the island of Zanzibar died from the battle. The British didn’t lose one soldier.

In the chaos that followed the battle, looting and fighting on Zanzibar claimed another 20 lives. Khalid and his loyalists took refuge with the Germans.

Fate eventually caught up with Khalid. The British captured him during the East African campaigns of WWI in 1916.

They forced he and his supporters to pay reparations to the people of Zanzibar.

Sultan Hamud, the British replacement for Zanzibar, worked intimately with the Brits. He immediately abolished all forms slavery.