Lesson #412: The Shortest War in History

Generally speaking, we’re a fan of conflict around these parts. I guess fan isn’t the right word, exactly, but it makes up literally all of my graduate schooling over three different degree programs. But for all the destruction and resulting problems wars bring with them, they are not always the protracted affairs the likes of say, The Three Hundred and Thirty-Five Years’ War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly, which accidentally lasted 335 years because everyone forgot they were at war. Case in point, the Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted a total of 38 minutes.

The story is a bit like every story you’ve probably heard about colonial powers attempting to control local rulers in Africa and install men sympathetic to colonial interests. In 1893, with newfound control over Zanzibar* after the signing of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, Britain declared Hamad bin Thuwaini Sultan of Zanzibar. Because our man Hamad was pro-British. In 1896, bin Thuwaini died suddenly — most likely because his cousin and successor Khalid bin Barghash poisoned him in order to claim the throne.**

Anyway, after installing himself as his cousin’s successor, bin Barghash went about it like he owned the place, and the British government were a bit, “hang on a moment”. Bin Barhash, undaunted, started amassing his army. By all accounts, the Zanzibaris were surprisingly well armed, though I can find no explanation for how or why this was the case. Meanwhile, Britain were bringing in five warships, mostly as a show of strength, thinking bin Barghash would look at the harbour and think, “this is a spectacularly terrible idea”. Except bin Barghash was fully invested in being the Sultan and instead went, “you’re not actually going to shoot us”, and Britain replied, “well, we don’t want to, but we will“.

When bin Barghash refused to abdicate by 9am on 27 August, 1896, British Men of War positioned in the harbour fired on the palace. By the time the shelling ended 38 minutes later, bin Barghash had escaped out the back door and the 3000 remaining members of his armed forces and civilians yanked down the Sultan’s flag, ending the Anglo-Zanzibar war.

In addition to being the shortest war, it might be the war with the highest death rate per capita. In the course of 38 minutes, 500 Zanzibaris were killed. To give you some perspective, before the civil war began in 2011, the population of Syria was 23 million. At the rate of 500 casualties per 38 minutes, the entire population of Syria would have been wiped out in 1214 days (or a little over three years and four months).

Our friend Khalid bin Barghash got himself to the German consulate — at the time, Germany controlled Tanzania — which secreted him off to Tanzania and refused to extradite him back to Zanzibar. He was eventually captured in 1916 when British Forces went schlepping through East Africa during the First World War. He was exiled on Saint Helena for a while, but died in Zanzibar in 1927, so it’s unclear how much time he was exiled.

I think the most interesting tidbit in this entire thing is that the Zanzibari navy consisted of a single vessel: an armed yacht gifted by Queen Victoria to Hamad bin Thuwaini. Armed. Yacht! Is this a thing? As someone who doesn’t make anything close to yacht money and isn’t pretty or powerful enough to weasel her way in to yacht money circles, my experience with yachts is nil. But it turns out there is a pretty fascinating history of armed yachts, you guys! Join me next week for a look into Commonwealth types arming their yachts.

Back to the topic at hand, there isn’t a lot of solid academic information on the Anglo-Zanzibar War online, but the Wiki page is well-sourced if you’re looking for references. More here and here.

*I’m going to assume that everyone’s knowledge of Zanzibar can be summed up thusly: it’s an island, Freddie Mercury was from there, and there’s a reference to it in a Tenacious D song.

**Lesson 412b: there is no express word for the murder of one’s cousin, despite the fact that there are words for the murder of pretty much everyone else in one’s family. Parricide, which refers to the murder of one’s parents can also apply to other close family members, though I think it rarely does.

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