The late 19th century was period of friendly but competing relations between Imperial Germany and Great Britain in Colonial East Africa, as each vied for control of territory and trade rights.
In 1886 Sultan Khalifah granted rights to the land of Kenya to Britain, and that of Tanganyika, modern day Tanzaniya, to Germany. The Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty between Britain and Germany officially demarcated each nation’s sphere of influence in East Africa, in the process ceding Germany’s rights in the island nation of Zanzibar to the United Kingdom.
The agreement effectively ended the slave trade in much of East Africa, upsetting many among the Arab ruling classes who profited handsomely by this lucrative trade.
The shortest war in history began with the unexpected death and probable assassination of Sultan Hamad of Zanzibar, who died suddenly on August 25, 1896. Many suspected his 29-year-old nephew Khalid bin Bargash of the assassination, as he took up residence in his uncle’s palace complex.
British authorities demanded that Khalid order his forces to stand down and leave the palace. Instead, the new Sultan called up his palace guard and barricaded himself inside.
Several English warships arrived on the 26th, as a cable was sent to Lord Salisbury that afternoon, requesting authorization to use force if necessary. The reply came back from Her Majesty’s government: “You are authorized to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty’s Government.”
That was followed by one of history’s great examples of government butt-covering, adding: “Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully”.
At 8:30 on the morning of August 27th, a message came from Khalid saying “We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us”. Diplomatic Consul Basil Cave replied “We do not want to open fire, but unless you do as you are told we shall certainly do so”.
No further messages being forthcoming, General Lloyd Mathews ordered his ships to commence bombarding the palace complex at 9:00am, East Africa Time. Her Majesty’s ships Raccoon, Thrush and Sparrow opened fire at 9:02, Thrush’s first shot disabling an Arab 12-pounder cannon. 500 shells, 4,100 machine gun rounds and 1,000 rifle rounds were fired at the palace complex. By 9:40, the weapons of the 3,000 palace defenders, servants and slaves, had gone silent. The palace and attached harem were burning, the Sultan’s flag cut down. The order was given to cease fire.
A news correspondent from Reuters reported that the Sultan had “fled at the first shot with all the leading Arabs, who left their slaves and followers to carry on the fighting”.
The episode went into history as the Anglo-Zanzibar War. The whole thing lasted 38 minutes. Less time than it took me to write this story.
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