The Anglo–Zanzibar War was fought between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar on 27 August 1896. The conflict lasted around 40 minutes and is considered the shortest war in recorded history. The immediate cause of the war was the death of the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini on 25 August 1896 and the subsequent succession of Sultan Khalid bin Barghash. The British government preferred a more pro-British candidate for Sultan: Hamud bin Muhammed. In accordance with a treaty signed in 1886, a condition for accession to the sultancy was that the candidate obtain the permission of the British Consul and Khalid had not fulfilled this requirement. The British considered this a casus belli and an ultimatum was sent to Khalid demanding that he order his forces to stand down and leave the palace. In response Khalid called up his palace guard and barricaded himself inside the palace.
Hostilities opened with the expiry of the ultimatum at 9:00 am EAT on 27 August, when the British attacked the palace. The force consisted of three British cruisers, two gunships, 150 marines and sailors and 900 Zanzibaris under the command of Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson and Brigadier-General of the Zanzibar army Lloyd Mathews. Around 2800 Zanzibaris defended the palace; most recruited from the civilian population, but they also included the Sultan's palace guard and several hundred of his servants and slaves. The defenders were in possession of several artillery pieces and machine guns which were set in front of the palace sighted at the British ships. A brisk bombardment of the palace and defending artillery was opened at 9:02 am and soon the palace was on fire and the artillery had been disabled. A small naval action took place with the British sinking a Zanzibari royal yacht and two smaller vessels, and some shots were fired ineffectually at the pro-British Zanzibari troops as they approached the palace. The flag at the palace was shot down and fire ceased at 9:40 am.
The Sultan's forces sustained roughly 500 casualties, while only one British sailor was injured. Sultan Khalid received asylum in the German consulate before escaping to Tanganyika. Sultan Hamud was quickly placed in power at the head of a puppet government and abolished slavery within a few months. The war marked the end of Zanzibar as a sovereign state and the start of a period of heavy British influence.
Sultan Khalifah sent Zanzibari troops led by General Lloyd Mathews, a former Lieutenant of the Royal Navy, to restore order in Tanganyika. The operation was largely successful, but anti-German feeling amongst the Zanzibari people remained strong; conflicts erupted at Bagamoyo where 150 natives were killed by German military forces and at Ketwa, where German officials and their servants were murdered. The Sultan then granted extensive trade rights to the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) who, with German assistance, ran a naval blockade to halt the continuing domestic slave trade. Khalifah died in 1890 and was succeeded by Ali bin Said who banned the domestic slave trade (but not ownership), declared Zanzibar a British protectorate and appointed a British First Minister to lead his cabinet. The British were also guaranteed a veto over the future appointment of Sultans.
The pro-British stance continued with Ali's successor Hamad bin Thuwaini but dissent within the local populace continued to rise over the increasing British control over the country, the British-led army and the abolition of the valuable slave trade. The Sultan was authorised by Britain to raise a Zanzibari palace bodyguard of 1000 men but they became involved in clashes with the British-led police and there were complaints about their behaviour from European residents in Zanzibar Town, the capital and seat of government.
Sultan Hamad died suddenly at 11:40 am EAT (8:40 UTC) on 25 August 1896. His 29 year-old nephew Khalid bin Bargash, who was suspected by some of his assassination, moved into the palace complex at Zanzibar Town without British approval, in contravention of the treaty agreed with Ali. The British government preferred an alternative candidate Hamud bin Muhammed who was more favourably disposed towards them and Khalid was warned by the Consul and Diplomatic Agent to Zanzibar, Basil Cave, and General Mathews to think carefully about his actions. This course of action had proved successful three years earlier when Khalid had tried to claim the sultancy after the death of Ali and the British Consul-General Rennell Rodd had persuaded him of the dangers of such an action.
The palace complex at the time consisted of the palace itself; the Beit al-Hukm, an attached harem; and the Beit al-Hajaib or "House of Wonders"—a ceremonial palace said to be the first building in East Africa to be provided with electricity. The complex was mostly constructed of local timber and not designed as a defensive structure. All three main buildings were adjacent to one another in a line, and linked by wooden covered bridges above street height.
Khalid ignored Cave's warning and his forces began mustering in the Palace Square under the command of Captain Saleh of the palace bodyguard. By the end of the day they numbered 2800 men armed with rifles and muskets. The majority were civilians but the force included 700 Zanzibari Askari soldiers who had sided with Khalid. The Sultan's artillery consisted of several Maxim machine guns, a Gatling gun, a seventeenth century bronze cannon and two 12 pounder field guns which had been presented to the sultan by the German Emperor: these guns were aimed at the British ships in the harbour. The Sultan's troops also took control of the entire Zanzibar Navy which consisted of one wooden sloop, the HHS Glasgow, which had been built as a royal yacht for the Sultan by William Denny and Brothers in 1878 and was based on the British frigate HMS Glasgow.
Mathews and Cave also began to muster their forces, calling upon 900 Zanzibari askaris under Brigadier-General Arthur Edward Harington Raikes, a Lieutenant of the Wiltshire Regiment, and 150 sailors and marines from the Pearl class protected cruiser HMS Philomel and the gunboat HMS Thrush which were anchored in the harbour. The naval contingent were under the command of Captain O'Callaghan and came ashore within fifteen minutes of being requested. They were tasked with dealing with the anticipated rioting and discontent among the general population. A smaller contingent of sailors under Lieutenant Watson of Thrush were put ashore to guard the British consulate, where British citizens were requested to gather for protection. HMS Sparrow, another gunship, also entered the harbour and was anchored opposite the palace next to Thrush.
Some concerns were raised among the British diplomats as to the reliability of Raikes' askaris, but they proved to be steady and professional troops hardened by good military drill and several expeditions to East Africa. They would later become the only land troops to be fired upon by the defenders. Raikes' troops were armed with two maxim guns and a nine pounder cannon and were stationed at the nearby customs house. The sultan attempted to have the US consul, Richard Dorsey Mohun, recognise his accession but the messenger was told that "as his accession had not been verified by Her Majesty's Government, it is impossible to reply".
Cave continued to send messages to Khalid requesting that he stand down his troops, leave the palace and return home but these were ignored and Khalid replied that he would proclaim himself Sultan at 3:00 pm. Cave stated that this would constitute an act of rebellion and that Khalid's sultancy would not be recognised by the British government. At 2:30 pm, Sultan Hamad was buried and exactly 30 minutes later a Royal Salute from the palace guns proclaimed Khalid's succession. Cave could not open hostilities without government approval and telegraphed the following message to the Foreign Office of Lord Salisbury's administration in London: "Are we authorized in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?". Meanwhile Cave informed all other foreign consuls that all flags were to remain at half mast in honour of the late Hamad. The only one that did not was a large red flag flying from Khalid's palace. Cave also informed the consuls not to recognise Khalid as Sultan, to which they agreed.
At 10:00 am on 26 August Archer class protected cruiser HMS Racoon arrived at Zanzibar Town and was anchored in line with Thrush and Sparrow. Later that day at 2:00 pm the Edgar class protected cruiser HMS St George, flagship of the Cape and East Africa Station, also steamed into the harbour. Onboard were Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson and further British marines and sailors. At around the same time Lord Salisbury's reply arrived authorising Cave and Rawson to use the resources at their disposal to remove Khalid from power. The telegraph read "You are authorized to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty's Government. Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully".
Cave attempted further negotiations with Khalid but these failed and Rawson sent an ultimatum requiring him to haul down his flag and leave the palace by 9:00 am on 27 August or he would open fire. That afternoon all merchant vessels were cleared from the harbour and the British women and children removed to St. George and a British-India Steam Navigation Company vessel for their safety. That night Consul Mohun noted that: "The silence which hung over Zanzibar was appalling. Usually drums were beating or babies cried but that night there was absolutely not a sound".
At 8:00 am on the morning of 27 August, after a messenger sent by Khalid requested parley from Cave, the consul replied that he would only have salvation if he agreed to the terms of the ultimatum. At 8.30 am a further messenger from Khalid declared that "We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us", Cave replied that "We do not want to open fire, but unless you do as you are told we shall certainly do so". At 8:55 am, having received no further word from the palace, Rawson hoisted the signal "prepare for action" aboard St George.
At exactly 9:00 am, General Lloyd Mathews ordered British ships to start bombarding the palace. At 9:02 am Her Majesty's Ships Racoon, Thrush and Sparrow opened fire at the palace simultaneously, Thrush's first shot immediately dismounting an Arab 12 pounder cannon. 3000 defenders, servants and slaves were present in the largely wooden palace and despite barricades of crates, bales and rubber the casualties from the high explosive shells were high. Despite initial reports that he had been captured and was to be exiled to India Sultan Khalid escaped from the palace. The Sultan is reported to "have fled at the first shot with all the leading Arabs, who left their slaves and followers to carry on the fighting" by a Reuters news correspondent but other sources give him remaining in the palace for longer. The shelling ceased at around 9:40 am by which time the palace and attached harem had caught aflame, the enemy artillery had been silenced and the Sultan's flag cut down.
During the bombardment a small naval engagement occurred when, at 9:05 am, the obsolete Glasgow fired upon the St George using her armament of 7 nine pounder guns and a Gatling gun which had been the present of Queen Victoria to the Sultan. In return Glasgow was sunk at her moorings, her crew hoisted the British flag as a token of surrender and all were rescued by British sailors in launches. Thrush also sank two steam launches whose Zanzibari crews fired upon her with rifles. Some land fighting also occurred where defenders fired on pro-British Askaris, with little effect, as they approached the palace. The fighting ceased with the end of the shelling. The British controlled the town and the palace and by the afternoon Hamud bin Muhammed, an Arab favourable to the British, had been installed as Sultan with much reduced powers. The British ships and crews had fired around 500 shells, 4100 machine gun rounds and 1000 rifle rounds during the engagement.
Around 500 Zanzibari men and women were killed or wounded during the bombardment, most of the dead a result of the fire that engulfed the palace. It is unknown how many of these were combatants for the proportion of wounded to dead was never calculated. British casualties amounted to one Petty Officer severely wounded aboard Thrush; he later recovered. Although the majority of the Zanzibari townspeople sided with the British, the town's Indian quarter suffered from opportunistic looting and around 20 inhabitants lost their lives in the chaos. In order to restore order 150 British Sikh troops were transferred from Mombassa to patrol the streets. In order to contain the fire, which had spread from the palace to the customs sheds, further sailors from St George and Philomel were landed to form a fire brigade. There was some concern about the fire at the customs sheds as they contained a sizeable store of explosives, but fortunately no explosion occured.
Sultan Khalid, Captain Saleh and around forty followers sought refuge in the German consulate following their flight from the palace, where they were guarded by ten armed German sailors and marines whilst Mathews stationed men outside to arrest them if they tried to leave. Despite extradition requests the German consul refused to surrender Khalid to the British as his country's extradition treaty with Britain specifically excluded political prisoners. Instead the German consul promised to remove Khalid to German East Africa without him "setting foot on the soil of Zanzibar". At 10.00am on the 2 October SMS Seeadler of the German Navy arrived in port; at high tide one of Seeadler's boats made it up to the consulate's garden gate and Khalid stepped directly from consular grounds to a German war vessel and hence was free from arrest. He was transferred from the boat onto the Seeadler and was then taken to Dar es Salaam in German East Africa. Khalid was captured by British forces in 1916, during the East African Campaign of the First World War, and exiled to Seychelles and Saint Helena before being allowed to return to East Africa, where he died at Mombasa in 1927. Khalid's supporters were punished by being forced to pay reparations to cover the cost of shells fired against them and for damages caused by the looting which amounted to 300,000 rupees.
Sultan Hamud was loyal to the British that installed him and acted as a figurehead for an essentially British-run government, the Sultancy only being retained to avoid the costs involved with running Zanzibar directly as a crown colony. Several months after the war Hamud, with British prompting, abolished slavery in all its forms. The emancipation of slaves required them to present themselves to a government office and proved a slow process—within ten years only 17,293 slaves had been freed, from an estimated population of 60,000 in 1891.
The badly damaged palace complex was completely changed by the war. The harem, lighthouse and palace were demolished as the bombardment had left them unsafe. The palace site became an area of gardens whilst a new palace was erected on the site of the harem. The House of Wonders was almost undamaged and would later become the main secretariat for the British governing authorities. During renovation work on the House of Wonders in 1897 a clocktower was added to its frontage to replace the lighthouse lost to the shelling. The wreck of the Glasgow remained in the harbour in front of the palace where the shallow waters ensured that her masts would remain visible for several years to come, it was eventually broken up for scrap in 1912.
The British protagonists were highly regarded by the governments in London and Zanzibar for their actions leading up to and during the war and many were rewarded with appointments and honours. General Raikes, leader of the askaris, was appointed a First Class (Second Grade) member of the Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar on 24 September 1896, a First Class member of the Zanzibari Order of Hamondieh on 25 August 1897 and later promoted to Commander of the Zanzibar armies. General Mathews, the Zanzibari army commander, was appointed a member of the Grand Order of Hamondieh on 25 August 1897 and became First Minister and Treasurer to the Zanzibari government. Basil Cave, the consul, was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath on January 1 1897 and promoted to Consul-General on July 9 1903. Harry Rawson was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath for his work in Zanzibar and would later be Governor of New South Wales in Australia and receive promotion to Admiral. Rawson was also appointed a first class member of the Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar on February 8 1897 and the Order of Hamondieh on June 18 1898.
Perhaps due to the effectiveness shown by the Royal Navy during the bombardment there were no further rebellions against British influence during the remaining 67 years of the protectorate. The war, lasting only 40 minutes, is considered the shortest in recorded history.