The conflict between the British Empire and the Zanzibar Sultanate in 1896 is most notable for being the shortest war in recorded history, lasting less than three-quarters of an hour. The engagement was provoked when the pro-British Sultan of Zanzibar, Ali bin Said, died. Immediately subsequent to Ali bin Said’s death his nephew, Khalid bin Barghash, proclaimed himself Sultan and moved into the palace. Khalid had become the symbol of resistance against European interference, so his actions gained the support of a portion of the population.[i] To this end around 3000 Zanzibari people, including 700 soldiers, rallied to support Khalid bin Barghash against European influence in Zanzibar. The source of this conflict was mostly due to the colonisation of Kenya and Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania) by Britain and Germany respectively. Zanzibar had controlled this territory until pressure from the European powers had forced the Sultan to give it up. Concerns amongst the Zanzibari were heightened by Germany’s mistreatment of Africans in Tanganyika, and by an increase of British interference in Zanzibar’s trade, culture and politics. Consequently, many Zanzibari were eager to have a Sultan who would resist this encroachment, and Khalid represented that hope. The British imperial presence also threatened to put an end to the lucrative slave trade in Zanzibar, causing tensions with the wealthy Arab ruling class.[ii] Britain opposed Khalid’s claim and demanded that he cede the throne to his cousin Hamoud bin Muhammed, and gathered British ships and troops on the 26th of August 1896 to enforce the demand. An ultimatum was delivered, giving the Sultan until nine o’clock the following morning to vacate the palace or face a declaration of war. Khalid refused and when the ultimatum expired the British ships opened fire on the palace, destroying the defensive guns and killing or wounding around 500 of the Sultan’s men. The British also sank the Sultan’s royal yacht HHS Glasgow. Khalid and a handful of his supporters fled to the German consulate for asylum. He was eventually captured during the British campaign in East Africa during the First World War and allowed to live in Mombasa on condition that he relinquished his claims to the Sultanate.[iii]

After the British forces had subdued the anti-Imperialist supporters, Hamoud bin Muhammad was proclaimed the true Sultan of Zanzibar. From the perspective of the British authorities, Hamoud proved to be a much more cooperative ruler. To this end, Zanzibar effectively became a British-run colony, maintaining independence in name only.[iv] Slavery in Zanzibar was abolished in 1897 and although only a small proportion of enslaved people were freed, the slave trade-dependent economy of Zanzibar was badly damaged.[v] Britain continued to control Zanzibar as a Protectorate until Zanzibar’s independence in 1963.


[i] Knappert, J. (1992). A Short History of Zanzibar. Annales Aequatoria, 13, 15-37 (p.34).

[ii] Wolff, R. D. (1972). British Imperialism and the East African Slave Trade. Science & Society, 36, 443-462 (p.456).

[ii] Frankl, P. (2006). The Exile of Sayyid Khalid Bin Barghash Al-Busa'Idi. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 33, 161-177.

[iv] Knappert, J. (1992). A Short History of Zanzibar. Annales Aequatoria, 13, 15-37 (p.34).

[v] Ibid, p.35.

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