History's Shortest War Lasted Only 38 Minutes

This conflict began as most bad events from the era did: imperialism.
History's Shortest War Lasted Only 38 Minutes

In the fictional Fallout universe, the apocalyptic nuclear war that sets the series in motion lasted just two hours. This may seem short, but it’s almost four times longer than the shortest war in the real world.

The title of shortest war of all time goes to the Anglo-Zanzibar War, which was fought between Great Britain and the Zanzibar Sultanate from 9:02 a.m. on August 27, 1896, to 9:40 a.m. on August 27, 1896. Yes, this war lasted just 38 minutes. 

This conflict began as most bad events from the era did: imperialism. As European powers scrambled to claim land in Africa, the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty was signed between Germany and Great Britain in 1890. This treaty gave the two powers colonizers claims to parts of East Africa, but important to this conflict, it gave Zanzibar to the British.

Colvile, Zélie Isabelle Richaud de Préville, lady

“How about giving it to the people?” “lol, no.”

As a protectorate of the U.K., Zanzibar had a puppet Sultan named Hamad bin Thuwaini. He was loyal to the British and ensured that Zanzibar never got in the way of Great Britain’s imperial goals. This system worked about as well as such a fragile-seeming system could work until the Sultan died unexpectedly on August 25, 1896.

Khalid bin Barghash, cousin to Hamad, was clearly devastated by the sudden loss, as he immediately moved into the palace and declared himself Sultan. Yeah, many believe that Khalid poisoned Hamad to claim the throne. 

There was just one problem with this. As a protectorate of the British Empire, Zanzibar did not get to choose its Sultan. Instead, the Sultan had to be approved by the British, and the British did not approve of Khalid bin Barghash. 

Upon learning what Khalid had done, the top-ranking British diplomat in Zanzibar, Basil Cave (yes, that is his real name), ordered Khalid to step down. Instead of doing so, in a move that was either bold or short-sighted, Khalid bin Barghash doubled down. He barricaded his palace and called upon 3,000 men to defend him. They were armed with artillery weapons and a Gatling gun, which had, humorously, been given to Zanzibar as gifts from the British. Whoops.

On August 26, Basil Cave received a telegram that authorized him to use force against Khalid’s troops as needed. With this authority, Cave gave Khalid an ultimatum: leave the palace by 9 a.m. the next morning or be fired upon. 

Khalid bin Barghash, for some reason, was confident that the British were bluffing. He was so confident that he waited until an hour before the deadline, on August 27 at 8 a.m., and essentially said, “Sorry, I don’t believe you, and I’m not leaving.”

Richard Dorsey Mohun

Spoiler: Cave was not bluffing.

Soon after the deadline passed, British ships in the harbor began firing at the Zanzibari palace. This initial attack tore through the frail palace and eliminated most of the defenders’ firepower. Khalid bin Barghash, being a brave and loyal leader, fled the palace through a back exit almost immediately. 

After roughly 38 minutes of mostly one-sided fighting, the final shots were fired. Zanzibar’s brief rebellion against the British ended, and soon after the conflict, the British named Hamoud bin Mohammed as the new puppet Sultan. Khalid managed to seek refuge at the German Consulate in a sort of “enemy of my enemy” agreement, and he evaded capture from the British until World War I.

Despite the war being incredibly brief, it was surprisingly deadly. Zanzibar suffered 500 casualties from the fighting, as their defenses offered little protection from the British ships. Meanwhile, the British had only a lone casualty, a sailor who was injured. Everyone involved, winners and casualties alike, can take pride in knowing that they at least got to take part in the world’s shortest war. What a consolation prize.

Top Image: Fred T. Jane

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?