The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896

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This war is notable for the bizarre reason that it lasted just 38 minutes1. The Anglo-Zanzibar War was fought between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar on 27 August, 1896 between 9.02 and 9.402.

The Road To War

The war's main catalyst came in the form of the death of Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini on the 24 August. He had, during his reign, co-operated with the British colonial administration regarding the running of his country, but tensions had being growing in the area for some time before this. The British, at this stage a comparitively freedom-loving and compassionate world power, was pushing to end the slave trade in Zanzibar which had been started by the Omani in the 17th Century. Sultan Hamad bin Thuwainis's nephew, Khalid bin Bargash, seized power in a coup following his death. The British favoured Hamud bin Muhammed, a royal cousin who was supported slavery3 but not to the same extent as Bargash, and delivered an ultimatum ordering Bargash to give up his throne.

Preparing For War

Bargash refused the ultimatum and assembled an army consisting of about 3,000 men. Most had been recruited by his own immediate families, but a few disgruntled soldiers also joined in - the highest ranked soldier to support Bargash's coup is thought to have been a colonel. He also created a navy in the form of the ex-Sultan's yacht, the HHS Glasgow. He ordered the fortifying of the palace4, called the Beit el-Ajaib or House of Wonders.

Meanwhile, the British quickly assembled three warships in the harbour in front of the palace, followed by a further two the next day. Eventually the British had three modern cruisers, the Edgar class armoured cruiser HMS St George, the Pearl class protected cruiser HMS Philomel, the Archer class cruiser HMS Raccoon and two gunboats (HMS Thrush and HMS Sparrow) in the harbour in front of the palace. The British also landed parties of Royal Marines to support the 'loyalist' regular army of Zanzibar5, which consisted of about 900 men in two battalions and was led by General Lloyd Mathews.


The new Sultan got a bit worried - five warships in the front pool tends to do that - and attempted a last-minute negotiation for peace through the US embassy on the island. However, the ultimatum ran out at 9.02 am on 27 August, at which moment the Royal Navy ships opened fire on the palace. The Sultan's Fleet6 was soon sunk; the palace, though fortified, was taking a bad knocking, and he was losing a lot of men. Bargash made a tactical retreat to the German embassy, where he was granted asylum. The shelling stopped at 9.40. Most contemporary sources put the death count at around 500.

The British demanded that the Germans hand over the former Sultan to them to face charges, but he escaped Zanzibar on the 2 October. He lived in exile until he was captured by British forces in Dar es Salaam in 1916. He was eventually freed and he died in Mombasa in 1927.

Hamud bin Muhammed had his coronation the day after the war, with much dancing taking place in the streets. Bargash thus had a reign of about two days. Pretty short, but incidentally, not quite as short as the crown Prince Luis Filipe of Portugal who was technically King of Portugal (Dom Luis III) for about 20 minutes. He was mortally wounded at the same time that his father was killed by a bullet which severed his carotid artery in the streets of Lisbon on 1 February, 1908.

The Cost Of War

As a final proof of their control over Zanzibar, the British demanded payment from the Zanzibar government to cover the cost of the shells fired on the country during the course of the war - every last minute of it.

1The exact figure is debatable, with some putting it at 40 minutes and others at 45 minutes. Anyway, it was very, very short.2Again, the times are debatable and differ from source to source.3Despite this, one of his first decrees when he became sultan was to ban the slave trade. The move is thought to have been due to his gratitude towards England.4In other words, boards up against the doors, wardrobes against the windows and a few prayers that the high explosives miss. Not to give the story away, but they don't.5Who, incidentally, weren't being paid by the Sultan.6In other words, the yacht.

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