The shortest war in history

Quicker than you could say ‘the Spice Islands are at war’ it was over. 38 minutes after the naval bombardment began the shortest war in history ended. That’s three times less time than it takes to reach the capital Stone Town by ferry from the African mainland today.

The British considered the rise of Khalid bin Barghash to the Sultan’s chair reason enough for war. Only six years after colonial wrangling during the scramble for Africa resulted in the Zanzibar archipelago becoming a British protectorate, the Sultan, Hamad bin Thuwaini, died.

 Enamel sign in the House of Wonders museum

The history of rule over the Zanzibar archipelago roughly 30 km from the coast of Tanzania is a confusing account of colonialism in Africa. Until the creation of the revolutionary government in the early years of the 1960s, Zanzibar’s islands had been governed by a branch of the family of the Sultan of Oman that had decided the East African coast was a cosier place for a palace or two than the deserts of Arabia.

Responsible for overseeing the day to day rule of the islands from his palaces in Stone Town, part of the protectorate deal required the Sultan’s rule to receive the blessing of the British consul. Khalid bin Barghash, the new Sultan, did not seek permission from the consul, and it seems unlikely he would have received it if he had. Hamud bin Muhammed was a far more appropriate choice from the British point of view.

 The House of Wonders, now remodelled, survived the shortest war in history largely untouched
The resulting 38 minutes of battle – a naval bombardment aimed at the royal buildings in Stone Town – left 500 Zanzibari loyalists and one British sailor injured. Surveying the largely untouched House of Wonders and seventeenth century Omani fort; his destroyed palace and harem; Sultan Barghash fled to the German consulate, sealing British victory.

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