Britains little-known war that lasted just 38 minutes but left hundreds dead

Britain has been involved in countless wars over the ages — one of the highest numbers of conflicts in the world.

Since the Act of Union in 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain has fought in more than 120 wars across 170 countries.

Many of these wars have lasted for years, with strategic battles and planning pushing front lines and borders back and forth.

There is one war, however, that is officially the shortest-ever conflict in history, lasting just 38 minutes.

It came upon the death of the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini on August 25, 1896, and the succession of a Sultan less inclined to work in Britain’s favour — ultimately leading to the Anglo-Zanzibar War.

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The war is one of Britain’s least well-known and began with the signing of the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty between Britain and Germany in 1890.

This agreement drew up two blocs of influence between the imperial powers in East Africa, with Zanzibar handed to Britain while neighbouring Tanzania was given to Germany.

Britain gave Zanzibar protectorate status and installed a favourable Sultan, Hamad bin Thuwaini, in 1893.

He ruled for three years before dying suddenly, a cause of death which is still unknown to this day, though historical rumours suggest his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash, had him poisoned.

Khalid moved into the Sultan’s palace within a few hours of Hamad’s death and took his place as leader, all without consulting the British.

Local British diplomats were not happy, and chief diplomat Basil Cave ordered Khalid to stand down, which he responded to by gathering forces around the Palace. They collected a number of weapons including canons which had been gifted to the former Sultans by the British over the years.

By August 25, Khalid had encircled the Palace with 3,000 men, several artillery guns, and moored an armed Royal Yacht in the nearby harbour.

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The British already had two warships anchored in the harbour — HMS Philomel and the HMS Rush — and troops were quickly sent ashore to quell any rioting from the civilian population as the lines of power blurred. Another backup ship, the HMS Sparrow, was also called in as reinforcements.

While Cave had considerable firepower he could not open fire until he had approval from the British government, sending the Foreign Office a telegram that read: “Are we authorised in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?”

By the next day, on August 26, two more British warships had docked at the harbour. That same day Cave received a telegraph from Whitehall stating: “You are authorised 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.”

An ultimatum was issued to Khalid on August 26 ordering that he depart the palace by 9am the following day.

Just one hour before the order was due to expire, Khalid replied that he and his men had no intention to stand down, and by 9:02am, Cave gave orders for the British ships to begin bombarding the royal palace.

The majority of the palace was soon destroyed, and two minutes after the bombardment had started, Khalid is said to have escaped through a back door, leaving his servants and fighters to defend the palace alone.

By 9:40am, Cave’s mean had ceased shelling. The Sultan’s flag had been lowered, and the shorter war in history came to an end.

While it lasted just 38 minutes, the concentration of deaths was extremely high. Some 500 of Khalid’s fighters died as a result of the explosive shells. Just one British soldier was wounded, later recovering in hospital.

With Khalid gone, the British installed Sultan Hamud on Zanzibar’s throne, and he ruled for the next six years. Khalid managed to evade the British for 20 years until he was finally captured during Britain’s invasion of East Africa in World War 1.

Found hiding in Tanzania, he was transported to Saint Helena for exile and allowed to return to East Africa after he had served his time. Khalid eventually died aged 52 in 1927.

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