What Was the Shortest War in History?

(Last Updated On: November 11, 2019)

What Was the Shortest War?

What Was the Shortest War?

The shortest war in modern history was the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896. Fought between the United Kingdom and the Zanzibar Sultanate, the military conflict lasted somewhere between 38 and 45 minutes.

So what’s the story behind this short war? What caused it and how was it resolved? Let’s explore this odd conflict a bit more.

The Anglo-Zanzibar War

You probably guessed from the name that nothing good was going to come out this war. That tends to happen when you bring up anything in relation to “Anglo-Saxon,” because that has historically proved itself to be “white supremacy with extra linguistic steps.”

Even though the Anglo-Zanzibar would last less than an hour, it was still a bloody affair, and not the silly type of war sometimes talked about on this Blog (The Pig War, The Emu War, and The War of the Stray Dog just to name a few). 

The war took place on August 27, 1986, with fighting limited to the Zanzibar Sultanate, today part of modern-Tanzania. In the 38-45 minutes of conflict, the British would suffer just one casualty–a single wounded sailor. The Zanzibar Sultanate did not fare so well. Disregarding the loss of military assets, some 500 casualties were recorded (including civilians, and fatalities). 

What Caused the War?

If you know your history, you may have noticed that the Anglo-Zanzibar War crosses over with the Scramble for Africa. That’s no coincidence, and you can thank British Imperialism for that. 

The catalyst of the war was the poisoning of the pro-British head of state, Sayyid Hamad bin Thuwaini Al-Busaid. He had been poisoned by the man who would ultimately succeed him, Sultan Khalid bin Barghash. Of course, the Brits in their imperialism preferred the previous, pro-British Sultan, and so they started a war over it.

Granted, at the time, the British did have a treaty with the Zanzibar Sultanate; it dictated more or less that Sultans would have to be approved by the British Empire–something unfulfilled by Khalid. And so to the British, Khalid’s power grab was essentially a provocation of war. They demanded he step down so a new, pro-British Sultan could be installed. 

Yeah, Khalid wasn’t too fond of the idea, as you would suspect.

Further Reading: What Is Imperialism?

Why Was the War so Short?

After the British told Khalid he had to step down, the latter holed up in his palace. Most of his defenders were civilians, but there were quite a few slaves defending the walls as well–about 2,800 people in total. 

While Khalid’s forces had some heavy artillery, the British had the power of long-ranged bombardment. As they relentlessly unleashed their bombs, a fire erupted in the palace. The heavy bombardment and subsequent fire would cause the vast majority of casualties.

It also didn’t help that most Zanzibari men and women had sided with the British (or at least not with Khalid), and as such Khalid didn’t really have the people on his side. 

With his palace on fire and under attack, Khalid would quickly flee along with a handful of his followers. They would take refuge with the Germans. 

And that’s kinda it. The British didn’t like the Zanzibari head of state, and wanted more control of Zanzibar (see, Scramble for Africa). So they just bombed the crap out of the Sultan’s palace until he left less than an hour later. 

With Khalid gone and no resistance from the Zanibari people, the British were able to once again install their own Sultan. War over.

The Germans?

The British did still try to pursue Khalid, but the Germans never agreed to surrender him. However, they did promise to the British that Khalid would never make his way back to Zanzibar.

Fast forward to WWI, the British campaign in Africa would result in the capture and subsequent exile of Khalid. Afterwards the Brits would force his followers to pay for all the money they spent bombing Zanzibar. Today that’s about 4,200 USD, or 3,200 pounds.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.