When Britain threatened to take down Zanzibar in one swoop, the message did not immediately sink in until the first canon shot was heard. 38 minutes later, the palace was left in ruin and the sultan was nowhere to be found.
The question that usually follows this account of war history is: What manner of war ends in less than one hour?
To better understand this, it is pertinent to take a cursory look at what transpired before the outbreak of hostility.
In 1884-1885, 13 European superpowers and the United States converged in Berlin to agree on how best to partition (I prefer the word ‘share’ anyway) the virgin continent of Africa. Britain, France and Germany took the lion share of the spoils to avoid conflict of interest.
In 1890, a treaty was further signed between Britain and Germany. That was how Zanzibar, a strategically positioned Island of East Africa fell into the sphere of influence of the British Empire. Subsequently, it was declared a protectorate.
This period under review coincided with when the British Crown introduced INDIRECT RULE, the policy of ruling African communities with the aid of chiefs, traditional rulers, emirs and sultans.
Known the imperialist for what they are, the British Empire soon found and settled for Hamad bin Thuwaini to become the Sultan of Zanzibar Island. Unfortunately his reign was short-lived when he took ill and died unexpectedly three years into his tenure. The Sultan’s death caught many by surprise. What follows were more of conspiracy theories. Close allies claimed he was poisoned by his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash, who was apparently the next in line to succeed him. Eventually, the latter imposed allegedly himself on the people and declared himself the new Sultan of Zanzibar.
The development did not really go down well with the British Empire who favoured a more conservative Hamoud bin Muhammad to become the new ruler. Barghash tried hard to convince the Royal Crown to accept his candidacy but failed. The Brits shunned all entreaties and even went a step further by issuing Khalid bin Barghash an ultimatum to abdicate the Sultan seat by 9.00 am local time on August 27, 1896 or be prepared to face the full wrath of the Royal Navy.
If being snubbed was viewed by Barghash as bad, being given a deadline proved too much for the naïve ruler who kept wondering what the British gra-gra was all about.
Rather than hold out the olive branch and wave the white handkerchief, the sultan opted for an unusual option – fight back.
Oblivious of what an average warfare of the British Empire looked like, Barghash made a decision to barricade himself in the palace, gathering his forces around him. Next, he made a clarion call for patriotism among his people. Nearly 3,000 people among the locals turned up to support the self-imposed Sultan and were determined to help him stamp out the British influence from Zanzibar.
When news reached Britain about the sultan’s proposed defence, they were taken aback. They did not expect to take on the Royal Crown. Still hopeful of an amicable resolution of the face-off on a diplomatic level, the British anchored five warships which included the legendary HMS Philomel, HMS Rush and HMS St George in the harbour.
With a couple of days to the deadlines, some emissaries were sent to convince Barghash to embrace peace by stepping aside in place of shedding unnecessary blood. But ‘our man’ stuck to his gun and again made it clear that he had no intention of ceding his throne.
In his mind, he was cork sure the British Empire was merely trying to intimidate him and would not dare fire a single shot at the palace. As it turned out, he was dead wrong!
On expiration of the ultimatum given, the Royal Navy invaded Zanzibar at exactly 9.00am on August 27th, 1896 just as threatened and fired just 500 shells, 4,100 machine gun rounds and 1,000 rifle rounds during the engagement.
The attack caught the palace unaware. In fact, it did not take long before the British warships wiped out the Zanzibari royal yacht, the palace structure and 500 resistance loyal troops in a matter of minutes. It was an utter whitewash!
Even Khalid bin Barghash could not believe his eyes. When it was obvious he could fall into the hands of the rampaging marines, the sultan fled and sought asylum at the German consulate.
While historians posited that the Sultan’s forces sustained roughly 500 casualties, only one British sailor was injured. Barghash supporters were further punished when they were compelled to pay reparations to the British Empire to cover the cost of shells fired against them.
That was how the much-touted Anglo-Zanzibar War bout many perceived, going by the ranting of Khalid bin Barghash, would last for several years ended in just 38 minutes. What this simply means is that the shortest war in recorded history was officially over.