In this episode of the podcast series Dan Snow’s History Hit, Dr Erik Gilbert from Arkansas State University discusses the conflict that marked the beginning of European powers beginning to carve up Africa for themselves.
Zanzibar is an island best known today for its picturesque beaches, crystal clear waters and well-preserved historic heart, Stone Town. Located a few kilometres off the coast of Tanzania, this small island once hosted the shortest recognised war in history, the Anglo-Zanzibar War, which lasted all of 38 to 45 minutes, depending on which source you believe.
The Spice Islands
In the 19th century, Zanzibar was something of a boom town. With a strategically important location on the coast of East Africa (which meant India and the Middle East were relatively accessible and provided a good stopping point for slave ships) and a tropical climate which allowed for the growing of commercially important spices, Zanzibar attracted the attention of a range of foreign powers.
In the 18th century, the Sultanate of Oman had extended its influence to cover Zanzibar and much of the Persian Gulf. On the death of Sultan Said Bin Sultan, an indepedent Sultanate of Zanzibar was created by his will: this decision was upheld and enforced by the British, who saw the benefits of having a pro-British Sultan installed in Zanzibar, which was an important economic hub for them.
The beginning of the ‘Scramble for Africa’
Both Britain and Germany had interests in East Africa, and as British influence in Zanzibar grew, they wanted formal acknowledgement of their interests. In 1890, Zanzibar formally became a protectorate of Britain, which allowed the Sultan to retain its sovereignty.
The death of the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini in August 1896, and the accession of Sultan Khalid bin Barghash, who was not the candidate preferred by the British, sparked the so-called ‘Anglo-Zanzibar War’ on 27 August 1896 as the British bombarded the Sultan’s Palace in an attempt to force Khalid to stand down: gunboat diplomacy at its finest.
Piqued your interest? Learn more about history’s shortest war and the wider context it was fought in with this podcast from Dan Snow’s History Hit: