The shortest war in history began (and ended) on 27 August 1896. The Anglo-Zanzibar War holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s shortest war, lasting only 38 minutes from the start of hostilities.
When the Sultan of Zanzibar died unexpectedly, the British consul was caught off guard when the sultan’s nephew declared himself the new monarch. The consul reminded him that, under the provisions of a protection pact, any new appointments had to be approved by the British. Rather of bowing out gracefully, Khalid bin Barghash holed himself in the palace with some 2,800 defenders.
The British retaliation was classic ‘gunboat diplomacy.’ Three cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and sailors, and 900 Zanzibari soldiers were assembled in the harbour, and Khalid was given an ultimatum to retire.
Khalid, to their astonishment, did not retreat, instead raising his weaponry — a handful of Maxim guns, a Gatling gun, a 17th-century bronze cannon, and two 12-pounder field guns – and aiming them towards the British.
In the midst of this seeming deadlock, the palace sent a message on August 27th at 8 a.m., requesting a meeting. The British refused to comply unless the ultimatum’s requirements were met. Khalid responded that he didn’t think the British would fire. They succeeded an hour and two minutes later, destroying Khalid’s artillery.
The Royal Navy attacked the Zanzibari navy in a separate engagement, which included His Highness’ Ship Glasgow, a royal yacht built for a former sultan that neither he nor his successors loved or utilized. The ship was sunk, and the crew was rescued. For the next 18 years, its masts could be seen above the harbour waterline.
At 9.40 p.m., the firing stopped and Khalid surrendered. 500 of his supporters were murdered or injured. There was a single British casualty. Khalid was deported to Germany by the German consulate. By the afternoon, the British had established a new sultan.