It doesn’t always take a long time to shape the course of history. We’re used to thinking of history in terms of centuries, or even millenia. But they say that people have their 15 minutes of fame and it can change everything. But sometimes, a few critical minutes – 38 to be exact – can shape a country’s destiny.
Most of us have probably never even heard of Zanzibar, except maybe as the title of a song, or perhaps because of its capital, Stone Town. As unknown as this island may be to those of us far away, it boasts the dubious distinction of hosting the shortest war in history.
Zanzibar is a small collection of islands that are now part of Tanzania.The archipelago, though short on natural resources of its own, started to prosper when it became a center for trade between Africa, Arabia, and south Asia around what is now India.
By the 1890s Zanzibar was an established Sultanate. As a trade hub, it had relations with European and African powers alike. However, as nearby Tanganyika fell under German influence, Zanzibar fell to British sway and a protectorate was established there.
As you might suppose, not all of the local Zanzibaris were thrilled about the growing influence of the British in their territory. When Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini died in an untimely way on August 25, 1896, his cousin, Khalid bin Barghash, was ready to take the throne and he did that within a few hours of the death of his cousin. Some suggested he might have been too ready to take over, and perhaps Barghash had just been biding his time until he could grab power for himself. Whatever the case, the new sultan was popular because of his resistance to the growing encroachment of the British.
As popular as Barghash was with the Zanzibaris, he was equally unpopular with the British. Britain’s chief diplomat in the region, Basil Cave, issued an ultimatum to the new sultan. Step down by 9 AM on August 27, or face the consequences.
Barghash refused, and tried to prepare for his confrontation with the British. He found 3000 local people willing to stand by him, as well as 700 Zanzibaris who had been in the service of the British military. As well, he had established a “navy” by putting the neglected royal yacht, the HHS Glasgow, into military service.
Somewhat ahead of time, perhaps nervous about what lay ahead, at 8 AM on August 27, the sultan sent a message to the British, trying to buy time. They refused unless the Sultan agreed to abdicate.
Though the sultan may have had more troops than the British, he had little in the way of artillery. The British, by comparison, had five war ships in the harbor that each boasted a lot of cannons. The HMS Philomel, for example, had 8 4.7 inch guns, 8 3 pounder guns, 4 machine guns, and 2 14 inch torpedo tubes.
The sultan was badly outgunned. He really didn’t stand a chance, and while you have to admire his pluck in standing up to the British, you also have to wonder if he had any clue what he was getting into.
Time waits for no man, and at 9AM, the sultan’s time was up. The British warships opened fire, and 38 minutes later they stopped when the Sultan’s flag was lowered from the top of the palace.
The HHS Glasgow had been sunk and her mast would betray her position in the harbor for years to come. Most of the ship’s sailors had been rescued by the British ships. 500 of the Sultan’s troops had died, and one assumes that many more were injured. By comparison, the British had one sailor injured and none killed. The palace, however, had been destroyed.
So what actually changed? What did those 38 minutes actually do besides play host to a lopsided, fairly ridiculous war? The British maintained their firm colonial control as the Sultan fled to the German consulate, and eventually from there to the German colony of Tanganyika on the African mainland. The British installed their favorite candidate, Hamoud bin Mohammed, to be the new sultan, maintaining their influence in the area.
As well, under British influence, there were improvements in Zanzibar. A proper sewer system was built, garbage disposal was improved, and improved systems for disposal of the dead were put in place so that the beaches of Zanzibar no longer reeked of trash, human excrement and rotting corpses.
Perhaps the improvements in sanitation would’ve happened anyway, but one thing that did change because of the shortest war in history was that the slave trade and slavery were ended in Zanzibar. By all accounts the slave trade had been a major economic enterprise, To end it forced the Zanzibaris to reorient their economy, and, to some extent, their lives as their biggest source of trade was ended forever.
It may not have been 15 minutes of fame, but it did change the course of Zanzibar’s history. It was only 38 minutes, but it may have been the most eventful 38 minutes in history.