The Anglo-Zanzibar war lasted a total of about 40 minutes. It all started in 1890 when Germany and Britain met up to sign a treaty. The East African empire of Zanzibar ceded (or fell under control) to the great British Empire whilst Germany was given control over Tanzania. Britain placed, what they called, a puppet sultan to watch over the new region named Hamad bin Thuwaini.
Hamad bin Thuwaini ruled with a pro-British attitude for a little over three years before dying suddenly on August 25, 1896. Although the truth of this mysterious death will never truly be understood, it is believed that Thuwaini’s cousin, Khalid bin Barghash had him poisoned. This theory is compounded by the fact that just after Hamad’s death, Khalid quickly moved into the palace and assumed the position of sultan without having any approval from Britain.
The British diplomats living in Zanzibar were furious. One British diplomat, Basil Cave, demanded Khalid stand down, but he, of course, refused. Khalid quickly organized his troops around the palace as a line of defense. They were surprisingly well organized — but what would you expect when a large handful of their weapons were gifts to the former sultans from other countries and empires. At the same time, Britain docked warships in the harbor ready for battle. Cave also had a neighboring British warship come and dock in the harbor. No one had the ability to begin hostilities yet, so everyone waited.
Cave sent a letter to the Foreign Office saying: “Are we authorized in the event of all attempts at a peaceful solution proving useless, to fire on the Palace from the men-of-war?” As Cave waited for a response to come, he tried to make peace with Khalid, but he wouldn’t listen.
Two days passed and two more British warships entered the harbor. In the same day, Cave received a letter stating: “You are authorized to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty’s Government. Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully.” That night, Cave demanded that Khalid and his men leave the palace by nine a.m. the next morning. Cave then went on to have all non-military ships removed from the harbor in preparation for the battle to come.
Eight a.m. came and Khalid sent Cave a letter informing him that Khalid was not leaving the palace anytime soon and did not believe the British would fire on the palace. To this, Cave told Khalid that he does not want to fire on the palace, but will do what is necessary.
Nine a.m. arrived. Cave commanded the British warships in the harbor to fire upon the palace. By 9:02, the entire wooden structure of the palace began to collapse with 3,000 defenders waiting inside. About this time, Khalid is said to have escaped through a back door of the palace, leaving his servants and defenders alone. At 9:40, the sultan’s flag was lowered marking a surrender. This marked the end of the shortest war in history and lasting a grand total of 38 minutes.