August 27, 2021 marks a record anniversary. In this case, 125 years of the shortest war in history, the Anglo-Zanzibar War. The conflict put an end to what little remained of the autonomy of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, transformed into a British protectorate. At that time, in 1896, the world was experiencing the height of imperialism in the Second Industrial Revolution, with European powers seeking to expand their spheres of influence, particularly in Africa and Asia.

On August 25, 1896, Hamad bin Thuwaini, then Sultan of Zanzibar, died. Like many monarchs of kingdoms on the East African coast, he was of Omani descent, born in Muscat. Zanzibar is a small archipelago off the coast of present-day Tanzania, with a major deep-water port, spice production, and, until the end of the 19th century, a hotbed for the slave trade.

The export of cloves, cinnamon and pepper caused the islands to be called the Spice Islands in the 17th century. This trade was controlled by Arab merchants, many of whom were also of Omani descent. With the Portuguese domain in the region, the Omani origin became synonymous with merchant, hence the term peddler, the Portuguese name for the capital of Oman and which also baptizes a conflict in the colonial Pernambuco.

The control of Zanzibar was, then, interesting for maritime trade and also for obtaining spices. In the context of the end of the 19th century, this European presence gained in importance and substance. The Sultanate of Zanzibar, which once controlled not only the archipelago but also a considerable part of the eastern coast of Africa, is forced to make concessions to the Europeans.

Germans and British

The coast of present-day Kenya was ceded in 1885 to the British Imperial Company of East Africa. In the same year, German East Africa was founded, a colony corresponding to present-day Tanzania and parts of present-day Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique and Rwanda. To the north, British Kenya. To the south, Portuguese Mozambique. Finally, in 1890, the British protectorate over the archipelago itself was established.

That is, Zanzibar was now a British protectorate against a part of the continent dominated by the Germans. We are still thirty years before the Great War, but the rivalry between the powers is growing exponentially. In 1888, with the advent of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German Empire launched a naval arms race to create a navy worthy of facing the mighty British Royal Navy on the high seas.

The rivalry between the European powers has also come up against the fight against the trafficking of enslaved persons. Officially, both the British and the Germans suppressed this trade, which provoked the discontent of the Arab elites, who dominated the lucrative business. In practice, however, a certain “blind sight” still arose for the maintenance of allies within this elite.

As a result, part of the Arab elite favored the British, another part favored the Germans. To balance the situation and define the spheres of influence, the Treaty of Helgoland-Zanzibar was signed in 1890. The agreement gave Germany control of a strip of land in present-day Namibia, the island from Helgoland, in the North Sea and opposite the strategic Kiel Canal, as well as the interior of German East Africa.

On the British side, the Germans recognize the authority of London in the Zanzibar archipelago. In other words, the British now controlled the main sea routes in East Africa, an important port, and in the event of conflict they could “surround” the German colony. Six years later, however, to the surprise of many, the Sultan died at just forty. The untimely death of the pro-British monarch has obviously raised suspicion, but nothing has ever been proven.

With death, two candidates for succession emerge. One was Khalid bin Barghash, nephew of the deceased sultan and accused of conspiring against his uncle. The other was Hamud bin Muhammed. Khalid occupied the royal palace, demanded an oath from the palace guard, and hoisted his personal standard. The British, led by Consul Basil Cave, did not like the act, as Khalid belonged to the Germanophile faction of Zanzibar’s elite.

the shortest war in history

By the treaty which imposed the protectorate in 1890, the new sultan had to be approved by the British government. With that, Cave sent Khalid an ultimatum on August 26. Either he withdrew from the palace with his guard, or the British would use force. The sultan mobilized some partisans and erected a barricade in the palace, with about two thousand people and four pieces of artillery of German origin. The sultan asked for the recognition of other powers, without success.

At nine and two minutes in the morning of August 27, considering that the Sultan did not accept the ultimatum, hostilities began. The British, with three light cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and 900 local conscripts, began the bombardment of the palace. The building, made partly of wood, caught fire at the start of the fighting, and the sultan’s artillery was rendered useless. The royal yacht and two support ships were quickly sunk.

At nine-forty, the flag had come down from the palace. The war lasted 38 minutes and left 500 dead or wounded in the Sultan’s forces. A Briton was injured. Khalid was granted asylum at the German consulate and from there was transported to Tanzania, taking advantage of the high tide the next day, leaving the consulate on a boat. Hamud was sworn in as sultan and Zanzibar lost what was left of its autonomy. One of the first acts of the new sultan was, under British instruction, to free all slaves.

British officers were decorated and progressed in their careers. About twenty Indians are killed by the crowd, in the midst of the chaos, while the “Indian quarter” is ransacked. Zanzibar remained a British colony until 1964 when the Sultan was overthrown and the archipelago became an autonomous region of Tanzania. Famous, this is where the British subject Farrokh Bulsara was born, in 1946, better known by his artist name Freddie Mercury, one of the most remarkable voices of the 20th century.

It all seems like an interesting ephemeris, a curiosity for conversations with friends, something not serious. Of course, the facts themselves, described here, are just that, at least for us Brazilians. Nevertheless, it illustrates a process which preceded the Great War and which is taking place today with great intensity. The search for spheres of influence by powers like the United States and China, the technological and military abyss between the powers and the periphery, and the reminder that force is always used in such a scenario.