England vs. Zanzibar: The Breakfast War

England vs. Zanzibar: The Breakfast War

Patrick Lynch - January 22, 2017

History is full of long wars that last for decades. Such conflicts can have millions of casualties and take a toll on the societies involved in the fight. However, there are also some remarkably short ‘wars’ that are seemingly over in the blink of an eye. The lasting consequences of such conflicts can also be profound as seen in the remarkable 1896 Anglo-Zanzibar War which is by some distance the shortest war ever. Estimates of the war’s duration range from 38 to 45 minutes with approximately 500 casualties and the easiest of victories for the British forces.

England vs. Zanzibar: The Breakfast War
Zanzibar Royal Palace in 1893. The Great War Blog


Zanzibar is a small island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa. Portuguese settlers claimed it in 1499 but were expelled by the Sultans of Oman in 1698. It was declared independent of Oman in the 19th century and became the Sultanate of Zanzibar on October 19, 1856.

By 1886, Britain recognized Zanzibar’s sovereignty and enjoyed good relations with the island. Germany showed interest in East Africa and a series of skirmishes between the major powers occurred. Eventually, the two nations came to an agreement and signed the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty in 1890. Germany took control of mainland Tanzania while Britain retained her interest in Zanzibar. The island was named a protectorate of British Empire, and Sultan Hamad bin Thuwani was installed as a puppet ruler in 1893.

Hamad ruled peacefully for three years, but sources suggest he was poisoned by his cousin Khalid bin Barghash in a coup on August 25, 1896. While no one knows for sure if Khalid was responsible, it seems suspicious that he moved into the palace mere hours after the death of Hamad. He proclaimed himself as Sultan without British approval. Basil Clive was the chief diplomat in the area and told Khalid to stand down. The new sultan was in no mood to surrender his crown. Not only did he ignore the warnings, but he also assembled troops around the palace.

By the end of the day, Khalid had 3,000 armed guards at his disposal. Funnily enough, their weapons were mainly gifts from the British! It’s hard to know what was going through the new sultan’s mind as he placed a poorly armed Royal Yacht in the nearby harbor in addition to his small force. Perhaps he felt the British would try to avoid a conflict and allow him to rule as their puppet?

In any case, there were already two British warships in the harbor (HMS Rush and HMS Philomel). Troops were sent to protect the British Consulate and also to prevent rioting. Cave asked for more backup, and the HMS Sparrow was in the harbor that evening. By now, Cave knew he had more than enough military force to deal with the rebellious Sultan, but he couldn’t order an attack without government approval.

He sent a telegram asking for permission to quell the rebellion and gave various ultimatums to Khalid. On the morning of August 26, the HMS St. George and HMS Raccoon arrived in the harbor, and Cave was given the go-ahead to attack. He issued one final ultimatum to Khalid by ordering him to leave the palace by 9 am. At 8.30 am the following morning, Cave received a message from the Sultan. Khalid said he would not exit the palace and didn’t believe the British would fire on him. He was wrong.

England vs. Zanzibar: The Breakfast War
Artist’s rendition of royal palace destruction. Weapons and Warfare

A One-Sided Conflict

With no further word from the palace, the leader of the Royal Navy contingent, Harry Rawson, hoisted the ‘prepare for action’ signal on board the HMS Sparrow at 8.55am. At 9 am, General Lloyd Matthews gave the order for the ships in the harbor to start bombarding the palace. The sultan’s flimsy artillery was destroyed, and the less than sturdy royal structure began to collapse after feeling the effects of the British weaponry. At 9.02 am, Khalid apparently fled through the back exit of the wooden palace and abandoned the defenders.

At 9.05 am, the Zanzibar forces used the obsolete HMS Glasgow to fire upon the HMS St George. The Glasgow’s outdated guns were no match for the St George, and the return fire caused the Glasgow to sink. Fortunately for the crew, the ship was in the shallow harbor, so the mast stayed above water. The Glasgow raised a British flag as a sign of surrender, and the sailors were rescued. There was also a small amount of land fighting as Khalid’s men fired on British troops that approached the palace. Once again, they had little effect on the advancing enemy.

The shelling stopped at 9.40am, the Sultan’s flag was pulled down, and the Anglo-Zanzibar War officially ended. Approximately 500 of Khalid’s men lay dead or wounded. In contrast, one British petty officer suffered serious injuries, but he recovered in hospital. In total, 1,000 rifle rounds, 41,000 machine gun rounds, and 500 shells were fired by the British. With full control of the town and palace, they installed Hamud bin Muhammad as the new Sultan. He was an Arab with British sympathies and was allowed rule with limited powers.


Khalid and around 40 of his men took refuge in the German consulate after the war ended. Ten German marines guarded them and refused to surrender the former Sultan despite extradition requests. Ultimately, Khalid was transported to the German colony of Dar es Salaam in East Africa. He was captured by British forces in 1916 but was released, and he returned to East Africa and died in Mombasa in 1927.

The ruins of the palace were demolished with a new structure erected on the site of the harem. Several of the British leaders involved in the conflict received honors for their conduct before, during and after the war. The British retained control over the Zanzibar Sultanate until 1963 and didn’t face another rebellion.

The United Kingdom terminated the protectorate on December 10 of that year, and Zanzibar became a constitutional monarchy under the rule of Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah. He was overthrown in the Zanzibar Rebellion just one month later and fled into exile. Over the next six months, the country was known as the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba and then the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar before becoming a semi-autonomous part of the United Republic of Tanzania on April 26, 1964.