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HOLY COW! HISTORY: Ready, Set, Surrender! History’s Shortest War

Wars can drag on forever. History tells of the Hundred Years’ War, the Eighty Years’ War, and the Thirty Years’ War. The 2001-2014 Afghanistan War is considered America’s longest conflict.

Yet sometimes, wars wrap up with surprising swiftness. Take history’s shortest war. How long do you think it lasted? A year? A month? A week?

Not even close.

Get ready to learn what took place during all 38 minutes of the Anglo-Zanzibar War–the briefest conflict ever.

It was fought on a single Thursday morning (from 9:02 to 9:40, to be precise) on August 27, 1896. Here’s how it happened.

Africa was a colonial grab bag in the closing days of the 19th century. Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and even little Belgium were snatching up big chunks of that continent. The Brits especially had grand plans. They dreamed of an unbroken string of colonies on the eastern side of the continent stretching from Egypt down to South Africa.

However, the Germans (always the Germans!) were blocking their way. They wanted to make sure the British dream never came true. So they decided to make things interesting.

The Sultanate of Zanzibar was an island nation in the Indian Ocean near modern Tanzania. The British had recognized its sovereignty in 1886, and for 10 years, everyone played well together. Then the Germans started meddling, hoping to turn Zanzibar against the Brits.

Sheikh Hamad bin Thuwaini had ruled the country as Sultan for four years. He liked the British. But some members of his inner circle didn’t. And wouldn’t you know it, the Sheik died suddenly at age 39 on August 25. It’s widely believed he was poisoned by his cousin, Sheikh Khalid bin Barghash, who immediately proclaimed himself the new Sultan.

Then the fun started.

The Brits hauled out a 30-year-old treaty that said a sultan could only take power with British approval, and the Brits very much disapproved of the new guy, who was pro-German. (Surprise, surprise.)

All day on the 26th, diplomats talked back and forth. It was rapidly becoming obvious negotiations wouldn’t settle the mounting crisis.

British officials decided to snuff the new royal regime in its cradle and began planning accordingly. The Sultan responded by barricading himself inside his palace and turning it into a fortress.

Say what you will about the British, but when you make them mad, they don’t fool around. And the new Sultan had royally ticked them off.

So, four heavily armed British warships steamed into Zanzibar Harbor and pointed their powerful guns at the palace.

By the morning of the 27th, the Brits’ patience had run out. They sent the traditional demand that the palace surrender. The Sultan replied, “We have no intention of hauling down our flag, and we do not believe you would open fire on us.” The British quickly answered with, “We do not want to open fire, but unless you do as you are told, we shall certainly do so.”

They waited 30 minutes and heard nothing. Rear Admiral Harry Rawson raised the signal flag instructing the warships, “Prepare for action.”

Five minutes later, the order was changed to “commence bombardment.” At exactly 9:02, the firing began.

When the guns fell silent at 9:40, the palace and adjoining harem were piles of rubble.

As for the new Sultan, he and his closest advisers took off when the first shells hit, running to the nearby German consulate. They were smuggled to German East Africa and granted asylum. British troops later captured the ex-sultan during World War I and exiled him to St. Helena, the same barren island where the deposed Napoleon Bonaparte had spent his last days.

And so the Anglo-Zanzibar War was over almost as soon as it began. A British sailor was slightly injured; he was his side’s only casualty.

But if this farce sounds like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, think again. Some three thousand defenders, servants, and slaves were barricaded inside the palace. More than 500 of them, one of six, were killed or seriously wounded.

Thus ended history’s shortest war. It may not be the most bizarre conflict in the annals of warfare, but it sure comes mighty close.

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KIRK: Ancient History, Modern Kingdom

Mired in scandal and gossip, the Brits still seem to love their royal family. Not even the black sheep princes of the realm can stop pollsters from discovering that a majority believe the monarchy is fine even if it’s sopping up more than $100 million a year in taxpayer money.

The return on the investment would appear enormous in terms of great publicity for Britain, royal warrants or seals of approval on products, and simple patriotism, as seen in the adoring articles and mentions in newspapers and magazines. The late Queen Elizabeth II will go down in history as a beloved, unifying figure regardless of the ups and downs, dramas and traumas afflicting the daily lives of the commoners over whom she “ruled.”

Of course, the monarch, now Elizabeth’s son King Charles III, doesn’t rule anything, including his own family. Real power has long since passed to the bureaucracy, the elected Parliament and the prime minister, who must bow ceremoniously before the monarch after rising to temporal power.

If the monarch holds symbolic or spiritual status, though, why does everyone love to pillory the royals when they’re discovered to be mere mortals? TV viewers salivate over the outpourings of Prince Harry as he talks about the hardships and humiliation he and his American wife, Meghan, were subjected before fleeing for sanctuary in southern California.

Poor guy, he and Meghan are getting millions for the first of four books, but his father, King Charles, is so mad at him that they’re not even talking. Pretty soon, he and Meghan, who still hold the titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex, a historic county in the British southeast, may soon be fired. That is, they will lose their titles, which are meaningless anyway since they have little say, or any discernible interest in what’s going on in Sussex.

In Britain, though, it’s all about history. Two days before the new year, I attended an elaborate service at Canterbury Cathedral marking the “martyrdom” of St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop assassinated in the 12th century.

In those days, the king really ruled his kingdom and may have ordered the assassination by his knights in a quarrel over power. The current archbishop, Justin Welby, will preside over the coronation of King Charles III in May, but that does not mean there’s no conflict between church and state. Welby has been critical of the conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for the government’s heartless policy toward asylum-seekers, including suffering hordes navigating the English Channel in small boats that sometimes don’t make it.

After the evensong service for St. Thomas, Welby was standing outside the door, holding a shepherd’s staff guarding his flock. We talked politics — but only the rift between church and state all those centuries ago. “We’re honoring a man for being assassinated by the king,” he said. Regaling me with bits of history, he asked if I had ever read T.S. Eliot’s classic “Murder in the Cathedral” about the assassination. Can’t remember, I replied. “Maybe decades ago.”

As the martyrdom of Thomas Becket resonates through history, you wonder if the court of Kim Jong-un in North Korea resembles the ancient English monarchy. Kim did arrange the assassinations of perceived rivals and threats to power, his uncle-in-law and his older half-brother, and he also ordered the murders of many others guilty of daring to question his edicts or perhaps looking the wrong way or worshipping another god or just being a relative of the wrong person.

No wonder the Brits love to make fun of the weaknesses and foibles of a monarchy that’s beloved and scorned. What could be better than the specter of a king’s brother, Prince Andrew, getting into deep trouble for his relationship with the late degenerate Jeffrey Epstein, purveyor of underage women to a galaxy of celebrities?

Andrew, like Harry, is definitely on the wrong side of his big brother, the king. He, too, may lose his dukedom ― in his case as Duke of York. It may not matter, of course, that Prince Andrew has no more power over York than Harry over Sussex. These days, the monarchy is for pomp and circumstance, show and tell.

Archbishop Welby of Canterbury, when he crowns the king, might remind him of the martyrdom of Becket as a lesson for a king whose power extends no further than his ability to deprive a brother and son of silly titles.

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KING: Boris Johnson: The Fall of an Articulate Incompetent

The best piece of business advice I have ever read was, “Beware the articulate incompetent.” It is important to business decisions but far more so to political ones.

Boris Johnson has always been a poster boy for the articulate incompetent, and yet he rose with wit, bravado and connections to the highest elective office in Britain, prime minister. Now his luck has run out.

Born in New York to British parents, he didn’t renounce his dual citizenship until 2016, when it became a liability politically. He won a scholarship to Eton, the boys-only boarding school where many prime ministers studied, went on to Oxford, and was elected president of the Oxford Union. This is the equivalent of privilege on steroids.

Johnson’s weaknesses — including sloth, disorganization, lack of preparedness, showing off and a disinclination to let the facts stand in the way of a good story — were well known. He was fired from his first journalistic job on The Times of London for fabricating a quote — from his godfather, of all people. Later, Michael Howard, the distinguished Tory leader, fired him from the ranks of the shadow cabinet, also for lying.

After The Times, Johnson worked for the conservative daily, The Telegraph. In Brussels, where he was assigned, he was regarded by his peers as good company but an unreliable reporter. One of them told me that he was often asked to chase up some fabricated concoction of Johnson’s like the banana regulation, allegedly defining the length and curve of bananas allowed into the European Union. The only curve was that of the truth.

Johnson’s editors in London wanted to hear only bad news about Europe. Johnson obliged: He was playing his part in the movement to take Britain out of Europe, which matured as Brexit.

Johnson went on to become a member of Parliament and editor of The Spectator, an admired British weekly magazine of politics, culture and current affairs, published continuously since 1828. His colleagues at the magazine found him sloppy, often absent, and often leaving his work to others. His management was, it is reported, incoherent, a charge repeated about his leadership of Britain.

The Spectator, under Johnson’s editorship, was engulfed in a sex scandal of rare portions. The publisher was cavorting with a British cabinet member, Johnson with the star columnist, and an editor with a secretary. It was a literary “Animal House.”

Johnson has been married three times and has six children from those marriages. He acknowledges one love child.

The next step for Johnson was to become mayor of London. His humor papered over the cracks, and he did a good job defending London’s image — especially in insisting that the double-decker red buses be retained.

The campaign for the United Kingdom to leave Europe gave Johnson his chance. He went against his old parliamentary friend and Eton and Oxford companion, Prime Minister David Cameron, and campaigned vigorously and with the aid of some wild and untrue claims about how Britain would prosper out of Europe. Brexit carried the day.

Cameron was replaced with the dull, dutiful Theresa May. She had the task of trying to make Brexit work without breaking Britain. After three years, she was out, and a shaken party installed Johnson as its leader.

In a landslide, the Conservatives won the first election with Johnson at the helm, and he was expected to be a transformational prime minister. Instead, he has been involved in scandals: He has been caught lying about parties in his official home and office, No. 10 Downing Street, during the COVID-19 lockdown, and recently about the allegations of sexual impropriety of a member of his party, whom he had been warned about but nonetheless promoted. The truth might have saved Johnson; he eschewed it.

Johnson isn’t a fool, but he does foolish, often roguish things. He is a scholar of the ancient world, a biographer, a linguist and a wordsmith. He likes to make comparisons to antiquity: He equated London to Athens and himself to Pericles.

He wrote a biography of Churchill, which I enjoyed but found nothing groundbreaking. It seems to have been written to signal similarities between himself and Churchill.

Johnson will be heard from again as a commentator and author. He excels at the pithy phrase and joking in adversity, as when, as London mayor, he was left hanging on a zipline during a 2012 Olympics event.

His legacy may be that he was the most quotable prime minister of his generation and beyond. Here is a classic: “My friends, I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”

On resigning, Johnson said tamely, “Them’s the breaks.”

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A Quiz for the Fourth of July

Get ready to break out the red, white and blue! Test your knowledge of America’s birthday by seeing how much you know about Independence Day with this short, easy and fun quiz.


1. What group declared independence from Great Britain?

A. The Minute Men

B. The Second Continental Congress

C. The Patriots

D. The Tea Party


2. While the Declaration of Independence was ratified on July 4, on what date was the vote taken officially to sever ties with England (and was also the date John Adams believed should have been commemorated)?

A. June 30

B. July 1

C. July 2

D. July 5


3. Despite July 4, 1776, appearing on the document, when did most of the signers actually put their names on it?

A. That day

B. The next day

C. August 2

D. September 6


4. What other nation observed an independence day on July 4?

A. Australia

B. Liberia

C. Guam

D. The Philippines


5. Although Independence Day has been celebrated continuously since 1776, when did it become a paid federal holiday?

A. 1926

B. 1938

C. 1947

D. 1954


6. It’s widely known that Declaration signers and presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, what other Founding Father (though not a signer) died on July 4, 1831?

A. Aaron Burr

B. Henry Knox

C. James Madison

D. James Monroe


7. Who was the only president born on July 4?

A. Woodrow Wilson

B. Calvin Coolidge

C. Herbert Hoover

D. Ronald Reagan


8. Held since 1785, the nation’s oldest Fourth of July Parade is held where?

A. Boston, Massachusetts

B. Charleston, South Carolina

C. Trenton, New Jersey

D. Bristol, Rhode Island


9. Which of these events also happened on a July 4th?

A. American novelist Nathaniel (“The Scarlet Letter”) Hawthorne’s birthday

B. France presenting the Statue of Liberty to the U.S.

C. The opening of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

D. All of the above


10. What small town has celebrated Independence Day in the same town square since 1868, earning it congressional recognition as “America’s Official Fourth of July City-Small Town USA”?

A. Joplin, Missouri

B. Woonsocket, Rhode Island

C. Seward, Kansas

D. Benton, Kentucky


Answers:  1-B, 2-C, 3-C, 4-D, 5-B, 6-D, 7-B, 8-D, 9-D, 10-C

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