John Brunner’s fine bit of SF dystopia, circa late 1960s. I had it as a paperback, which disintegrated and was discarded many years since. Brunner took on the American complaint of British SF: ‘Here we are trying to get off the planet. You lot can’t even get off your island’. With this book he cracked the American SF market.
The essential conceit was by 2010 the world’s population would no longer fit onto the Isle of Wight (>150 square miles), with some small social segregation, but would need the space of the island of Zanzibar (around 600 square miles). Brunner projected that by 2010 the world population would be around seven billion — one of several anticipations he nailed, along with the failure of the Soviet Union, the rise of industrialised China, the prevalence of electronic media, the dominance of the Great Computer … well, OK, we’ve decentralised that one.
The Anglo-Zanzibar War
This was going to be my point-of-departure, until I remembered Brunner. According to wikipedia:
The Anglo-Zanzibar War was a military conflict fought between Great Britain and the Zanzibar Sultanate on 27 August 1896. The conflict lasted between 38 and 45 minutes, marking it as the shortest recorded war in history
Which piece of profound historiography derives from (roll of drums and eye-balls) The Guinness Book of Records.
As far as I can see, the War amounted to two Omani sheikhs, one British-backed, the other German-supported, squabbling over who got the late Sultan’s harem. Any need to sanitise that, dress it up as pro- and anti-slavery factions.
Let’s start with why the British were there in the first place
Follow the bouncing ball:
- Portugal had been at odds with the British over Mashonaland, Nyasaland and so the Zambezi basin.
- This would have bridged the Portuguese colonies on the Atlantic and Indian Ocean shores — blocking the British attempt to build a north-south, Cape-to-Cairo corridor.
- Lord Salisbury was having no such nonsense, dismissed the Portuguese claims as ‘archaeological’, and issued an ultimatum (January 1890).
- The result was an agreement (August 1890) endorsed by a formal convention (11 June 1891).
- Mashonaland and Nyasaland went to Britain, and Portugal got the Zambezi basin (i.e. modern Mozambique).
- For the British the bonus was a ‘protectorate’ of the sultanate of Zanzibar, but more significantly a freer hand in East Africa, checking the growing German interests in Tanyanika (and so towards the Upper Nile).
- That required a quid-pro-quo to assuage the Germans: the grant to Germany of a strip in West Africa, from Kamerun up towards Lake Chad.
- Not uncoincidentally, from the British point-of-view, that queered the pitch for French expansion in the same area.
Since it was ‘be nice to the Kaiser’ week, another strip (the ‘Caprivi strip’) came gift-wrapped. This had no particular value, except to expand German South-West Africa (modern Namibia) towards the Victoria Falls. But, again from the British perspective, putting a spoke in any Boer ambitions in that direction.
You betcha. But the clincher was a land-swap:
- Germany had been building the Kiel Canal since 1887.
- About thirty miles out of the Elbe and Weser estuaries, and the coast of Holstein, stood the rocky and sandy outcrop of Heligoland (total area, about half a square mile).
- Heligoland had been seized by the Royal Navy in 1807 (think Battle of Copenhagen); and formally annexed by Britain, from Denmark, in the wash-up at the Congress of Vienna.
- The small population of Heligoland — who would be Frisian rather than German — apparently quite liked being British; but the Royal Navy had not been using the island for any real purpose.
- So Salisbury traded Heligoland for Zanzibar (apparently to the disgruntlement of Queen Victoria, British public opinion, and the folk of Heligoland). On the whole, one can instantly see the basis for the disgruntlement: a British naval presence, immediately opposite Cuxhaven, and Brunsbüttel (whence Seiner Majestät Flotte could debouch from the Baltic into the North Sea) would have a certain merit.
Any potential snub to the French was bought off by recognition of their influence in Madagascar.
The story of Heligoland almost ends with the biggest non-nuke bang of WW2.
From the back-end of 1944 until 1952, the RAF was using Heligoland as a way of disposing of surplus high explosive. In April 1947, in one go, the Royal Navy detonated 6,700 tons of munitions in Heligoland. Only in 1952 were the uninhabited remains of Heligoland, with large quantities of UXB still lying around, returned to West Germany.
The West Germans issued a stamp.
For a real joke of a war…
… there’s the 1859 Pig War between the US and Britain.