Historical Notes: Militant Islam in 19th-century Sudan

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The Independent Culture
CONTEMPORARY SUDAN has been identified with scenes of suffering and famine, a protracted civil war, the harbouring of militant Islamic groups and the sponsorship of international terrorism. Last year the United States, alarmed by reports of repressive internal policies and destabilising activities abroad, imposed stiff economic sanctions on the Sudan. These concerns are uncannily reminiscent of the anxieties aroused by the domestic and external policies of the Mahdist regime in the Sudan over one hundred years ago.

The Mahdists, however, posed a much more overt military threat to their neighbours. Having risen in revolt in the early 1880s, the Mahdists annihilated an Egyptian army at el Obeid (November 1883), killed Major-General Gordon, the governor-general of the Sudan, in capturing Khartoum (January 1885), and effectively conquered the Sudan within about three years. In spite of the Mahdi's death in June 1885, they pursued the jihad under his successor, Khalifa Abdullahi, frequently clashing with the Christian regime in Ethiopia, fighting the British near Suakim, mounting an abortive invasion of Egypt in 1889, and periodically confronting the Italians in Eritrea.

Formally, Britain was concerned about the threat to Egypt but public attitudes were much more influenced by the desire to avenge Gordon, to suppress the slave trade, and to stem the spread of what Lord Salisbury would describe as the "false religion" of Islam. Such sentiments thrived on the tales of brutal repression, licentious living, and disaffection within the Sudan spread by prisoners who had escaped from Omdurman in the early 1890s.

Even so, British governments were all too aware of the risks, demands, and potential costs of invading a vast and inhospitable country. It was not until March 1896 when Italy made frantic pleas for assistance, following the rout of its army at Adowa, that Salisbury's cabinet approved a limited intervention. Thereafter it relied on the strategic foresight of Kitchener, his logistical preparations (including the laborious building of a railway across the Nubian desert in 1897), and the ability of his Anglo-Egyptian army to exploit the blunders of the Khalifa, eventually destroying his army at Omdurman on 2 September 1898.

The manner in which the campaign was reported perpetuated the popular impressions of Mahdism, sustained the crusading imagery of the campaign, and extolled the martial achievements of Kitchener's army, whose successes overlapped with the celebrations for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and marked the zenith of Victorian imperialism.

A motley band of some 30 war artists and correspondents reported on the war. For much of the campaign they languished in camps, with information curtailed by Kitchener's secretiveness, their copy censored, and their movements restricted. Although a few were respected, many relied on sensational and imaginative writing, often based an secondhand accounts, not least the famous charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman.

They depicted the dervishes as cruel and fanatical, but also as a fearless and formidable foe; lauded Kitchener's methodical planning; and praised the courage and determination of the British officers and men. After the battle they found an appropriate symbol of Mahdism's destruction, sending home photographs of the Mahdi's tomb - the largest building in Omdurman and a place of pilgrimage - with its cupola badly damaged by artillery shells.

Although the Khalifa's resistance would not be stifled finally until he was killed at the battle of Um Dibaykarat in November 1899, Britain was able to curb the threat from militant Islam by imposing a condominium on the Sudan for the next 50 years.

Edward M. Spiers is the editor of the `Sudan: the reconquest' (Frank Cass pounds 17.50)