By Gary Oswald
This article, the first of three about the Sudanese wars, is about Egypt during the scramble of Africa when it was still nominally a vassal of the Ottomans and in reality controlled by Muhammed Ali and his dynasty. Ali, an Albanian mercenary born in modern day Greece, seized control of Egypt while fighting in Ottoman service during the aftermath of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Contemporary sources vary on whether they describe the Khedivate he created as being an Egyptian country or a Turkish one or how much that distinction is even relevant after centuries of Turkish rule. There was undoubtedly a foreign aristocracy who were major landowners, and the army was itself largely non Egyptian but there were also some native Egyptians and, at first at least, Sudanese wielding power within the system.
Egypt, for the 3,000 years prior to the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, had almost always been either a part of a foreign empire, such as the Ottomans, or had a capital within Egypt but a foreign dynasty ruling it, which were ethnically and often linguistically apart from the majority of the population. Though, to be fair, the same could also be said about England. Farouk, Muhammed Ali’s great great grandson and the last of his dynasty to hold power, was born in Egypt but had no Egyptian relatives and considered himself Albanian. At this point the question as to whether it counts as foreign rule is rather philosophical. How long do your family have to live in a country to become native? Was Farouk or Cleopatra Egyptian? Well is Elizabeth II English, is Sadiq Khan? Was P.W. Botha South African, was George Washington American?
The Sudanese certainly viewed them as Turkish rather than Egyptian and call the period of Egyptian rule that this article describes, from 1820 to 1885, the Turkiyya. And they were in a good position to know as the fate of Sudan had always been, to some extent, linked to that of Egypt. Sudan has a history going back millennia of both trade and war with it, shared political figures (Black Sudanese served as both Pharaohs and Sultans of Egypt) and a great deal of cultural diffusion. Sudan took to Pyramid building, to Christianity and ultimately to Islam and Arabic culture and language as a result of its relationship with its Northern neighbour. The main economic link between the two realms was of course the Slave trade, the ancient treaty between newly conquered Arabic Egypt and the Christian Sudanese kingdoms stipulated a ritualised exchange of slaves and food between the two realms and for centuries afterwards slaves caught by the Sudanese in raids into Ethiopia and Chad would be sent North to be sold to Egypt.
As a result, Black slave soldiers from the Sudan traditionally formed a major part of many Egyptian armies throughout the ages. When Napoleon briefly conquered Egypt in 1798, he sent messages to the Sudanese asking for black slave soldiers to reinforce his own armies and when, in 1805, Muhammed Ali took control of Egypt he sought to build his own army of Sudanese slaves. The Mamluk beys, descendants of Turkic slave soldiers from modern day Russia, who had made up the nobility of Egypt since the time of Baibars, had the same idea. Upon their defeat in Egypt, at the hands of Ali, a faction of them retreated to Sudan where they rebuilt their numbers with black slaves and blocked trade between Egypt and the Sudan.
Ali asked for the Funj Sultanate, the nominal high kings of the region, to expel these exiles but the Funj had declined severely in power over the 18th century and were caught up in the anarchy of a disputed succession. They simply weren't capable of a campaign against anyone. This weakness had provided opportunity for the Mamluk exiles and would provide the same for their Enemy. In 1820 Ali’s army, led by his third son, would launch a war of conquest in the Sudan. By taking full control of the area, it was hoped that Egypt could be enriched by the possession of both gold mines and a loyal slave army.
The early stages of the conquest were astonishingly quick and easy. Many minor Sudanese rulers, including the Mamluks themselves, put up no fight at all when faced with such overwhelming odds, and voluntarily gave up their crowns and joined their own forces to the Egyptian Army. The Egyptians had bought along numerous Religious figures who were used to justify the righteousness of these submissions. Even the Funj themselves ultimately surrendered their capital without a fight. It goes without saying, that this situation would not have arisen had not the over lordship of the Funj been disrupted by civil war. It is entirely possible for the Sudan to remain united at this point and so this invasion would never happen. The effects of this would be profound.
There was however one Kingdom in the Sudan that was still healthy and united and in a position to put up serious resistance to the Egyptians: Darfur. The Sultanate of Darfur was in a mini golden age at the time, having expanded as the Funj retreated and its Sultan argued that an invasion of an independent Islamic state which had always paid tribute to the Ottoman Caliphs could not be justified by the laws of Islam. Darfur would fight.
4,000 men of the Egyptian Army backed with artillery launched a brutal attack on the Darfur province of Kordofan, there they defeated two attempts to dislodge them and caused huge damage to the civilian population of the region. Guerrilla resistance and poor logistic chains however prevented them from following up on this victory. Darfur itself would remain an unconquered holdout but was severely weakened.
The Egyptians also quickly squandered any good will achieved by their largely bloodless conquest by imposing an utterly ruinous tax to be paid by the urban middle classes. Each slave owned was to cost its owner 15 dollars, each cow 10 dollars and each sheep or donkey 5 dollars, though Camels would remain exempt. This was unpayable and was largely an excuse for the confiscation of slavery and livestock by the Egyptian Army.
As a result large amounts of slaves entered Egypt and were either recruited into the army or sold into Arabia and Europe (where they were often freed). From the latter group, emerged many of the most famous black individuals of the time period, including Liberian politicians, Mexican soldiers and Italian Nuns. And the previously slave owning class in the Sudan broke out in revolt, on the basis that this tax would impoverish all but the very poorest of them.
The Egyptian Army was better supplied and armed than the rebels and the rebels were divided and did not enjoy the full support of the local nobility, many of whom still backed the Egyptians. The rebellion was crushed, with much brutality, and the leaders were either sent as prisoners to Cairo or fled to Ethiopia. But in order to forestall further rebellions the Egyptian reinforced their garrisons with both the slaves they’d just confiscated and placed in their army and also conscripts from the Egyptian peasantry.
But in 1825, with the province heading towards anarchy and poverty rampant, the Egyptians, gave in and lowered the taxes and offered amnesty to those rebels who’d fled into Ethiopia if they returned. This newly conciliatory approach carried on into the 1830s when there were conscription riots during the two brutal wars Egypt fought with their supposed Ottoman overlords. Conscription of the free Sudanese was banned. Land owners were forced to offer their slaves to fight on their behalf, instead, though the slaves would never be as effective fighting outside of the Sudan as had been hoped.
Newly reconciled with the Sudanese nobility, the Egyptians used Khartoum as a base for slave raids into South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia, though they achieved only mixed results. In particular, a brutal defeat at the hands of local Ethiopian forces, followed by a warning from the British about them possibly supporting the Ethiopians against invasion, curtailed Egyptian ambitions in that direction for decades.
For the next few decades, as the hoped for mineral riches weren’t found and Egyptian eyes turned elsewhere, the province settled into a status quo of quiet neglect. Conflicts over taxes and the presence of European Ivory traders among the Egyptian caravans persisted but were generally resolved. The slave trade was active and profitable again and there was generally peace and some sort of order, as long as you weren't a slave.
In 1863 however, Muhammed Ali’s grandson, Ismail the Magnificent, would take power in Egypt and he would turn his attention to the neglected southern provinces. Under his rule, this relatively stable situation in which the Sudanese nobility were bound into the Egyptian State by the mutual profit of the slave trade would unravel. Ismail was a reformer and a moderniser who viewed his country as European in all ways but the geographical, he bought in the first steps towards democracy and invested heavily in infrastructure, industry and education. By the end of his realm Egypt and Sudan had more miles of railroads than anywhere in the world, though the routes were still often incomplete. And slavery offended both his sensibilities and his European contacts, who increasingly offered ultimatums demanding he stopped the trade.
Ismail's anti slavery policies pre-empted these ultimatums though, he was to try and curb this trade from the date he took the throne. He introduced more police and stricter laws and taxes, to discourage trade in slaves but ultimately these efforts failed. The Sudanese slave traders and warlords were institutionally hostile to the laws, they did not even attempt to obey them. And the officials, sent to the furthest edges of the Khedivate, were neither well paid nor efficient and were vulnerable to being bribed. Moreover, as Ismail has given no orders as to what to do with freed slaves, they were often recruited into the local garrisons, meaning the administration had an invested interest in slaving still happening. Thousands of slaves were still being bought North as a result, much to Ismail’s embarrassment, often under the flimsy pretence of being the concubines and children of Egyptian officers.
It was clear that the problem was at least partly that not many people within the Egyptian state believed in the justness of this law and so the only way to solve this problem was bringing in officials from outside who would take the slave trade seriously. As a result, Ismail appointed a series of Christian European soldiers of fortune as his officers. These men would indeed take the fight against the slave trade more seriously, but they were not Muslim, they did not speak Arabic and they often had nothing but contempt for the local Sudanese. Discontent was quietly building, something that would be further amplified by the promotion of another Christian, Charles George Gordon, to overall Governor of Sudan at the explicit demand of Britain, where he’d pass unpopular laws banning slavery and flogging.
Ismail’s foreign soldiers also pushed increasingly beyond the existing borders to conquer more land which needed to be administrated. Samuel Baker led an invasion through South Sudan into Uganda where he ran into conflict with the Great Lakes Kingdoms of Bunyoro and Buganda. Another prong of the Egyptian army, led by Werner Munzinger and including a large number of ex Confederate soldiers invaded Ethiopia to take control of Eritrea and were soundly defeated on two occasions. A full peace treaty would not be signed with Ethiopia for many years, requiring Egypt to maintain forces on the border.
Other forces moved west against Darfur. Here Ismail’s forces would encounter the semi-independent slaver kings who had risen in power since the defeat of Darfur by the Egyptians, 40 years earlier. The most powerful of these was Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur, originally from Khartoum, who defeated the first invasion but then defected to the Egyptians upon being offered a position in their army and helped them finally sack and annex the stubborn Sultanate of Darfur in 1875.
In the aftermath of that victory Zubayr asked for recognition as ruler of Darfur as promised but was refused it. He travelled to Cairo to plead his case personally, but Ismail instead took advantage of this opportunity of one of the chief slavers and thorn in Gordon’s side leaving his power base, by having him arrested and banned from returning home. The newly conquered western provinces quickly fell into anarchy without his presence. Zubayr’s son Suleiman led an effective insurgency in his father’s old territory before being finally captured and executed by Romolo Gessi.
One of Suleiman’s closest allies in his revolt against Gordon and Ismail was Rabih az-Zubayr, an Arabic speaking Nubian who was possibly related to Zubayr. Rabih escaped Suleiman’s fate by fleeing into Chad and the Central African Republic where he set up his own kingdom and fought wars with the existing African powers, losing a major battle against the Sultan of Wadai. After that defeat, he considered returning to Sudan to fight in the Mahdist War but instead remained in Chad and increasingly came into conflict with France, which was moving into the area. Rabih had a French diplomat killed and attacked African rulers who had signed treaties with them.
In 1893 he moved further west, conquering the ancient Bornu Empire of Nigeria, and setting himself up as leader in its place. Much like Msiri, this was arguably colonial rule writ small, in terms of foreign rule, centralisation and exploitation of resources, and in particular slave labour. Some sources even claim the French borrowed his administrative policies upon his defeat. In 1899, Rabih ran into conflict with the French once more, arresting a diplomat and defeating a minor column and capturing their cannons. In response the French sent three columns of men across Africa to conquer any African ruler who dared oppose them and bring Rabih to heal.
The most famous of these columns was that led by Paul Voulet and Julien Chanoine, two French soldiers already notorious for their ruthlessness and cruelty, who had been given only very vague orders and took that as carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Voulet's troops started pillaging, looting, raping, and killing almost immediately, committing atrocities even within areas already controlled by the French or that had been ceded to the British. In present day Nigeria, the Voulet-Chanoine column encountered fierce resistance from a local queen, Sarraounia, and responded by burning entire villages to the ground, killing thousands, in order to flush her out.
An officer sacked by Voulet reported these doings back to France, who concerned about this loose cannon sent another officer, Klobb, to remove Voulet from command. Klobb, found the mission by the simple act of following the corpses left behind. Klobb sent letters to Voulet asking him to stand down and Voulet responded with threats. When Klobb did catch him up and approached him with his uniform clearly visible, Voulet shot and killed him.
In the aftermath of this, the French troops turned upon Voulet and Chanoine killing them both and the medical officer of the mission took control, leading the column to its intended rendezvous with the two other columns. This combined force defeated and killed Rabih and his Empire was added to French Africa, in fact most of Rabihs’s army would be recruited by the French and be used to fight the Wadai war against Rabih's old foe, the Wadai Empire. With the column redeemed by achieving their aims, the scandal of Voulet and Chanoine, and the crimes the now victorious column had committed under their leadership, was more easily forgotten.
The French government declared that the pair had ‘gone native’ in the Sudanese air and later historians have blamed syphilis. The surviving troops of the mission claimed that Voulet had, prior to being shot, discarded his French Uniform and declared that he had no loyalty to France, that he was a black chief now and would carve out his own Empire. This is of course a very convenient thing for a man you've shot to have supposedly said, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume this is an accurate recollection.
Could Voulet have done it? Not in 1899, he couldn’t. The French were moving into the Sahel in force, a small column of men would not be able to hold them off for long, even if they had showed complete loyalty to him, and the scandal of an ex French officer killing a fellow officer and then setting up his own Kingdom would demand a vigorous response.
Could Rabih have done it then? He had a far stronger case, in that he shared a language and religion with his subjects, he had some kind of infrastructure in place and he had some kind of economic plan. But ultimately he had no source of weapons, the British refused to sell to him, too few loyal men and too many enemies. His position was no less precarious than Voulet's would have been. In many ways Rabih, Voulet and Zubayr all made the same mistake, they left their power bases. Zubayr could be arrested in Cairo much easier than in Khartoum and neither Rabih nor Voulet could easily get reinforcements so far away from their birthplaces.
The more interesting question is perhaps what if Rabih had returned to Sudan when he first considered it rather than attacking Bornu. Sudan at this time was ripe for empire building. Gordon had quit in 1879 and his replacement Ra’uf Pasha did not have his fearsome reputation but was still stuck with enforcing his unpopular laws. And, the Egyptian Empire was itself crumbling. Ismail’s wars and infrastructure had not been cheap and Egypt’s share of trade in Cotton was increasingly challenged by a USA recovering from civil war. Egypt’s Debt had risen from 3 million pounds to 100 million during Ismail’s rule and eventually his European creditors took control of the country’s finances to force him to repay them. The British consul suggested just writing off the debt to maintain stability, but this was never seriously considered. Instead the bankers orchestrated what was essentially a coup, Ismail was forced to retire and the Europeans forced multiple concessions on his young son.
The Egyptian Army had been halved in size during the 1870s to save money and in 1879 several of its officers mutinied in what eventually turned into a full revolt of the native Egyptians against the foreign royal family and their concessions to foreign interests. In response the UK, backed by France and the USA, invaded to put down this revolt and, eventually, occupied the country in order to dictate its financial decisions. Among this chaos, few forces could be spared for the Sudan. All that was needed was a man to lead the rebellion, and such a man soon emerged.
His name was Muhammad Ahmad, though history remembers him as the Mahdi.