Africa during the Scramble: The Man behind the Mahdi

By Gary Oswald


Abdallahi ibn Muhammad as drawn by Siegfried Weiß and shared under the CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

Abdallahi Ibn-Mohammed Al-Khalifa more than anyone else could be said to have created the Mahdist revolt. He had been born in a nomadic tribe subject to Darfur, which was then still independent from Egypt, as the grandson of a West African holy man from the Sokoto Caliphate. West Africa had just emerged from the Fulani jihads, a period of holy war and destruction which had resulted in widespread search for the Mahdi, the messianic figure who will appear to rid the world of evil and injustice, restore harmony to Islam, and usher in the Day of Judgement. Abdallahi internalised this viewpoint; increasingly important among the local holy men. That he was living through the end times where tyranny and corruption raged and the Mahdi was needed to restore balance.


When Abdallahi was 20, the Egyptians invaded and sacked Darfur. He fought against them and was captured by Zubayr, when the latter switched sides to join the invaders. Zubayr was initially going to execute him, but was convinced by his advisors that it would be unpopular to kill a holy man and so he was spared. In his later writings Zubayr was to regret this decision a great deal. Abdallahi was impressed by Zubayr and asked him if he was the prophesised Mahdi. When Zubayr, horrified, denied this, Abdallahi went elsewhere to find the man he still sought.


When Abdallahi found Ahmad, he was still a relatively obscure Sufi elder but Abdallahi submitted to him, became his first disciple and named him the Mahdi. Ahmad, unlike Zubayr, would have no problem accepting this position and from Abdallahi’s submission began the Mahdist movement. It was Abdallahi who had recruited Ahmad’s nomad forces and encouraged the use of firearms within their tactics. If Zubayr had indeed executed him during the sack of Darfur, it is likely that Ahmad would have remained in obscurity, the slaving and tax revolts of the later 1870s wouldn't have been co-opted by the religious fundamentalists and the modern history of the Sudan would be widely different. And Ahmad rewarded Abdallahi accordingly, naming him the descendent and successor of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, as the Mahdi was the descendent and successor of the Prophet himself.


When the Mahdi died in 1885, having just established an independent Sudanese state, Abdallahi was thus the obvious successor. However there were problems with this. For a start, Ahmad had made obedience to him as a person a major part of what it meant to be faithful and had preached about the rule of Mahdi, which was traditionally 7 to 9 years where in the world would be remade. Religiously he wasn't supposed to just die, though it must be said that, despite this, other self declared Mahdis had had no problem transitioning into merely being the first of a dynasty of rulers. Abdallahi's succession was therefore challenged on religious grounds on the basis that the Mahdi should only be succeeded by the second coming of the prophet Jesus. A man claiming to be Jesus was then found within the Sudan, though given Abdallahi had him killed we can only hope he wasn't the real deal.


The opposition also had an ethnic tinge to it, Abdallahi was a nomad, from the western areas near Darfur and the Eastern Sudanese viewed him as something of a barbarian. There was some discontent among the old nobility that Abdallahi had replaced Ahmad, and not someone from the banks of the Nile. And his powerbase being among the nomads was a mixed blessing as the nomads were notoriously reluctant to follow orders. Abdallahi ended up buying their support by allowing them to pillage those unwilling to pay his taxes. For the people of the Northern Sudan, this felt like them being replaced by the savage westerners in the hierarchy and at least one chief sounded out the British about switching loyalty back to Egypt.


Abdallahi reacted to this by doubling down on his reliance on the Westerners, appointing them to key military positions and having them inserted into Northern only brigades as guarantees of loyalty. He also consistently purged his court of the Mahdi’s old advisors, seeing, correctly, that many of them resented him and had been behind plots to oust him. This secured his power but had the side effect of depleting the talent pool that he could call upon.


And this was a problem because the Mahdist state was a Jihadist state, it was constantly at war by its nature. If it wasn’t at war, it was nothing. And it was surrounded by targets. Internally there were multiple episodes of large scale violence against its non-Muslim subjects and when Darfur, upset at being ruled by an old subject and angry at the conscription of its pastoralists into the Mahdist Army, revolted it was invaded and sacked again. And, externally, pretty much every single one of Sudan’s neighbours would be invaded. The British forts in the Red Sea would be attacked, as would the Sudanese garrison in Uganda, the Egyptian forts just north of the Sudanese border, the Italian forts in Eritrea and the Ethiopians. Every single one of these attacks was a failure.


The Egyptian army had been rebuilt by the British along more professional lines with better pay and treatment and so didn’t break upon combat as it had 5 years earlier (it also helped that standards of living in Egypt had cratered during British rule due to famines and so conscription began to be seen as a route out of poverty which meant it was less opposed) and so the attacks on Egypt in 1889 were a complete failure. The British forces elsewhere were equally efficient, the machines guns that had so often jammed during the First Mahdist War had been replaced by this point by far more effective versions. Something that was an ominous sign for any African Army, though the Boers would soon demonstrate the limitations of this new technology.


The Italian Empire‘s Askari Eritrean soldiers were, however, the ones to deliver the first truly decisive losses upon the Mahdists, not only driving off repeated assaults from 1890 to 93 but successfully counter attacking and capturing an important Sudanese fort in 1894. These victories would help give the Italians the confidence to invade Ethiopia two years later, and the Ethiopians would sound out a mutual anti-Italian Alliance with the Sudanese as a result but were rejected. They didn’t need them anyway, the Italian army was destroyed at Adwa and the Italian position in the Sudan became newly vulnerable, something that worried the British, who promised the Italians aid against the Sudanese, one of the justifications for their own invasion of the Sudan.


Battle of Gemaizah near Suakin, Sudan December 1888 between Anglo-Egyptian and Dervish forces. Artist Unknown

The Ethiopian offer of alliance was surprising, as that country had reason to resent the Mahdists. The war against them had been the most successful of these campaigns, the Mahdists had won repeated victories, sacked the capital Gondar on more than one ocassion, and ultimately killed Emperor Yohannes IV at Gallabat and took his body back as a trophy of victory. But, even there, no new land was taken and the victories were mostly pyrrhic, Yohannes himself had been killed in the aftermath of routing a Sudanese Army though his death threw the Ethiopian Army into chaos and allowed the Mahdists to regain the battleground. The Sudanese suffered massive causalities and lost many of their best warriors in their assaults on Gondar and retreated when new Armies were bought up against them. They spent most of 1887 to 1889 camped in Ethiopia but were neither willing or able to follow up on their victory at Gallabat in March 1889 and so Ethiopia's border would remain secure in the 1890s with no new invasions planned.


This weakness, apparent due to the increasingly small dividends gained by these endless assaults, had also been noticed by the many enemies of this new state. King Leopold of the Congo Free state would launch one of the first campaigns aimed at conquering the Sudan in 1897, he won one major victory on his Northern borders before the slave soldiers he sent mutinied against their brutal officers and the campaign was abandoned. Likewise a planned French assault from the West in the same year was stymied by the continued presence of Rabih in Bornu.


It’s possible for either of these attacks to actually happen, which would be fascinating, but merely the fact they were planned changed things for the Sudanese because it got their old enemy, the British in Egypt, probably their most formidable neighbour, to launch their own invasion in late 1897 if only to prevent someone else doing it. They had a very good intelligence agency working in the Sudan and knew that the Sudanese were far weaker than they had been after Khartoum fell. The unity they had had then was based on a shared desire to get rid of the Egyptians, but after twelve years of the Egyptians being gone, that unity was fraying. Abdallahi had become a paranoid recluse, not moving anywhere without guards, and civil war was a real possibility if an invasion hadn’t happened. Even with the invasion, at every turn their defence against the British was hampered by disunity and in-fighting.


In all honesty it is difficult to see how the Sudanese state could ever seriously endure, it was a messianic state which thought it needed to purify the entire world through war. It went so far as to place service in the jihad as the equivalent of the pilgrimage to Mecca. By its nature it was never going to stop and could never hope to win against the entire world, it launched attack after attack on its neighbours until retribution was inevitable. And yet it lasted over a decade, protected by the hostile deserts and bravery of its armies. And Abdallahi had constructed a working bureaucracy and taxation system, partly using Egyptian administrators who had been captured before they could be evacuated, which maintained order and prevented the area slipping into Anarchy. However vulnerable the state was, it did not collapse until invaded by the greatest Empire in the world. There was the first hints at state building there, of the tribes working together, if just wasn't happening quickly enough and wouldn't endure the state being endangered.


The British Conquest of the Sudan was a slow and careful one, the armies advanced only once logistics had been dealt with and railroads built. But it was also incredibly effective, both in combat, wherein the new Egyptian Army had learned to stand tall and beat back the dervish charges that had defeated it a decade earlier and, diplomatically, in winning over support from the tribes of the Sudan who had not been favoured by the Mahdist state. The British also used their superior intelligence to identify and destroy armies in the region before they could be organised to block them.


And yet, they could have been stopped had the Sudanese shown more flexibility in their thinking. The British were advancing on a Railway they were building on the way, a successful guerrilla war, such as Red Cloud of the Sioux had ran against the Americans decades earlier, could have halted it by targeting the supplies and so having the workers die of dehydration. But Abdallahi only knew one way to fight, charges of brave disciplined man in vast numbers which could overwhelm the defences. He let the British advance as he gathered his army for an ambush. He also attempted to scare the Northern tribes into submission by attacking and burning towns whose chiefs had been in communication with the British. These were tactics that had worked for the Mahdists in the past but against this much more cautious British Army they failed and he’d turned a chance for unity in the face of an external threat into what was practically a civil war as the North switched sides en mass.


The British and Egyptian Army in this second Mahdist War were better led, larger and better trained than they had been in the first. They also understood the enemy they were facing and had clear objectives with no political confusion. The Sudanese on the other hand were much weaker. In battle after battle, therefore, the British won, their new maxim guns causing fearful casualties and destroying a generation of young Sudanese men as surely as they would destroy a generation of German men fifteen years later. In 1898, the British Army entered Khartoum and in 1899, they killed Abdallahi in a battle in the west. Sudan’s independence was over.


"The Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman", by Richard C. Woodville

To the Sudanese all they had achieved since 1885 had been reversed, the Egyptians were back along with foreign partners, who the Sudanese still called Turks. But these new Turks, the British, were far more powerful than the Ottomans had been. What had been an Egyptian colony had now become a British one. Britain also increasingly took control of Egypt itself, their temporary occupation going onto stretch for decades, which annoyed the Egyptians so much they were routing for the Germans while they were invading their country in WWII.


There was one exception, the Sultanate of Darfur under Ali Dinar reacted to the fall of Khartoum by once again redeclaring its independence and attacking Mahdist positions. The British were impressed enough to confirm them as protectorate, allowed to run their own affairs as long as tribute was paid. They would keep this status until 1915, when Ali Dinar renounced his ties with the UK on the basis of loyalty to the Ottoman Empire and Darfur was crushed by an Anglo-Egyptian army and formally annexed into the Sudan. This annexation would lead in due course to the horrors of the War in Darfur and it is interesting to ponder just how much the Sultan of Darfur's loyalty to the idea of the Ottoman Caliphate emerged from his time under Mahdist rule wherein the hated Mahdists insisted on the illegitimacy of the Ottomans. Though it has been argued that Ali Dinar was simply unhappy with the borders of his state and was looking for an excuse to expand them. It is often difficult to tell how much ideals or self interest motivates someone.


In late 1898, shortly after the Fall of Khartoum, there would be one more piece of drama. Upon news of the British Invasion, France had sent two expeditions into Southern Sudan itself, one from Brazzaville and one from Dijbouti, thought only the former actually arrived. They had hoped to claim land from the collapsing Mahdists before the British could and so expand their Empire. The British Army confronted these new arrivals at Fashoda in modern day South Sudan and demanded they leave. This led to one of the most serious war scares between the two countries before the French completely backed down, seeing no advantage in fighting a war with the British when they still wanted revenge against Germany. The French were always likely to come to that conclusion but it is possible for events to get out of hand, French soldiers to die at British hands, and so the French Government would be unable to back down as a result.


I have discussed in these articles previously that the general peace in Europe was disastrous for the Africans. Competition between the European nations drove their conquests on, to prevent the other countries from gaining and yet because there was peace that conflict never meant that any African country could be armed against a rival or that troops would not be spared for colonial adventures. So that clearly means that War between Europeans was good for Africa. So would they have benefited if the war scare at Fashoda had led to an actual War?


In 1898 both Rabih and Abdallahi were still alive, a potential war between British and French armies would potentially benefit the Sudanese by distracting their enemies and opening up possibilities of being armed by their enemy's opponents. But it would also lead to the flood of more European soldiers into the area and by 1898 the European position in Africa was incredibly strong and the Sudanese rebels were very weak. Would the UK need to arm Rabih when they had armies in Nigeria much more firmly under their control? A war in the 1870s could well be a game changer for the free African nations but in 1898, it was too late for most of them, the main people to benefit would be the Boers.


In a more General sense, in order for the Mahdists to survive you need them to avoid war with their European neighbours long enough for the first shoots of state building to pay off and some kind of unity to be established. Some of that can happen, as indeed it did with the Force Publique Mutiny protecting them from the Free State. Gordon choosing not to go to the Sudan does reduce the chances of the British invasion by not discrediting Gladstone's policy of support for Sudanese independence, though it doesn't reduce border tensions on the whole. And, even with his death there was no attack for over a decade, so effective guerrilla fighting that could force Kitchener to abandon his assault which might lead to London rethinking whether it was worth it, especially if the Second Boer War proceeds on schedule. And without a British guarantee, the Italians could easily abandon their Sudanese fort after Adwa, especially if the Sudanese had accepted the overtures of friendship from Menelik II of Ethiopia. The French are perhaps the hardest opponent to remove, despite only fighting the Mahdists in a few minor skirmishes in OTL, because their interest clearly existed but they're also the one operating on the longest supply lines and so the most likely to lose, especially since their assault has a good chance of coming from the west, where the heart of Abdallahi's support was (though you'd likely still see Darfur itself switching sides). You might also see Rabih and his troops pull of a fighting retreat back to the Sudan in this scenario rather than stay in Bornu and that would deprive the French Army of many of their best men who they recruited from that defeated force. Though Rabih's own ego might prevent that.


So what would a Mahdist State that did stumble on look like? Well Afghanistan is not a bad example in terms of a hostile nation tolerated by it's neighbours despite occasional raids just because conquering it would be a lot of effort. Internally, you'd see harsh Sharia Law, slavery and routine massacres of the non Muslim subjects. To an extent, it would not be entirely unlike the regime of al-Turabi and al-Bashir of the 80s and 90s in OTL Sudan, with likely equally unpleasant results for the South Sudanese and people of Darfur. There is also no obvious successor for Abdallahi if he dies, which might be a problem. He had a son, Shaykh ad-Din, who commanded a high position in the Army but loyalty to the bloodline was far from guaranteed. And even it was Abdallahi's nephew Mahmud was already showing signs of his own ambition. His refusal to listen to the orders of Abdallahi was one of the biggest reasons for the Mahdist failure in allowing Kitchener to gain a foothold and he seems likely to make his own bid for power. Abdallahi could easily be the Mahdist's indispensable man without whom the project collapses. Though that problem could be solved if Ahmad himself had not died and so remained as the popular figurehead and uniting influence.


Moreover an independent Sudan itself does not require the Mahdists to win. A world in which the Funj didn't collapse in civil war and so the Egyptian invasion didn't happen might easily see them survive the way Ethiopia did if a strong Emperor was to emerge. A Slavers Kingdom without the religious reform angle led by someone like Zubayr or Rabih is also not entirely unlikely should either Ahmad or Abdallahi die before the rebellion. Though a North African CSA is likely to be just as unpopular with its neighbours as a North African Saudi Arabia was it's also more likely to be reliant on foreign trade and so I'd argue would actually be more likely to keep the peace and even pass emancipation laws under foreign pressure than the Mahdists. And if you merely want to avoid British Rule, the Khedivate of Egypt was not destined to collapse. If you avoid either Ismael coming to power in the first place or have Gladstone go along with Baring's suggestion to wipe out his debt in order to avoid an expensive destabilising occupation, perhaps due to some other crisis distracting him, then the Anglo-Egyptian War doesn't happen and so the Mahdist revolt almost certainly fails.


The one line summary is that in the Sudan in the late 19th century, Sharia Law and Islamic extremism declared war on the world and for twenty years it held it's own before ultimately it lost to European technology and imperialism. It was a fight it was unlikely to ever win but in Somaliland, during the same period, it would give it another go.

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