Africa During the Scramble: The Mahdi

By Gary Oswald


Muhammad Ahmad as portrayed by an unknown artist

There is a tendency by students of history to place greater emphasis on motives that make sense within your own worldview. In this article, about the Mahdist revolt of Muhammad Ahmad, I will try and avoid that trap as best I can. There were numerous local revolts in the Sudan from 1879 to 1881 and they largely happened for economic reasons, the ban on slaves was making slave traders poorer while the poll tax was making everyone else poorer and so both were resisted. Ahmad’s revolt emerged from that background and gained support from that base, slave traders made up the core of his army, but his own motives were not primarily economic. They were religious, based around his disagreement with the Ottoman Sultan's claim to be Caliphs and the way he felt they had betrayed their religious responsibilities by placing Christians in positions of power over Muslims. Ahmad was attacking the religious claims Egypt had used to justify the conquest in the first place. And this makes sense as a priority, because he was a holy man, not a slave trader or a politician. The Mahdi itself is a messianic title rather than political one.


In his own proclamations he made it clear that he wished to purify the Islamic faith practiced in the region, to the extent of banning discussion of the Quran to encourage a narrow doctrinal vision of the religion, his version of reform was one similar to the Wahhabists of Saudi Arabia. He also wanted to remove the Ottoman influenced schools of law and set up new laws based purely on the views of Muhammed, who Ahmad claimed to be able to communicate with directly. Ahmad attacked the poll tax, which he felt was unjustifiable under the laws of Islam, but he attacked the existence of Egyptian Sufi orders with just as much fervour. Control over the sort of Islam being preached was something that exercised him as much as control over the economic policy. He went so far as to argue that the Turkish-Egyptian religious leaders in the region had drifted so far from Islam that they should be treated as pagans and enslaved.


But to paint Ahmad entirely as a Sudanese Jefferson Davis is unfair. He was far more generally reactionary rather than merely purely pro slavery. He viewed the slave trade itself, which had boomed originally thanks to the Egyptian conquest, as just as much an unwelcome modern deviation from tradition as abolition was. He would not just restore the slave trade to pre Gordon levels but refashion the institution to fit with his interpretation of Sharia law. In particular he'd argue that slaves whose masters acted blasphemously should be freed.


Despite this, Ahmad personally only ordered around 4 slaves to be freed and while he did declare numerous groups off limits for slave raids at pain of emancipation, he was not in any way an abolitionist. The point of that law was not about freeing slaves but about eliminating blasphemy and establishing a slave trade that was justifiable by Islam, The victims of it should be heathens and heretics, like the Turks, not other Muslims. And even non-believers should be spared slavery if they showed signs towards conversion, such as the pagan tribes who offered fealty to him and whom Ahmad ordered to be off limits for slave raids but a prime target for evangelism. The Mahdi’s interventions were not based on the morality of slavery but the legality of that particular slave’s ownership. The four slaves he freed came from the freed slaves he had recaptured during his rebellion and of those, he also ordered several hundred to be returned to their original owners and several hundred more to be handed out to his army as spoils.


His most controversial ruling on slavery would be a direct intervention into the economy to keep slave prices low so that poorer Sudanese people could also buy them. When one of his followers complained that this was being abused by the relatives of slaves to buy back and free their enslaved kin, the Mahdi replied that this was fine and should be tolerated but it was certainly not the main effect or purpose of the law.


So the Mahdi was a man who the slavers could work with and was backed by them as the lesser of two evils, but it was not by any means his primary motivation. His writings spend far time dwelling on religious and tax reform rather than restoring the slave trade. The Mahdi’s original followers had instead been primarily religious, people who were thinking the main aim was religious reform and purification and that he was truly a messiah figure heralding the end of the world. The slave traders joined second, as their economic and political motives ran parallel to that of their more theological brethren. But the largest group of his followers were the last to join, and they shared neither his religious nor his political motives. They were the nomads, who resented central government simply for existing and had been increasingly resentful of central government encroach and the demand for taxation that came with it.


What this last group needed from Ahmad was primarily proof that he had a chance of winning. And he was quick to provide that, annihilating multiple government expeditions sent against him. And with each victory, his army grew. In late 1882, he was ready to go on the offensive. The rebels' tactics were simple, they would pick a target and stir up as much trouble among the local tribesman as possible to stretch the government forces to their limit and then they would bring in their own army with the aim of forcing the Egyptians back into their fortresses where they could be put to siege, while the rest of the province would be consolidated.


British ships shelling Alexandria during the Anglo-Egyptian War.

The rebels were still relatively weak. They often lost in stand up fights against smaller but better armed Egyptian garrisons despite the Mahdi spending the entire rebellion preaching the superiority of spears over firearms. But they were much more effective against guns than you'd expect and as such were gaining more from the corpses of their enemies. This also meant they were quickly learning a combined arms strategy in which increasing amounts of artillery, machines guns and rifles supported the spears of their main forces. Perhaps more importantly, amidst the chaos of the aftermath of the Anglo-Egyptian War in which the British were occupying Egypt to ensure its leaders would pay off their debts, there was no real opposition to the rebels. The Governor of Sudan had been appointed by the Egyptian nationalists who the British had deposed and so was not trusted. The British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, by then the real power in Cairo, told the Egyptians that British help in putting down the rebellion would not be provided for three reasons. Politically they did not want to be in Egypt for any more than the bare minimum time needed to cement their client monarchy’s control over the finances and a war in Sudan would change that, Financially, Egypt could not afford to spend more money, which a war in Sudan would doubtless cost and Morally, rebellion against a despotic Islamic Empire was justified and the Sudanese deserved their freedom.


This anti-imperial note was a strange argument for the leader of the World’s Largest Empire to make and the policy of indifference to the revolt was deeply controversial in the UK. The Egyptian Government weren’t happy either, it had felt a quick victory in the Sudan could restore their prestige after being so clearly revealed as unpopular pawns of the British during the Urabi revolt. The Egyptians, with what little help the British would offer, sent a new force of around 10,000 men into the Sudan led by William Hicks, but it was made up of badly paid and untrained conscripts and so lacked basic discipline. This army was ambushed by the Mahdi and it broke and was almost entirely destroyed. The Egyptians continued to fight after that but the momentum was firmly against them and with each defeat, more and more waverers joined what was looking increasingly like the winning side.


At this point the British Government declared the war unwinnable and demanded a complete evacuation of all the Egyptians from the Sudan, with the exception of several important Red Sea ports which British Garrisons had secured. The Egyptians were now faced with the unenviable task of successfully withdrawing over 20,000 people (their soldiers, their administrators, and their families) from a hostile country where they didn’t have full control of the roads. The worry was when it became clear that evacuation was happening, all of the currently neutral or pro government Sudanese would also join the Mahdi and whatever men were still remaining would quickly be trapped. All the Egyptians would need to be evacuated without revealing that this was happening, an impossible dilemma.


In the UK, the pro war wing of the British establishment led by men like Garnet Wolseley were appalled by this decision and wanted to launch a full conquest of the Sudan. To this end they started a press campaign for Charles George Gordon, previously Governor of the Sudan to be sent out there again to restore order. The plan as, astonishingly, laid out in detail by Wolseley before Gordon’s arrival in Egypt was that Gordon, due to his nature, would inevitably pick a fight with the Mahdi he couldn't win, find himself trapped and so this would lead the British public to demand that Wolseley and the British troops in Egypt rescue him giving them a famous victory and painting Sudan red on the map. As a prediction of the future went, it was impressively accurate in all but one detail.


Gordon himself had accepted a job with King Leopold of Belgium to bring order to his new territories in the Congo and oppose the slave trade there and had no intention of returning to the Sudan. It is interesting to imagine how Gordon would have acted in that role, had he taken it up. Many other supposedly anti-slavery Europeans bought into Leopold’s fables and Gordon was certainly capable of turning a blind eye to Imperial crimes, nor, as we will see later, were his anti slavery principles as absolute as many imagined. But, with his genuine Christian beliefs and lack of respect for authority, it is tempting to imagine him becoming a headache to the Belgian King by actually carrying out the humanitarian missions Leopold only pretended to support.


In the end both Gordon and the British government caved to pressure and he departed to the Sudan rather than the Congo, officially merely to report on the situation and advise on the best way to undertake the evacuation. However the Egyptian Government, ran at that point by Evelyn Baring, the British Consul, thought he was going to be carrying out the actual evacuation and Gordon himself said publicly that he was going to end the revolt altogether. It has been suggested that Gladstone's government wanted Gordon to resolve the situation himself without giving any actual orders to him that could be used against them if it went badly.


Upon his arrival, Gordon seems to have decided that his job was to ensure Sudan would gain independence led by the nobility who had worked with the Egyptians and not by the Mahdi. He attempted to create a popular front of 'Loyal Sudanese' to take power and so allow the evacuation to go unchallenged. In doing so, however, he made two major mistakes. First, he openly told the Sudanese that he was there to evacuate the Egyptians rather than just establish good governance, which was his cover story. In this, Gordon had misjudged the situation entirely, the tribes were not, as he thought they would be, encouraged by the idea that the hated Egyptians were leaving and therefore more inclined to make deals with him. They instead began to disregard Gordon entirely as powerless and sought to instead make alliance with the man he was leaving the country to. His second mistake was he wrote a letter to the Mahdi, offering him control of several provinces if he agreed to submit to Khartoum's overall authority, something that both insulted Ahmad and further informed him that the Egyptians were not capable of continuing the fight especially since Gordon mentioned in his letter that further British troops were not coming.


Geruzet Frères' depiction of Charles George Gordon

Having set up a situation in which the Sudanese knew the Egyptians were withdrawing and so had every motive to try and prove their loyalty to the Mahdi, their future boss, Gordon then took too long to fortify Khartoum. In this he was not helped by the way the British Government were trying to avoid escalation and were justifiably sceptical of the quality of the remaining Egyptian troops in the area, which British officers had repeatedly led into battle along the Red Sea Coast, only to see them disintegrate and flee even when faced with enemies they outnumbered. Even the British forces in the area themselves, though far more successful, had suffered serious casualties fighting the Dervishes of the Mahdi and were not relishing an attack on his whole army.


Interestingly Gordon also proposed to release and recruit the old slaver-king Zubayr, still imprisoned in Cairo. Gordon even sounded out possible support for him among the nomads and indicated to the Sudanese that he was willing to guarantee that their taxes would be halved and slavery relegalised if they would accept Zubayr as their leader than than Ahmad. The extent to which he meant this seriously is unclear, Gordon changed his mind on what he should do every day but it was an unexpected offer from a man who had personally banned the slave trade himself and it underlined the extent to which Gordon was desperately trying to build up a Sudanese alternate to the Mahdi. He had become convinced that Zubayr was the only man who could possibly unite the Sudanese who did not support Ahmad against him and that without Zubayr in Khartoum the evacuation could not happen. But the British government would not consider installing a regime that would restart the slave trade and Zubayr remained in jail. Gordon replied that if he could not get Zubayr, he wanted more British troops, which London also refused to give him.


Gladstone's Government blamed Gordon alone for the evacuation not happening peacefully given that they very clearly were happy for the Sudan to become independent with Ahmad as ruler and it was Gordon alone who wanted to build up an alternate option. But this ignores the innate difficulty of an effective evacuation of all the Egyptians and the desire of the Mahdi to capture Khartoum and enslave the Turkish officers who he hated. It also ignores how deep the pro war support in the UK was. There was real pressure on the British government to avenge Hicks and the other British men serving in Egypt who'd died in the war up to this point. The public, the media, the military and indeed the royal family all wanted a confrontation with the Mahdi. It is possible for a, more, peaceful Sudanese independence to happen but removing Gordon himself would not be enough to ensure it. Nor would bringing in Zubayr, which would only add an extra combatant to a volatile situation. The best bet is probably to remove Ahmad and replace him with another rebel who'd accept Gordon's overtures and so go along with Gladstone's peaceful separation of the Sudan from Egypt. If that had happened, it is not impossible for Sudan, like Ethiopia, to remain an independent state, though they'd still have hurdles to clear.


In late 1884, with the Egyptian position collapsing, Gordon’s base in Khartoum was besieged from all sides and its telegraph wires to Egypt cut. He himself could have left at any time, the Mahdi even offered him safe passage, but he would not abandon the Capital. This situation was dire enough for the Liberal government to finally agree, after months of dragging their feet, to send reinforcements to Khartoum. Their advanced scouts arrived in January 1885 to prepare the ground for a full relief to happen in March but even the scouts were two days too late. The city had already been stormed, the Mahdi correctly deducing that it had to be taken before the British reinforcements reached there or it would not be taken. Gordon, and up to ten thousand other residents of the city, were dead and Khartoum was in the Mahdi’s hands. The relief force retreated back to Egypt empty handed.


This was obviously a disaster for the British, thought the relief force had at least managed to avoid being wiped out by the numerous ambushes laid for them. And so there was a vigorous search for the causes of it, for something to blame. And many reasons were found: the relief force moved too slowly and didn't use their camels to their full effectiveness, Gordon should have retreated months before and had alienated the Sudanese, Gladstone was too slow in sending reinforcements, etc. It is difficult to argue against the idea that the Relief force could have got to Khartoum months earlier had they simply marched from Suakin, rather than attempting the more ambitious and complicated trek down the Nile which took longer to prepare. But a large apart of it was simply that the Mahdi was a more effective enemy than they were expecting. Every time the British grappled with a Mahdist Army they suffered surprisingly high casualties given they were often pitting machine guns against spears and they had learned genuine respect for the enemy's bravery and discipline.


In the aftermath, the Egyptian presence in the Sudan was soon restricted to only the very North and the far South, wherein Ethiopia, having finally signed a treaty with Egypt, agreed to help evacuate the remaining Egyptian garrisons, beginning their own war in the Sudan. Emin Pasha, an Ottoman officer from a German Jewish family, had been cut off from Ethiopia so had instead retreated into modern day Uganda with his force.


Emin Pasha would soon become a cause celebre among European as a second Gordon, and, ever eager for good PR, King Leopold and Henry Stanley would launch an expedition with the resources of the Congo Free State which set off from Zanzibar to rescue him. Stanley would in, his usual style, brutalise numerous African villages on his way to Emin, but, upon arriving, would struggle to convince him to actually leave, as his position was actually reasonably safe. When they did return to Tanzania, Emin took a job in German East Africa but he left the majority of his troops behind in the Northern Congo where they would be later recruited by the British Army to fight for the protestant Buganda Chiefs in their wars against the Catholics and Muslims of the region, as discussed in a previous article.


With Gordon dead and Emin retreating South, the Mahdi had, to all intents and purposes, won. With the exception of the British garrisons on the Red Sea Coast, there were no troops left in the Sudan who did not follow his writ. The Mahdist War is often seen as one long thing but in truth it was several wars and this first one had ended with total victory for the Sudanese. The Egyptian and British would not be back in force for another 11 years and then under entirely different governments. Gladstone won out despite overwhelming public desire to revenge Gordon, in so much as the war did not happen on his watch, or indeed under any Liberal government, though it certainly also cost him support among the public. 1886 would mark the end of Liberal dominance in parliament. The British Public, at least those of them that could vote, clearly wanted a second confrontation with the Mahdists.


Upon gaining control of the entire Sudan, Ahmad set about establishing his version of Islamic law. He also set up a rudimentary administration, three of his closest allies were given positions of primacy over areas of the country, a high judge was appointed and a treasurer was given orders to set up his own mint, though his coins were so routinely forged that they were quickly not accepted by anyone.


How exactly the Mahdist State would work in practice was never really answered though, because six months after the fall of Khartoum, Ahmad died of typhus. His survival is one of the great ‘what if’s of Sudanese History. He was a charismatic impressive figure and his presence helped tie the rebellion together. The transition from desert rebels to leaders and administrators was always going to be tough but Ahmad’s death made it far harder, his successor would be arguably as brilliant and influential as Ahmad but was no where near as popular.

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