Sudan History: Mhadist Revolt (1881-98)

Sudanese slavery
Figure 1.--One of the major reasons for the Mhadisdt revolt was British efforts to supress the slave trade in the Sudan. Conservative Sudanese saw this as an affroint to the Koran which sanctioned slavery, especially of non-Muslims. This depiction of an Arab slave raid on an African village appeared in 'The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper' during 1888. This engraving was mafe as a rsult of a drawing made by the British explorer and colonial administrator, H. H. (Harry) Johnston. Johnston travelled widely in Africa during the 1880s. The image here illustrated a lengthy article on the slave trade in which Johnston reports that despite success in ending the Atlantic slave trade, it “rages for the moment more fiercely than ever,” in north, central, and east Africa. Johnston grafphically describes the tasctics of the Arab slave raiders and how the survivors are secured and brought to market. He sescribes in detail how the children are dealt with. This illusteation was based on Johnston's East African sketches, but he explains that "the surroundings and the character of the participants in these drawings are very similar throughout the slave-hunting grounds of Central Africa; and what you see here depicted might as nearly represent the slave-raids of the Mohammedan Fulas and Hausas in the Western Soudan, of the Arabs, Nubians, and Abyssinians in the Nile Basin, as of the Arabs, Baluchis, and Arabised negroes on the Upper Congo, the Upper Zambezi, and in the region of the Great Lakes.' In the text he describes how, ' 'Creeping up through the long grass, gliding through the encompassing belt of forest, selecting, no doubt, a time when most of the fighting-men are absent fishing or hunting, the slave-raiders suddenly pounce on the doomed village, which they rapidly encircle. The loud discharge of their guns paralyses the inhabitants with terror, and the panic is doubtless added to by the firing of the thatched huts. The few men who attempt an ineffectual resistance with their spears and clubs and bows and arrows are pitilessly shot down. The women, the boys, and such youths or young men as are easily overpowered, are speedily secured; their hands are usually tied behind the back, and their necks are invested with the heavy forked sticks which the slave-raiders have previously cut and brought with them on the back of their donkeys or their slave-porters. In addition to these wooden yokes, the slaves are frequently tied together by long twisted liana cords, made of the tough bush-creepers. The little children are rarely tied, except with their heart-strings, for their attachment to their mothers, and the mothers’ determination not to be parted from their children, combine to carry them along with the slave-caravan—as long, that is to say, as their poor little legs can bear them.” Source: 'The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper' (London), vol. 38 (1888), pp. 340-41.

The Egyptian Khedive, desirng to gain control of the south, appoints General Charles 'Chinese' Gordon as governor general of Equatoria (1873). His authority was extended to the entire Sudan (1877). Gordon puts his relentless energy to work gaining control of Sudan and end the slave trade. Gordon works tirelessly for 6 years to gsain control over rebelious tribes. Egyptian garrisons are establishes throughout the Sudan. When Gordon leaves for England, it looks like he has suceeded (1880). A year later, a charismatic tribal leader embued with Islam emerges in Sudan--Mohammed Ahmed who styled himself the Mahdi. He capitalizes on the widespread disdcontent and resentment toward both the British snd Egyptians among the tribes. A major reason for thediscontent was Gordon's efforts to supress the slave trade which had been a highly profitable activity. The Mahdi lived with disciples on an island in the White Nile. There he is inspired by the revelation that he is the long-awaited Mahdi. He proclaims his new role and calls for the creation of a strict Islamic state ruled by Sharia which legitimized slavery. Egyptian authorities in Khartoum ordered his arrest. He and his small band of followers escape to the mountains. The Mahdi's skills and the religious fervor of his followers allow him to attack isolated Egyptian garrisons (1883). The Egyptians dispstch three armies to the Sudan, each of which are defeated. One is commanded by a Bitish general. He is able to take several importsnt towns, including El Obeid. Gradually Khartoum itself was threatened. Khartoum is populated by many non-Sudanese civilians which face death at the hands of the Mahdi and his followers. The British government headed by Prime Minister William Gladstone at the time was trying to limit the growth of the Empire. He did not want to send a British army, dedspite increasing public pressure for action. He decided to send General Gordon, but with very limited forces and orders to oversee the evacution of Khartoum Gordon saile down the Nile and reached Khartoum (February 18, 1884). He set up defenses with the small availavle force. Khartoum by this time was surrounded, except for the Nile. Gordon managed to evacuate about 2,500 people (women, children and the sick). The Mahdi begins to besige the city (March 13). Gordon commanded a small thorougly demoralized Egyptian garrison, but he refused to evacuate them and leave himself. The Mahdi cuts the telegraph and the British in Cairo had no communication with Gordon. He managed to hold out for 10 months. Gordon because of his work in China was an enormously popular figure in Britain. When the telegraph lines were cut, the British papers and public began to demand Governent action. Chinese Gordon became Gordon of Khartoum. A reluctant Gladstone finally ordered a relief mission to Khartoum, but does not demand rapid action. Garnet Wolseley sailed from London with an expeditionary force (September). The Mahdi's fanatical forces finally breach Gordon's defenses and killed Gordon, massacaring the starving troops and civilians (January 26). The British public was outraged. Gen. Gordon who was known as 'Chinese' Gordon became Gordon of Khartoum. The British vanguard reached Khartoum (January 28, 1885). They were 2 days too late and find a massacered civilian population. Wolseley's small army withdrew north. The surviving Egyptian garrisons in the Sudan attempted to make their way north. This lefte the Mahdi in control of the Sudan. The Mahdi set up his camp around the small village of Omdurman. This was accross the Nile from Khartoum. From here he administered the Sudan as as Islamic state along his vision of the Great Caliphate. The Mahdi envisioned a movement that would recreate the Caliphate steaching from Persia to Spain. But of course the Sudan contunued to be a poor and backward, essentially the same medieval socierty it had been for centuries. There was nothing of the cultural brilliance of the historic Caliphate. As for the Mahdi, he ruled Sudan for only a short priod. He did not long survive Gordon and died (June 1885). He appoits Abdullahi ibn Mohammed to succeeded him as caliph. Abdullahi is known simply as the Khalifa. The Khalifa ruled Sudan for 13 years. He administered an Islamic state ruled by the military Sharia along the lines of the Mahdi's caliphate. He attempted to expand and achieved some success in Ethiopia. The Khalifa did not, however, have access to modern weapons. Nor did he make any effort to modernize his domain. The Anglo-Egyptian alliance did have modrn weapons, in fact more modern weapons than availble in the 1880s. Lord Herbert Kitchener who as a young officer was with Wolseley lead a modern force south (1898). Armed wth artillery and machine guns, the expedition decimated the Khalifa's Mahdist forces at Omdurman. With Kitchner was a young cavalry Lieutenant Winston Churchill. This restablishes British-Egyptian control of the Sudan.

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Created: 8:01 PM 4/8/2010
Last updated: 10:44 AM 7/29/2016