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The Last of the Mahdists

Written by Edwin Herbert Published On , (Last Updated On ).

The Condominium

Following the overwhelming defeat of the Khalifa at the battle of Omdurman (Karari) in September 1898, a convention was agreed between the British and Egyptian authorities that theoretically established joint sovereignty over the Sudan. In practice, power was vested in the British-nominated governor-general, who presided over the Sudan government and was also commander-in-chief or sirdar of the Egyptian army. The first governor-general was Lord Kitchener, succeeded on 21 December 1899 by Sir Reginald Wingate, who remained in charge until 1917. On 25 September 1900 Rudolf Slatin, the former prisoner of the Mahdi, was appointed inspector-general of the Sudan. However, although Slatin was technically second-in-command to Wingate, he had very little influence in any military or political issues. It was Wingate's firm leadership that unified the Sudan under the condominium.

The administrative system was based on British district officers, initially drawn from the military and then from the political service, the latter being known as the "Bog Barons". There were ten military districts or provinces: Blue Nile, Bahr al-Ghazal, Dongola, Haifa, Kassala, Khartoum, Kordofan, Mongalla, Red Sea and Upper Nile. Communications were improved, albeit slowly because of the hostile terrain. The railway line was extended from Khartoum to Sennar in Blue Nile province in 1909 and to El Obeid in Kordofan in 1911. From Kosti a steamer service provided connection with the south, where the building of railways was impractical. Control was gradually extended into the plains and mountains beyond the tributaries of the Nile and the last province to come under the condominium, Dar Fur in the extreme west, was taken over in 1916.

The Second Coming

The defeat of the organised Mahdiyya in 1898 did not mean the end of the cult of the Mahdi. Between 1901 and 1916, thirteen "holy men", some claiming to be the Mahdi and some al-Dajjal, the ante-Christ, whose coming would herald the second coming of the prophet Jesus, Nabi Isa, arose in the Sudan. In 1903 a self-proclaimed successor to the Mahdi was hanged in Kordofan and a year later a rising under a prophet Jesus was suppressed at Sinja on the Blue Nile. None of these claimants attracted a strong following beyond their immediate circle; and the new government had little trouble in suppressing the disturbances. Many of the Muslim elders were still suffering from the impact of the Khalifa's defeat and were reluctant to risk everything in a further religious rebellion.

The most serious insurrection broke out in 1908 at Mesellemiya in the Gezira region of the Blue Nile province when a former Mahdist amir, Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Imam, or Wad Habuba as he was also known, gathered together several hundred followers. Two officials, a newly-recruited British inspector, C.C .Scott-Moncrieff, and an Egyptian mamur (head of a sub-district), Muhammad Sharif, ignored the warnings of local chiefs and entered Wad Habuba's compound alone, intending to talk him into submission. They were at once set upon, murdered and their bodies tossed contemptuously out of the compound. On 2 May the rebel leader attempted a night ambush of an infantry company sent to hunt him down, in an action which cost the lives of 10 government troops and 36 of his own men. Two days later, he was captured by local tribesmen and handed over to the authorities. Twenty men were tried and found guilty of rebellion, Wad Habuba and 12 of his followers being sentenced to death. However, Wingate, after consulting the British Foreign Office, intervened to commute the sentences, against the advice of his senior staff, including Slatin, who felt that mass execution was required to avenge the murders. In the event, only Wad Habuba was hanged; but this was done before crowds in his own village, to set a dire example to others. The official report was censored to delete any reference to the public nature of the execution.

Further trouble arose from an influx of Fulani refugees in 1903, fleeing from the British administration in Nigeria after the battle of Birmi. These immigrants, who were allowed to settle on the Blue Nile under their leaders Mai Wurno and Ahmadu of Misan, were responsible for several uprisings, including that in November 1910 when Najm al-Din proclaimed himself Mahdi at Sheykh Talha on the Blue Nile. Tension heightened between the immigrants and the local Mahdists and Najm al-Din was forced to flee to Kassala province, where he was shot dead in 1914.

Muslim pilgrims who passed through the Sudan en route to the Hijaz also tried to fan the fire. In April 1912 a Tunisian faki proclaimed himself Mahdi near Jabal Qadir and was shot dead with seven of his followers. In June of the same year, a Tripolitan faki was deported for preaching pan-Islamic propaganda.

The Mahdist State in the Sudan

The Last of the Mahdists

A leader of the Tama tribe named Ali Dinar Zakariya Muhammad al-Fadl was present with the Khalifa at Omdurman but the evening before the battle he hurried back to his home state of Dar Fur. It was an astute move to take advantage of the power vacuum that he foresaw would result from the defeat of the Khalifa. As he seemed to be the most powerful man in the area and, moreover, seemed willing to accept the suzerainty of the Sudan government, he was accepted by the authorities as their agent for Dar Fur. His official title was Emir Ali Dinar acting for the Government of Darfur under Baron Sir Rudolf von Slatin Pasha, Inspector-General in the Sudan Government; but by 1901 he had become in effect the independent Sultan of Dar Fur, paying a merely nominal tribute to the governor-general in Khartoum, thereby carrying on the tradition of a sultanate independent since 1650.

Ali Dinar's reputation in Dar Fur was dented in 1913 when a subordinate tribe, the Rizayqat under Musa Madibbu, rebelled against him. At the battle of Tumburko on 30 October 1913 the Fur were defeated, suffering 500 killed and 100 horses and 70 precious rifles captured. The Rizayqat lost 300, mostly spearmen. There was further fighting on 1 November and Slatin had to intervene to restore order and force Musa to submit to Ali Dinar.

Despite this narrow escape, Ali Dinar went on to quarrel with the Kababish tribe of Kordofan and most of his other neighbours. In 1914 he refused to accept Britain's deposition of the Egyptian Khedive Abbas II. He also made contact with the Sanusi of Kufra, and when the Ottoman Empire entered the war, he was the only major Sudanese leader not to send a message of support to the Sudan authorities. Indeed he wrote to Enver Pasha, the Turkish Minister of War, on 13 March 1916, asking for help against those accursed dogs, the English and the French. Ali Dinar may well have been swayed by Turco-German propaganda about the creation of an Islamic state in northern and central Africa once the Europeans had been sent packing. Not surprisingly, the Sudan authorities viewed Ali Dinar with suspicion and after he had sent skirmishing parties to raid Kordofan, Wingate ordered a punitive expedition of 2,000 troops under Colonel P V Kelly to march to Dar Fur.

Kelly's field force, supported by a few aircraft, overcame the Fur without difficulty at the battle of Beringia. David Nicolle indicates that the military dress of Fur warriors examined after the battle had changed little since Omdurman. The Fur higher ranks, including Bushir Musa, the cavalry commander, showed their Mahdist tradition by wearing the white jibbah with Mahdist patches and carrying traditional weapons. Some even had chainmail tunics. Ceremonial dress was more elaborate: Major Edward Keith Roache, who visited Dar Fur immediately after the military expedition, described a cavalcade of 20 camel-mounted sons of the Sultan (he had 120 altogether), gorgeously dressed in strawberry-coloured, bright yellow and green and gold garments. The Sultan himself, the last of the Mahdists to fight the British, had been killed by a stray bullet in a skirmish shortly after the battle of Berengia.

In the Fur capital of al-Fasher Kelly developed a bad cold, an eye infection and acute headaches. He returned to Egypt, in his own words to have a look from the top of the hill overlooking Port Soudan, drink a cup of tea and do absolutely nothing for a week.

Government Troops

The Sudanese infantry that took part in the police actions to maintain law and order were recruited on a long-term basis and were experienced and reliable. The senior officers were British and the junior officers Egyptian or Sudanese from the ranks who had proved their ability in action. The first Sudanese battalion, the IXth, was formed exclusively from veterans with many years' experience fighting in a variety of conditions in the Sudan. {Arabic numerals were used to designate the Egyptian battalions (1-8 and reserve battalions 17 and 18) and Roman numerals the Sudanese battalions (IX-XVI).} The government troops wore khaki uniform modelled along Indian army lines, with a few Ottoman features retained, such as rank markings and different waist band colours for individual branches of the army.

For expeditions to the far-flung reaches of Kordofan and other provinces, the Camel Corps was the main instrument of control. Organised in companies under British officers, the Camel Corps was ready to travel at four hours' notice and carried grain for eight days and water for four. Journeys of up to 600 miles were not uncommon. The troops were mainly Muslim and their Commanding Officer in Kordofan from 1904-1911, Major Alec Wise, is quoted as saying that his native troops would spit in the dust at the mention of Slatin's name (because in their view he had converted to Islam only to save his life).

Historical Effects of the Mahdist Influence

The insecurity arising from these religious revolts, at the root of which was fear of a widespread revival of the Mahdiyya, affected the administrative policies of the Sudan government for years to come, despite the lack of support given by the local tribesmen to the rebels. Wingate and his subordinates sought to minimise Muslim influences in the southern provinces - among the Dinka, the Nuer, the Shilluk, the Beir and the Anuak - by discouraging the learning and use of Arabic and even the wearing of Arab dress. The Mahdi's Ratib, the devotional work used by his followers, was proscribed; and surviving members of the Mahdist hierarchy and their families were imprisoned or closely watched. A Muslim board, the Ulema, was set up to encourage orthodox (as opposed to fundamental) religious practices. Local troops were recruited in an Equatorial Corps to enable the Sudanese battalions, which by custom recruited only Muslims, to be withdrawn. Christian missionaries were allotted areas for proselytization whereas in the north they were actively discouraged. This "southern policy" has had a profound effect on events in present-day Sudan.

Another effect of the Mahdiyya was the increased availability of modern firearms to the southern Sudanese. Many Nuba, for example, had served in the Khalifa's jihadiya and had retained their weapons. It was estimated that there were some 20,000 Remingtons, largely captured from the Egyptians, in Nuba territory post-Omdurman; and a major expedition had to be mounted to reduce the number of rifles in circulation.

When the Anglo-Egyptian condominium ended in 1955, the irreconcilable differences between the largely Muslim north and the largely Christian south, led rapidly to civil war, which has flared up sporadically ever since. Various civilian leaders, including a grandson of the Mahdi, Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, have alternated with military dictatorships. Forty years after independence, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a largely Christian rebel group, is determined to win greater autonomy for the south and is deeply opposed to the imposition of strict Islamic law. The present tragedy in the Sudan can be seen as a logical extension of the fight of the southern Sudanese against one invader after another, first the Arab slavers, then the Turko-Egyptian administration, followed by the Mahdists, the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium and finally the present Islamic government in the north.

Sources

The Savage Wars of Peace: British Campaigns in Africa 1870-1920 by Lawrence James, Robert Hale Limited, London, 1985.

The Sudan by H A MacMichael, Ernest Benn, London, 1954.

A History of the Sudan by P M Holt and M W Daly, Longman, London, 1988.

The Sudan under Wingate: Administration in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan 1899-1916 by Gabriel Warburg, Frank Cass & Co Ltd, London, 1971.

Between Two Flags by Gordon Brook-Shepherd, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.

Lawrence and the Arab Revolts by David Nicolle, Osprey, Men-at-Arms Series, 1989.

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen', issue 94

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