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Sudanese Weapons of the late 19th Century

On the way to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum, Count Gleichen (Guards Camel Corps) after the battle of Abu Klea, described the native weapons lying on the battle field thus:

"Arms of all sorts and broken banner-staves were scattered over the field; spears in hundreds, some of enormous length, javelins, knobkerries, hatchets, swords and knives, I even found a Birmingham bill-hook, with the trade-mark on it, in an Arab's hand, sharp as a razor and covered with blood and hair: how it got there I know not, so I confiscated it for the use of our mess." How Gleichen was going to use it in the mess remains a mystery!

This colourful late 19th century description supports my view that the warriors of the Sudan were using a greater range of weaponry than other native armies opposing British troops during these times. The Dervishes naturally had their mainstay weapons such as the sword, spear, knife and shield, but due to the complex mixture of warriors from many tribes and the size of the Sudan being what it is, a vast variation of arms came about. In addition to the male warriors, women joined the fight dressed as men, and young boys would fight alongside grey bearded old men by throwing rocks and sticks at the British.

The Zulus, Afghans and Xandi warriors on the other hand were more limited in the arms used, but employed them more skilfully with an expertly executed field strategy. The Dervishes were no less brave in the field, it was their reckless courage that was most feared, but their fearful casualties had to be attributed to this diversity of weapons, when faced with an organised opposition. After they had acquired numerouous captured rifles they did not take advantage of using them in conjunction with their proven ambush techniques.

Apart from weapons from Europe and North Africa, traded across the Sahara, weapons entered the country from battles with the Egyptians, Abyssinian s and expeditions to secure the Ugandan, Congo and Nile tribes. Trophies taken at the battle of Tofrek in 1885, included arms from India - a tulwar sword with dual point and serrated cutting edge and an all steel circular shield (dhal).

Though it would be wrong to suggest that captured weapons became Sudanese, they most certainly played their part in developing a flexible and predictable fighting stvle. Writing under each weapon I have attempted to expand the generally held view oifSudanese weapons.

SWORDS (Kaskara)

Nearly all sword blades were imported from Europe. The Portuguese had been exporting them to North Africa from the 15th century. Later Spain, Belgium and very many from Solingen in Germany, steadily made their way to the Khartoum arsenal. Blades made at Omdurman were generally of a poorer quality, hand forging made the blades prone to crack and flake. The blades usually have three fullers, are flexible and the double edge takes well to sharpening to a high degree. The native armourers expertise lay in adding the cross hilts, grips, scabbards, slings and belts.

Sudanese leather work is generally of a high quality and employed dyed sheep and goatskin for the major part of scabbards etc., and applied reptile skins - snake, lizard and young crocodile for added decoration.

Scabbards and sheaths had card or thin wooden liners with strips of cloth wrapped to form raised ridges, leather was then stretched over it (as if shrink wrapped) and stitched. In addition to reptile leathers, cowrie shells and leather tassels were attached. On occasion small crocodiles were used for scabbards, I nave seen the head used with three short swords going in from the neck, or a tail section being used for a single longer sword. Many scabbards will be found to have a leaf-shaped end, the reason for this is not clear, it appears to have long forgotten traditional origins.

Victorian and later authors are known to refer to Dervish tribesmen as wielding vast two-handed swords, this is an exaggeration. I have found Kaskara grips to be quite average, and with twine and leather strips wrapped round the bottom of the hilt to in fact reduce the size, and make for a more secure grip. The only illustration that I have seen of a two handed sword being used is from the ILN, Tofrek, action as I have illustrated. This is a Manding sword from Western Sudanic Africa - having no cross-guard, only a leather wrapped end to the blade and these could be used with two hands.

Some Kaskaras were mounted with heirloom blades and these and others often have quotations from the Koran, acid-etched the length of the blade. The general style of these swords bear a resemblance to mediaeval European swords, and I have seen it recorded that some are fitted with old Crusader blades, this is without foundation, only I feel making for romantic reading.

SPEARS

The most common spears used were the broad bladed variety. They were from six to ten feet in length. The blades are known as leaf-shaped and can vary in width from three to nine inches, and up to fifteen inches in length. The longest spears were used by the camel mounted Baggara warriors, the shorter by infantry. Some spears will be found with long slender blades and a raised central ridge, others were multi-barbed. Assegais were used with shafts of a whippy hardwood, with their head ferrules and butts wrapped in steel strip for added strength and penetration. I have an old spearhead twenty nine inches long, five inches at the shoulder, a raised central ridge and heavy. This would need a nine foot shaft for effective balance, this truly terrifying weapon of over twelve feet may have come from the Shilluk tribesmen who attain seven feet in height!

Simple decoration to the blades takes the form of diamond patterns, and bands of pattern with inlays of brass and copper are to be* found. Most of the shafts are bamboo and mimosa and are weighted with coils of iron at the end. It was known for spears to be able to penetrate a man, through his back pack.

KNIVES

Knives offer the greatest variety in shape, decoration and materials used. They were double-edged and maintained at razor sharpness. The hooked blades were for hamstringing horses and transport animals, and were used with great effect against the 10th and 19th Hussars at El Teb. The double curved blades were more effective for disembowelling. Many of the straight blades were rather poor though I have seen an exceptional specimen with raised central ribs and fluting, a possibly Indian blade. Decoration will be found similar to spears, and occasionally inscriptions of =" simple nature cut into the steel.

The wooden handles of carved ebony and other hardwoods are either plain or decorated in silver wire or coloured leathers. The whole handle may be encased in leather and coloured strips laced through this to form the decoration. Beautiful examples of ebony carving are generally of the "X" hilt pattern. The sheaths were always decorated with coloured leather, punchwork or strips of reptile skin. Loops were sometimes fitted so that the knife could be carried on the arm, whilst others were sewn to belts or attached according to requirement by plaited leather loops.

It is interesting to note that Central African throwing knives were found on the field of Omdurman, having been made at Khartoum. These were carried as an emblem of rank by leaders of certain slave elements of the Mahdist army, who were pressed into service.

SHIELDS

The most distinctive shield used was the round buckler with large central boss, made of either elephant, hippo, rhino or buffalo. They varied in size and thickness, and had a rawhide handle fastened to the reverse. Other shields employed came from conflicts with the Abyssinians, Uganda and Somali tribes, and from the Upper Nile Dinka and Shilluk. The latter were of wicker, hippo and crocodile hides. The thickest leather shields were capable of deflecting a bullet, and as mentioned earlier steel Indian shields were used, though I would consider this as rare.

AXES

Axes with wooden hafts completely covered in leather and with mixed decoration of punchwork from Nigeria and Sudanic West Africa were carried. Imported trade axes and more exotic specimens with crescent shaped blades, (one of which is in the Royal Engineers Museum) were in use both as weapons and for domestic purposes.

GUNS

The Dervish army had started with locally made flintlocks and percussion muzzle-loading elephant guns. Within five years they had acquired in battle very substantial quantities of the Remington rolling-block rifle from the Egyptians, French, Italian rifles and a few Martini Henry's. These guns however were poorly maintained, many being cut down to be more handy, all of which seriously affected their accuracy and reliability.

Captured artillery consisting of brass cannon, Gatlings, Krupp and Nordenfelt guns began to form a rapidly growing armoury. These pieces were never used effectively and only came into action when captured Egyptian gunners were pressed into service to handle them. At Omdurman the Dervish had artillery on the field which was minimally used, and more in the arsenal were discovered after the battle.

MISCELLANEOUS

One of the main weapons, and perhaps the strangest was the Trombash or throwing stick, which had a sharply curved end not unlike a hockey stick. These were used most effectively when thrown, to bring down horses and camels.

On the field of Omdurman knobkerries were found which had the shaft terminating in a point. This type matches with those carried by the Shilluk tribes, though theirs were generally fitted with an iron spike. This weapon was carried by the Sudanese and most tribes in the plain style, wire decoration mainly being added by the South East African tribes.

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen', Issue 83

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