In the late nineteenth century, commercial and security interests drew the British into Egypt. Under a Conservative government, Britain acquired substantial shares in the Suez Canal, which led to a preoccupation with the security of the Nile, which ran from Lake Victoria in Uganda through the Sudan and Egypt (which had for some years occupied the Sudan).
In the 1880s the British became increasingly obsessed with a Sudanese spiritual leader, Muhammad Ahmad ibn ‘Abdullahi (known as the Mahdi), who advocated a combination of religious and social reforms to Islam and society at large, and who had declared war on the Egyptian rulers of the Sudan, together with their British overlords.
Conventional wisdom told the British that crushing the Mahdi would be easy...a quick victory. “It only wants”, one commentator proclaimed, invoking his expertise, “a capable English general with a staff of Indian officers, who speak Arabic, to take command of the black regiments now in Egypt and the Mahdi’s power would be broken in a very short time”.
At this early stage, there were even those who envisaged the Mahdi as a potential puppet ruler. “I am not certain”, A B Wylde wrote, “whether it would not be an excellent plan to come to terms with Mahamed Hamed [the Mahdi], as he must be above the usual run of Soudanis to get together the following as he is reported to have, and he might make an excellent governor of the far western province of the Soudan. The mighty dollar”, Wylde went on, “will do everything with these blacks, and I do not believe in the fanatical programme [of the Mahdi], as it is the usual cloak that covers native aggrandisement”.*
A British-officered army was despatched to effect this quick victory. Under-equipped and ill-informed, it was cut to pieces at Al Ubayyid.
Public opinion in Britain was divided, though the prospect of negotiating with the Mahdi went out the window at this stage. Many saw the Mahdi as nothing less than a threat to civilisation, and the press commonly referred to him as a ‘false-prophet’ or the ‘devil’, and attacked him for his ‘cupidity’ and ‘fanaticism’. The latter became perhaps the most oft-wielded word in the rhetorical arsenal of those pressing for a harder line in the Sudan. The same individuals, when attacking the Mahdi’s fanaticism, invoked the ‘True Moslem’, who was much more amenable to a British presence in the Sudan.
Others bemoaned the hyperbolic language, and suggested that no good would come of intervention. There were those who suggested that the Mahdi’s religious message was merely a cloak for his attempts to redress genuine social wrongs, and some saw (and sympathised with) latent “communism” in the Mahdi’s approach. Others foresaw and worried about the rhetoric around clashes of civilisations that warmongering seemed to embrace. “It is difficult for Europeans to conceive the shock that will be sent through Islam”, one writer declared, “by the news that the sacred places of the Mussaulman faith, which have been inviolate for a thousand years, have been trodden by the feet of the infidel”. Others, more racist and less empathetic if no less emphatic about the dangers of intervention, suggested that “what we have to realise is the impassable gulf which severs these races from ourselves, and the absolute hopelessness of establishing anything like a community of ideas between the East and the West”.**
The counter-argument invoked Britain’s imperial duty. If the Sudan was to be “closed” to the West, it would be “retrograding half a century” of development.*** Finally, there was the appeal to the sacrifices of those who had gone before. “Europe”, a Times editorial inveighed, “could not lose the fruits of the heroism and genius of that incomparable army of English, French, Italian and German travellers” who had, often at great sacrifice to themselves, “opened up” Africa.**** More soldiers must die so that the earlier sacrifices would not be in vain. Bloody sacrifice, in other words, had become both the means and the ends. The balance shifted towards intervention, and the despatch of Anglo-Egyptian armies.
There were some who doubted the wisdom of this course. Others wondered why, if it “required the utmost efforts of our army, composed of entirely British troops, before victory [in early conflicts in the region] was assured”, there should now be the proposal to “repulse the threatened attack [by the Mahdi] with Egyptian soldiers, strengthened only by a backbone of British bayonets. Will the Egyptian soldiers fight when the pinch comes?”***** What was really called for, in other words, was a proper Surge, a methodically-organised, British-manned assault on the Mahdi.
It was against this debate that British politicians weighed their options. The Liberal British government had come to office highly critical of Conservative Party foreign policy, which was increasingly militaristic and imperial, and had worked to create a public mood sensitive to the ‘greatness’ that imperial possessions bestowed on Britain. A jingoistic narrative in which Britain was portrayed as a force for good in the world and billed as being somehow exceptional had been at the centre of the Conservatives’ reincarnation leading up to their 1874 victory.
In 1872, Conservative Party leader Benjamin Disraeli had declared that “the people of England [...] are proud of belonging to a great country, and wish to maintain its greatness—that they are proud of belonging to an Imperial country, and are resolved to maintain, if they can, the empire of England”.
William Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister who dominated nineteenth century British politics like perhaps no other individual, had felt forced into bombing Alexandria and occupying Egypt in 1882 (though some would point to his investments in the Suez Canal and suggest more sordid motives). But Gladstone was intensely wary of being drawn deeper into the Sudan. Members of his government engaged in conversations with a committee of the pacifist International Arbitration and Peace Association to discuss “the reported practicability of making terms with the Mahdi”.******
Under pressure from Conservatives and the jingo press, Gladstone dispatched a celebrity general, Charles Gordon, to the Sudan to effect the evacuation of a small army stationed at Khartoum. Gordon, an Evangelical Christian known for his temper, began preparing the public before he left for the Sudan. He presented himself as an expert on the region and did a series of interviews with leading papers.
Once in the Sudan, Gordon promptly disobeyed Gladstone’s orders and dug in at Khartoum, dispatching messages urging that a relief expedition come to his aid. Gordon used these messages to go over Gladstone’s head to appeal to the papers and through them to the public. The civilian-military conflict escalated and the tabloids of the day bayed for Gladstone’s blood, eventually forcing him to send a relief expedition, which arrived in Khartoum just days after it had been overrun (Gordon was killed). Later that year, the Mahdi died.
But the death of the Mahdi changed nothing for a British public and military hungry for revenge. General Horatio Kitchener (part of the failed relief expedition of 1884-5) built up a powerful Anglo-Egyptian army, marched to Omdurman in 1898, and annihilated a hopelessly outgunned Sudanese force, butchered the survivors, and left in place an administration which embarked on a repressive consolidation of Anglo-Egyptian rule which would keep Britain in the Sudan until 1956. British rule would also exacerbate differences between the north and south of the Sudan, differences which continue to fuel violence today.^
* The Times, 9 November 1882.
** The Times, 18 November 1881.
*** The Times, 6 March 1885.
**** The Times, 6 March 1885.
*****The Times, 22 July 1884.
****** The Times, 20 December 1884.
^Many historians are quite rightly wary of drawing direct historical parallels between sets of events that occur in different places, times and contexts. I share this wariness. It is nonetheless striking how practises of empires in ostensibly liberal democracies utilise similar language, make similar arguments, and constantly fail to identify cause-and-effect relationships between their own security agendas and the ‘threats’ they seek to counter. Similarities between uses of the press, tensions between military and civilian leadership, the mobilisations of public opinion, and ideas about the motivations of those who bear the brunt of imperial aggression are also striking.