The Dervish Wars and the Empire Strikes Back – in an African city

It is not even two centuries old but this city, nestled in the embrace of two tributaries of the Nile and a crossroads between Arab and Black Africa, became more notorious as an arena for a clash of civilisations and the British Empire’s most devastating loss of face – an episode extensively recounted by several protagonists, inspiring authors from Rudyard Kipling to Wilbur Smith, drawing in Winston Churchill and Flashman and rendered on celluloid by Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier.

The call for Jihad – the first modern manifestation – by the messianic Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah “Mahdi” (1844-85) against Sudan’s Turco-Egyptian rulers (and their British backers) and the long war (1881-1898) that ensued ensured Khartoum became one of the most-known African cities as far as popular culture is concerned.

The city, whose name derives either from the Arabic for hosepipe (given the early settlement’s shape) or safflower (a vegetable oil source in Egypt), came up in 1821 as a post for Egyptian troops of the Khedive. It however came in the limelight in 1885, when the Mahdi’s forces, having overrun most of Sudan abandoned by the British-Egyptian forces, captured the city after a lengthy siege and slaughtered the garrison including its commander, Gen. Charles George ‘Chinese’ Gordon. A British rescue force was still far off. For the next decade or so, Sudan was abandoned till the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and ensuring retribution, led to a better planned British campaign for reconquest, and then joint Anglo-Egyptian rule.

It is this part of Khartoum’s history most in focus, both in fiction and non-fiction – right from when the events described were fresh in public memory till now.

“Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan” (1891) by Gen. Sir Francis Wingate, who oversaw intelligence from Sudan, was an authoritative account. After helping the escape of Father Joseph Ohrwalder, a Roman Catholic missionary and Rudolf Carl von Slatin, an Austrian officer coming to Africa for business but ending up governor-general of Darfur, Wingate (later governor-general of Sudan and high commissioner to Egypt) also translated into English their memoirs – “Ten Years in the Mahdi’s Camp” (1892) and “Fire and Sword in the Sudan” (1896) respectively.

“The River War: An Account Of The Reconquest Of The Sudan” (1902) by then army officer-cum-journalist Churchill, who overcame the opposition to his presence by expedition commander Lord Kitchener, speaks for itself.

In fiction, the first was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Light That Failed” partly set in Sudan, while prolific British author and Empire champion George Alfred Henty, known for popular adventure fiction for younger readers, penned “The Dash For Khartoum: A Tale of the Nile Expedition” (1892) and “With Kitchener in the Soudan, A Story of Atbara and Omdurman” (1903).

Then there is A.E.W. Mason’s “The Four Feathers” (1902) about a young officer’s attempt to expiate, in the Sudan, his cowardice that left him disgraced before family and friends, and Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk (“Quo Vadis”) Sienkiewicz’s “Desert and Wilderness” (1912) about two European children sucked up in the war.

Modern works include Wilbur Smith’s “The Triumph of the Sun” (2005), part of his Courtney family series, John Ferry’s “After Omdurman” (2008), written in the early 20th century style, John Wilcox’s “The Siege of Khartoum” (2010), sixth of the Simon Fonthill series, and British-Sudanese author Jamal Mahjoub’s “In the Hour of the Signs” (1996). George McDonald Fraser’s “hero” Sir Harry Flashman is also inveigled into accompanying Gordon to Sudan (in “The Road to Charing Cross” in “Flashman and the Tiger”, 1999) but it never got developed further.

Why is this colonial episode so important? Look at it differently – A western intervention leads to regime change but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers. A prime minister flounders, alliances fall apart, and a general makes policy in the field. The media accuse Western soldiers of barbarity and a region slides into chaos… Sounds familiar? A compelling account of the legacy can be found in Dominic Green’s “Armies of God: Islam and Empire on the Nile, 1869-1899” (2007).

But there are other views of Khartoum in other times too – Sudanese-Egyptian writer Leila Aboulela’s third book “Lyrics Alley” (2010), based on her uncle’s life and set in the hopeful days before and immediately after independence, is about a wealthy business family facing the conflict of tradition and modernity, commerce and art – and looking after paralysed heir Nur. A range of characters – patriarch Mahmoud, his wives – tribal Waheeba and cosmoplitan Nabilah, other family members Fatma, Sorraya, Batool and Zeinab add colour.

Khartoum also saw an infamous terror attack on diplomats by the Black September group in 1973 and was Osama Bin Laden’s base 1991-96 before the Taliban invited him to Afghanistan. These haven’t inspired any books yet – but who knows what might turn up?

Leave a Reply