Saturday, November 17, 2007

Into the Sudan: Weekend History Post

Armies of God, by Dominic Green, is an history of the clash between Islam and Christianity, Empire and Ummah that begins and ends in the Sudan. The cast of characters at the story's beginning is familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the 19th century: the Khedive of Egypt, the Mahdi, Charles "Chinese Gordon",  Gladstone and Herbert Kitchener. The scenes at its ending will be more familiar: Darfur, the Sudan and Osama Bin Laden. Green's account is fascinating because it shows with very little effort or artifice how much of today's War on Terror covers old ground.

It begins with a civilization in crisis. The Ottoman Empire at the close of the 19th century is rotting from its own corruption and backwardness. With it molders the Islamic world. The Sultan in Istanbul presides over a motley of subjects, rule over whom is parceled out according to court intrigue and the highest bidder. The crown jewel of the Ottoman Empire is Egypt, nominally ruled by a vassal, but actually governed by whoever is in possession. Like the Saudi Arabia of today which is cursed and blessed by an accident of geology, Egypt in the late 19th century is the prisoner of its strategic geography. Ferdinand de Lesseps, backed by the French Government, has built the Suez Canal, "making Africa an Island", in the grand phrase of the time and connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea.

Looking on with an initial skepticism and later with mounting alarm is Britain, which slowly grasps that the Canal has shortened the passage to its Indian Empire by 4,000 miles. It is a strategic revolution whose import they are late to understand. But once understood, the Canal will be the beginning of a piece of string which will pull the British lion first into Egypt then up the Nile and into the Sudan. It is Ismael, Khedive of Egypt's wasteful kleptocracy that draws Britain in. Having reduced Egypt to bankruptcy and near rebellion by profligate spending and unbridled corruption, the Khedive sells his shares in the Suez Canal to Britain. Britain suddenly acquires a controlling share in the Canal and a new and more economical lifeline to its eastern empire. It acquires enemies in Europe, too. At a stroke France finds its must share Egypt, which it fancied its own, with the more powerful British empire. Not for the first time is European politics upset by the scramble for Africa.

But as the opium trade is the unacknowledged pillar of today's Afghan economy, the really lucrative trade of Khedival Egypt was the slave trade. The barren Sudan produced nothing but hardy people. Animist and Christian captives were captured by the tens of thousands and sold across the Red Sea in the great slave market at Jedda as they had been for hundreds of years. It was an Islamic institution. As long as the Britiish did not annex Egypt directly and attempted to influence events through the corrupt Khedival state, it did not have to face this contradiction between Victorian moralism and the stability of Egypt directly. On the one hand slavery was anathema to the 19th century equivalents of what today would be called "human rights NGOs"; but on the other hand slave trade revenues were the only way Egypt, and by implication the Suez Canal could guarantee its solvency and security. In Egypt the twin British interests of national security and public morality were irretrievably at odds. While Britain acted through the Khedive to protect the Canal the contradiction between the two compelling interests could be artfully reconciled, in much the same way rendition today squares the circle of national security and human rights.

Disraeli's acceptance of the situation as a necessary evil was replaced by William Gladstone's crusading desire to withdraw Britain from Egyptian entanglements immediately before it became an "egg" which hatched a British empire in Africa. But Gladstone's withdrawals had the opposite of its intended effect. British pressure destabilized the Khedive, not in the least because they bankrupted him. Native Egyptian officers mutinied against their Ottoman officers and threatened to run rampage through the Cairo and Alexandrian European districts. Faced with the the possible massacre of the "internationals", Gladstone belatedly sent a British fleet to anchor offshore to calm things down.  It did not soothe the natives who rioted anyway. Their bluff called, the British fleet bombarded Alexandria and in an day reduced both the city and British-Arab relations to a state of war. Having begun his government with a promise to withdraw Britain from Egypt, Gladstone found himself compelled by necessity to dispatch a British expeditionary force to Egypt to rescue the surviving foreigners, to secure the canal and reconstitute a state which he himself had largely undercut.

But in the meantime, the Sudan had been fermenting. The Arab slave traders had been taxed to exhaustion by the Khedive to gratify his endless need for money. But the reason his administrators gave for their exactions was the need to suppress slavery at the behest of the Christian Europeans. Cairo oppressed for its benefit, but in the name of Christian Europe. The money went to the Ottoman Pasha, but the blame to the European Christian. Eventually there arose in the upper Nile a mystical leader named Muhammad Ahmad, whose studies and desert meditations, cross pollinated by animistic creeds and Wahabism wafting across the Red Sea, convinced him he was the Mahdi -- the guide who would come after the Prophet to restore Islam to its pure form and drive the infidel from the Muslim lands. The Mahdi would drive out the hated Ottoman, and their controllers, the filthy Christian and Jew. Not unnaturally, the Mahdi's teaching found favor with the slavers, who objected not only to the Ottoman depredations but to Western morality. The tinder was dry and beginning to burn when Gladstone brought down the regime in Cairo. 

Taking advantage of the collapse of the Khedival state, the Mahdi began a rebellion which rapidly spread across the Sudan. The speed of his advance cut off the major centers of Ottoman adminstration and all of its garrisons. He beseiged the Red Sea ports causing a panic in London, ever sensitive to its lines of communication with Inda. Gladstone, who had sworn to leave Egypt yet who now found it impossible to do so, balked at the necessity of rescuing the invested cities of the Sudan. Yet faced with a crisis to the passage to India his own anti-Imperialist inclinations had precipitated, Gladstone was compelled to act. In desperation, he sent a man instead of an army: Charles Gordon. If the Mahdi were of a type any Muslim would recognize today, Charles Gordon, a British officer who had commanded the armies of the Chinese emperor, yet who disappeared for months at a time in order to consult with the Bible, would be a rarer type to most Westerners in the 21st century. But if we substitute any modern vogue for religion Gordon at once becomes a familiar figure. If you imagine Charles Gordon as a celebrity soldier with a passion for preventing Global Warming you will recognize the type. But in the 1880s his cause was not the prevention of Global Warming but spreading the "Three C's" -- that panacea of the day: civilization, Christianity and commerce.

Gordon was sent into the Sudan to supervise the evacuation of the civilian Ottoman and European populations as well as the Khedival garrisons from the clutches of the Mahdi. Once in the Sudan, however, Gordon, driven by a 'higher loyalty'  subverted the whole mission. Instead of preparing to flee, he organized the Ottoman remnants into a force through the activity of his personality. Gladstone watched in astonishment as Gordon held, with his motley, in the Sudan. The rest of the story is too familiar to be repeated here. How Gordon held out for 300 days at Khartoum. How Gladstone's belated effort to relieve the garrison failed. How the Mahdi depopulated the Sudan through his barbarisms and manic policy. How Gladstone, his policies dust and ashes, was turned out of office.

When Kitchener returns 14 years later to recover the Sudan for Egypt, now a British dependency, the Mahdi's empire has already rotted to its core. The Mahdi himself died of disease probably contracted from the corpses which liberally dotted his new capital, Omdurman, dead of his casual brutalities or starvation, not long after Gordon was killed. His sharia state, now decayed to a tribal fiefdom under his nominated successor, the Khalifa Abdullahi, is assaulted by a steamroller-like campaign commanded by Herbert Kitchener. The armies of God, one Muslim and the other not quite Christian, meet on the field before Omdurman. It was a massacre. A young Winston Churchill participated both as a cavalry officer and reporter. From his account we have a graphic picture of the field after the Maxim guns had swept it.  There, among the still-crawling and hopping detritus of what had once been men, Churchill hoped, in pity's name, that Kitchener would send nameless executioners with revolvers and large bags of cartridges. Through a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications, Islam had drawn the West into a fight its mystics assured them it would win; and they died before the muzzles of their uncomprehending assailants.

Then, as now, the West did not know what to do with its military victory. Having killed the Khalifa, the British left the Sudan as they found it. Kitchener pragmatically rebuilt the area around the remnants of the Mahdi's state. They became simply another British client and things went on as before. The mud of the African interior parted momentarily before Britain, and closed just as rapidly in its wake. On a larger scale this seems to have happened too. A hundred years later, the rivalry between the British and French had been replaced by that between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each had their modern Khedives: Nasser giving way to Mubarak. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, its client regime in the Sudan became a failed state, orphaned by its patron. In 1983 the Sudan became the first Sunni sharia state of the 20th century. In the 1990s Osama Bin Laden arrived to take up residence, to be misunderstood, as the Mahdi was misunderstood, by the latter-day Wilfrid Blunts, those radical aristocratic 19th century intellectuals who were expounding the virtues of Islam when they were not breeding race horses. At the end of the 20th century Robert Fisk would deliver this encomium about Osama Bin Laden:  the "anti-Soviet warrior [who] puts his army on the road to peace." Wilfrid Blunt would have understood.

Not long afterward, the American embassies in Tanzaniya and Kenya were obliterated by bombs. And history, as if determined to reprise its most dramatic scenes such as the bombardment of Alexandria, arranged for President William Jefferson Clinton to attack the Sudan with Tomahawk missiles, ostensibly to destroy its weapons of mass destruction capabilities at the al-Shifa chemical plant. Today, the causes that Charles Gordon championed have a new name, now on the lips of every rock-star activist as slavery was once on that every evangelical. Darfur. Darfur is now synonymous with an unspecified sort of "genocide". But though agitation to deploy American troops to end the oppression continues, the movement still has not found its Charles Gordon. Slavery continues.  As Dominic Green points out, nearly one hundred and ten years after the Battle of Omdurman, the price of a child slave in Darfur today is only $35.


Blogger Wayne said...

Having just read Churchill's "River War", I would add that the Mahdi and the Khalifa were very good at recruiting the local tribes from all over the desert to their side - they never controlled the large cities, but prevented anyone from controlling any area south of Cairo and Alexandria. Like the Taliban, they took food, houses, horses, and women when they wanted - in the name of Allah and the Khalifa. The Mahdi began a hermit mystic, but the Kahlifa ruled like a sultan king, with harems, bodyguards, and multiple generals. Toward the end, the Khalifa believed Allah had sent a sign that he would defeat the British - without doing any intelligence on the railroad that Kitchener built to supply the Army - many of whom were native Sudanese commanded by British officers. Wayne

11/17/2007 07:48:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

As it happened, the preaching of the Mahdi coincided with the passage of the Kreutz Sungrazers huge comets which hung portentously in the sky in 1882. The Madhi's followers took it as celestial confirmation that Muhammed Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Madhi, was the genuine article.

Ahmad's character also underwent a transformation from an gentle ascetic in a cave at the outset to a brutal and fanatical sort of megalomaniac at the end, his followers doling out the water in which he washed himself as a miracle potions for the credulous. Ahmad becomes less and less attractive as his Jihad progresses. That was the most depressing aspect of the whole tale. Nothing is so sad as the corruption of virtue. But maybe the virtue was never there, only its counterfeit. We see what we want to see and are saddened when our eyes are opened. Maybe there can be no real Mahdis in this world. Just slavers, soldiers and the Wilfrid Blunts.

11/17/2007 08:10:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Trace Adkins for Mahdi for the World!
A Little Bit of Country and Politics with Trace Adkins
Bill Bennett
Bill takes a look at the world from a country music star's point of view, with Trace Adkins, author, A Personal Stand, Observations and Opinions from a Freethinking Roughneck.

11/17/2007 09:07:00 PM  
Blogger Nomenklatura said...

The mud of the third world is sticky. The more we involve ourselves in what goes on there, the more we find we have somehow come to share the responsibility for horrors we perceived only only dimly at the outset, if at all.

And yet those who egg us on, arguing that we have a moral responsibility to get more involved, are the least willing and the least prepared to accept a shard of responsibility, even the least little taint. Those rock stars, academics and other do-gooders envisage themselves handing blame out, not having to accept some when things start to go awry, as they always do in places like that.

You are quite correct that in this respect very little has changed, about either third world societies or ours, over the past 150 years. The history is there in plain sight, for us to learn from, but the vanity of our time requires that we not recognize it.

This sort of enthusiasm usually ends, as it did at Omdurman, with some very loud bangs, a lot of dead bodies (mostly on their side) and agreement on both sides that the fighting and the losses aren't worth it, and the survivors should leave each other largely alone again for a few decades. Arguably that's exactly where this global confrontation is also headed.

11/17/2007 10:55:00 PM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

A Confederate Soldier in Egypt
by W. W. Loring Late Colonel in U.S. Army, Major-General in the Confederate Service,
and FĂ©reek Pacha and General in the Army of the Khedive of Egypt.

11/17/2007 11:35:00 PM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

The Land of the False Prophet

11/17/2007 11:53:00 PM  
Blogger Chest Rockwell said...


The Amazon link you posted is broken. Also, I can't find a book called "Armies of God" by Dominic Green.

Three Empires on the Nile, perhaps?

11/18/2007 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger druu222 said...

I have to concur with Chest Rockwell. This is a fascinating enough post that I'd like to buy this book today.

But Amazon has no record of it whatsoever.

Any help?

11/18/2007 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger The Wobbly Guy said...

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But unlike what Nomenklatura thinks, maybe this time it'll be different.

Why? The growing(all too slowly) awareness for criticism in Islam gives me some hope that any resolution after another Omdurman will almost by necessity involve some navel gazing, and hopefully some understanding of what their faith, when taken to extremes, has brought them to.

11/18/2007 11:49:00 AM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

I've fixed the link. For some reason, my amazon partner number doesn't work on this book, probably because it's from Amazon UK.

11/18/2007 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Nomenklatura said...

Wobbly Guy:

The only reason I don't agree is that it looks like nuclear weapons will fall into the wrong hands some time before the 'navel gazing' process gets a chance to work its magic.

Once this happens, and the bombs go off (one or two here, rather more over there), it appears to me that the survivors in many areas will have to be made to live under conditions so tightly controlled that their countries will have become in effect supervised reservations.

Do we know how to do this more effectively than our ancestors? I'm not seeing much evidence that we do.

11/18/2007 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Progress isn't impossible and things aren't hopeless. Today I got a a very encouraging note from someone whose unit is succeeding at improving security and helping people build a nation in a certain someplace in Iraq. My wife found me in tears and asked if anything was wrong. I said they were just tears of gratitude.

Whatever happens now, they can't take what those guys have achieved away from them. It's true the troubles of the world never end and even the sunniest days are overtaken by storms. But we can't help that. All we can do is hold up our end of time. It will be enough.

11/18/2007 01:07:00 PM  
Blogger herb said...

Cannoneer No 4 posted a link to a book about a Confederate Officer who went to Egypt. The disclaimer (by the poster) has the following:"Nonetheless, a few of Loring's comments, particularly those regarding the Islamic religion and the people of Ethiopia, may prove offensive to modern readers."

I looked around in the book a bit and found nothing offensive except that he didn't think much of Islam and its effects on the people.

11/18/2007 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger Marzouq the Redneck Muslim said...


Your last "tears" comment is more proof to me of what a good man you are.

Have you seen Michael Yon's latest dispatch? That brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

I agree there is hope. I also agree efforts to achieve success in Iraq will give hope to the silent and cowed masses in the Muslim world.

Salaam eleikum and best regards.

11/18/2007 02:39:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas said...

This sounds like a book that I shall have to read in the near future.

Just to clear up a bit of confusion expressed upthread: It appears that Armies of God and Three Empires on the Nile are indeed the same book; it's just that the British and North American publishers seem to have given them different titles. sells it under the latter title. has both, though (interestingly enough) offers them only through third-party sellers.

11/18/2007 10:01:00 PM  
Blogger RattlerGator said...

Fantastic post, Wretchard, just in time for Thanksgiving.

11/19/2007 02:09:00 AM  
Blogger philip said...

Wretchard said, All we can do is hold up our end of time. It will be enough.

Indeed, it is all we can do and only time will tell if it is enough. Much as I would like to, I don't share your optimism.

BTW, terrific post. Congrats.

11/19/2007 05:25:00 AM  
Blogger buck smith said...

Wouldn't an intervention in Darfur be pretty easily done. There are no cities where the Janjaweed can hide. The Janjaweed are easy to recognize by race.

11/19/2007 06:07:00 AM  
Blogger PapaBear said...

buck smith,

We are not going to get sucked into Darfur, however much the Left agitates for it.

No Republican president wants to see endless news footage of Black Africans killed by American troops.

The best that would happen would be for the US to send Special Forces teams to arm and train the Southern Christians. Even then, the US would get problems from the whole Muslim world as soon as footage spreads of Muslims killed by non-Muslims

11/19/2007 01:30:00 PM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

Try rewatching "Khartoum" with Heston and Olivier. The reason given by the mahdi for why those in the fort must die is chilling.

11/19/2007 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger Kirk Parker said...


You're a bit confused here: the Darfurians are not southerners, and they are Muslim (at least nominally so.)

You seem to be conflating this current conflict with the now-resolved (but we don't know for how long) one in Southern Sudan.

11/21/2007 07:39:00 AM  

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