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.