Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir celebrated the opening of a new Chinese-funded bridge across the Nile this week at the city of Merowe, 350km north of the capital Khartoum. The bridge is the only road crossing of the Nile between the Egyptian border and the capital. Al-Bashir told the inauguration ceremony the new 440m span was an important achievement. “With China’s help,” he said Thursday, “Sudan will certainly score glorious achievements one after another along our path of construction and development.”
The Nile played a central role in the 1898 River War which established British power in the Sudan. The story is vividly told in eye-witness fashion by Winston Churchill in his 1899 book “The River War: An account of the re-conquest of the Soudan” when he was a young serving officer in the British army. Churchill himself saw action in the decisive Battle of Omdurman where the native forces were comprehensively defeated leading to the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium which would rule Sudan until independence in 1955.
In his 1997 foreword of “The River War” Churchill’s grandson, also named Winston S. Churchill, said the significance of the book lies not in Britain’s attempts to subjugate the Sudan, but rather it is the first major work of the man who 40 forty years later did more than any other single individual to save the world from Hitler. However I disagree. The story of the colonial winning of the Sudan inadvertently shows up European attitudes towards Africa that remain today. The seeds of the modern wars and genocide in Sudan were laid in these times. There is no doubt Churchill is a great story teller and his accounts are lively and detailed. They also reveal his casual racism and his supreme belief in the civilising power of the British Empire.
When Britain decided on a mission to invade Sudan, Churchill used his American mother’s influence to get onto the staff of the 25th Lancers overriding the opposition of the Field Marshall Herbert Horatio Kitchener. Thanks to the technical superiority of the British, the outcome of the war was never really in doubt. The British built railways, took heavily armed gunboats down the Nile. Its most potent weapon was best described by the poet Hilaire Belloc who wrote “Whatever happens we have got / the maxim gun, and they have not”. Nonetheless there was no doubt Churchill’s courage. Involved in the British army’s last ever cavalry charge at Omdurman (across the Nile from Khartoum), Churchill would only have been armed with a lance and a pistol.
The most interesting part of Churchill’s story is the meticulous history of why the campaign was launched in the first place. Britain had been involved with Ottoman Egypt since the bombardment of Alexandria in 1881 as Britain defended its newest prize possession: the Suez Canal. In that typical British way, they were “invited” to give governance to Egypt and Sir Evelyn Baring (later Lord Cromer) became agent and consul-general. Sudan, which at the time was an Egyptian conquest, took advantage of the chaos in Cairo to launch a successful rebellion against their hated northern masters.
It was called the Mahdi Rebellion. The leader was Mohammed Ahmed from the northern riverine town of Dongola. Ahmed was a wandering religious preacher who cloaked himself in the guise of the “Mahdi” (prophet) who would rid Sudan of its invaders. He launched an Islamic revolution with the help of a young man named Abdullah. While the British fleet were bombing Alexandria, the Mahdi took control of Sudan. Only well-defended Khartoum held out. The British Prime Minister William Gladstone was unwilling to save Sudan but promised to relieve the defenders of Khartoum. They sent in General Charles Gordon, an old Sudan expert, to “wind up affairs” and end British interest in Sudan.
General Gordon proved to be an embarrassment to his bosses. Having fought his way down the Nile to Khartoum, he then refused to leave his post. He realised he could not extricate the garrisons. He asked for military support from Egypt which was refused. The Tory opposition lambasted Gladstone in parliament for his refusal to support Gordon. As the newspapers fed popular support for Gordon, a “flying column” was quickly assembled to rescue the city now besieged by the Mahdi’s forces. They arrived in Khartoum two day too late.
The Mahdi had stormed the city overnight and killed Gordon and his Sudanese defenders. The British mission was deemed a failure and they withdrew the field leaving the Sudan in the hands of the Mahdi. Barely five months after his campaign, the Mahdi fell sick of typhus and died. Abdullah took charge and became known as the Khalifa (successor). He would rule for the next 12 years until overthrown by Kitchener’s forces. The Mahdi’s Tomb would dominate the new capital of Omdurman, across the Nile from the destroyed city of Khartoum.
The Mahdist regime imposed the world’s strictest Islamic laws. It was a jihad state, run like a military camp. Sharia courts enforced Islamic law and the Mahdi's precepts, which had the force of law. In 1892 Kitchener became “sirdar” (commander) of the Egyptian army and started preparations for the reconquest of Sudan. With Belgian and French colonial claims converging at the Nile, it was deemed too dangerous to leave Sudan unmolested. In 1895 Kitchener launched his campaign. Britain provided men and materiel while Egypt financed the expedition. The Anglo-Egyptian Nile Expeditionary Force included 25,800 men, 8,600 of whom were British. The remainder were troops belonging to Egyptian units that included six battalions recruited in southern Sudan.
The British constructed a rail line from Wadi Halfa on the border to Abu Hamad and an extension parallel to the Nile to transport troops and supplies to Barbar. Gunboats sailed down the navigable portions of the Nile (more was passable when the river was in flood). Railhead needed to be built to cross the 7 cataracts between Wadi Haifa and Khartoum. Merowe was a significant town at the head of the third cataract where at the end of 320km of clear waterway. The army met little resistance as it snaked down the Nile by riverboat and railway.
Battle was finally joined outside the Khalifa's capital. On 2 September 2 1898, his 52,000-man army launched a frontal assault against the Anglo-Egyptian force on the plain outside Omdurman. Thanks to superior British firepower, it was a massacre. During the five-hour battle, about 11,000 Mahdists died whereas Anglo-Egyptian losses amounted to 48 dead and fewer than 400 wounded. The Khalifa escaped but died in fighting the following year. The Islamist reign in Sudan had ended. It would not resume until Omar al-Bashir took power almost one hundred years later in 1988.