The British in Sudan & The Revolt that Almost Ended British Rule

The British presence in Sudan is a long story of colonial conquest and political maneuvering that brought the territory under British control.

Jul 1, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
british conquest sudan colonization

 

How the British took complete control over Sudan is a long and complex tale spanning centuries. Many conflicts and political dealings brought Britain to the unassailable position of being the colonial master of this piece of land south of Egypt.

 

The process involved much struggle and strife and produced stories that captured the imagination of the British people but also shielded them from the horrific realities of what was really happening in that dusty corner of Africa, far away from the romantic views of the average Victorian citizen living in England.

 

Background to British Presence in Sudan

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The pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

The history of Sudan in colonial times is intrinsically tied to the actions of Egypt and stretches back to 1805 with the accession of Muhammad Ali to the governorship of Egypt, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire. Although technically answerable to the Ottoman authorities, they had little control over him, and Ali ruled Egypt as a de facto independent state. He was originally sent to recover Egypt after Napoleon’s withdrawal in 1805, but Ali had different plans for Egypt and wanted it to supplant the Ottoman Empire as the dominant power in the region. To do this, he wanted a slave army, and Sudan was the perfect source.

 

In 1820, Muhammad Ali’s army left Egypt and began the invasion. The conquest was long and studded with many battles, but after four years, the conquest was complete. Egyptian rule was harsh in the beginning as it sought to quell unrest. During this time, the biggest economic enterprise was slavery. The region was highly volatile throughout the entirety of Egyptian rule.

 

dupray black watch battle tel el Kebir painting
The Black Watch at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir, 1882, by Henri Louis Dupray, c. 1900, via National Army Museum, London

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As far as the British were concerned, their lifeline to India was the Suez Canal, and as a result, the British sought more control over Egyptian politics. The British Empire and other European powers engineered financial crises in Egypt. After the abdication of Khedive Ismail Pasha, and the accession of Tawfiq, who was more favorable to European intervention, the British took over Egypt’s fiscal affairs and, importantly, were allowed to administer Sudan.

 

Charles Gordon: 1873 to 1880

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Major-General Charles George Gordon, Governor General of Sudan, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

In 1873, Charles George Gordon entered the service of the Khedive of Egypt with the backing of the British government. He was later made governor General of Sudan. Gordon was highly experienced and had worked in many areas of the world, such as the Danube, China, and the Great Lakes region in Africa. Although working as an official for the Ottoman Empire, Gordon found their laws unnecessarily cruel. After his appointment, he worked tirelessly to end slavery, torture, and public flogging.

 

His task was almost insurmountable as he was hampered by corrupt bureaucrats, both British and Egyptian bureaucrats, who ignored his orders whenever there was an opportunity to make money. As such, Charles Gordon, known for his honesty and incorruptibility, took on extra administrative duties himself. He traveled on camel throughout the entire region, engaging in diplomacy with local tribes, and personally led operations to intercept slave traders. His efforts garnered much positive attention from the locals, who cheered whenever he arrived at a town or village, and he gained the reputation of being a saintly man.

 

He was also known for his bravery. An insurrection led by Rahama Zobeir, known as the “King of Slavers,” broke out in 1877. Dressed in full regalia, Charles Gordon rode with a tiny retinue to confront the slavers. Unarmed, he convinced Zobeir and his chiefs to lay down their arms.

 

Gordon was imprisoned during a diplomatic mission to the hostile state of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). After his release, he returned to Cairo and terminated his appointment as governor-general. Despite his best efforts to reform the systems, he was a broken man, utterly defeated by the fact that so few people in power shared his desire for justice and an end to slavery. Instead, many of them actively worked against him.

 

The Mahdist War Begins & the Return of Charles Gordon

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“Mahdi” Muhammad Ahmad, who led the Mahdist forces against the Anglo-Egyptians, via Welt

 

In Sudan, there was much discontent with the Egyptian Ottoman rule. Ethnic Sudanese people were under the influence of Muhammad Ahmad, who had declared himself Mahdi (Arabic for “guided one”) and preached an end to the lax religious law of the Ottomans and liberation for Sudan.

 

In August 1881, war broke out between the followers of Ahmad, known as the Mahdists, and Egypt. The Battle of Aba was a decisive victory for the Mahdists. Following the victory, the Mahdist army swelled in numbers and became a massive threat to Anglo-British interests.

 

The Egyptians, now effectively under British control, were ill-equipped to deal with the popular uprising. Managing to raise little more than 8,000 badly equipped and poorly trained local soldiers, they marched to Khartoum under the command of retired Indian Staff Corps William Hicks. He knew there was little hope for victory, but he offered battle anyway against a force of 40,000 Mahdists, and the Anglo-Egyptian army was utterly crushed. The Battle of El-Obeid (also called the Battle of Shaykan) saw only around 500 Egyptians survive.

 

After this defeat, it was decided that Egypt had neither the financial nor military capability to effectively resist the Mahdist forces, and thus the Egyptians withdrew from Sudan. It would not be an easy task, and chaos could easily break out, leading to immense loss of life. So Charles Gordon was asked to return to Sudan to coordinate the evacuation.

 

On February 18, 1884, Gordon arrived in Khartoum and became immediately aware of the difficulty of the situation. Egypt’s garrisons were scattered across wide portions of Sudan, and three of the garrisons were already under siege. Reluctant to evacuate Khartoum while Egyptian soldiers were still in the field, Gordon remained in Khartoum longer than was pragmatically sensible.

 

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General Gordon’s Last Stand by George W. Joy, via Leeds City Council

 

Sudanese locals north of Khartoum rose in support of the Mahdi and surrounded Khartoum, cutting communication and supply lines, effectively trapping all those within. The Siege of Khartoum followed when the Mahdi’s army of 50,000 soldiers arrived. Initially, the Anglo-Egyptian defenders were in a good position with plenty of supplies, ammunition, and the belief that they would hold out long enough to be relieved. Gordon made several requests, suggesting a breakout, requesting the assistance of Muslim regiments from India, requesting several thousand Turkish troops, and even suggesting he meet with the Mahdi to discuss terms. All these requests were vetoed by his British superiors.

 

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A British square at the Battle of Abu Klea painted by William Barnes Wollen, via British Battles

 

By the time an expedition of British soldiers was put together, it was too late. Despite winning the Battle of Abu Klea, the relief force could not reach Khartoum in time. After 313 days, the city fell, and General Charles Gordon was killed.

 

Another British expedition was sent to northeastern Sudan to the port city of Suakin. Although they defeated the enemy, it made no difference to the military situation overall, and Britain decided to abandon Sudan.

 

Muhammad Ahmad died on June 22, 1885, and was succeeded by Khalifa Abdallahi ibn Muhammad who proved to be a ruthless and effective leader.

 

Mahdists Defeated

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Captain McLean’s company of 1st Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders at Atbara on April 8th, 1898, via British Battles

 

Over the next few years, Anglo-Egyptian efforts were spent fixing Egypt’s dire financial situation and upgrading the military. At the same time, the Italians entered the conflict and inflicted a series of significant defeats on the Mahdists. In 1896, however, the Italians suffered a major defeat against the Ethiopians in the Battle of Adwa. With their position severely weakened in East Africa, the Mahdists became bolder. Britain felt compelled to intervene. By 1897, this compulsion turned into a full invasion.

 

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The Battle of Omdurman by A. Sutherland, c. 1890–99, from the Wellcome Collection, London

 

This time, the British were led by Herbert Kitchener and were outfitted with the latest technology involving Maxim guns. The advance was slow and methodical, and the superior technology proved highly effective against the poorly equipped Mahdists. The Mahdists enjoyed numerical superiority in the field, but it only served to increase their casualty rate, as the British ordnance proved devastatingly effective.

 

After winning the battles of Abu Hamed and Atbara, the British met the bulk of the Mahdist forces at Omdurman, the Mahdist capital. On September 2, 1898, a total of 8,200 British soldiers, along with 17,600 Sudanese and Egyptians, were attacked by an army of 52,000 Mahdist warriors. The resulting battle saw 47 Anglo-Egyptian soldiers killed, while 12,000 Mahdists were killed.

 

Anglo-Egyptian Sudan After the Mahdist Defeat

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Lord Herbert Kitchener, who led the Anglo-Egyptian forces to victory in the reconquest of Sudan, via RR Auction

 

In 1899, Sudan was once again under the control of Anglo-Egyptian forces, and it was administered as a British colony. The government was modernized, and the British instituted economic reforms. Mahdist uprisings continued during the first decade of renewed British rule but were easily crushed.

 

On the western border, the territory of Darfur, which had not been recovered in the 1898 offensive, was declared for the Ottoman Empire in World War I. With this pretext, the British annexed the territory in 1916.

 

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the British favored indirect rule and ruled Sudan through tribal leaders. At the same time, the British administered the south of Sudan as a separate state and barred people from the rest of Sudan from entering. This would have significant effects decades later as the south developed separately and sought independence from the rest of Sudan.

 

The rise in Sudanese nationalism that started after World War I continued through the decades and was spurred by Egypt’s declaration of independence in 1922. Sudan was still ruled as a co-dominion of Egypt and Britain. Many Sudanese nationalists were divided as to whether Sudan should seek full independence or a merger with Egypt.

 

During the Second World War, the Sudanese enjoyed success against the Italians and provided much-needed support to the British Eighth Army.

 

After the war, nationalism was on the rise again, and the Sudanese demanded more representation in the civil service. Recognizing the severity of the situation, Britain was willing to relinquish control of Sudan. Egypt, however, declared its reigning monarch, King Farouk, to be the King of Sudan. In 1952, the monarchy was deposed, and Colonel Muhammad Naguib took control over Egypt. He signed the Anglo-Egyptian Accord, which stipulated a three-year transition period whereby Sudan would be granted independence.

 

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British soldiers before the Battle of Omdurman, via the National Army Museum, London

 

The effects of the territory of Sudan on British consciousness were severe. As colonial attitudes changed, the heroes of yesteryear, such as Kitchener, became seen as villains in the eyes of their own compatriots. And considering the efforts undertaken to control Sudan, the benefits of the colonial enterprise come into question.

 

Despite the practicalities, the British presence in Sudan made for inspirational tales of heroism that were loved by the British public. Through its rule by the Ottoman Egyptians, the Mahdists, and the Anglo-Egyptians, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan is a story of strife and a lesson on the troubles brought by colonists and empire builders.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.