Sudan – Legacies of Empire: The Causes & Consequences of Imperial Conflicts in North & East Africa, circa 1865-1965. Part One – 1865-1905.

A late Victorian postcard (see below for further detail).
Britain’s Involvement in Sudan & the Expansion of Empire:

The ongoing para-military events in and around Khartoum, and in Sudan more generally, have exercised my mind as to why there are so many British people in the Sudanese capital, and what role the historic links with Britain have played in the origins of the recent and current conflict in the country. Britain’s involvement in Sudan goes back to the beginning of the expansion of its empire into the hinterland of the continent in the mid-nineteenth century, following its exploration by geographers and missionaries.

British Imperial Expansion in Africa, India, the Far East, Australia & New Zealand, 1815-1901.
Africa as the ‘Dark Continent’ – Exploration & European Settlement:

Though part of the ‘Old World’ and the home of one of the earliest civilisations, the Egyptian, Africa was the last of the great continents to be thoroughly explored by Europeans. In particular, its interior was so little known that it was known as the ‘Dark Continent’. The reasons for this lack of exploration were mainly geographical, connected with its shape and geological structure as a ‘high tableland’, and its largely tropical climate. Waterfalls and rapids occur on all the major rivers near their mouths, making penetration up them impossible and railway construction difficult. The areas best suited to European settlement were the Mediterranean coastlands, part of the ancient and medieval world, the southern tip of the continent, first settled by Dutch traders in the early seventeenth century, and parts of the high plateau where altitude moderates the effects of latitude, in parts of East Africa.

Dutch slave traders disembarked their human cargo in the Caribbean and North America in the early seventeenth century.

As early as 1770 James Bruce, a Consul of Algiers, became interested in the source of the Nile and its annual flood. He made the journey shown on the map above and discovered the source of the Blue Nile. Then Richard Burton and J. H. Speke, on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, set out to discover the source of the White Nile. They discovered Lake Tanganyika in 1854 and when Speke found Victoria Nyanza, the source of the Nile was no longer a mystery. An expedition led by Sir S. Baker made a systematic exploration of the Upper Nile valley and found other sources of the great river in Lake Albert, which he discovered in 1864.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 012-1.jpg British and slavers, traded up rivers from the coasts in the early nineteenth century.

David Livingstone (1813-1873), the greatest of all African explorers, made his last journey (1866-1873), starting from Lake Tanganyika, he mapped the area of the Upper Congo and East Central Africa. Livingstone was motivated by missionary zeal and was strongly opposed to the Arab slave trade in central Africa. It was a matter of considerable pride to the British that they that their empire was the first to abolish slavery in 1833. Livingstone became a national hero, as other missionaries undertook their own ‘civilising’ tasks. Many worked hard to protect their congregations from white exploitation, their influence was not always beneficial for Africans, especially those who were dispossessed of their lands.

Abduction of natives by African slavers in the interior.

Added to the geographical obstacles, the natural hostility of the native population to ‘white’ incursions and the slave trade led to suspicion of the motives of white traders and missionaries. There was no common language which could be used to overcome such suspicions. Moreover, with the outlawing of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery within the Empire, there was no economic incentive for the exploration of the interior. In any case, the trade had not previously required extensive exploration, since the slave-trading companies bought slaves from native dealers working in the interiors. The demand for tropical products like rubber and coconut oil did not develop until after H. M. Stanley made his name famous through his exploration of the Congo (1874-78) leading to his book, Through Darkest Africa, which disclosed the wealth of raw materials which the Congo basin would yield, and ‘The Scramble for Africa’ of the 1880s followed.

Africa before the colonial partition, c. 1870.

The ‘Accidental’ Empire of Gladstone & Disraeli:

Until the last few decades of the century, the attitudes of British statesmen towards the colonies had been mainly one of indifference. But the Conservative Party tried to identify itself with the empire, and it won an election under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli in 1874. Disraeli believed that the chief aim of Britain’s foreign policy should be the furtherance of British imperial interests. He thought of Britain as less of a European and more of a world power, and his imagination was kindled by the vision of a vast British Empire in the East. The strengthening of Britain’s power in India was therefore his main concern, including the Suez route; he was anxious to safeguard Britain’s communications with it, also bringing him into conflict with Russia. Many Liberal politicians, including William Gladstone, the alternating prime minister throughout the period, were critical of jingoism and of imperial expansion for its own sake. But Gladstone was not opposed to some intervention, based on individual initiative, as he himself wrote in 1879:

‘The English nation have a strength of individual character among them which enables them to do for themselves by free choice, energy, and judgement, much that in other countries, except for the interference of public authority, would not be done at all.’

William Gladstone, Gleanings from Past Years, Volume V (1879).

In the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’, Britain responded to the actions of imperial rivals. British absorption of Uganda and Kenya was a response to German intervention in Tanganyika. Britain had no intention of letting either France or Germany dominate East Africa. In 1877, Cecil Rhodes argued:

‘I contend that we are the first race of the world and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.’

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 001-1.jpg

Above: Disraeli (left) was interested in Empire, though he did little to formulate a scheme for it,; Gladstone (right) was a ‘reluctant’ imperialist who was only willing to intervene when British lives and interests were under threat. That meant he was often too late to act, however.

First and foremost, however, Disraeli was determined to uphold Britain’s prestige and prominent role in European affairs. When in opposition he attacked Gladstone’s ‘weak’ foreign policy; when in power he placed Britain at the forefront of world politics and revived her prestige by establishing her right to share in the settlement of international disputes. Disraeli made colonial expansion a deliberate policy, thus beginning a new tradition in Britain’s imperial history.

By contrast, Gladstone’s main interests were financial and administrative reform, not foreign affairs. In so far as in his first ministry (1868-74) he had a foreign policy, this was the maintenance of peace by active diplomacy and economic cooperation with other European powers and, after its Civil War, with the emerging USA.

Gladstone considered that peace and isolation from the continent were more beneficial to Great Britain and her prosperity than futile gestures of war. To these principles of his policy of non-intervention, Gladstone added one proviso. This was that, as an idealistic Christian, he believed that it was the duty of every great nation to intervene in the cause of humanity whenever foreign rulers showed inhuman cruelty. He, therefore, disagreed strongly with Disraeli’s policy of maintaining the integrity of the Ottoman Empire.

The map on the right and the chart below help to illustrate the problems which Gladstone’s two governments hoped to solve. During Disraeli’s ministry (1874-1880), Gladstone protested against the Tory leader’s aggressive policies in Afghanistan, Egypt, and South Africa.

Gladstone also objected to Disraeli’s purchase of shares in the Suez Canal in 1875, fearing that it would later involve Britain in a military occupation to protect its financial interests.

Gladstone’s prediction proved correct when in 1881 anti-foreigner riots broke out at the beginning of his second ministry (1880-1885), and he had to despatch an army under Wolseley, defeating the Egyptians at Tel el Kebir in 1882 (see below). However, he also reversed Disraeli’s ‘forward’ policy against Russia and withdrew the British army from Afghanistan. The resulting Russian advance and their defeat of the Afghan army at Penjdeh in 1885 provoked British public opinion. However, Gladstone refused to give way to the clamour for war against Russia. In South Africa, where Gladstone had condemned Disraeli’s annexation of the Transvaal in 1877, he nevertheless delayed the restoration of independence, and in 1881 the Boers attacked and defeated the British at Majuba Hill. Then, instead of dispatching a large army to subdue the Boers, Gladstone gave them their independence. His government also gave way to Bismarck’s claims for German territories in the Pacific and Africa. Overall, Gladstone’s solution to these imperial problems led to hostile criticism, and he was considered ‘weak’ in foreign affairs.

British expansion in North East Africa in the late nineteenth century, with dates of acquisitions.
Chamberlain & Constructive Imperialism:

As the century progressed, British exports became more diversified. Some were the products of industrialised and modernised processes, such as railway supplies, and manufactured iron in all shapes, kinds and sizes. Textile goods were also major exports. Britain was providing perhaps forty per cent of the world’s manufactured goods by the mid-nineteenth century. The spread of steam power, for both railways and shipping, also created a great demand for British coal, the only raw material Britain exported in significant quantities during the century. About half the ships leaving British ports by 1900 carried coal. Coal exports rose from 1.6 million tonnes in 1840 to 44.1 million in 1900. As later events showed, the entire shipping industry became excessively dependent on this single commodity.

British traders also had the resources to import great quantities of goods, which they then broke down into smaller amounts to sell to foreign markets lacking in those resources. This became an increasingly vital source of mercantile wealth, as imports regularly exceeded exports. In terms of imports more widely, manufactured goods were almost totally absent throughout much of the century. What British industry demanded were raw materials in unprecedented large amounts. Cotton supplies from India via the Suez Canal were vital and were supplemented by supplies from Egypt. The British also developed a great demand for tropical and subtropical products such as tea, coffee and sugar. These had been expensive luxuries in the eighteenth century, but they now became cheap and available to all social classes. From the West Coast, cocoa became an important export by the end of the century, as did rubber.

British investments in 1914 are shown in millions of dollars, plus the value of trade in imports (in blue) and exports (in red) from Africa, 1794-1900.

Although, in absolute terms, Britain’s output and trade continued to steadily increase, there was a relative decline in Britain’s market domination in manufactured goods. Imports began to outstrip exports by a formidable margin. This led, by the end of the century, to a rising clamour for governments to abandon free trade and to turn the empire into a closed economic zone to the benefit of Britain and the dominions.

Disraeli did much to arouse interest and pride in the Empire but put forward no constructive schemes for confederation, even on the basis of trade. This was left to the Birmingham businessman, mayor and Liberal Unionist MP, Joseph Chamberlain. The laissez-faire attitude towards the colonies, which had existed from the break-up of the old colonial system began to be replaced by a policy of constructive imperialism. He proposed new political and economic ties to bind the Empire more closely together. Together with the historians Froude and Seeley, Rudyard Kipling and others, Chamberlain realised that cooperation between the members of the imperial family was now possible, and they strove to arouse pride in the Empire among the British people.

Joseph Chamberlain.

As Salisbury’s Colonial Minister (1895-1902), Chamberlain proposed a tariff system of Imperial Preference. This involved giving a lower preferential duty on colonial goods, something that was resoundingly rejected by the British electorate in 1906.

Nevertheless, the introduction of steamships (pictured below) and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, built by French and British finance, had, in any case, greatly reduced barriers of time and space between the colonies and the ‘mother country’.

Steam power soon drove sailing ships from the North Atlantic, and the Suez Canal was used exclusively by steamships, from the Far East route as well. By the 1870s, the tonnage of British sailing ships was overtaken by the steamships, though the tonnage of sailing ships continued to grow steadily into the twentieth century as they remained profitable on many coastal routes. Britain maintained its dominant position in shipbuilding until at least the 1890s when the German challenge became significant. Still, in 1914 Britain still produced sixty per cent of the world’s tonnage.

The Suez Route & the Great Powers’ Partition of Africa:

Until the opening of the Suez Canal, France had exercised most influence in Egypt, but the canal made it a vital link in the chain of communications with India, and British statesmen acquired a special interest in the country. In 1875 Disraeli, with great foresight, took advantage of Khedive Ismael’s bankruptcy to purchase his shares in the Suez Canal Company This action committed Great Britain to intervention with France (‘Dual Control’) in Egyptian affairs for the protection of her financial interests. Trade and emigration were stimulated tremendously, especially with India, Australia and the Far East. It also increased the strategic importance of the ‘British’ islands in the Mediterranean, especially Cyprus, added in 1878, and also the newly acquired colonies guarding the route via Suez, including Sudan and Somaliland. Disraeli returned from the Congress of Berlin that year claiming that he had brought ‘peace with honour,’ and that was also the general opinion of the British public. He had successfully frustrated Russia and delayed the collapse of the Turkish Empire.

But the growth of imperial trade also led to increased rivalry between the imperial powers. The triumph of nationalism in Germany and Italy and the humiliation of France in 1871, led the statesmen of these countries to regard overseas colonies as symbols of national greatness. However, they found that Britain had occupied most of the temperate regions of the world, and through the Monroe Doctrine, the USA forbade any attempt to regard South America as an area for colonisation. Consequently, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the ‘Great Powers’ entered into a feverish search for new territory, particularly in Africa and Asia. Britain was already well-placed to acquire an important share in the division of the undeveloped world, thus adding to its predominance. To lessen tensions, the German Chancellor Bismarck called the Berlin Conference in 1884. This settled the division of the Congo Basin and laid the basis for future annexation. Rapid expansion began after 1884, with East Africa first penetrated by English and German traders in 1885. After some friction, a settlement was reached in 1890.

In the North, following its purchase of the Suez Canal shares in 1875, Britain was committed to an interest in Egypt. The apparent necessity of preserving order formed the pretext for military occupation. In Egypt, the nationalist movement began the moment the British occupied the country in 1881-82. Gladstone, so often the scourge of the imperialists, revealed himself to be just as partial to gunboat diplomacy and impetuous military expeditions as the vainglorious Beaconsfield. In 1881 there had been an uprising of military officers against the Khedive, whose profligate government, even after the sale of the Suez Canal shares to Britain, had amassed so huge a debt that it had, as Simon Schama has put it, put even a pretence of sovereignty into receivership. Britain and France assumed control over the revenues of Egypt to ensure proper servicing of the debt. In doing so, they were repeating a pattern of intervention to clean up the mess that they had been largely responsible for creating in the first place.

British control of the Suez route to India, 1839-98, with the dates of territorial acquisitions.

The security of the Suez Canal was certainly a vital national interest for Britain, and in 1881 it had been threatened both by internal instability and foreign intervention. The instability was the uprising by overtaxed peasants, fanatical Muslims and out-of-work soldiers led by Arabi Pasha who ousted Tewfik in September. The foreign intervention was France’s. Without France, Britain would very likely not have invaded Egypt but left it to Turkey to march in and reassert her old control. This would be an adequate safeguard for British interests, but France would have none of it. Concerned about the effect an extension of Ottoman power might have on her own nearby Muslim dominions of Tunisia and Algeria, and perhaps more solicitous than Britain for the bond-holders in Egypt, France was, by the end of 1881, all for intervening itself there. If France intervened without Britain, the worst might happen and a strong, sole ‘foreign’ power would be established around the Canal. Consequently, Britain felt it had to keep close to France’s tail. Therefore, when France took action, Britain followed suit. Ironically, however, the only effect was to goad the nationalists into more extreme action, endangering the Canal still further.

The Egyptian revolt, a mix of military and Muslim unrest, put both powers in the position of either ‘cutting their losses’ or ‘going in for the kill’, and for the long term. When, in the event, France opted out of military action when her prime minister was overruled by a parliament far less convinced of Egypt’s value to them, it seemed too late for the British to pull out too. ‘Arabi’ was clearly irreconcilable by this stage, and was clearly in control of Egypt, making things ‘hot’ for the foreigners. Gladstone went in with all guns blazing, to the amazement of all his old friends and supporters. The Royal Navy bombarded Alexandria in July 1882, and an army was sent on a lightning forty-day expedition, under Wolseley, in which it annihilated Arabi’s army at Tel-el-Kebir in September. Gladstone stressed that the expedition had been launched only in the interests of ‘peace and stability’, not to establish a colony in Egypt, but to ensure the restoration of the legitimate rule of the Khedive. The British now found themselves in charge of a new protectorate. No one was more distressed by Gladstone’s imperialist adventure than his old friend, the Quaker John Bright. He wrote that Gladstone was pathetically deluded:

‘He seems to have the power of convincing himself that what to me seems glaringly wrong is evidently right and tho’ he regrets that a crowd of men should be killed, he regards it almost as an occurence which is not to be condemned as it is one of the incidents of a policy out of which he hopes for a better order of things.’

John Bright, quoted in H. C. G. Matthew (1995), Gladstone, 1875-98. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

The fact that it was the ‘anti-imperialist’ Gladstone who had invaded Egypt revealed how compelling the British national interest was there. But what had precipitated such drastic action was rather the interest of the bondholder, and specifically the way his activities had placed a greater burden on an economically unsophisticated régime than it could support, and broke it. The French, in trying to mend the wound, only made matters worse. Gladstone found that he could not get out of Egypt, though he continually said that he wanted to. The difficulty was a simple one: Egypt would first have to be placed in the hands of a popular, liberal, pro-British native government, and the only popular and somewhat liberal, Arabi native leaders available were also fervently anti-British. So a ‘temporary’ occupation began to look more and more permanent.

Egyptian Sudan & the Evacuation of Khartoum:

Not only was it difficult to leave Egypt; but it was also difficult to avoid being dragged further into the conflicts within the region, into Sudan, for example, where the Khedive’s authority was being subverted by a national-religious rebellion under the fanatical ‘Mahdi’. Gladstone had been forced to accept responsibility for maintaining order in Egypt, but he refused to do the same for its dependency, the Egyptian Sudan. This was a territory which the Khedive was desperate to win back, but the British government felt that the Egyptian protectorate could not afford such a project in the country’s current financial state. However, it failed to persuade either the Khedive or British public opinion of this.

So, instead of ‘better order’ in Egypt, Gladstone got the General Gordon disaster at Khartoum. To be fair, this was not of his making, for ‘Chinese’ Gordon, faced with the huge jihadi army of the Mahdi, the ‘Chosen One’, sweeping up from southern Sudan, had been sent, in January 1884, to evacuate the Egyptian forces beleaguered in Khartoum. But Gordon had chosen instead to stay and court martyrdom as a Christian zealot and popular hero. When he got to the city he saw it as his duty to save it from the Mahdi, hence his determination to stay. Furious with Gordon, Gladstone was prepared to grant him his wish, but this was politically unthinkable. Nevertheless, with hindsight, Gladstone could not have handled the whole situation worse than he did. He eventually bowed to public pressure and sent an expedition out to relieve Gordon, but his hesitation meant that it arrived too late.

Lord Wolseley was sent to lead the expedition up the Nile, which arrived at the end of January 1885, just a few days too late to save Gordon, who had been killed (beheaded) and was immediately apotheosised in Britain as a Christian martyr. The news of the fall of Khartoum and the brutal murder of Gordon provoked violent passions against Gladstone, who bore the public odium for having ‘sacrificed’ the great Hero, not least from Queen Victoria herself, who was thereafter reinforced in her aversion for everything about her prime minister. Britain assumed the administration of Egypt but relinquished that of Sudan after the disastrous events in Khartoum of 1884-85. Thereafter, Gladstone managed to stay out of Sudan and Britain managed, for a time, to limit its liabilities in North Africa. The respite was only temporary, however, as the forward movement of British imperial encroachment in those parts of the world where local power structures were too weak to resist was beginning to seem inexorable, and even necessary if certain basic tenets of the requirements of British imperial policy were to be fulfilled. Gladstone’s partial resistance to it and his refusal to sail with the tide of events and the winds of public opinion as far as they seemed to be taking him, was a brave but in the end unsuccessful gesture.

The concept of a ‘protectorate’ allowed Gladstone to believe that he had successfully kept out of the scramble for Africa. ‘Colonies’ were run by a ‘metropolitan’ country which was responsible for them, had to provide for their administrations, and so on. In a ‘protectorate’ the metropolitan country had some responsibilities, but not many. The word implied that some indigenous authority did the actual ruling but with the privilege of being able to call on the metropolitan country’s help and protection if they were needed. Protectorates were generally legitimised by treaties between both parties to this effect. In practice, the ‘protection’ afforded by Britain took a number of guises, and in some cases, it was a legal fiction covering what was in effect a piece of political puppetry. Nevertheless, the intention was always the same: to minimise Britain’s responsibility and ensure that when it felt it had to take a country over in the imperial interest it did not have to rule it imperially, and expensively.

As long as the British were able to trade freely, and British traders were properly protected, there seemed little need actually to conquer more territory. Yet imperial expansion took place, for many reasons. Financial interests in the City, whose investments around the globe might be threatened by local events, could exert influence over the government, arguing that their own interests and the national interests coincided. The nationalist riots in Egypt in 1882, which led to the British occupation of the country, are an example of this. Local colonial officials, whose isolation allowed them considerable autonomy, could also take the initiative. There appears to have been considerable apprehension among such officials about unsettled frontiers; a fear that instability in neighbouring territories might spread into British territories. This could lead to intervention to protect British interests. However, where the presence of the British themselves was destabilising the frontiers, this was a never-ending process. In the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’, Britain might respond to the actions of imperial rivals. British absorption of Uganda and Kenya was a response to German intervention in Tanganyika. Britain had no intention of allowing Germany to dominate the region.

Gordon & Gladstone – Hero & Villain?:

Gladstone’s imperial self-control did not meet everyone’s approval. In fact, he got a very rough passage, not because his views on colonial affairs were markedly different from those of Salisbury at this time, but because he made more of an issue of it. It is doubtful whether public opinion in the 1880s cared very much about the colonies and empire. But it did care about murdered heroes and defeated redcoats; and it was on emotive circumstances like those around Gordon of Khartoum, that Gladstone made his stand. The result was predictable: on the Gordon affair, despite the General’s initial insubordination, the abuse Gladstone had to suffer, besides being labelled as ‘Gordon’s murderer, was the kind usually reserved for assassins and adulterers. He had besmirched his country’s honour, sent Gordon to his death, and looked on while women ‘were murdered in cold blood and little children were spotted on the Arab spears in pure wantonness’.

How far this unpopularity really went is uncertain, however. A section of the press put it about that it was universal, that Gladstone’s name was ‘held up to the execration this day wherever the English language is spoken‘, and that the country was far ahead of Gladstone in its ‘imperialism’. But the true picture was probably far less crudely jingoistic. The Spectator pointed out, between crises and in the middle of elections, that the ‘provinces’ were far quieter than Westminster, Whitehall and the City:

‘The candiates are talking about the Lords, taxes on corn, the depression in trade, local taxation; anything except the humiliation of the country and the necessity of war. There are no warlike public meetings.’

Even the ordinary war bulletins it was greeted with indifference: ‘Our people hardly watch or listen unless some favourite officer falls dead.’ When Gordon did fall dead, the Spectator tried to get a sense of balance amidst the furore:

British Journalism often gives a really false impression of the true drift of British opinion. … There is no greater chasm than the chasm between the opinions of the sensational newspapers and the judgment of the British Public. The former are often fierce, frothy and fickle; while the latter is slow, calm and steady.’

Spectator, 3 & 24 January, 1885.

Probably public opinion was more volatile than this, and jingoism stronger, but it was intermittent, and soon blew past. It gave no clue as to how the public regarded the broad outlines of Gladstone’s colonial policy or his stand on the issue of ‘imperialism’. ‘Jingoism’ was a neologism, but the phenomenon it described, that of popular xenophobia, was as old as the metropolitan life which spawned it. Its association with imperialism in the 1880s was purely accidental since it fed on wars and heroes, and it just so happened that most of Britannia’s heroes murdered, and then were murdered themselves in the cause of empire and that most of her wars or quarrels were over colonies. It could not yet be said, if it could ever be said, that the British people were ‘constructive’ imperialists, despite their outpourings of patriotic feeling at some of the more spectacular episodes of the empire. In all the anti-Gladstone press comments of the 1880s, the dominant note was that of wounded pride, the sense of national humiliation, and the fear of dire consequences if Britain continued to show pusillanimity to her enemies. ‘The shock of the fall of Khartoum’, said the Statist,

‘… will be felt far beyond the limit of the African desert. Wherever a handful of Englishmen are performing the daily miracle of our Imperial rule, and controlling and administrating a subject Eastern race, with no other force than that of their own character and of their national prestige, there the triumph of the Mahdi will work embarrassment and create difficulty and danger. There is the danger that not only in Africa… but throughout the world, the idea should take root that England is too weak or too indifferent to hold her own.’

The Statist, February 1885.

The Pall Mall Gazette commented more generally:

‘We have brought all this trouble in Egypt on our heads out of the desire to oblige France, which dictated the Joint Note; and still our neighbours are not satisfied… With the cream of our available fighting force locked up in Soudan, what can we do but give in here, give in there, and give in everywhere all round the world until at last we are sharply brought up by some demand to which we cannot give in – and then! How are we prepared for that eventuality, which will come as certain as the summer sun?’

Pall Mall Gazette, 10 February 1885.

Popular imperialism is usually associated with national self-confidence, perhaps over-confidence. In the 1880s it could equally well be associated with national self-doubt. What was happening in the 1870s and 1880s was something more significant than just a few setbacks in its foreign relations. It was a major upheaval in its position in the world. Before these decades, Britain’s world supremacy had been based on a kind of monopoly of wealth, power and influence outside Europe. Now that monopoly was slowly being eroded away, the Pall Mall Gazette spotted this trend most clearly in 1885:

‘Our old position is lost – irrevocably… the conditions under which we lorded it over one-half of the world.’

Ibid., 4 February 1885.
Control of the Nile & Reconquest of Sudan:

The outstanding narrative of this period was the rapid division of Africa between 1880 and 1900 among the European Great Powers. It was also a partition agreed upon without going to war. The relative gains of the powers were that while Britain acquired the richest parts of the continent, France acquired the greatest area, most of which, however, was desert. From its old trading settlements around the mouths of the Rivers Senegal and Congo, the French, suddenly after 1880, developed a big empire. Their explorers penetrated the unknown interior of the Sahara across to Algeria, and along the Sudan grasslands towards the Nile, leading to friction with Britain. The French acquired Somaliland, with the port for Ethiopia, in 1888. It was then occupied by Italy in 1889. At this time, Tripoli was the only part of North Africa left unappropriated until it was ceded to Italy by Turkey in 1912.

It followed that the territories to the south of Egypt were a high priority too, as they would have been considered before 1890, had they ever been seriously threatened by European rivals. The vast territory of Eastern Sudan, and the Great Lakes region further down, impinged on Egypt’s welfare because they straddled the upper Nile, and the Nile fed Egypt. ‘Whatever Power holds the Upper Nile valley must’, wrote Baring in 1889, ‘by the mere force of its geographical situation, dominate Egypt.’ This was because it could cut off the Nile, flood it, or divert it. In 1893, an eminent French hydrographer showed his countrymen how this might be done. It could only be done by scientifically sophisticated people, so it did not matter if the Upper Nile continued to be occupied by dervishes, since no one cleverer was. From then onwards, Salisbury determined to keep the Upper Nile neutral, if it could not be made British. The earliest threats to the Upper Nile came from Italy and Germany, but they were not serious challenges and were easily seen off. Germany’s recognition of Britain’s title over Uganda and the Upper Nile was secured by an agreement in July 1890 which included the cession of Heligoland.

In March of the next year, Italy was bought off in return for recognition of her dubious and short-lived claims in Abyssinia. In May of 1894, the Congo, under the control of King Leopold of Belgium, recognised Britain’s title in southern Sudan and leased part of it by an arrangement by which Britain hoped to stop the French from marching across from the west, for it was they who posed the main threat to British interests at this time. Still smarting from their self-inflicted exclusion from Egypt since 1882, they hoped that by occupying Sudan themselves, they could prise the British out, and they were not put off by all the diplomatic activity around them. In June of 1894, Rosebery’s government tightened its grip on the region by declaring Uganda a British protectorate. But France would not agree that because three other countries recognised Sudan as British, this was now a fait accomplís. Nor would it abide the Congo’s plotting with Britain against her. In August 1894, the French diplomats persuaded Leopold not to occupy most of the territory he had leased, thus leaving the way open for their military to approach the Nile once again.

The problem of granting independence to Egypt was also complicated by the defence of the Suez Canal and the Egyptian’s dependence on British financiers. Moreover, in Sudan, turbulent Arab tribes continued to disturb the protectorate, and the removal of British troops from Egypt would make the defence of Sudan impossible. In 1896, the reconquest of Sudan was undertaken by Salisbury in 1896. The necessity of preserving the headwaters of the Nile led to the reconquest of Sudan in 1898, effected after Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman, in time to prevent French occupation.

It was clear that the French had ambitions in eastern Sudan that were not going to be easily diverted by diplomacy. Britain, therefore, reverted to the threat of the use of force, with the Foreign Under-Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, telling the House of Commons that if rumours of a secret French military expedition to the Nile valley proved correct, Britain would construe it as ‘an unfriendly act’ which, in the familiar diplomatic language of that time, constituted a clear warning. France disregarded it, and when the rumoured expedition failed to make progress, it sent out another via the Congo under Captain Marchand.

At the same time, the British were preparing to invade Sudan from Egypt, and occupy it with a sizeable army under Kitchener, whose ultimate objective was left contingent on circumstances, but which Salisbury saw as the conquest and occupation of Sudan. His view now was that treaties were no substitute for solid possessions. In 1896, Kitchener marched south to subdue the dervishes, slowly and methodically. Marchand started out later but moved much more quickly. What would happen when they met was anyone’s guess.

Their actual meeting took place in September 1898, at the fort of Fashoda, four hundred miles upstream from Khartoum. It was like an encounter between rival male animals when a display of strength between them establishes the dominance of one without the need for a battle. From France’s point of view, it came at the worst possible time when its naval strength was at its lowest ebb and French international influence was much weaker than when Marchand had left, thanks to Salisbury’s clever diplomacy. When Marchand arrived at Fashoda, and while he sat waiting for the British to come, Delcassé in the French foreign ministry was fervently hoping that he had not got there at all, in case the meeting sparked off a war. In the event, he was relieved by the outcome of avoiding this, at least. The two officers met, fraternised, agreed to differ and then sat back and waited for London and Paris to sort it all out. The solution that London and Paris arrived at was in accordance with the realities of the situation in the Nile Valley at that time. Britain, with an army on the spot and a string of military conquests, to confirm its title, stayed there. France, who had got there first, retreated. Delcassé summed up the outcome: ‘We have nothing but arguments, and they have got troops.’

In the event, Sudan was reoccupied, and Kitchener forced the French to leave Fashoda. This gave Britain complete control over the Nile valley and brought nearer the fulfilment of Cecil Rhodes’ dream of an all-British route from ‘Cape to Cairo’. France agreed that the Nile was Britain’s. Salisbury had got the fourth and decisive European signature to his claim, and there the argument, at least in principle, ended. It was a bloodless victory in itself but on his way to it, Kitchener had lost hundreds of his own troops in battles with the Sudanese and killed many thousands of theirs. His relentless progress up the Nile was notorious at the time for the extreme methods it involved, which Kitchener justified on grounds of military necessity. In reality, it was also motivated by a determination to seek vengeance for the murder of General Gordon. In the biggest battle of all, at Omdurman near Khartoum on 2 September 1898, eleven thousand dervishes were killed, many of them as they lay wounded on the ground, which shocked some British Liberals, and even caused Kitchener some misgivings about the “dreadful waste of ammunition”. He then decided to reinforce the ‘lesson’ by exhuming the remains of their Mahdi and scattering them, which shocked British Liberals even more. John Morley wrote that it was supposed to ‘make a deep impression’ on the Sudanese, showing that, in its determination to hold its own on the Nile in the difficult, crisis-filled 1890s, British imperialism was not prepared to give any quarter.

Young Winston & The Battle of Omdurman:

Churchill in the ‘Lancers’ in 1898.

In November 1894, the young Winston Churchill, about to graduate quite creditably from Sandhurst, Winston appeared for the first time as a public tribune. The nineteen-year-old Churchill was smart enough by this time, to be introduced to the Conservative leader, Arthur J. Balfour and the Liberal imperialist, Lord Rosebery. He began to write war reports for the Daily Graphic, confirming his flair for the kind of campfire journalism that sold newspapers, especially of the new kind, which thrived on Our Man Under Fire moments, the ancestor of the on-the-spot television correspondent:

‘We are on our horses, in uniform; our revolvers are loaded. In the dusk and half-light, long files of armed and laden men are shuffling off towards the enemy. He may be very near; perhaps he is waiting for us a mile away. We cannot tell.’

A parade of imperial adventures followed in which he developed an early sense of physical fearlessness, which he never lost and which made him an impetuous soldier and a brilliant war correspondent who intuited that history-making needed both writing and fighting. Instinctively, Churchill went wherever the ‘best’ imperial action was. Details of skirmishes became copy for articles, which then turned into book manuscripts. The publicity opened some doors for him but closed others. Lord Salisbury, his late father’s old nemesis, sent for Winston as the author of The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898) and gave him his blessing. On the other hand, Major-General Kitchener, conducting operations in Sudan, resisted almost to the last having the young adventurer foisted upon him. Nonetheless, Churchill was there at the battle of Omdurman in 1898, and moreover, in the most epic persona he could contrive, as a dark-blue 21st Lancer in the thick of the last great, massively futile cavalry charge in British military history, colliding with the Dervish army as ‘two living walls crashed together’. The experience provided Churchill with the perfect subject for his word painting, a skill that was becoming even more cinematically gripping, with every adventure:

‘Riderless horses galloped across the plain. Men, clinging to their saddles, lurched helplessly about, covered with blood from perhaps a dozen wounds. Horses, streaming from tremendous gashes, limped and staggered with their riders. In a hundred and twenty seconds, five officers, sixty-six men and 119 horses… had been killed or wounded.’

Even by the time he published The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of Sudan soon after in 1899, Churchill knew that sympathy for the gallant, fallen, dusky, foe was a crucial ingredient for the successful ‘ripping yarn’. Following Gibbon’s famously sympathetic, even heroic portrait of the prophet Muhammad. Churchill too attacked the wicked cast of characters, the ‘greedy trader, the inopportune missionary, the ambitious soldier and the lying speculator’ who had perverted the ideals, especially, of the Anglo-Egyptian government in the Sudan. Muhammad Ahmed appears not as ‘the mad Mullah’ of imperial caricature, but as the austere and puritanical reformer he actually was, whose call to rebellion was entirely understandable. Churchill lamented that:

‘… the warm generous blood of a patriotic religious revolt congealed into the dark clot of a military empire.’

Churchill reported on the Boer War in 1899, this time wearing khaki.

But he still reserved some of his most powerful writing for the mutilated horsemen and foot soldiers of the Dervish army and was genuinely horrified to hear that Kitchener had allowed the Mahdi’s tomb to be desecrated and that the skull of the warrior was being used as a conversation piece for the general’s desk. But while he had his doubts about some of the generals, he had none about the results of their battles.

Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the Cape to Cairo Route & Imperial Rivalries:

After the Battle of Omdurman, a huge area of the Upper Nile became linked with Egypt. The creation of the euphemistically titled ‘Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’ established a ‘condominium’ which was to be administered by a British Governor-General and British and Egyptian administrative officers. Under this rule the Sudanese economy expanded and mission schools expanded, especially in the south. The condominium in turn made possible a contiguous belt of ‘British Africa’ running Cape-to-Cairo along with the railway. As the map below shows, in the great continental interiors, the railway revolution brought agriculture, industry and population followed. The map indicates some of the most important consequences of railway construction across all the continents.

Churchill accepted the defensive rationalisation that the partition of Africa contained what would otherwise have been unacceptable instability in Egypt, the lifeline to India trebly threatened by the Khedive’s profligacy, French military expansionism and Islamic fundamentalism. This, of course, was the wilful muddling of means and ends that had landed Britain with an immense territorial empire in India a century before. The ‘Indian syndrome’ was repeating itself, with the military and governmental costs of the ‘holding operation’ pushing its custodians into yet more adventures in seeking to secure new raw materials to help it balance the books back home.

In the 1890s, British imperialist politicians could still reap cheap patriotic cheers and votes by telling their audiences that their nation was mightier than ever, but the reality was that it was not. Even Joseph Chamberlain struck a more sobering note in 1898 when he said:

We are the most powerful Empire in the world, but we are not all-powerful.’

Quoted in W. L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, p. 509.

It was Chamberlain’s view that Britain had to find an ally if it was not to be constantly plagued by the fear of being set upon, alone, by two or three enemies simultaneously. In the Victorian era, his advice was ignored. Britain survived: but its isolation left its mark on its foreign policy. It had to conserve its military resources, not over-commit itself on too many fronts, or leave any of them dangerously exposed. The development of German imperialism after 1890 brought about a rivalry with Britain which became one of the causes of the ‘Great War’ that followed. The control of Germany’s affairs passed into the hands of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who aroused distrust and alarm by his warlike statements.

The Kaiser had a vision of his empire as the dominant world power. German philosophers taught the superiority of the German nation over all others, and that only war would enable it to gain its rightful ascendancy. This vigorous patriotism also found expression in Germany’s demand for a place in the sun. Colonies were also desired by German merchants who wanted new markets for their goods. To protect the colonies gained in Africa, a great navy was constructed. This policy aroused British fears of competition in world markets and the imperial power it had achieved with the largest and most desirable share of colonial spoils.

Britain had to arrange its priorities and make choices between different national objectives: ‘There are certain things that we can do and certain things that we cannot do,’ said the foreign under-secretary in the spring of 1898, admitting that they had been weak in China; but he promised that they would ‘retrieve ourselves completely in Sudan’. This turned out to be the case, as after 1898 the British went on to solidify their hold by collaborating with the anti-Mahdists and in Uganda, they collaborated with the Ganda aristocracy. When it was a collaboration with a ruling élite, it was called ‘indirect rule’. If they chose their collaborators wisely, three white men could hold half a million ‘savages’. But to the extent that a régime depended on collaboration to sustain it, its freedom of action was stifled.

Colonies dominated by ‘other races’ were not deemed ready for the dominion status given to the ‘so-called’ white dominions in the empire, dominated by white Europeans. Although notions of trusteeship were sometimes aired (the argument that Britain’s imperial mission was to prepare ‘lesser races’ for ‘dominion status’), little was done to achieve this in the nineteenth century. Racialism remained institutionalised throughout the empire. It was firmly and widely believed that Britain had a civilising mission. It was a matter of considerable pride to the British that their empire was the first to abolish slavery. This was seen as proof of Britain’s moral superiority. The empire was popular, particularly among the upper and middle classes in Britain, for whom it provided prestigious military and administrative careers. There also appear to have been concerted efforts by imperialists to instil enthusiasm for empire among Britain’s working class. But much of that class seems to have remained apathetic about imperialism. But for many, the empire remained an emblem of British identity. In 1896, the Earl of Meath launched Empire Day on 24 May, Queen Victoria’s birthday.

The University of Khartoum, originally founded in 1902 as the Gordon Memorial College and the Kitchener School of Medicine, began, as the new century progressed, to produce a generation of students anxious for political independence.

New Imperialism, Anglo-German Rivalry & the Origins of World War:
Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner Source: Wikipedia.

‘Empire’ provided the stimulus for a new concept of exemplary masculinity, focusing on soldier heroes; men such as General Gordon of Khartoum were presented as national icons in a fusion of military prowess, Protestant zeal and moral manhood. Viscount Milner (pictured right), a British statesman and colonial administrator who played a role in the formulation of British foreign policy between the mid-1890s and early 1920s, began to bring forward theories that became known as ‘new imperialism’.

Britain, he stated, needed to prepare for its future by becoming a more militarized, disciplined nation. Though Britain did not compare badly with other nations as an imperial power, there were certainly enough injustices in the empire to raise nationalist hostility. Towards the end of the century, opposition to imperial rule appeared, although it was limited in scope. In 1897, the Egyptian National Party was formed. In the next century, Britain was going to have to find a way of accommodating their demands, if the Empire and Commonwealth were to find a means of survival.

The primary aim of German foreign policy in the Bismarck era had been to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition of great powers. For as long as it continued, the tension between the world empires made this objective relatively easy to accomplish. French rivalry with Britain intermittently distracted Paris from its hostility towards Germany. As a mainly continental power, Germany could stay out of the great struggles over Africa, Central Asia and China. As long as Britain, France and Russia remained imperial rivals, Berlin would always be able to play the margins between them. This state of affairs enhanced the empire’s security and created a certain wriggle room for the policy-makers in Berlin. But the Bismarck strategy also exacted a cost. It required that Germany always punch below its weight, abstain from the imperial feeding frenzy in Africa and remain on the sidelines when other powers quarrelled over global power shares. It also required that Germany enter into contradictory commitments to those other powers. But the idea of colonial possessions with an endless supply of cheap labour and raw materials for white settlers or native populations to buy Germany’s exports was too much for the German middle classes to resist any longer.

But in 1884-5, when the German government attempted to placate these imperialist appetites by approving the acquisition of a modest suite of colonial possessions in southwest Africa, it met with a dismissive response from Britain. However, the British were distracted by more serious challenges from the French in northern Africa, and eventually gave in and the potential for serious conflict with Germany passed. Yet the episode was a sharp reminder to them, as late arrivals at the imperial table of just how little room was left at it. In the summer of 1891, the Germans learned that their Italian allies were engaged in secret talks with France in the hope of securing French support for future Italian acquisitions in northern Africa. More alarmingly, the deepening intimacy between France and Russia did not seem to pressure Britain into seeking closer relations with Germany but rather prompted British policy-makers to consider appeasing first France and then Russia. This led their German counterparts to expand the Reich’s defensive capacity, passing an army bill in 1893, bringing the army’s strength to over half a million and military expenditure in that year to double what it had been in 1886.

The conclusion of the Franco-Russian Alliance allowed Britain to oscillate between the continental camps and reduced the incentive for it to seek a firm understanding with Berlin. Only at times of crisis on the imperial periphery did London actively seek closer ties, but these did not amount to the offer of a fully-fledged alliance on terms that Berlin could accept. The dispute over the Anglo-Congolese Treaty of 1894, by which Britain had acquired a twenty-five kilometre-wide corridor linking Uganda with Rhodesia was a case in point. This treaty, essentially designed to obstruct French designs on the Upper Nile, also had the effect of abutting German southeast Africa with a cordon of British territory. Only under concerted pressure from Berlin did London eventually back down.

This outcome produced jubilation in the German press, desperate for signs of national self-assertion. It also reinforced the belief that standing up to Britain was the only way to secure German foreign policy interests. This led to the Transvaal crisis of 1894-95, which led to a further worsening in Anglo-German relations which continued throughout the 1890s. A commitment from Britain remained elusive and the German statesmen were extraordinarily slow to see the scale of the problem facing them, mainly because they mistakenly believed that the continuing frictions between the world empires provided a guarantee that they would never combine against them.

In 1901, with British forces tied down in South Africa, Foreign Secretary Lansdowne was keen to secure German support against Russian ambitions in China, but the question that worried the German Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Bernhard von Bülow, was: what could the British offer the Germans to offset the enmity from France and Russia that an Anglo-German alliance would undoubtedly bring? By this time, German foreign policy had turned to what became known as Weltpolitik, literally ‘global policy’. The term denoted a foreign policy focused on extending Germany’s influence as a global power, thereby aligning it with the other big players on the world scene. In an important essay from 1897, the historian Hans Delbrück warned:

‘Phenomenal masses of land will be partitioned in all corners of the world in the course of the next decades. … the nationality that remains empty-handed will be excluded for the generation to come from the ranks of those great peoples that define the contours of the human spirit.’

In a popular and influential speech in December 1897, von Bülow articulated the confident new mood, when he announced:

‘The times when the German left the earth to one of his neighbours, the sea to the other, and reserved for himself the the heavens where pure philosophy reigns – these times are over. We don’t want to put anyone in the shadow, but we demand our place in the sun.’

After 1901, when Germany finally rejected British overtures towards a better mutual understanding, Britain drew away from its policy of ‘splendid isolation’ to enter the European system of alliances. But Britain’s decision to enter into an Entente with France and to seek an arrangement with Russia came about primarily as a consequence of pressures on the imperial periphery. A series of crises arose which signalled the impending continental struggle. The first of these ‘incidents’ took place over the Franco-German rivalry in North Africa, especially in Morocco, which was in a very disturbed condition. France undertook to maintain order on the Algerian-Moroccan frontier and after the conclusion of the Entente Cordiále in 1904, Britain recognised the special interest of France in the country in return for French recognition of British primacy in Egypt.

In a letter to von Bülow of April 1904, Kaiser Wilhelm informed the Chancellor that the Entente Cordiále gave him ‘much food for thought’ because the fact that Britain and France no longer had anything to fear from each other meant that their ‘need to take account of or position becomes ever less pressing.’ The German leadership continued to push at the door that seemed to have been shut by the Entente.

To be continued…


Simon Hall & John Haywood (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Herman Kinder & Werner Hingemann (1978, 1988), The Penguin Atlas of World History, Vol. II.Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

George Taylor (1936), A Sketch-Map History of Europe, 1789-1914. London: George G. Harrap & Co.

Irene Richards, J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of Britain, 1783-1914. London: Harrap.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (eds.) (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War & After, 1914-34. London: George G. Harrap & Co.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Books.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism. London: Longman.

Christopher Clark (2012/13), The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Penguin Books.

Christopher Lee (1999), This Sceptered Isle: Twentieth Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books/BBC Books.

R. E. Robinson & J. A. Gallagher (1960), Africa and the Victorians, ch. 8-12.

G. N. Sanderson, England, Europe and the Upper Nile.

W. L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902, ch 4, 9, 16.

One thought on “Sudan – Legacies of Empire: The Causes & Consequences of Imperial Conflicts in North & East Africa, circa 1865-1965. Part One – 1865-1905.

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