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

It’s now just over a month since the paramilitary civil war began in Sudan. In this second retroreflective article, I will be concentrating on the role of the two world wars and the role of imperialism, fascism, nationalism and communism in the conflicts of the twentieth century within the region of North and East Africa, with special reference to Sudan.

In January 1905, determined to capitalise on their new arrangement while the British commitment was still fresh, the French government sent a diplomatic mission to Fez with a view to arranging the consolidation of French control in Morocco. There was nothing particularly new or surprising in this bid, but the French foreign minister decided to give it a markedly anti-German ‘spin’. The Germans were also offended by being offered nothing in return for accepting the French arrangement, unlike the Italians and the Spanish. Berlin was not even informed of the in advance of French intentions, a departure from Foreign Minister Delcassé’s own earlier policy, which had foreseen that German assent would be negotiated in return for territorial compensation in other parts of Africa where she may have ambitions. In opting to freeze the Germans out, Delcassé built an entirely unnecessary element of provocation into his North African policy and exposed himself to the criticism of his French colleagues: even Paul Revoil, Delcassé’s closest collaborator on the Moroccan question, lamented his minister’s intransigence. For him, it was a…

‘… great misfortune (that Delcassé) found it repugnant to have talks with Germany. “The Germans are swindlers”, he says. But, in heaven’s name, I’m not asking for an exchange of rings but for a business discussion!’

Even Eugene Étienne, leader of the French Colonial Party, viewed the minister’s refusal to negotiate with the Germans as ‘the height of imprudence’. The German diplomats, for their part, had been watching French moves in Morocco and were determined not to allow the French to act unilaterally in a manner that would damage German interests in the area. The German viewpoint was legitimate: an international agreement of 1881 had formally recognized Morocco as an area whose status could only be altered multi-laterally, by international treaty. The objective of German policy, however, was not to uphold international law, but rather to test the strength of the Entente. Reports from London had given the Germans reason to suppose that the British government would not feel bound to intervene in a dispute over Morocco between France and a third power.

The Kaiser himself made a surprise visit to Tangier in March 1905 and, in a menacing speech, supported the independence of Morocco in order to safeguard German economic interests there. The population of the city saw the German sovereign as a welcome counter-weight to the French. Wilhelm rode to the German legation, cold-shouldering the secretary of the French legation. In his speech, he asserted that German commercial and economic interests, together with the independence and integrity of Morocco, should be maintained. After two hours in the city, he returned to his ship and sailed off. In the short term, this spectacular exercise in gesture politics was a great success, but the landing prompted outrage in France, though the British showed no interest in intervening and after a phase of mutual threats and brinkmanship, the French government decided to pursue a peaceful resolution. Delcassé was dismissed and his policy of provocation was temporarily discredited. The French proposed bilateral negotiations to settle the future of Morocco, but the Germans demanded that the question be settled at an international conference, as determined by the treaty of 1881. French opposition almost led to war, but they were not ready to fight this themselves. The request was eventually granted, but the German triumph was short-lived.

The conference took place at the Spanish port town of Algeciras in January 1906, where Britain supported France firmly. The independence of Morocco was affirmed, but it was agreed that France should continue to be responsible for keeping internal order. The uselessness of the Triple Alliance was revealed for all to see and the Anglo-French Entente was strengthened by the German challenge in Morocco. The fiscal burdens imposed by African conflicts and the retreat of Ottoman power in that continent were two of the world-historical transitions that led to Germany’s ‘restlessness’ and grandstanding, but these were only perceived within a field of vision that encompassed broader concerns at that time. Christopher Clark claims that the once widely-held view among historians that Germany caused its own isolation through its egregious international behaviour is not borne out by a broader analysis of the processes by which the realignments of the early twentieth century were brought about. The Anglo-French Entente, for example, gradually neutralised the anti-British sentiment that before 1904 had intermittently diluted the Germanophobia of French statesmen.

It is also astounding how aggressively a number of key British policy-makers responded to the German challenge to French penetration of Morocco. This conflict came to a further crisis in 1911 when France landed troops and occupied the capital, Fez, on the grounds of maintaining order. This pretext of suppressing a local uprising and protecting French colonists in Fez was bogus; the rebellion had broken out deep in the Moroccan interior and was not an imminent or serious threat to Europeans. But French troops entered the city and it seemed to Germany that the Shereefian Empire was breaking up, and it was determined to share in the spoils. The French delegation also demanded control over the Moroccan army and police; the Sultan refused. His appeal for assistance from Paris had in fact been formulated by the French consul and was passed to him for signature after Paris had already decided to intervene. It was therefore not the French government as such that generated the action in Morocco, but the hawkish diplomats of the Quai d’Orsay, whose influence over policy was almost predominant by the spring of 1911.

The fluctuations of power across different points in the decision-making structures amplified the complexity and unpredictability of interactions within the European international system, especially in those moments of political crisis when two or more executives interacted with each other in an atmosphere of heightened pressure and threat. This effect can be observed with particular clarity in the quarrel between Germany and France over Morocco that broke out once more in the early summer of 1911. The first German move had failed at Algericas; the second had succeeded; this third move was to end in a dangerous fiasco. But it was Spain that was first to act on this occasion. Alarmed at the prospect of a unilateral French seizure of power in Morocco, the Spanish government deployed troops to occupy parts of north-western Morocco. Germany was also naturally suspicious of French motives and claimed there had been a breach of the treaty signed at Algericas as well as with the Franco-German Accord of 1909. If France was to have the task of reconstructing the Sultanate, Germany must have territorial compensation; its foreign minister said, “If one wants to eat peaches in January, one must pay for them.”

The crisis became more acute when Germany dispatched a gunboat, the Panther to Agadir to protect, it claimed, the German residents there. It dropped anchor off the Moroccan coast on 1 July, but it was not until the end of the month that the French ambassador in Berlin was even instructed to start talks with Berlin, so determined were the powerful permanent officials at the Foreign Ministry to resist such an idea. In the end, Paris agreed to talk to Berlin about how Germany might be compensated for the consolidation of an exclusively French dominion. In return for concessions in Central Africa, Germany would acknowledge France’s protectorate in Morocco.

Backstairs diplomacy had helped the French premier to bypass the Germanophobe hawks in the foreign ministry, but it also brought its own additional risks. In the first week of August, a brief breakdown in communications led to an entirely unnecessary escalation, including threats to dispatch French and British warships to Agadir, even though both French premier Caillaux and his German counterpart were both willing to compromise. There would have been no need for the backstairs dealing but for the fact that the permanent officials at the ministry were conspiring to depose Caillaux as foreign minister and wreck the understanding with Germany. But one German diplomat calmly reported back that…

‘…despite the screaming in the press and the chauvinism in the army, Caillaux’s policy will probably prevail.’

The diplomat’s assessment was initially correct, but Germany’s blundering pursuit of a diplomatic triumph at Agadir was no more provocative than the unilateral measures by which France broke with the Franco-German Accord of 1909. The reality was that the France of 1911 was not the France of 1905, nor even, as now became apparent, that of 1909. M. Caillaux, who had shown signs of temporising with Germany, was swept from power to be replaced by Raymond Poincaré whose administration included Delcassé, who was not inclined to accede to Germany’s demands. But the whole crisis had exposed the inherent weakness of French diplomacy and the resulting incoherence of its foreign policy. Many nationalists thought that Caillaux and his cabinet had conceded too much to the Germans. When details of the premier’s secret diplomacy with Berlin were revealed in the press, he was forced to resign, having been in office for only seven months. When the new premier and foreign minister, Raymond Poincaré read the foreign ministry files in early 1912, he was struck by the alternation between toughness and compromise in policy towards Germany. Poincaré observed…

‘…whenever we have adopted a conciliatory approach to Germany, she has abused it; on the other hand, on each occasion when we have shown firmness, she has yielded.’

He concluded that Germany understood ‘only the language of force.’ The Germanophobes on both sides of the Channel were rarely very specific about their case other than speaking in general terms about the haunting ambition and demeanour of Germany, the unpredictability of the Kaiser and the general threat that growing German military power posed to the European balance of power. There was a tendency to see the long arm of German policy behind every inter-imperial conflict. Thus, the British Germanophobes said, it was the Germans who ‘carefully encouraged’ the European opposition to Britain’s occupation of Egypt. Wherever there was friction between Britain and its imperial rivals, the Germans were supposedly pulling strings in the background. This was mainly because the restructuring of the alliance system required the refocusing of the British anxieties and paranoia about German imperial expansion that were riding high at the time of the Boer War and for much of the decade that followed.

Britain’s involvement in the crisis, too, bore the deep imprint of divisions within the executive structure. The reaction of the New Liberal government in London was initially cautious since it felt that the conflict was at least in part of the French government’s own making, and it was, therefore, their ally who would have to give ground. All through the summer, during the Coronation ceremonies and a bitter dispute over the House of Lords, ministers had the Moroccan crisis on their hands, a crisis that could quickly escalate at any time. Hitherto it had been assumed in Germany that the British Cabinet was not united on this matter, and it was undoubtedly the case that a large section of the Liberal party was averse to any imperial commitments and suspicious of any increase in national defences. However, Sir Edward Grey, as Foreign Secretary, wrote from Paris to suggest that German demands for compensation in the Congo were…

‘… excessive … known by them to be impossible of acceptance and are intended to reconcile the French to the establishment of a German stronghold on the Moroccan coast.’

This was a deliberate misreading of the situation and designed to strike fear into Britain’s Naval commanders, for whom the establishment of a German naval base on the Atlantic would have been completely unacceptable. It was this unrealistic prospect that enabled Grey to secure cabinet approval for a private warning to be given to the German ambassador on 21st July that if Germany meant to land at Agadir, Britain would feel obliged to defend her interests there, by which he meant the deployment of British warships.

Lloyd George (left) as ‘New Liberal’ Chancellor of the Exchequer on Budget Day in 1911, alongside Winston Churchill.

On the same day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, took the unusual step for a finance minister of delivering a speech at the Mansion House in the City of London in which he referred directly, not to economic policy but to foreign affairs. In it, he also issued a very strong warning to Berlin. It was imperative, he said, that Britain should maintain ‘her place and her prestige among the great powers of the world.’ He also declared in his speech that a ‘pacific’ Britain did not mean peace at any price:

“If a situation were to be forced upon us in which peace could only be presrved by the surrender of the great and beneficent position which Britain has won through centuries of heroism and achievement, by allowing Britain to be threatened where her interests are vitally affected, as if she were of no account in the Cabinet of Nations, then I say emphatically that that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.”

The Mansion House speech was no spontaneous outburst; it was a gambit carefully prepared by Grey, Asquith and Lloyd George. Just as Caillaux bypassed his foreign ministry in order to impose his own dovish agenda on the negotiations with Berlin, so the anti-Germans around Grey bypassed the dovish radicals in the New Liberal cabinet in order to deliver a harsh and potentially provocative message to the Germans. Lloyd George had not cleared the most sensitive parts of his speech with the cabinet, only with the PM and the Foreign Secretary. The speech was all the more significant because it signalled Lloyd George’s defection from the dovish radicals to the ranks of the Liberal imperialists. His words caused consternation in Berlin, where it was felt that the British government was needlessly disrupting the passage of the Franco-German negotiations over Morocco and the Congo. From that moment, the nationalists in Germany dropped all talk of compromise and pursued a policy of naked aggression. Lloyd George’s words also shocked the cabinet members who had not signed up for Grey’s policy. They were appalled to find Britain so aggressively backing France in a dispute in which, it seemed to them, Paris was by no means clear of blame.

But the outcome was that the British government sent a warship to Agadir to lie alongside the Panther and also proclaimed in unmistakable terms its support for France. After the British reaction, Austria-Hungary abandoned the policy of neutrality it had hitherto adopted on the Morocco question and backed Germany. Nevertheless, Britain’s warning to Germany and its strong support of its ally forced Germany to modify its demands and checked its warlike attitude. Kaiser Wilhelm II had remained as sceptical of his administration’s North African policy in 1911 as he had been in 1905. As a consequence, German policy that aimed at keeping the crisis below the threshold of armed confrontation unfolded against a background of thunderous nationalist press agitation that rang alarm bells in Paris and London. Banner headlines in the papers that shrieked ‘West Morocco to Germany!’ were grist to the mills of the hawks in Paris.

They also worried the Kaiser, who was not really that interested in Morocco himself and issued such sharp criticism of his foreign minister that he tendered his resignation in mid-July, and it was only through Chancellor Bethmann’s mediation that Kiderlen was kept in office as foreign minister, and the policy of moderation was salvaged. Clearly, the Kaiser was not yet ready for a World War, especially over Morocco, so Germany abated its pretensions, and the question was settled by various cessions of territory by France in Central Africa. On 4 November 1911, a Franco-German treaty finally defined the terms of the agreement. Morocco became an exclusively French protectorate, German business interests were guaranteed respectful treatment there, and parts of the French Congo were ceded to Germany. This latter term was to come back to haunt the Entente allies in the First World War five years later.

But the treaty of 1911 was widely denounced in Germany too for granting the Germans too little. The glittering prize of a ‘German West Morocco’ had been held out to the public by the ultra-nationalist press. They were bitterly disappointed when it did not materialise. Yet Kiderlen’s Faustian pact with the ‘far right’ media had been reached only because he had no other means of ensuring that the Kaiser would not compromise his control of the policy-making process.

By 1907, Germany had replaced France and Russia as Britain’s ‘bogey man’ among the global powers. But it was still far from clear that these peripheral conflicts would lead to a continental European war. In retrospect, it is perhaps understandable that post-war writers of political memoirs and later historians have tended to see the events of 1904-7 as steps leading to the outbreak of war in 1914. But as late as 1909, Paris underlined its independence within the Entente by signing an accord on Morocco with Germany, a striking example of the crossing of lines between the two alliances. Therefore, there was no ‘road to war’ that inevitably ran out in 1914. The Triple Entente that went to war in August 1914 still lay beyond the mental horizons of most statesmen in the great turning point of 1904-7, or even in the little turning point of 1911. These confusing diplomatic events help to explain the emergence of structures within which world war became possible, but they cannot explain how and why that specific conflict began on the European continent, more specifically on the Balkan peninsula, and then spread to the other continents.

One of those statesmen, Sir Edward Grey, made a speech to the Committee of Imperial Defence meeting in May 1911, prior to the Moroccan crisis, outlining the main factors determining British Foreign Policy in the period leading up to that year:

‘In 1892 the situation then, and for some years previously, had been this: that the two restless Powers in Europe were France and Russia; that is, they were the two Powers from whom trouble to the peace of Europe was expected, if at all. The solid, quiet group at that time was the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy. It had been the policy of Lord Salisbury before 1892, and it was the policy of Mr Gladstone’s Government of 1892, not to join the Triple Alliance or come under definite commitment to it, but generally to in diplomacy to side with the Triple Alliance as being the stable power in Europe, and the one which was securing the peace.

‘… We were constantly having… friction about African questions, friction about questions in China, but the situation was not in the least alarming – there was no question of a breach of the peace, or the rupture of economic relations – but there was constant friction. It was not very comfortable, even so far as Germany was concerned; but as regards France and Russia, the situation was very much worse…

‘… After discussions lasting a long time, the result was the Anglo-French Agreement of 1904. This agreement at once removed all risk of a quarrel between the United Kingdom and France, and by removing that, brought the two nations very rapidly to realise there was no reason why they should not be the best of friends. …

‘… Then, since we have been in power, the same policy was pursued with Russia, … so that cause of quarrel disappeared, and, consequently, we and Russia have become very good friends in diplomacy. …

‘… Now that is the situation. … We do not need to pursue any policy of ambition in Europe. There is nothing we want to attain there. If there is trouble in Europe in which we are engaged and in which we have to appeal to the Dominions, it will be solely because, if we do not take part in it, we shall see that the combination against us in Europe may be such that the command of the sea may be lost …

‘… the cause of anxiety now in public opinion here as regards Germany arises entirely from the question of the German naval expenditure, which is very considerable, which may be increased and which. if it is increased, will produce an impression on the world at large that the object of Germany is to build a fleet which shall be bigger than the British fleet, obviously she could not only defeat us at sea, but could be in London in a very short time with her army. …

‘But however much our fleet is superior to the the German fleet, with the army we have we could never commit a serious aggression by ourselves upon German territory.’

Extract from the Minutes of the Committee of Imperial Defence at a meeting of 26th May, 1911. Quoted in G. P. Gooch & H. W. V. Temperley (eds., 1930), Documents on the Origin of the War, 1898-1914 vol. vi. pp. 782-90.

Clearly, the tensions between imperial powers over their African colonies and protectorates were a major factor in the origins of the ‘Great War’ in Europe. But, in the period 1911-14, it was not just a question of frictions between the European alliance system, but also of the role played by anti-colonial and nationalist ‘liberation’ movements within those countries.

East Africa and the Middle East in the First World War.

For example, the development of Neo-Mahdism in Sudan was to some degree a symptom of, and the expression of, strong anti-colonial fervour. Although occupied by Britain as a ‘protectorate’, until 1914 Egypt remained, at the same time, a self-governing province of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Sultan’s power over the whole of North Africa was only nominal, for the European powers had gained de facto control. Britain had exercised controlling influence over Egypt since 1875 when it obtained its majority shares in the Suez Canal. In the early years of the twentieth century, a nationalist movement had grown up; it was strongly opposed to continuing British influence. But while Egypt had an influential secular nationalist movement, in tropical Africa straight political agitation was much slower to develop, chiefly because Africans had hardly yet begun to comprehend what Western European politics and diplomacy were. It was only on the outbreak of the war in Europe that the British refused to recognise any longer the nominal suzerainty of Turkey over Egypt and proclaimed the country its protectorate to the exclusion of all other external powers.

The Impact of the War on the Empires & Colonies:
A contemporary map of German East Africa, with Lake Tanganyika at the extreme left.

The outbreak of World War I in Europe led to the increased popularity of German colonial expansion and a Deutsch-Mittelafrika (‘German Central Africa’) which would parallel a resurgent German Empire in Europe. Mittelafrika effectively involved the annexation of territory, mostly occupied by the Belgian Congo, in order to link the existing German colonies in East, South-west and West Africa.

The territory would dominate central Africa and would make Germany by far the most powerful colonial power on the African continent. Nevertheless, the German colonial military in Africa was weak, poorly equipped and widely dispersed. At the same time, the militaries of the Allied powers were also encountering similar problems of poor equipment and low numbers; most colonial militaries were intended to serve as local paramilitary police to suppress resistance to colonial rule and were neither equipped nor structured to fight against foreign powers. Even so, the largest military concentration in the German colonial empire was in East Africa, and it was there that most of the fighting took place.

Map of Tanganyika Territory

The objective of the German forces in East Africa was to divert Allied forces and supplies from Europe to Africa. By threatening the important British Uganda Railway, the German commanders hoped to force British troops to invade East Africa, where they could fight a defensive campaign. In 1912, the German government had formed a defensive strategy for East Africa in which the military would withdraw to the hinterland and fight a guerilla campaign. The German colony in East Africa was a threat to the neutral Belgian Congo but the Belgian government hoped to continue its neutrality in Africa. The Force Publique was constrained to adopt a defensive strategy until 15 August 1914, when German ships on Lake Tanganyika bombarded the port of Mokolobu and then the Lukuga post a week later. Having been alerted to the presence of the German armed boats on the lake, which bordered German East Africa and therefore had strategic importance, as the German territory was surrounded by land controlled by Britain and Belgium.

Extract from Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale Publishers (

The British naval force consisted of two forty-foot-long (twelve-metre) motor boats, HMS Mimi and HMS Toutou. Their crews were assembled from acquaintances of Lieutenant-Commander Spicer-Simpson, or from the ranks of the Royal Naval Reserve. The boats were loaded aboard SS Llanstephan Castle on 15 June, along with special trailers and cradles to allow them to be transported by rail or overland, and the expedition’s equipment and supplies. Meanwhile, on 8th June, Graf von Götzen was launched on Lake Tanganyika. The first leg of Mimi and Toutou′s ten-thousand-mile journey was completed after seventeen days at sea on their arrival at the Cape. Once they arrived in South Africa, they had to be carried over three thousand miles inland, including the traversing of a 5,900-foot mountain range.

Battle for Lake Tanganyika; Part of the East African Campaign of the First World War; Port of Kigoma, c.1914-1916.

The Battle for Lake Tanganyika was a series of naval engagements that took place between elements of the Royal Navy, Force Publique and the Kaiserliche Marine between December 1915 and July 1916. The intention was to secure control of the strategically important Lake Tanganyika, which had been dominated by German naval units since the beginning of the war. The boats were transported from South Africa by railway, by river, and by being dragged through the African jungle, to the lake. In two short engagements, the small motorboats attacked and defeated two of their German opponents. In the first action, on 26 December 1915, Kingani was damaged and captured, becoming HMS Fifi. In the second, the small flotilla overwhelmed and sank Hedwig von Wissmann. Germany’s third large and heavily armed craft on the lake, Graf von Götzen was attacked indecisively by Belgian aircraft and was subsequently scuttled. Developments in the land-based conflict caused the Germans to withdraw from the lake, and control of the surface of Lake Tanganyika passed to the British and Belgians.

The Kingani on Lake Tanganyika before being captured.
League of Nations mandates in the Middle East and Africa, with no. 11 representing Tanganyika

After the defeat of Germany during World War I, GEA was divided among the victorious powers under the Treaty of Versailles. Apart from Ruanda-Urundi (assigned to Belgium) and the small Kionga Triangle (assigned to Portuguese Mozambique), the territory was transferred to British control. “Tanganyika” was adopted by the British as the name for its part of the former German East Africa. The United Kingdom took control of the colony of Tanganyika as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. They wished it to be a “Black man’s country” similar to Nigeria in terms of its Westernised state structure. And as the policy of colonial rule in Nigeria changed to indirect rule so too did the governance of Tanganyika. The British also pursued an anti-German policy which was led by the British Governor in Tanganyika, Sir Horace Bryatt. He was an unpopular politician, and his policies of expelling Germans halved Tanganyika’s population. Many of the ex-German plantations were sold to European companies and mixed farms were given to new British owners. Much of Tanganyika’s economy was based around cash crops, in particular Coffee.

British rule did have positives for the Asian community living in Tanganyika, as they were protected by Britain as they were no longer attacked as they were during the war. Many of them were employed by the Indian administration to work for the Tanganyikan administration. This led to the Asian population in Tanganyika increasing from 8,698 in 1912 to 25,144 in 1931. One of the major drivers for decolonisation in Tanganyika was TANU which was founded in 1954, led by Julius Nyerere. 

During the War itself, the Ottoman provinces and the German colonies were conquered by one or other of the Entente powers, and the visitors expected to retain their spoils just as conquerors in former wars had done. The peace-makers in 1919, however, were bound by President Wilson’s promises to make a free and impartial adjustment of colonial claims and that they would concern themselves with the interests of the people as well as the claims of the victors. In the Covenant of the League of Nations, established at the Paris Peace Conference, it was laid down that the development of the weaker nations should be regarded as a sacred trust by the more advanced ones. When the two empires with external territories in the Triple Alliance were partitioned their territories were not annexed but were held in trust by certain powers on behalf of the League of Nations. These lands were held ‘in mandate’, the word meaning a legal right granted by a superior authority. The ‘mandataries’ accepted the responsibility of governing the territories, and they agreed to give an account of their stewardship in an annual report to the League.

There were three different kinds of authority granted, as shown on the map above. ‘A’ mandates were granted in respect of former Turkish territories, or ‘provinces’ (like Egypt) in which the people were almost ready for self-government. ‘B’ mandates were chiefly territories in Africa, where the people were unable to govern themselves, according to the League. The mandated powers were agreed to prohibit abuses such as the slave trade, native exploitation and traffic in arms and alcohol. The territories were not to be heavily fortified, and the natives could only be trained for domestic defence. All members of the League were to have equal trading rights. ‘C’ mandates were granted in respect of isolated territories, or very undeveloped territories, such as German south-west Africa, for which it was decided that the mandatory power should assume fuller control for governance as part of their own territory. Since the USA refused to accept any mandates, it was left to Britain and France to share the bulk of the responsibilities.

The Middle East & North Africa in the First World War.

The British mandate in Palestine afforded it further control over the Suez route to the East, and control over Tanganyika (East Africa) completed their ‘all-red’ route from the Cape to Cairo. At the end of the War, nationalist agitation increased in Egypt, and the Wafd Party, led by Zaghul Pasha, demanded complete independence, but the British wished to reserve military control, as they were only interested in the security of the Suez route. By 1922, Egypt looked to have self-government already.

But the British succeeded in slowing it down, and despite the big talk of ‘independence’, Britain still retained what it needed most in 1922, and in 1939 it still retained it: control over the Suez Canal and its trade route to India and the far east. The 1922 ‘Independence’ Declaration had reserved to Britain ultimate control over Egyptian defence, the Canal, Sudan, and the protection of foreign interests: these stipulations made Egypt not very much more independent than it had been under Gladstone. Nationalists resented the reservations, and reacted against them, sometimes bloodily. Yet Britain was able to resist them: first by force, then by accommodation. During the 1920s, Civil Service posts in Sudan were increasingly allocated to Sudanese, generally from northern Sudan, where Islam was dominant.

In 1930, King Faud set up a dictatorship in Egypt, and the Royal Navy was sent to stand off Alexandria as nationalists threatened the whole state and the safety of foreigners. Arthur Henderson, the Labour government’s Foreign Secretary, thought that Britain should give up the administration of the country and pull back its forces to the canal zone. The Egyptians wanted far more than this, including control of Sudan, which had been under British control since 1924. The Foreign Office, however, was determined to keep Sudan under British rule, as a strategically important state.

The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty & the Invasion of Ethiopia, 1935-36:
The French, Italian & British empires in East Africa, 1882-1914

Britain would have preferred a friendlier method of preserving its imperial interests than keeping gunboats off Alexandria and troops on the Suez Canal. This was especially the case when there was a fresh prospect of a real military threat to Britain’s position in that part of Africa from Italy, which was Egypt’s neighbour in Libya, and had been bought off in 1891 by Britain’s recognition of its dubious claims in Abyssinia. Now it was poised to take over Ethiopia, Sudan’s neighbour. Fascist Italy worried the Egyptians too, leading in 1936, after years of fruitless negotiation, to Britain and Egypt managing to agree on a treaty to replace the unilateral arrangement of 1922. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty removed most of the old reservations on Egypt’s formal independence, except for the British military presence on the Canal and its continuing colonial presence in Sudan. It lasted, from the British perspective adequately, until the Suez Crisis of 1956.

In October 1935, those who remained cynical about the ability of the Anglo-French alliance to resist the threats from the European dictators were justified in that view when Italian soldiers marched into Ethiopia. The invasion had been long expected, for Italian interests in the Horn of Africa had strategic as well as territorial overtones stretching back to the nineteenth century. For the whole of 1935 the Italians, who were governing the colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, had been fighting a border war with the neighbouring Abyssinians. The Emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie, referred the border dispute to the League of Nations, but the League was undermined by the double-dealing between France and Italy over Abyssinia.

The French, who believed that Germany would eventually move into Austria, asked the Italians for help if and when that happened. The Italians agreed in return for their acquisition of a chunk of Ethiopia. The French agreed to support their cause in Africa and in October, British Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare told the House of Commons that this was a great test for the League of Nations and that, if it failed this test, ‘the world will be faced with a period of danger and gloom.’ By November the League believed it had an answer: it would impose economic sanctions on Italy. By the end of that month, however, these sanctions were already being broken. By the Spring of 1936, news of the deeds of the dictators dominated the newspapers, radio and newsreels. On 3rd April, The Times reported that the Red Cross had confirmed that it had treated numerous victims of Italian gas attacks in Abyssinia. The newspaper quoted the Emperor, Haile Selassie, who said that…

“… he could not sleep at night for misery at the screaming and groaning of his fighting men and country people who have been burned inside and out by gas.”

The photo below shows the victims of the indiscriminate bombing of the Italian airforce after it attacked hospitals and Red Cross centres.

In the aftermath of the fall of Addis Ababa, when Italian troops marched in on 5th May.
In the picture, Abyssinians lie dead in the street while an Italian soldier stands guard
outside bomb-damaged buildings.

The three types of gas used had been banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, of which Italy was a signatory. Water holes and villages were also targeted so that many peasants died in agony from their burns. At the end of seven months of fighting, with nearly half a million soldiers in Abyssinia, Italy annexed the country after troops marched into Addis Ababa on 5th May. Abyssinians had rioted and looted the town before the Italians could march in. On 9th May, Mussolini announced the fall of Addis Ababa to cheering crowds in Rome. The Christian Emperor arrived in Britain, via Palestine, as a refugee less than a month later and was reluctantly granted asylum. He said:

“I do not intend to settle in England … I still dream and hope of returning to Abyssinia. At present, I have not the means.”

Above: The Ethiopian leader, Emperor Haile Selassie in exile in London in 1938, appearing on the balcony of his London apartment with his daughter.

It had cost Mussolini more than thirty-three million pounds to prepare for the war and another 126 million to fight it. However, it was worth it, Il Duce said, since “Italy has at last her Empire – a Fascist Empire.” King Edward VIII, for his part, refused to meet ‘The Negus’ (who claimed his descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) himself, sending the Duke of Gloucester instead. When Edward was advised that meeting with the deposed Emperor would be a popular move, he countered, ‘popular with whom? Certainly not the Italians.’ Nothing should be done, he suggested, to drive Mussolini into Hitler’s arms. The British soon abandoned all pretence of sanctions, and the League of Nations turned its back on Ethiopia. No one, any longer, could pretend that any of the pacts that had been agreed upon around the world could prevent conflict if, like the Italians, a nation saw its best interests served by warfare.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin then found himself immersed in a drama surrounding the Franco-Italian arrangement. Britain had kept its distance from this, but it now became involved in a very grubby way. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, made an agreement with the French prime minister, Pierre Laval, that Italy would be allowed to keep the best parts of Abyssinia without any objections from France or Britain.

When the secret bilateral plan, which became known as the Hoare-Laval Pact, was leaked to the Press, it was seen as a despicable arrangement that contradicted the League of Nations’ position and excited popular anger against the Italians. Hoare was forced to resign when Anthony Eden, the Minister for League of Nations’ Affairs, could neither politically nor personally stomach the infamous pact. He had been trying to persuade the League of Nations to impose economic sanctions when the Abyssinian Army was soundly defeated. He had told Baldwin that he would resign unless Hoare was reprimanded and the Pact abrogated. Hoare refused to back down, so Baldwin, seeing the damage that was being done to his new government, sacked him, appointing Eden in his place. Baldwin and Eden were clearly right and Hoare was wrong, but the fact that he was so wrong makes it difficult to believe that he was acting on his own initiative in making the agreement with the French PM. If, on such an important issue, he had even tacit approval within the Cabinet or the State, as he almost certainly did, then the whole affair left few in credit and the League of Nations in its death throes.

The fate of Abyssinia at the duplicitous hands of the Western European powers also destroyed any vestige of trust and goodwill that the North African colonies might still harbour for them. Haile Selassie was prevented from returning to his country by the Italian victory, setting up his house in Bath instead. In marked contrast with the King’s attitude, Canon Dick Sheppard, founder of the Peace Pledge Union (pictured below), appealed on the radio for aid to the Abyssinian refugees, criticising fellow Christians for lacking a sense of mission and questioning whether they really believed in their religion. The BBC insisted that he should not preach pacifism over the airwaves.

End of War to End of Empire:
Clement Attlee, PM 1945-51.

Although it is possible to trace the beginning of the British retreat from Africa back to the aftermath of the 1914-18 War, it was not until after the Second World War that Britain began formally relinquishing its political sovereignty over its African colonial possessions. The dissolution of the British Empire was accomplished in two main waves, the first taking place under Attlee’s Labour government in the late 1940s, centred on Asia and the Middle East.

The second phase took place in Africa in the late 1950s and 60s under the direction of the Conservative Party. In fact, however, the push for independence from within the colonies also began in the late 1940s. In addition, Egypt had already gained its formal independence in the 1930s, though the Suez Canal area was still under British occupation until 1956.

After the Second World War, African nationalists like Kwame Nkrumah and Hastings Banda took encouragement from the transition to Indian independence, which was eventually declared in 1947, and from the general tide of world opinion at the time which seemed to be swimming with them. Very early after the war, they bared their teeth. In 1945, two groups in Sudan were demanding rapid constitutional development, the Ummah Party, headed by the grandson of the Mahdi, which stood for immediate independence, and the Ashiqqa (Brothers), allied to the Khatmiyyah sect which favoured constitutional links with Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood grew rapidly at this time, but entirely in the north. South Sudan, which accounted for a third of the population, was animist or Christian and largely politically unconscious. On 30 January 1946, the first session of the United Nations General Assembly took place. The UN’s agenda was full from the very first day; one of the items on the agenda was the demand of demonstrators in Cairo for unification with Sudan. There was a general strike in Sudan in 1947, and in 1948 Britain Britain accepted the principle of Sudanese autonomy. But by 1950 African nationalism was pushing through in East Africa, as it had been doing over the previous decade on the west coast. The British days in Egypt, keeping troops in the strategically important Suez Canal Zone were numbered.

In November 1950, the King of Egypt, Farouk, demanded that the British withdraw its troops so that Egypt could once again rule Sudan. In 1951 he proclaimed himself the King of Sudan, but after his fall Egypt accepted the Sudan’s right to self-determination. Some in Britain resisted the nationalists because they were against the whole idea of colonial independence. But, even with the Labour Party in power in Britain from 1945 to ’51, those who were not imperialists, or who had reconciled themselves to losing Africa, as they had lost India, it was still to be some years before they would accept the ‘extreme’ nationalists as their proper successors. By 1951, Britain had been in Egypt and Sudan for almost a hundred years. Egypt had become a British protectorate in 1915 and had become independent in 1936, although British forces and interests remained in the country, underpinning Britain’s interest in the Suez Canal. Sudan’s self-government was granted in 1953, despite objections from the south.

A decade after the decolonisation began in Asia, the ‘wind of change’ was sweeping through Africa, and was hastened by the Suez Crisis in 1956. By April 1954, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70) had appeared, the leader of a revolutionary group of young army officers, and had become prime minister of Egypt. By then the British had retreated to the Suez Canal Zone, which it was determined to protect since it was still the most important in the world. Nasser, however, forced the British to sign an agreement that it would pull out its forces of more than eighty thousand from the Zone by the end of 1956. In some other colonies, they were also forced to do this.

On 19 October 1954, Britain and Egypt signed the withdrawal agreement from Egypt, by which the British were allowed to leave their weapons and equipment in the Zone base in case they had to return quickly to defend the Arab states in the region with which it had defence treaties. Within two years British forces would be back, but on the offensive against Nasser and the Egyptians, an offensive that would be condemned as an ‘imperial adventure’ by Britain’s closest ally, the United States.

Front pages from the British press at the beginning of the Suez invasion.

British paratroopers in the Suez Canal Zone, November 1956.

In 1956, in a late flourish of imperial self-assertion, Britain sent troops to the Suez Canal to safeguard its interests there in the old proprietorial way, with disastrous and humiliating results. I have written extensively about this in a separate article. Here, it has to be remembered that Egypt was no longer a colony at the time of the Suez Crisis, though control of the Canal remained an unresolved nationalist-imperialist issue for both Britain and France, as well as for Egypt.

However, the conflict naturally became part of a desperate scramble by the Conservatives to keep some sort of handhold in North-East Africa, a defensible position, to halt Britain’s fall from its imperial pre-eminence, but in the event, it failed. It may still have been necessary for their peace of mind for the Conservatives to make it. It was not a blind, intransigent resistance which they offered to the nationalist onslaught. The Eden-Macmillan governments were not reactionary, though they had some reactionary supporters. They did not mean to reverse the trend or even to halt it entirely. They professed, at the beginning of their second term in office, an intention to continue the process towards ‘self-government within the Commonwealth’, and they put no great obstacles in the way of this process within those colonies. Full independence for Sudan had been declared unilaterally in 1955, with Ismail al-Azhari becoming the first Sudanese Prime Minister. By then the process in Sudan was already too far advanced for the British to resist politically, and it could not afford to mount a military campaign. Its independence was finally, officially recognised by Britain after the Suez Crisis, in 1956.

In the 1950s, Sudan and the Gold Coast (Ghana) were the only colonies to escape from British rule. In 1958, however, there was a coup in Sudan, and the parliamentary system was replaced by a military dictatorship under General Ibrahim Abboud, who concluded a Nile Waters Agreement in 1959. The policy of Abboud and the Sudanese army in 1958, in the name of national unity, was to encourage, spread and impose Arabic and Islam at the expense of English and Christianity. This led to the expulsion of missionaries from the South which in turn led to further civil strife. In 1962, there was a widespread strike in southern Sudanese schools, and this was followed in 1963 by the emergence of a guerilla movement and of armed rebellion.

In the sixties, elsewhere in Africa, Ghana’s independence set in motion British disengagement from other colonies in West Africa. The rush to independence quite suddenly became a stampede. There was some hard bargaining, but Britain usually lost because (as with India in 1947) it had nothing of substance left to bargain with, except financial aid which it granted fairly liberally at first but more grudgingly later. It could no longer refuse or delay independence. Britain in the 1960s was hustled and harried out of most of its old colonies without too much initial bloodshed. In contrast to the rich and relatively well-developed colonies in the West, the transfer of power in the central and eastern African colonies was complicated by the competing claims of impoverished black populations and entrenched European minority settlements. Yet, despite these difficulties, a combination of African nationalism and the British desire to relinquish costly imperial commitments in the region resulted in independence and black majority rule in most African colonies, with the notable exception of Southern Rhodesia.

Countries ageing independence from Britain, with dates. The red flags show members of the Commonwealth in 1973.
Too rushed a retreat? – a post-imperial return to instability:

Despite the ideological differences within and between the two main political parties on colonial policy, both the Conservatives, under Macmillan, and Labour, now led by Harold Wilson (right), came into government determined to retain Britain’s remaining imperial and military possessions. However, both administrations succumbed to economic, political and international pressures, resulting first in Macmillan’s retreat from Africa, and then in Wilson’s withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’.

The East of Suez policy was precipitated by a combination of escalating defence costs, the devaluation crisis and the impact of the European Economic Community and the USA on British foreign policy, resulting in the scaling down and termination of military commitments in the Middle and Far East.

However, the rapid retreat of imperialism was frequently accompanied, sooner or later, by a return of internal tribalism, leading to ongoing conflict which has led some historians to suggest that the British withdrawal was too rapid and disorderly. What was left when those with an ‘interest’ began leaving the sinking ship was a residue of mainly emotional commitments to the glory of the empire, which were just not strong enough to persuade a realistic government, which was what Harold Macmillan’s was, to resist all the material pressures pushing the other way. Iain Macleod, who became Colonial Secretary in October 1959, always excused his surrender to colonial nationalism by pleading necessity, though he probably also had a genuinely liberal commitment to independence, as the following quote demonstrates:

‘We could not possibly have held by force to our territories in Africa. We could not, with an enormous force engaged, even continue to hold the small island of Cyprus. General de Gaulle could not contain Algeria. The march of men towards their freedom can be guided, but not halted. Of course there were risks in moving quickly. But the risks in moving slowly were far greater.’

Quoted in David Goldsworthy (1971), Colonial Issues in British Politics, 1945-1961. p. 363.

The spread and character of decolonisation were also determined by a mixture of international cold war politics, British imperial interests and local nationalist movements which varied, which varied in intensity from region to region. In Egypt and Kenya, for instance, nationalism took on radical, populist and violent forms, culminating in ‘state of emergency’ declarations by British governments. The withdrawal was also impaired by communal and ethnic tensions. In contrast, the transfer of power was comparatively peaceful in most African colonies. In Sudan, the dictator Abboud’s policies of imposing Arabic in the south of the country and the expulsion of missionaries led to civil strife, however. Abboud resigned in 1964 but disorder continued, with increasing tension between the Sudanese Communist Party and the traditionalist Islamic party, the Ummah. Civil conflict continued until 1971 when Colonel Nemieri negotiated the Addis Ababa agreement with the southern rebels, granting them wide regional autonomy. In the north, however, the continued influence of the Muslim Brotherhood resulted in a further strengthening of Shariah law.

Despite the speed with which the British Empire was brought to an end in the period 1945-65, Britain had no intention of severing all links with its former colonies. On the contrary, the ‘Commonwealth’ was seen as a natural successor to the Empire. Despite the hopes of some Conservatives to the contrary, the formation of the enlarged Commonwealth never allowed Britain to retain any real influence. Although some politicians trumpeted the ideal of a closer association of states as a means of reasserting British spheres of influence in Asia and Africa, Britain’s political leaders soon discovered they were unable to exercise the level of economic and political control that they had hoped to retain. In this context, Sudan’s independence was far more of a harbinger of the end of the empire than the more dramatic crisis in Egypt. However, the continuing political and economic instability in many African states, like Sudan, is, in part at least, the lingering long-term testimony to the legacy of the scramble of the European powers to acquire colonies on the continent, as well as of the equally desperate scramble to leave them when the winds of change began to blow.


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 Two; 1905-1965.

  1. Reblogged this on Andrew James and commented:

    It’s now just over a month since the paramilitary civil war began in Sudan. In this second retroreflective article, I will be concentrating on the role of the two world wars and the role of imperialism, fascism, nationalism and communism in the conflicts of the twentieth century within the region of North and East Africa, with special reference to Sudan.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: