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Mahdi Uprising 1882-1885

In the 1850s, the legal systems in Egypt and Sudan was revised, introducing a commercial code and a criminal code administered in secular courts. The change reduced the prestige of the qadis (Islamic judges) whose sharia courts were confined to dealing with matters of personal status. Even in this area, the courts lacked credibility in the eyes of Sudanese Muslims because they conducted hearings according to the Ottoman Empire's Hanafi school of law rather than the stricter Maliki school traditional in the area. The Turkiyah also encouraged a religious orthodoxy favored in the Ottoman Empire. The government undertook a mosque-building program and staffed religious schools and courts with teachers and judges trained at Cairo's Al Azhar University. The government favored the Khatmiyyah, a traditional religious order, because its leaders preached cooperation with the regime. But Sudanese Muslims condemned the official orthodoxy as decadent because it had rejected many popular beliefs and practices.

The Mahdist movement, which was utterly to overthrow Egyptian rule, derived its strength from two different causes: the oppression under which the people suffered, and the measures taken to prevent the Baggara (cattle-owning Arabs) from slave trading. Venality and the extortion of the tax-gatherer flourished anew after the departure of Gordon, while the feebleness of his successors inspired in the Baggara a contempt for the authority which prohibited them pursuing their most lucrative traffic. When Mahommed Ahmed, a Dongolese, proclaimed himself the long-lookcd-for Mahdi (guide) of Islam, he found most of his original followers among the grossly superstitious villagers of Kordofan, to whom he preached universal equality and a community of goods, while denouncing the Turks as unworthy Moslems on whom God would execute judgment.

The Baggara perceived in this Mahdi one who could be used to shake off Egyptian rule, and their adhesion to him first gave importance to his "mission." Mahommed Ahmed became at once the leader and the agent of the Baggara. He married the daughters of their sheikhs and found in Abdullah, a member of the Taaisha section of the tribe, his chief supporter. The first armed conflict between the Egyptian troops and the Mahdi's followers occurred in August 1881. In June 1882 the Mahdi gained his first considerable success. The capture of El Obeid on 17 January 1883 and the annihilation in the November of an army of over 10,000 men commanded by Hicks Pasha (Colonel William Hicks, formerly of the Bombay army), made the Mahdi undisputed master of Kordofan and Sennar. The next month, December 1883, saw the surrender of Slatin in Darfur, while in February 1884 Osman Digna, his amir in the Red Sea regions, inflicted a crushing defeat on some 4,000 Egyptians at El Teh near Suakin. In April following Lupton Bey, governor of Bahr-el-Ghazal, whose troops and officials had embraced the Mahdist cause, surrendered and was sent captive to Omdurman, where he died on the 8th of May 1888.

On learning of the disaster to Hicks Pasha's army, the British government (Great Britain having been since 1882 in military occupation of Egypt) insisted that the Egyptian government should evacuate such parts of the Sudan as they still held, and General Gordon was despatched, with Lieut.-Colonel Donald H. Stewart, to Khartum to arrange the withdrawal of the Egyptian civil and military population. Gordon's instructions, based largely on his own suggestions, were not wholly consistent; they contemplated vaguely the establishment of some form of stable government on the surrende, and among the documents with which he was furnished was a firman creating him governor-general of the Sudan.

General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, a soldier who had success in dealing with the Chinese and so was of renown for his abilities, was sent to lead the Egyptian forces against the Sudanese dervishes. The British had ignored the training of the Egyptian forces andwhile the Gladstone administration made a symbolic gesture of sending a leader of somerenown and experience against third world forces, General Gordon was left to his own devices. Since he was leading an army that was largely untrained and pressed into service against a motivated religious movement, Gordon, despite his extraordinary personal efforts, was doomed. His repeated requests for resupply and reinforcements were ignored.

Gordon reached Khartum on the 18th of February 1884 and at first his mission, which had aroused great enthusiasm in England, promised success. To smooth the way for the retreat of the Egyptian garrisons and civilians he issued proclamations announcing that the suppression of the slave trade was abandoned, that the Mahdi was sultan of Kordofan, and that the Sudan was independent of Egypt. He enabled some thousands of refugees to make their escape to Aswan and collected at Khartum troops from some of the outlying stations.

By this time the situation had altered for the worse and Mahdism was gaining strength among tribes in the Nile valley at first hostile to its propaganda. As the only means of preserving authority at Khartum (and thus securing the peaceful withdrawal of the garrison) Gordon repeatedly telegraphed to Cairo asking that Zobeir Pasha might be sent to him, his intention being to hand over to Zobeir the government of the country. Zobeir, a Sudanese Arab, was probably the one man who could have withstood successfully the Mahdi. Owing to Zobeir's notoriety as a slave-raider Gordon's request was refused. All hope of a peaceful retreat of the Egyptians was thus rendered impossible.

The Mahdist movement now swept northward and on the 20th of May Berber was captured by the dervishes and Khartum isolated. From this time the energies of Gordon were devoted to the defence of that town. After months of delay due to the vacillation of the British government a relief expedition was sent up the Nile under the command of Lord Wolseley. It started too late to achieve its object, and on the 25th of January 1885 Khartum was captured by the Mahdi and Gordon killed.

Colonel Stewart, Frank Power (British consul at Khartum) and M. Herbin (French consul), who (accompanied by nineteen Greeks) had been sent down the Nile by Gordon in the previous September to give news to the relief force, had been decoyed ashore and murdered (Sept. 18, 1884). The fall of Khartum was followed by the withdrawal of the British expedition, Dongola being evacuated in June 1885. In the same month Kassala capitulated, but just as the Mahdi had practically completed the destruction of the Egyptian power, he died, in this same month of June 1885. He was at once succeeded by the khalifa Abdullah, whose rule continued until 1898, when his army was completely overthrown by an Anglo-Egyptian force under Sir H. (afterwards Lord) Kitchener.

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Page last modified: 08-01-2014 19:02:37 ZULU