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Humane Acts and ‘Humanitarian Disasters’:

150 years of doing good in the Sudan

This article complements ‘Can Sudan be Saved?’ December 2004 issue of Commentary.

The South will be “overwhelmed—and indeed more or less enslaved”. Fears voiced by British Foreign Office staffer, September 1, 1943.

It all started in Turkey in 1872. General Gordon had just made a nostalgic visit to the Crimea, and was on his way home, when he called at the British Embassy in Constantinople and was spotted by the Prime Minister of Egypt. At first the Egyptian hadn’t the faintest idea who he was, but after making some enquiries about this remarkable Englishman, whose personality was so impressive and whose conversation he enjoyed for over an hour, he felt sure that Gordon was exactly the man they needed to fix up things in the Sudan—things that the PM and his superior, the wily Khedive of Egypt, had no intention of trying to fix by themselves.

The Khedive’s name was Ismail Pasha, and his troubles were of two main kinds. On the one hand there was the fuss about slavery being made in England by the Prince of Wales, by the Royal Geographical Society, and by the Anti-Slavery Society. The British parliament had abolished slavery in 1807, after decades of bitter debate, and it seemed downright scandalous that fifty years later, in the middle of the enlightened 19th century and during the reign of Queen Victoria herself, slave-trading was still going on in the Sudan. The province of Equatoria might be in darkest Africa, and a very long way up the Nile, but something would have to be done.

Just as embarrassing was the fuss being made by European financial institutions. Years of lavish spending had got Ismail Pasha into serious difficulties, and western banks and bondholders were pressing him hard. In the words of Charles Chenevix Trench:

He spent and borrowed with no thought for the morrow, and as little for the rate of interest (up to 36 percent for such risky investment) or his subjects’ taxable capacity. Between 1863 and 1877, the public debt rose from 4 million pounds to 87 million, to service which a doubling of the taxes screwed out of the unhappy fellahin (peasants) was totally inadequate.” (Charley Gordon, an Eminent Victorian Re-assessed, 70)

While some of this had been spent on necessary public works, a lot more had gone on an Egyptian imitation of Hausmann’s renovation of Paris, on palaces and gardens, on opera-houses and theatres, on a Cairo production of Verdi’s Aida to mark the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, on lavish hospitality provided for visiting kings, actors, sopranos, adventurers—and on the fleshpots of Paris too. Now he was being harassed by his creditors in Europe. They didn’t like slavery, they loudly said so, and they also insisted that something be done.

Ismail Pasha however was disinclined to do anything. Nor would any self-respecting member of the Egyptian establishment dream of spending months in the south and its mosquito-ridden swamps in pursuit of Arab slavers—it was an exile ten times worse than Siberia, a place where the worst criminals were sent to languish and die, and it was also largely beyond Cairo’s control. If however a foolhardy foreigner like Gordon could be persuaded to go tramping around in the pesthole of Equatoria, with malaria, tsetse fly, crocodiles and vipers and tribal savages—well, so much the better. Whether he managed to stop a few shipments of slaves, or failed to stop them, how could it matter? For his part Ismail would be happy to provide Gordon with a handful of convict-troops, gladly clearing out Cairo’s jails for the purpose. And he knew just how to handle his high-minded visitor. Described by Trench as a bulky, ginger-whiskered Albanian with his tarbush askew, Constantinople’s viceroy in Cairo

“had a remarkable gift of persuasion, due in part to his invariably conveying the impression that anyone he met was the one person he wished to see: men who went to see him bursting with exasperation would emerge purring with contentment and not realize for several hours that they had been bamboozled. He was adept at reading the character of those with whom he had to deal; to one he would offer money, to another flattery, to a third, a frank man-to-man confidence.”

In retrospect one can see they were made for each other, the upright Christian soldier and the suave Khedive. When General Gordon looked at slavery he saw an iniquity to be crushed in the service of God. When the serpentine Ismail Pasha looked at General Gordon he saw a man he could use; for if the world could be made to believe that this English paragon was fighting the slave-trade at Cairo’s behest, the viceroy’s present embarrassments might fade away: Gordon would provide both ethical cover and a way of saving the Khedive’s hide.

Doing good: suppressing slavery

General Gordon was not the first Englishman brought in to do what the Ottoman viceroy in Cairo wouldn’t and couldn’t do. In 1869 there’d been Sir Samuel Baker. During his period of service Baker relentlessly hunted slavers in a military sort of way; but he was clumsy, didn’t care who he offended, and we are told that he raided even friendly tribes to get supplies. His achievement consisted of mapping part of the Nile, establishing three police posts 300 miles apart, and leaving at each of them “about 600 miserable, unpaid convict-soldiers engaged solely in living at the expense of the natives. There was not even the most basic administration and the soldiers could not move half a mile from their posts except in large, armed gangs. Slavers operated without let or hindrance, from merchant princes dealing in human beings by the thousand to small traders picking up job-lots of half-a-dozen in a country where a healthy young female could be bought from her parents for a packet of needles.” (Trench, 116)

Now, in 1874, it was to be Gordon’s turn, and Gordon would surround himself with other westerners from France, Italy, Austria, Germany, and the USA. Whether anyone had thought about the long-term effects of having Christians rearrange Sudanese Muslim society, ban slavery—the most grievous of its sins—and make the region ethically aware of the modern world, is hard to say. But they certainly should have thought about it. The people of Khartoum had already been shocked by the 1857 appointment of Arakil Bey al-Armani, an Armenian Christian, as Governor General of Sudan (this under Ismail’s precedessor Said Pasha) and in the judgment of Robert O. Collins and Robert L Tignor, authors of Egypt and the Sudan, “the precedent of appointing Christian administrators was to have fateful consequences for subsequent administrations”.

One thing at least was sure: the appointment of a Christian Armenian as Governor General, and a Christian Englishman as Governor of Equatoria, established the pattern of northern Muslim response: first incredulity, then growing hostility, then steadily mounting resistance to what would be seen as an audacious, imperious, patronising and alien moral reproach by Christian outsiders on the issue of slavery.

This was bound to be the reaction of those who knew that attacking slavery attacked the heart of Sudanese society. Whole cities in the region then depended on the slave trade, and in Khartoum, as Trench puts it, all the tasks done in prosperous English homes at that time “by cooks, parlourmaids, housemaids, footmen, gardeners, and grooms, were done in Khartoum by slaves. Indeed it would be hard to find any householder so poor as not to own at least one slave… the economics of the country required a constant flow of fresh slaves and the vast majority of these were pagan blacks. Could any reasonable man” the residents of Khartoum thought, “deny that the life of a Negro—fed, clothed, kindly treated, lightly worked and converted to the Faith—as a slave in Egypt, the Sudan, Turkey or Syria was infinitely preferable to his life in Equatoria or the Congo, poor, nasty, brutish and short?”

For hundreds of years, perhaps millennia, the dispersed African communities of the south had been treated as if they were scattered human herds to be periodically harvested by the peoples of the north: “Females were allocated to concubinage or domestic service. Most of the males became servants or agricultural laborers; the lucky ones became bazingers, slave soldiers, to carry out raids in their turn; the unlucky ones were castrated for harem service, an operation performed in insanitary conditions, without anaesthetics, which was generally fatal.”

The slave trade: unexpected perplexities

Gordon was optimistic at first: “I shall not have any difficulty with slavers or the natives.” There was initially a lot of passive resistance by the Arab slavers, he wrote, “but if you are firm, they give in… I apprehend not the least difficulty in the work; the greatest will be to gain the people’s confidence again. They have been hardly treated.”

But it wasn’t long before he realized things were more complicated than they seemed, and a lot more complicated than the Anti-Slavery Society back in London understood. Closing the Nile as a route for shipping their goods northward had only forced the slavers into semi-desert to the west, where they marched their defenceless victims northward for days in fearful heat: “Up to the present,” he informed the Secretary of the Society, “the slave is worse off through your efforts… I am sure a poor child walking across the burning plains would say, ‘Oh, I do wish those gentlemen had left us alone to come down by boat!’”

He also found that the way many slaves felt about themselves and their situation did not accord with English preconceptions. In the first place, equatorial Africans were not as reluctant to leave their homes as was thought. He wrote to the Anti-Slavery society that “I have never witnessed the harrowing scenes related by other travellers. The slaves I have come across never will return to their tribes. I can only account for this by the consideration that they have found it much more amusing to be in civilized parts than where life is monotonous and food is scarce… (Most blacks would) give their all to be enslaved in a good Cairo house.”

He was also disturbed by what appeared like African callousness and lack of affection for children. When one of his servants stole a cow, and was caught, the thief reimbursed the cow’s owner by giving him one of his little sons. Gordon was upset to find the child missing, and asked the mother whether she was sorry. No, she said, she’d much rather have the cow. As he observed other examples of this sort of thing Gordon despaired, even suggesting at one point that the best way of dealing with what seemed a vicious and unalterable cultural pattern might be to make the slave trade a state monopoly—in other words to monitor and control what could not be suppressed.

But how can this be true?

Yet surely it is preposterous to claim that Constantinople’s viceroy in Cairo, the Khedive Ismail, actually hoped that Gordon and all the other foreigners running around in pursuit of slave-traders would fail? Surely it was to Egypt’s advantage to stamp the slave-trade out? But if this was so why didn’t the Khedive use what authority he had to try and stop it himself? He did nothing—even his letters to Gordon were insincere. He simultaneously encouraged Gordon’s efforts, while advising his own administrative staff to carry on as before: “The Khedive writes to me quite harshly to stop this slave-trade”, wrote Gordon, “but you see his own Mudirs (district officers) helping it on… The real culprits are his local authorities and the Khartoum merchants who are entirely in his power…”

But again (so it might be argued), hadn’t an earlier viceroy in Cairo already tried to act? Is it not true that Said Pasha had directly responded to Western pressure in 1854 by setting up a police station at Fashoda to halt the slave trade? And whatever may be said of Ismail Pasha, wasn’t the earlier Said Pasha sincere? The evidence suggests that Said may indeed have begun with high hopes; but a tour of Sudan in 1857 seems to have finally convinced him of the futility of trying to do anything at all in this remote, desolate, and backward region, and “he considered abandoning the country altogether”. (Egypt and the Sudan, 70)

But what about the Anglo-Egyptian Slave Convention signed in 1877, two years before Ismail’s fall? Surely this meant something? Alas, more clever window-dressing is what it mainly meant. Though threatening death for anyone found trafficking slaves, “the decree permitted the sale of slaves from family to family for seven years in Egypt and twelve years in the Sudan” and any astute slaver well knew how to escape conviction.

Meanwhile, what was going on elsewhere? What policies were being followed in those vast and arid regions to the west where native northern Sudanese, not imported Christian governors, remained in charge? While the evangelical General with his Bible was thrashing about in the mosquito-ridden swamps near Gondokoro, what were the Arabs up to? In a province which has been much in the news lately, Bahr el-Ghazal, Arab slavers in the 1860s had established huge empires, with private armies and hundreds of trading stations, and from these stations “long lines of human chattels were sent overland through Darfur and Kordofan to the slave markets of the Northern Sudan, Egypt, and Arabia.” (Egypt and the Sudan, 73)

The bones of thousands who fell by the wayside still litter the desert today—and eventually the whole of Bahr el-Ghazal came under the rule of the paramount slaver Zobeir Pasha. But not only this. Even more remarkably, Ismail Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, the viceroy of the Ottoman Empire in Cairo, made this notorious chieftain governor of the province since this was “the only way to establish at least the nominal sovereignty of Cairo” over that enormous territory.

Doing good: protecting the natives

So much for the first stage of British involvement in the South up to 1900. It would of course be absurd to pretend that British concerns in the Nile Valley were purely disinterested and philanthropic: that is definitely not what is argued here. The importance of the Suez Canal as an imperial route to India and beyond was the main reason why the British secured control of Egypt. At the same time a scramble for Africa was taking place, so that Gordon’s other duty in the southern region, besides arresting slavers, was to scout the situation on the borders of colonizable land in British East Africa. Officially he was there to assert Egyptian influence, and perhaps win over the King of Baganda and annex his domain; but he also had an implicit brief on behalf of the British crown to ensure the Belgians and the French didn’t move in and seize control. (The “Fashoda Incident” of 1898 ended the French effort.)

Yet after they had effective control over the entire Nile Valley, there was a growing sense that little by little the British administration had taken on a custodial duty of care for the tribal peoples of the southern region—along with a concern that unless a positive effort were made to protect them from the political, commercial, and religious drive of Islam to the South, and from the assertiveness of Arab nationalism in Khartoum, populations like the Dinka and the Nuer would be overwhelmed. The protectionism of what soon came to be called the “southern policy”, a policy similar to that which has seen special refuges called reservations established for tribal peoples almost everywhere, was a growing source of northern resentment between 1899 to 1955.

Right from the start Sudanese leaders suspected the British of trying to separate northern from southern Sudan. That suspicion was fully justified. “In 1922 the south was formally declared to be a ‘closed district’ and Arab traders and others were practically debarred from entry to many parts of it, while the Permits to Trade Order, of 1925, further controlled entry into, and trading in, the south.” (Edgar O’Ballance, The Secret War in the Sudan, 28)

By 1930 Sir John Maffey, the British Governor General in Khartoum, believed that while it might still be possible to isolate the south, it would be dangerous because of mounting Arab-nationalist sentiment in the north. Nevertheless, whatever the dangers, a policy of ethnic rejuvenation was embraced designed to encourage the southern tribal peoples in “the cultivation of their languages, and conservation and sublimation of all that is of value in their customs and institutions”, the object being to “build up a series of self-contained racial and tribal units with a structure and organization based, to whatever extent the requirements of equity and good government permit, upon indigenous customs, traditional usages and beliefs.” (Peter Woodward, Condominium and Sudanese Nationalism, 11; O’Ballance, The Secret War, 30)

But this anthropological turn in policy raised serious questions. Modernization was coming one way or another—not least because of the influence of Christian missions among the Dinka, and the education and literacy they provided. Preserving indigenes like butterflies in amber, even on the upper Nile, was impossible. And if in contrast to teaching children how to read and write the emphasis was to be on fostering “indigenous customs, traditional usages, and beliefs”, where would modern education and literacy fit into the picture? More ominously, if it didn’t, and the British left, how would educationally ill-equipped and illiterate tribal people defend themselves?

As the colonial era neared its end in the 1940s, and it became more and more certain that the British would be forced to abandon a soon-to-be-independent Sudan, a crisis born of these historic policy contradictions loomed. With little change in traditional Arab attitudes toward African slavery, on the one hand, and with a nostalgic and unrealistic tribal rejuvenation endorsed by the British on the other, the possibility foreseen in 1943, and referred to with alarm by the British Foreign Office, that the Dinka, the Nuer, the Shillook, and the Azande would be “overwhelmed—and indeed more or less enslaved” became more and more grimly probable.

The unintended result of doing good: guerrilla war

Inevitably, in 1955 the British left. Three years before this happened, the Governor of Equatoria, E. H. Nightingale, had foreseen the reaction of the people: “The shock of discovering that the British propose to withdraw and abandon them within the next three years to other administrators who are distrusted or even hated by the majority of the population will, I believe, leave them bewildered and resentful.” Disgust at the prospect of Arab rule by Khartoum was general. Letters begging the British to stay came in. One of them concluded that “If the Northerners and Egyptians want to join with the South let them bring with them our grandfathers and grandmothers, and all our brethren whom they carried away as slaves long ago.” (Woodward, Condominium, 148)

Soon resentment turned to resistance, and before long, in August 1955, a mutiny by African troops in the Equatoria Corps announced the beginning of open revolt. The early period from 1955 to 1963 , according to Edgar O’Ballance, “was simply one of guerrilla survival, scarcely removed from banditry.” The fighters called themselves Anya-Nya (“snake poison”) and originally consisted or some 800 southerners who had been jailed after the 1955 mutiny, with only 200 firearms, little ammunition, and otherwise just bows and arrows, spears and machetes. Action consisted of ambushes, shootings, and minor but provocative attacks. And in reprisal in 1964 the expulsion of foreign missionaries began.

Offers from Khartoum of federal autonomy failed to persuade the increasingly active guerrillas to lay down their arms. What they now wanted was what the British had failed to provide: an independent southern state. The subsequent vengefulness of the government closely resembled what is going on in Darfur today. A minor personal incident between a Muslim and an African in 1965 led the Muslim garrison in Juba to run amok, with 3000 African huts burned and an estimated 1019 southerners killed in two days. As news of this spread throughout the South, southerners claimed that the “brutal and barbaric killing” at Juba was “not an accident but part and parcel of a plan to depopulate the South.” In hindsight we might say that at this stage genocide was being trialled, but had yet to be perfected.

The northern army particularly targeted Christian missions and mission schools, the devastation being such that in August 1965 the Pope appealed to the Sudanese premier, Mahgoub, to find a peaceful solution. Mahgoub replied with asperity that he had already asked the rebels to lay down their arms; it was now up to the Pope himself to petition the rebels. Next, voices were heard in Khartoum alleging that certain “irresponsible people” were trying to turn the “southern problem” into a crusade. By October the Church Missionary society estimated that half the churches in the south had been destroyed and that whole communities had fled from “murder, torture, and wholesale destruction.” Late in 1965 Anthony Carthew secretly visited Equatoria province and wrote in the Daily Mail for January 31st 1966:

For mile after mile in this wilderness it is the wreck of a civilization which meets the eye: the burned-out shells of African villages put to the torch by Arab troops of the Sudanese Army. The smell of burning was always in my nostrils. It still is. Where once men worked and children played and cattle grazed, there is no sound except the coughing of the baboons and the wind rattling the dagger spikes of the thorn trees. (O’Ballance, 87)

By 1969 MIGs were being used by President Numeiri of Sudan against villages suspected of being Anya-Nya bases in the south. The Christian Science Monitor reported on January 14th 1970 that during 1969 Numeiri’s army had wiped out entire villages and a large part of their population in at least 212 cases. At Marial Aguog, a village in Bahr el-Ghazal province, all 700 inhabitants were allegedly machine-gunned, while at the police post of Ulang in Upper Nile province, around 2000 people were killed, and their cattle seized and driven northwards.

No-one will ever know how many died in this “secret war” before a ceasefire granting a degree of political autonomy in the South was arranged in 1972, though O’Ballance believes the often mentioned figure of 500,000 to be exaggerated. But the procedures followed were identical to those being followed by the government of Omar al-Bashir in Dafur today: African villages were razed to the ground, their inhabitants abandoned their agricultural land, men, women, and children were machine-gunned from the air, while thousands more died from malnutrition, neglect, and famine. And what the southerners were fighting for was the same too: “the annulment of Khartoum’s policy of the Arabization of the South.”


It is now exactly 150 years since the first western-inspired humanitarian intervention on behalf of the peoples of southern Sudan. In 1854 Said Pasha, the Ottoman viceroy at that time in Cairo, established a police-station to prosecute slave-traders about 260 miles south of Khartoum at Fashoda. This represented the first of many efforts, major and minor, sometimes effective and sometimes not, to intervene in this Arab country on behalf of its African inhabitants, and to suppress the slave traffic from Central Africa to the North. From the days of the Anti-Slavery Society in the mid-19th century one purpose of these efforts had been to protect indigenous peoples and cultures, some of them making their way toward modernity through Christianity and the adoption of English, from the militant expansion of sundry Arabizing Egyptian and north-Sudanese regimes.

It cannot be said that this aim has been successful. Only territorial independence could have saved the peoples of the South, and when it came to the sticking point, this was too much for the British, with their weakening hold on the situation, to try and achieve. Influenced by anthropological sentiment, they rashly—if understandably—adopted a policy of ethnic salvation and rejuvenation, of trying to restore already disintegrating indigenous institutions: but this left most southerners illiterate, uneducated, and defenceless.

In the light of history, intervention to stop slave-trading was the only moral course open to west-Europeans in the 19th century. Then, once Britain had territorial control of the region, some attempt to shield the people of the South from cultural aggrandisement and conversion was almost equally inevitable. But tragically, the implicit custodial duty of care which outside powers embrace, in the course of the temporary occupation of foreign lands, cannot ultimately be honored. That this is so—that millions may have to be abandoned to their fate—is something to be deeply pondered by anyone contemplating similar action today.

“Allah laughed when he made the Sudan” — Arab saying.
“Allah cried when he made the Sudan” — another Arab saying.

Posted in Africana.