As part of a continuing series of explorations of the colonial history of Egypt and Sudan, Phoebe Aldridge writes a guest post on a little-known aspect of the modern history of Sudan, the complexities of British rule, and the collecting of objects as loot.
The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium rule of Sudan in the 19th and 20th centuries is a story of government, misgovernment and the nature of rule. Throughout its existence, Sudan has been shaped by its perpetually differing controlling forces. After the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s, Sudan was less a nation to govern than an opportunity for exploitation and control. The British set out – and ultimately failed – to impose a new state, different to previous rule by the Mahdi – Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah (later Muhammad al-Mahdi), who launched a religious and political movement (Mahdiyya) in 1881 against the Khedivate of Egypt, which had ruled the Sudan since 1821.
During research in the Durham Sudan Archives, delving through hand-written scripts, internal government communications and propaganda messages, it is clear that the anti-Mahdist attitudes harboured by the British undermined their rule. Manifested in part by exploitative British looting, the Condominium inadventently maintained the profile of the previous regime. Propaganda against the Mahdiyya was extensive: whilst Mahdism was far from angelical and was a regime that Britain was attempting to quash, Europe treated it as purely diabolical and ‘of a witches’ brew of African primitivism and Muslim fanaticism’. A letter from the Madhi to British officials helps to explain why. In the letter, the Mahdi discusses the status of captives, seemingly threatening the British; he appeals for them to ‘be warned of the disasters that have befallen Hicks Pasha, Gordon Pasha and others’. The correspondence was not made public, yet the adoption of anti-Mahdist propaganda increased. The significant role of fear and anger in the British establishment of a ‘new’ Sudan should not be neglected, not least how this translated into control and exploitation. Both rules were led by figures shrouded in cult of personality, with Gordon playing the Mahdi’s ever-present foil, and parallels of policy and brutality emerged.
Looting by British soldiers was rampant and nowhere was this more apparent than in so-called exotic and distant corners of the Empire. The plethora of sources surrounding the looting of military equipment and Mahdist items evidences how, fuelled by propaganda, exploitation was rampant. The British lowered themselves to the perceived level of the enemy that they had vilified and without realising it, demonstrated their inadequacies as rulers. After the Battle of Omdurman, ‘every variety of loot was hawked about the camp for sale… everyone had a Dervish sword or two’. Babikr Bedri, a Sudanese diarist who vividly chronicled the three days of looting after the battle, wrote that soldiers ‘entered our houses and took and ate everything within reach of their eyes and hands’.
Perhaps more shocking, it appears that systems were in place for British peoples at home to buy objects found in the field. Lists of war trophies were requested by British authorities such as Dunbar Parish Council in 1919. Likewise, an 1896 letter from G. Benson to Sir Wingate, not yet Governor-General, asked that ‘my dear Wingate…can you tell me what has become of the trophies? My name was put on things that I wished to buy…’. The evident acquaintance of Benson to Wingate suggests an initiative of purchasing trophies operating among high-ranking British officials, corroborated by the final sentence of the letter which reads ‘love to Slatin [appointed Inspector-General of the Sudan in 1900].’ Such an organised initiative implies an overarching irony: that the manifestation of Mahdist memory in British rule was in fact facilitated to a large degree by the very high-ranking figures of governmental authority who were trying to combat it and their low morals were exactly the values being vilified in their propaganda against the Mahdis.
Evidently, looting and exploitation in Condominium Sudan were exacerbated by defiant anti-Mahdist attitudes and a desperation for control. Whilst debate can be made over the failure of the British to distance themselves from the past, in light of the recent discussions surrounding the restitution of the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles perhaps it is more important to explore these contexts with arguments for repatriation in mind.
Phoebe Aldridge graduated from Durham University in 2020 with a joint-honours degree in Ancient, Medieval and Modern History. With the Durham Sudan Archives on her doorstep and examining original government correspondence, Phoebe’s dissertation focused on the Condominium years in Sudan and the manifestation of Mahdism in the British rule. Since graduating she has reached out to others in this field and has been enjoying delving back into history and exploring her interests!