Unlearned Lessons from the Mahdist Defeat of the British

· Comment

Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah was a leader in the Sudan, who proclaimed himself a sort of redeemer for Moslems in 1891. Egypt, under Turkish rule, did not look kindly upon his ideas, which resulted in war, including intervention by the British. The Wikipedia page at this time [December 17, 2014] confusingly states that he declared a jihad (after being attacked), but “did not advocate the application of jihad”. That may be of little import considering in 1883, a sword-and-spear contingent defeated a larger rifle-armed group. The Mahdi’s followers then defeated several groups of British-led Egyptian forces, in places such as Darfur and Khartoum. Shades of Afghanistan and Iraq! Here is a <link> to a Master’s Thesis on the topic, Winston Churchill’s description is linked further below.

In  Oceana, an late 19th Century book by James Anthony Froude, an interesting paragraph is made upon the events in the Sudan. It refers to volunteers in Australia. In the following text, “Sudan” is spelt “Soudan”.

Volunteers crowded to enrol their names. Patriotic citizens gave contributions of money on a scale which showed that little need to be feared for the taxpayer. Archbishop Moran, the Catholic Primate, gave a hundred pounds, as an example and instruction to the Irish; others, the wealthy ones, gave a thousand. The rush of feeling was curious and interesting to witness. The only question with me was if it would last. The ancient Scythians discussed critical national affairs first drunk and then sober. Excited emotion is followed a a cold fit, and it is desirable to postpone a final decision till the cold fit has come. If the force went and was cut to pieces, if it was kept in garrisons and not exposed in the field, if it suffered from sickness or from any one of the innumerable misadventures to which troops on active service are liable, the sense of glory might turn to discontent, the tide would change, and worse might follow than if the enterprise had never been ventured. The opposition was not silence; I listened for a quarter of an hour to an orator haranguing a crowd in the public park. He spoke well, and I was glad that I had not to answer him.’What was this war in the Soudan?’ he said; ‘who were these poor Arabs, and why were we killing them? By our own confession they were brave men who were fighting for the liberty of their country. Why had we invaded them? Did we want to take their country from them? If it was necessary for our own safety there would be some excuse, but we had ostentatiously declared that after conquering them we inteded to withdraw. Neither we nor anyone could tell what we wanted. We were shooting down human beings in tens of thousands, whose courage we ourselves admired. They had done us no wrong, and no object could be suggested save that the English Government had a difficulty in keeping their party contented in Parliament. Was this a cause in which far-off Australia should seek a part uncalled-for, or lend her sanction to an enormous crime? Let her keep at home and mind her own business, and not add, without better occasion, to the burdens of her people.’

The crowd listened, and here and there, especially where the speaker dwelt upon the right of all people to manage their own affairs, there were murmurs of approval; but the immense majority were indifferent or hostile. The man, in fact, was speaking beside the mark. The New South Wales colonists cared nothing about the Soudan. They were making a demonstration in favour of national identity. …

The sentiments of the soap-box orator, let him be called so, would seem to mirror those of anti-war, anti-foreign adventure Republican U.S. politician Ron Paul. The British, in spite of their colonial tendencies, based on the above text, had a better opinion of their adversary than their modern-day equivalents.

A partial proof that the speaker correctly identified praise by the British for the Arabs is in the following words of Winston Churchill, “The Arab was an African reproduction of the Englishman …”, a statement unfortunately corrupted by ” the Englishman a superior and civilised development of the Arab”.  Nevertheless, in the same document, The River War, An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan, (1902), Churchill defends the rebellion of the Mahdi as justified. “The reasons which forced the peoples of the Soudan to revolt were as strong as the defence which their oppressors could offer was feeble … upon the whole there exists no record of a better case for rebellion
than presented itself to the Soudanese … any armed movement against an established Government can be justified only by success, strength is an important revolutionary virtue. It was a virtue that the Arabs might boast. They were indeed far stronger than they, their persecutors, or the outside world had yet learned. All were soon to be enlightened. ”

Again, but not included in the above version of The River War, [The anti-Arab expressions of Churchill are excluded as irrelevant to the intent of this article; the following edited quote is from the first edition, Vol. II, pages 248 50 (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1899)], “Thousands [of individual Moslems]  become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen …”[quotation from www.winstonchurcill.org].

An earlier quote, which adds validity to Mr. Froude’s observation, is taken from Fanaticism and Conflict in the Modern Age, Mathhew Hughes, ed. (Routledge, 2004) wherein is read: that “The British and fought many brave and disciplined foes, but the Mahdists, often armed only with spears and shields, appeared to be quite distinctive … the Daily Telegraph [‘Arab Warfare’, Daily Telegraph, 1 March 1884, 3.25 …] described how:

Under the influence of certain powerful motives they rise easily to absolute heroism … A romantic chivalry towards women makes the Arab prize very highly their approbation of his personal courage, and his poetry incites him to exploits of veritable knight errantry … “

Some lessons, which are left to the reader to derive, by comparing to current world problems, are just never learnt. Meanwhile, enemies are treated ever worse than in the past, with epithets that are the opposite of all the toleration and justice preached by our Western warring nations.

December 18, 2014. Paul Karl Moeller.

The extract from Froude should be free of copyright restrictions, as his death occurred in 1894. Taken from the 1888 New Edition of Oceana, pp. 149-50, Longman’s Greene & Co. 

1 Comment

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google+ photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: