Great Britain in the Sudan
By Herbert Adams Gibbons
[The Century Magazine, January 1917]
After the failure of the Khartum relief expedition and the death of General Gordon, the British Government ordered Egypt and the British army to drop the Sudan. During the decade that followed the shameful fiasco of 1884 the Gordon legend alone was in the mind of the Britisher who never left his tight little island, and who considered that fact a kind of virtue. The Mahdi reigned supreme in the Sudan, and after his death, his successor, the Khalifa, continued to exterminate the tribes of the upper tributaries of the Nile. For all British cabinets and the British public seemed to care, the dervishes were welcome to keep the Sudan, and the early eighties were "past history."
But some Englishmen did care and did not forget. In fact, there was never a moment that the thought of the eventual reconquest of the Sudan and of the retrieving of the honor of British arms was not before them. They had the vision. They lived with eyes fixed on the goal. The battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898, which made possible the reconquest and redemption of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and the foundation of its present splendid government, was the culminating event of more than ten years of herculean effort on the part of a handful of men whose enthusiasm was fortunately matched by their foresight, patience, and ability. The victory won at Omdurman was the beginning of a new era for the British Empire in Africa and throughout the world. History will give to those who worked for it and those who won it credit for far more than the rehabilitation of the Sudan.
British colonial administrators have succeeded in building an empire despite, rather than with the help of, their Government and the great mass of their fellow-countrymen. Problems confronting them in their field of action have never been more difficult than the problem of getting and keeping support from home. London is the bête noire of the English official overseas. Cablegrams from home cause more trouble than native uprisings. In regard to foreign policy, Conservative and Liberal cabinets are very much the same. They are guided by the fears and the hopes of general elections, and they hate like poison to spend the British taxpayers' money overseas, to sanction any policy that is likely to cause fighting in which British troops must be engaged, to offend the nonconformist conscience. Colonial administrators who keep in mind constantly these three points, and who plan to get results without coming into conflict with the Government on any one of them, succeed in making for themselves great careers, and gain honors, if not peace of mind. Those who do not keep these points in mind never get very far in a colonial career.
The reconquest of the Sudan needed a decade of preparation. There was never any hope at all of convincing the British public of the necessity of pouring out blood and treasure to get back to Khartum. Unwillingness to pay the price had been the cause of the debacle of 1884. The only other possible way of accomplishing what they had in mind was to put Egypt upon a sound financial basis, and to create an Egyptian army that knew how to fight and that would fight. The invasion of the Sudan, culminating in the victory of Omdurman, was possible only because Lord Cromer made Egypt's revenues exceed her expenditures, and because Lord Kitchener got an Egyptian army into good fighting shape. When this was accomplished, and not before, it was pointed out to London that Egypt could contribute both in men and money very substantially to an expedition against the Khalifa. There had also to be an appeal to public opinion in England, and in particular to the nonconformist conscience. So for years one can read in Lord Cromer's annual reports a skilfully introduced and skilfully emphasized Leitmotiv, the necessity to Egypt of the reclamation of the Sudan. There never could be security in upper Egypt until the dervishes were crushed. Never would irrigation projects on a large scale be justifiable or possible until the head-waters of the Nile were under Anglo-Egyptian control.Never would the African slave-traffic be stopped until the region from the equator to Wady-Halfa was policed by Europeans. Common humanity and moral responsibility also demanded the reconquest of the Sudan, for the native population was rapidly dying out everywhere because of the dervish cruelties and mismanagement. Last of all, from the point of European prestige, the Italian defeat at Adowa must be counteracted.* [* At Adowa, not far from the Sudan border, the Italians were disastrously defeated by the Abyssinians in 1896.]
Since Egyptian money and Egyptian lives were largely instrumental in the reconquest of the Sudan, and since the legal rights to the territories it would comprise rested wholly in the Ottoman Empire and the Egyptian khedives, it was impossible, though it would have been desirable, to establish an English colony or a distinct protectorate under direct British control. Then, too, the Sudan was going to look for an indeterminable period to the Egyptian army and the Egyptian budget for soldiers and money to hold, to rehabilitate, and to develop the vast regions which Mahdism had cruelly oppressed and ruined. And was not the principal reason for reconquest the political security and the economic advantages to Egypt through possessing the head-waters of the Nile? Owing to Great Britain's anomalous position in Egypt, the problem was exceedingly delicate both from the international and the Ottoman point of view.
A convention signed at Cairo on January 19, 1899, by the British and Egyptian governments stated that the territory south of the twenty-second parallel of latitude was to be administered by a governor-general appointed by Egypt with the assent of Great Britain. The British and Egyptian flags were to be used together. No duties were to be levied on imports from Egypt, and duties on imports from other countries, by way of the Red Sea, were not to exceed the Egyptian tariffs. As long as it should be necessary, Egypt was to make good the deficit in the Sudan budget. But the money invested in the Sudan by Egypt would be considered a loan, upon which interest was to be paid as soon as possible. A portion of the Egyptian army should serve in the Sudan, under the command of the governor-general, a British officer of the Egyptian army with the rank of sirdar. So long as the nations that enjoyed the privileges of a capitulatory regime in Egypt did not demand the extension of the capitulations to the Sudan, and so long as Egypt remained under effective British control, such an arrangement, paradoxical as it seemed, was workable. It has worked out all right. But it is important to note that the exact status of the Sudan, both from the international and the Egyptian point of view, has not yet been determined. It will come up for settlement in the peace conference, when the affairs of the Ottoman Empire are liquidated, and international sanction is asked for the British protectorate proclaimed over Egypt since the opening of the European War.
Once the Sudan was reconquered, Cromer and Kitchener still held to the policy of "sound financial basis" that had made the conquest possible; for they knew that the British Government would take little interest in, and do nothing for, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan unless it was demonstrated to them that the country could pay its way. Immediate use could be made of almost unlimited sums of money. The temptation was great to enter upon, and urge London and Cairo to cooperate in, ambitious development schemes. Cromer and Kitchener were in complete accord in not falling into this trap, and when Kitchener was suddenly called away to South Africa, Lord Cromer was fortunate in finding in his successor. Sir Reginald Wingate, an administrator fully aware of the danger of grandiose schemes of rehabilitation and rapid development. The initial financial policy laid down by Lord Cromer in his address to the Sudanese chiefs at Khartum in December, 1900, to the effect that taxes were not to be made burdensome, even if communications and developments had to wait, has been faithfully and consistently carried out. To it more than to anything else is due the marvelous success of the Sudan administration. For the Sudanese have had from the beginning the contrast of the equitable taxation of the British with that which ground them down and ruined them under the Mahdi and the Khalifa; and the British Government has not been made weary and prejudiced against the Sudan by unreasonable demands for financial support.
And yet money had to be found immediately for railways, river transport, and irrigation. The pacification of the country and the rehabilitation of its inhabitants depended upon means of transportation and the cultivation of the land. Everything had been destroyed or had fallen into decay during the years of anarchy, so all kinds of public works needed a substantial budget. Popular education had to be thought of, and the expenses of the civil administration and a considerable military establishment provided for. Though the financial task looked so formidable as to be almost hopeless, it was successfully faced and shouldered, and the country saved from concession-hunters and insolvency by the adoption and maintenance of the conservative policy of "go slow and pay as you go."
In 1910, Sir Reginald Wingate was able to report that the civil administration was paying its way; the only deficit was in the military budget. Three years later there was a surplus of two hundred thousand dollars. The Sudan had made good. A few months ago I had the privilege of spending several hours with Colonel Bernard, financial secretary of the Sudan. He explained to me the consistent policy that had been followed since Lord Kitchener had asked him to undertake the business management of the Government more than a decade ago. He spoke with the enthusiasm and keenness and understanding of an American captain of industry. Colonel Bernard is a type of officer one finds only in the British army. If he were a Frenchman, he would never have left Paris. If he were an American, he would have a yacht and a summer home at Newport or Bar Harbor, and be wondering what to do with his money. We occasionally get in our army and navy men with a genius for business, but they do not stay. It may be partly due to the fact that until the Spanish War there were no tasks to challenge this type of man, but it is mostly due to the fact that our social system is wholly different from that of Great Britain. The British Colonial Empire was built and is being run by men who have gone into government service for reasons of caste. No matter how remarkable his aptitude for business, the upper-class Britisher never dreams of a business career. He is willing to leave home and friends, to spend the best years of his life in exile, and be content with an occasional visit to England and little or no money, if there be no career open to him at home in which he may preserve his caste. This is the secret of Great Britain's world empire. Only Great Britain is able to recruit for her army and navy and colonial civil service the best blooded and the best trained of the nation.
Without the railway across the desert from Wady-Halfa to Atbara, Kitchener's task against the dervishes would have been tenfold more difficult, and the victory of doubtful permanent value. As the invaders proceeded to Khartum, it was essential to lay ties and rails with unflagging haste. Only did the reoccupation seem a reality and worth while when through railway service was established from Khartum to Wady-Halfa. As the political success of the reconquest was wholly dependent upon its proving a financial success, and as serious economic development was out of the question so long as the route through Egypt was the only exit from the country, the first task of the Government was to connect the Nile with the Red Sea by railway. In 1902, Lord Cromer pointed this out in his annual report, and the following year he succeeded in getting the Egyptian Government to furnish the money. After untold difficulties with labor, and the construction of a bridge over the Atbara River, the junction was completed in 1907. Suakim was abandoned as the terminus on the Red Sea, and a harbor built some miles farther north at a hamlet which was renamed Port Sudan. The Atbara railway shops were increased and improved, and the Sudan Government itself bore part of the expense of remaking the line from Khartum to Atbara. In 1908 telegraphic communication was completed with Gondokoro, on the White Nile, two weeks by steamer south of Khartum. The Blue Nile was bridged at Khartum for a railway into the Gezira district between the two rivers. El-Obeid, the terminus of this southern railway extension, was reached in 1913. A glance at the map is necessary to realize what tremendous territory the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan covers, and how impossible it is for the administrators of the country to pacify the country, much less to develop its resources completely and to civilize it, until more railways are built, reaching into the heart of all the different provinces.
The greatest appeal to the imagination of the British public in connection with the reconquest of the Sudan was the fulfilment of the task for which it was generally believed that Gordon had given his life, the suppression of the slave-trade. Although the difficulties seemed insurmountable in so far as slavery within the tribes was concerned. Lord Cromer felt it incumbent on him to mention in his report almost every year the progress of the slave-suppression crusade. In 1903 he confessed his disappointment that slave-trade was not extinct; in 1904 he announced a marked decrease in slave-trade; in 1905 he said that it was difficult to check slave-traffic in the Kordofan province; in 1906 he believed that there would still be great difficulty in suppressing the slave-trade; and in 1907 he attributed most of the trouble in Kordofan to the anti-slavery policy to which the Government was committed. The road to abolition, he remarked in his last report, "is a very long road, and it will take years to get to the end of it." Improved communications, however, and the advance of colonial enterprise in British, German, Belgian, and French equatorial colonies, helped to put a stop to long-distance slave-running. The area of operations of slave merchants has been gradually circumscribed until in 1914 the official report announced that slave-traffic was "almost impossible" in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
British officials who have to deal with slavery at close range, especially the judges, consider this statement a bit too optimistic. Slave-traffic can be detected and frequently punished when it is carried on from district to district; but within tribal limits, especially if the tribes be Moslem, legal evidence is hard to obtain even where moral certainty of definite cases of slavery exists. Where slavery is as established an institution as polygamy, decrees bind only those who dare or who want to take advantage of them. There are cases without number, also, where the slaves are ignorant of the abolition of the decree, and even if it were explained to them, they would not know what it meant. Education is a necessary prerequisite to the functioning and enjoying of Occidental social and political institutions. Enthusiasts and sentimentalists forget the fact that our ancestors did not evolve, support, and use these institutions until we conceived and desired them as a result of education.
Lord Kitchener's first visit to the Sudan after the Boer War was to open Gordon College, in 1902, when he was on his way to India. In his address he asserted his entire sympathy with the objects of the college on the lines originally conceived, although he admitted the necessity of using public funds for the advancement of primary teaching. He expressed the hope that he would be able to return in five years and find that higher education was being given at Gordon College.* [*Lord Kitchener did not return in five years, as he hoped. But he visited Khartum again in 1910, and was promising himself a long tour, after he went back to Cairo as his Majesty's agent and consul-general, when the present war broke out. Sir Reginald Wingate, writing to me from Khartum in June, said: "... I think it fell to few to get to know him as intimately as I did. Under his cold exterior beat a very warm and kind heart, but he was most successful in keeping this from the world. To this country he is a great loss, for I know his heart was in it, and he was almost worshiped by the people, from whom I have had hundreds of telegrams and letters of condolence and sympathy."] Although Gordon College is not as yet in a position to offer courses such as are given in Robert College at Constantinople, the Syrian Protestant College at Beirut, and several Indian and Chinese universities, it is far ahead of any institution of learning in Africa or Asia in the extension of research laboratories and in the coöperation it gives to the Government for the development of the resources of the country, the betterment of public health, and ethnological investigation.
Gordon College is a state institution, which works with and for the Government. I wish it were possible to speak here of the wonderful things that are being done by Dr. Chalmers and others in the Wellcome Research Laboratories. It is a revelation of the ability and the devotion of the scientists to whom the manifold problems of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan have been a challenge sufficiently engrossing to keep them far from the great world and yet develop their genius so strikingly that the great world's attention is continually called to what they are doing and discovering. But it is more than that. A visit to Gordon College and the Wellcome Laboratories opens one's eyes to the methods that are being pursued by Sir Reginald Wingate and his associates, and the goal they have before them. There is no highly civilized country in the world where more constant attention is paid to means of developing resources and better ability is invested in the study than in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In addition to the research work of Gordon College, the department of education has established a central research farm at Khartum North. Here field experiments in growing what the Sudan might produce are tried out, and practical work is done in horticulture and forestry. At Gordon College and in three cities industrial workshops teach boys trades.
The criticism has frequently been made against the British administration in the Sudan, as in Egypt, that educational facilities are not so fully extended as they ought to be, and that the British have neglected the moral factor and emphasized the material in building up the country. This raises one of the most thorny problems that confront those who are engaged in bringing Africa and Asia under European control. On the one hand, in Egypt and the Sudan, it can be argued that there must be money before ambitious schemes of universal popular education are undertaken. Before the money can be found, the country must be developed economically. It is not that public works and material benefits are more essential than education, but that education for all is so tremendously costly that only a country the resources of which are fully developed can maintain schools for its population. It is pointed out, moreover, that even if there were money, teachers would be lacking, and that it takes a whole generation to train enough teachers to meet even a portion of the needs of the next generation. On the other hand, especially in view of what we have said about the necessity of education before Occidental social and political institutions can be wanted, understood, and taken advantage of by natives, is it not true that primary education is necessary to a country's development, and that if the people are to benefit by material prosperity, they must have a moral reparation?
Although I have taught for several years in educational institutions in the near East, and have seen this problem at close range in half a dozen countries, I do not profess to offer a solution. But we must make a wide and determined start in primary education, and that demands teachers. To get the teachers higher institutions are necessary. When we put boys through the colleges, few of them want to teach or do teach. They become dissatisfied, as they have every reason to be, with existing conditions; but their patriotism does not inspire in them the will to make the sacrifice and to take up the cross individually in order that their people may be brought to enlightenment. Far from following the only possible way they have of serving their country wisely, they agitate for European institutions, for social and political recognition, judging the feeling and need of the race solely by their own exotic condition. The curse of Western education upon Orientals is that we try to build where there is no foundation of character. Instead, then, of having wood that takes a polish, we get a veneer that cracks at the first test. Missionaries and educators have success only with boys whom they take away from their families and bring under their home influence very early in life. But they turn out young men who are foreigners to their own people, and who have no desire or ability to go back among their own people and impart what has been given to them. Good farmers and goatherds and blacksmiths and cobblers are spoiled to make imitation "gentlemen." The educated Oriental will not work even if he is starving.* [* Several years ago I was preaching in a small inland city of Pennsylvania. The local department-store proprietor told me that a Christian Arab boy from "a college somewhere out in Turkey" was in town, and that he had somehow been unable to give the boy work. He was puzzled, for the boy seemed to be strong and husky. He brought him to me after church. I thumped the fellow on the chest and back, and, turning to the merchant, said: "Put him in your packing department." "Oh, no, sire," the boy cried out agonizingly, "I could not. I do not want handful work ; I want mindful work."]
Educating boys in trades, as the Sudan education department has started to do. is an excellent thing. But it ought to be done much more widely than is being done. And money ought to be spent more freely than is being spent in primary education. The Sudan boasts of fifteen hundred miles of railway in fifteen years, two thousand miles of regular river steamship service, and five thousand miles of telegraph wires. But fewer than five thousand Sudanese in schools of all grades, primary to college, is not a very good showing, despite the difficulties.
After the Cairo Convention was arranged between Egypt and Great Britain in January, 1899, the British Foreign Office was in a position to treat with other nations and other British colonies concerning the boundaries of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The Anglo-French Convention of 1899 settled the local difficulties raised by the Marchand expedition to Fashoda. When French obstruction and ill will, which stood in the way during the first few years of reconstruction, were removed by the epoch-making Anglo-French Agreement of 1904, the frontier with Abyssinia and the Italian colony of Eritrea was arranged by several successive agreements.
Soon after the British and Egyptian went back into the Sudan, the problem of irrigation began to be studied. In 1901, Sir William Garstin reported on the possibility of using the equatorial lakes as reservoirs. Lake Victoria Nyanza was rejected because a rise in its level would flood shores that were thickly populated, and half of which was German territory. Although the German factor may now be eliminated, the lake has become far more important than at the time of this report through the wonderful development of the colonies on its shores. It is hardly possible to believe that the opinion of Sir William Garstin will be revised. For the colonies bordering the lake would never consent to having the level raised and lowered for the convenience of the Nile territories. Lake Albert Nyanza presented similar difficulties, for Belgium owns the western shore. Then, too, the utility of irrigating the White Nile Valley is at the best questionable, for it passes through unreclaimable swamp-lands for hundreds of miles. Irrigation in the Blue Nile Valley, and the freer navigation of that river resulting from a control of the water-supply, would bring a rich return. Lake Tana, in northern Abyssinia, on the western side of Mount Guma, would make, according to Sir William Garstin, an ideal reservoir. The surrounding country is uninhabited, and engineering difficulties are much fewer than in the case of Lake Victoria or Lake Albert. By her treaties with Abyssinia, France, and Italy, Great Britain became ten years ago politically in a position to carry through the Garstin scheme. It has not jet been done. Reports on the Sudan have emphasized year after year the necessity and value of irrigation, and in 1913, the imperial Parliament guaranteed a loan, part of which was to be spent in irrigating the Gezira district, on the west bank of the Blue Nile south of Khartum. The success of the Tayiba demonstration station, in this district, in raising fine staple cotton proved, just before the European War broke out, that the irrigation scheme was financially a sound proposition. A wonderful development in cotton-growing may be expected after the plan is carried through, and cotton may before long surpass the gum of the Kordofan forests as the premier export article of the Sudan.
In this necessarily incomplete survey of the Sudan I have saved the political aspect of Sir Reginald Wingate's problem to the last not because the task of pacification has been any less difficult or less important than the solution of the financial problem, but because the extension of civil administration through military operations had to follow rather than to go hand in hand with economic development.
After the battle of September 2, 1898, the Khalifa escaped from Omdurman, and had to be pursued and put out of harm's way. When Sir Reginald Wingate succeeded in killing the Khalifa and his companions a year later, Mahdism as a military menace disappeared. But the country was vast, and could not be penetrated in a few months or even a few years. The only policy with any chance of success was to direct the efforts of the Government toward the speedy amelioration of the unfortunate victims of the dervish rule, and to win their allegiance through lending them a helping hand. Their memory of Egyptian rule was hardly of the nature to recommend the new Government, and Egyptian soldiers were not looked upon as redeemers, even from Mahdism, to \\hich many of the most influential sheiks remained profoundly attached as a religious dogma. The British administration had to make itself known not by force, but by winning confidence through refraining from exploiting the people and giving them as much material benefit as possible in as short a time as possible. This was Sir Reginald Wingate's policy, and I have been able to see with my own eyes the magic that it has worked upon people who are fanatical only if you provoke them to fanaticism, and savage only if you give them reason to be. From the very beginning of the new administration at Khartum the process of pacification has been disturbed only by the ineluctable necessity of enforcing prematurely a too drastic anti-slavery policy.
Not often during the fifteen years from the death of the Khalifa to the outbreak of the European War has Sir Reginald been compelled to show the mailed fist. In 1903 a new Mahdi arose in southern Kordofan. He was immediately pursued, captured, and hanged at El-Obeid. The criticism from England against his summary execution was very hard to bear, even though it was inspired by sentimentality and total ignorance of the problem with which the officials in the Sudan had to deal. From 1884 to 1898, Mahdism had meant the extinction of nearly six million lives.* [*The population of the Egyptian Sudan was believed to be between eight and nine millions at the beginning of the Mahdi's reign. Five years after the reconquest it was still less than two millions. In the last decade the increase has been very rapid, so that, despite sleeping-sickness in the south, it now exceeds three millions. The steady increase in population is the most striking proof of the benefit of British rule. Intertribal warfare has ceased. Security from raiding, and government aid in combating disease, make cattle-raising once more profitable. There has been immigration from Abyssinia and from western Africa. Only about four thousand Europeans are in the Sudan. Aside from the officials and their families, the missionaries and a very few Europeans interested in development schemes and archeology, the foreigners are Greeks and Syrians, who lend money, engage in petty commerce, and sell spirits. In Khartum street signs are in Greek.] The only way to prevent a return to the most intolerable and cruel despotism the valleys of the upper Nile tributaries had ever known was to snuff out at the beginning every pretender to the Mahdi's succession. In 1908 a body of ex-dervishes attacked and killed the deputy inspector of the Blue Nile province. This was just at the time the "Young Egypt" party was beginning to grow formidable, and their emissaries were working everywhere in the Sudan. A punitive expedition resulted in twelve death-sentences, which were commuted to life imprisonment.
The pessimism of Sir Eldon Gorst's report for 1909 extended to his remarks on the Sudan. He declared that the tenth year of the reoccupation was full of tribal unrest, and that Mahdism was not extinguished as a faith, and had to be watched carefully and checked at every turn. There was much lawlessness along the Abyssinian border. The most dangerous districts were so unhealthy that the only means of maintaining order was to increase the Sudanese battalions. In 1912 there was an expedition into Mongalla and an outbreak in southern Kordofan. There were nine distinct military operations during 1914. If one had only reports to go by, he would gather that the fifteen years of Anglo-Egyptian occupation had not brought peace to the Sudan. But one has to consider the enormous extent of the country and the difficulties of communication. Punitive expeditions and local uprisings stand out, for they are news. When one reads in the newspapers only reports of divorces, does he argue that marriages are generally unhappy?
Sir Reginald Wingate was home on a vacation when the European War began. He hurried back to his post, and there were many who said that he had dangerous days before him. The entry of Turkey into the war was expected by the Germans to have serious consequences throughout northern Africa; but especially did they hope for trouble in the Sudan. When I was in Berlin, in December, 1914, the collapse of British power in the Moslem portion of Africa and Asia was confidently predicted. There was faith in the fetish of Panislamism. A year later, when Germany seemed to be planning the invasion of Egypt and the newspapers were full of alarming reports, I traveled all over Egypt, and went to Khartum to see how matters stood in the Sudan. Although the Turks were heralded to be moving for the second, and this time serious, attempt against the Suez Canal, and fighting was going on with the Senussi in the west, my journey of four days by rail and steamer from Cairo was exactly as in peace days.
I found that no insurrectional movement was anticipated or feared by the Sudan Government. One fourth of the British military and civil staff—there were fewer than four hundred in all—had been allowed to return home to rejoin regiments or to volunteer. No increase in the British effectives had been asked for or was contemplated. For nearly a million square miles there were fewer than a thousand British soldiers. At the beginning of the entrance of Turkey into the war the sirdar received telegrams and letters from the principal chiefs of the Sudan, condemning the action of the Young Turks and expressing whole-hearted loyalty to the British Empire. Of all who came forward at that time with declarations of sympathy and loyalty only two have since been put under formal restraint for political intrigue with the enemy.
Seeing is believing. The Egyptians are so unwarlike a race and so lacking in personal courage that it was easy enough to discount the German stories of the storm that was going to break in Cairo. I did not have to go to Egypt to reassure myself on this point. But the Sudanese, from the blackest of blacks to the most chocolate-colored of Arabs, have no fear of death, and are heroes of many a charge that surpasses Balaklava. The Sudanese, too, are fanatical Moslems, with the zeal and enthusiasm of primitive races and neophytes. I had been living for years in an atmosphere where Panislamism was the absorbing topic of conversation and the nightmare of my British official friends. So I needed to go to Khartum.
By pure chance the trip into the Sudan was well timed. I was there for the two important fêtes of the year, the birthday of the prophet (muled-el-Nebi) and the anniversary of the visit of the King and Queen of England, who had stopped at Port Sudan on the way back from India, and had held a review at Sinkat, on January 17, 1912. King's day was celebrated by an impressive service at the Khartum Cathedral. The garrison stood on parade, and the sirdar read a cablegram from the king. It was a stirring sight to see these few hundred British soldiers, the only military evidence of British power in the midst of war in one of the largest Moslem regions of Africa.
After dinner, on the evening of King's day. Sir Reginald took me down into the palace garden to see the Sudanese band that had been playing during the meal. We passed through the circle around the conductor, and stood among them while they played the Nyam-Nyam marches. The sirdar was in full-dress uniform and bareheaded. A couple of torches gave light. The black faces and weird music made me feel that I was certainly surrounded by savages in the heart of Africa. But they were savages whose affection for their big chief was evident in the way they looked at him and the vim with which they played. I thought back a year, and I was in the Vaterland Cafe in Berlin. There was music, too, and I was listening to an authority on the near East.
"The Sudanese, you know," he said, "are certainly coming in with us when they realize that the sultan has raised the green standard. They are devils, and the black pagan tribes will readily follow the Moslems. They really hate the British rule. What happened to Gordon will seem little beside this approaching tragedy, just as the Sepoy Mutiny will seem little compared with what is going to happen in India."
Sir Reginald Wingate asked me to accompany him to Omdurman to the dervish celebration of the prophet's birthday. We were a party of about thirty. We left the palace steps at nine o'clock in the evening for the trip on the Blue Nile to Omdurman. Our steamer was the Elfin which was used by Gordon more than thirty years ago.
At the landing-stage, about half a mile from the city walls, a great crowd of white-robed dervishes was waiting to form the guard of honor. Each held a flaming torch. The Sudan women, harking back to the jungle days, greeted the sirdar with a shrill cry, which they made tremolo by pressing fingers on their lips. Into the city, past the Mahdi's tomb and the Khalifa's ruined palace, we rode to a large open space, where hundreds of gay tents were dressed for the celebration. The Omdurman municipality, the important omdehs (head-men) of the neighboring villages and tribes, and the sheiks of many religious orders had their separate tents. With untiring physical energy and good humor and capacity for a sort of "pink lemonade" of the good old circus variety, which was forced on us in every tent, Sir Reginald led us from place to place. No tent was too humble to be omitted, no sheik too insignificant to be passed over. One leader, who received the sirdar as an equal, is a cook in private life. "And a good cook, too," the sirdar told me.
When Sir Reginald Wingate explained to the sheiks who I was and what I had come to the Sudan for, they nodded their heads with satisfaction and laughed.
"Tell him to write what he sees," they declared. "We are glad that he came to our feast, for he can give London a good report of us."
The last tent we visited was the most important, and around it were gathered all the people of Omdurman and of the tribes who had come into the city for the festivities. Thousands of white-robed howling dervishes were dancing and barking, and had reached the point of frenzy. We sat sipping coffee in the midst of a crowd of sixty thousand Moslems who had been followers of the Mahdi and believers in the Khalifa. The sirdar's guard of honor was four mounted Sudanese lancers. There were no troops, Egyptian or British. None of our party was armed. The people of Omdurman, at the moment of the greatest religious exaltation of the year, had in their power the governor-general and the chief representatives of British military and civil authority in the Sudan.
I know the feeling of Moslem fanaticism in an Oriental crowd. I have experienced it more than once when I knew that I was facing death. That feeling was not here. There was real love for the sirdar, and no hostility to the rest of us. As we were leaving the tent, one of the turbaned dervish chieftains who had followed the sirdar to the entrance, put his left hand on my shoulder as he shook hands, and said:
"I hope you have enjoyed the feast at Omdurman and will come again."
"Who is that sheik?" I asked Sir Reginald.
"One of the Mahdi's sons," he answered.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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