Next month, the Sudanese people will commemorate the 120th anniversary of the Omdurman Battle, which is widely known in Sudan as the Kararey Battle after the name of its location, in the northern part of Omdurman.
The Battle is a significant component in the collective memory of the Sudanese nation. Sudanese people think of it as the catastrophic moment in Sudan’s history where the British troops slaughtered the Sudanese army and destroyed the independent national state starting a second chapter of colonialism in Sudan. They also think of it as the spectacular representation of extreme bravery, determination and enormous dignity as the Sudanese national army stood to the finish in face of the British gunfire and advanced weaponry armed with traditional weapons and an inexorable belief in their national independent state. The sceneries of the battle told in history books by both Sudanese and British writers are astonishing episodes of extreme savagery of the invading British troops next to staggering bravery of Sudanese soldiers.
The battle took place on 2 September 1898 at Kararey valley northern Omdurman, the national capital of the Mahdiyya state. The head of the state Khalifah Abdulah led the Sudanese national army to combat the British invasion led by Kitchener. The British invasion was intended to fulfil imperial political and economic goals south Egypt as the competition of European colonial powers over Africa reached its peak. However, the savagery of the invasion and the destruction accompanied it is a telling drama that exposes the sentimental component of the invasion. If beating the French or the Belgians to the Nile Valley was the strategic geopolitical goal of the Empire, restoring its humiliated image was as critical as that goal if not more vital.
British imperialism was shaken to the core by its defeat in 1885 when the Sudanese soldiers captured Khartoum and killed the “Ever Victorious Gordon”—as they call him—the British governor of Sudan and established a national independent state. It was excruciating to the imperial arrogance that a movement of armed “dervishes” were able to defeat the Empire. The defeat of the British imperial troops and the emancipation of Sudan over a series of battles all-around the country before the Fall of Khartoum dismantled the myth of the unbreakable British troops.
When art meets politics
The Mahdiyya revolution was the largest anti-imperial movement at the time. Its victories shocked the leaders of the Empire along with its public. Mahmoud Mamdani states “ The Times newspaper wrote on 6 February 1885 ‘the shock caused by the news of the fall of Khartoum has no parallel in the experience of the present generation’; ‘our powers in the East will be ruined’”. The queen wrote to a confidant, “We shall never be able to hold our heads again.” Also, Mamdani states that, “Gladstone, otherwise known to be a strong opponent of imperial expansion, took care to cover his right flank and told his cabinet that Britain must not ignore ‘the effect which the triumph of the Mahdi would have on our Mahometan subjects’” (Mamdani, 2012:68).
Additionally, Mohamed Elmustafa Musa discusses that the news that the British troops were being vanquished by the Mahdiyya revolution agonised the British public and elite, and there were strong-worded correspondence among the British elite. The British queen sent a letter chastising the prime minister for failing to prevent the disaster. She also wrote to Lord Wolseley who was leading the troops sent to rescue General Gordon and smash the Mahdists. Musa indicates that Wolseley wrote to his wife that he was “infuriated by the tone of the queen’s letter; that it is unheard of that the queen would write in such rude and dishonouring manner to a British military officer. And since she is the queen I cannot argue with her but I will stop writing to her” (Musa, 2015). In addition, in a recent account, Margaret and Alick Potter wrote in their book Everything is Possible “ ...the news (of the fall of Khartoum) sent a thrill of anguish through Victorian England; Gladstone government was rocked to its foundations and did not long survive” (Potter, 1984: 102).
Besides the formal writings, the anti-imperial wars of Mahdiyya in Sudan inspired a wave of literature. It was a moment where “Art met politics” in the Empire’s history as Fergus Nicoll describes it in his book Gladstone, Gordon and the Sudan Wars: The Battle over Imperial Intervention in the Victorian Age. Many poets and novelists wrote about the Sudanese revolution and its wars against England imperialism as the British public followed the news of the victories of the Mahdists anxiously. Their writings varied from the colonialists who thought of the peoples beyond the sea as nothing but savages who needed to be ruled and civilised to those who believed in the cause of the Sudanese revolutionaries and wrote in their support. For instance, William Morris stated that, “Khartoum has fallen into the hands of the people it belongs to.”
Also, the Australian poet Banjo Paterson wrote in support of the Sudanese revolutionaries in his poem El Mahdi to The Australian Troops when Queen Victoria sent an order to bring Australian troops to Sudan via the Red Sea to rescue the defeated British army by the Mahdist soldiers in Eastern Sudan. Some wrote eulogies to console the beaten British troops as Sir Henry Newbolt wrote his Vitai Lampada (Musa, 2015).
On the other side, after the decisive victory of the Mahdists and the Fall of Khartoum, the famous British poet William Watson wrote The Gloomy Spring poetry book where he specified a poem titled The Sudanese to describe the tragedy of the British troops but he couldn’t help but admire the bravery of the Mahdist soldiers. In the introduction of his book, Watson stated that British glories were turned into historic ignominy. Also, the famous novelist Robert Stevenson stated that the British Empire stands in front of the world bleeding and covered with humiliation. Additionally, in the British popular poetry people bewailed Gordon death and the defeat of the British troops by Sudanese revolution in the song Too Late to Save Him, which became a widely popular song played at London’s cafes in the 18th century (Musa, 2015).
A nation’s remedy is another nation’s tragedy
And here comes Filed Marshall Herbert Kitchener to heal the unbearable wound leading an armed campaign of revenge demolishing everything that represents a challenge to the imperial superciliousness. The Omdurman Battle was intended to sanitise the Empire’s image and restore its history. The revenge was a devastating conquest where the decisive victory of the British over the Sudanese soldiers was determined by the advanced weaponry in the hands of the imperial troops. As Winston Churchill wrote in his book The River War, “we did not defeat them, we demolished them” alluding to the fact that the Sudanese army did not lack the commitment, the bravery, nor the shrewdness; but the lacked the advanced arms (Churchill, 1899). Sixteen thousands soldiers of the Mahdiyya army were dead, ten thousands were wounded. The total was twenty-six thousands Sudanese men, an astounding loss.
On the British side, forty-eight dead and eighty-two wounded! Mahmoud Mamdani raises the question “how do we understand this lopsided outcome?” Mamdani highlights the statement of G.W Stevens one of the British war correspondents “our men were perfect, but the Dervishes were superb beyond perfection. It was the largest best and bravest army that ever fought against us for Mahdism and it died worthy of the huge empire that Mahdism won and kept so long.” Mamdani also quotes another recent account of the battle: “if the estimates of Khalifah forces are correct, this represent a causality rate of around fifty percent—attribute to the courage of the Ansar (Mahdists soldiers) and evidence of the terrible effect of modern weapons when used against mass formation.”(Mamdani, 2012: 69).
Khalifah Abdullah’s ranks were in a bitter disagreement about his plan. The argument in the meeting held the day before the battle discloses the extraordinary military astuteness and political acumen of the Mahdist leaders. It also reveals their unyielding commitment to the idea of the state they built under the leadership of El Mahdi after bloody strife and bitter wars against the British imperial troops. They did not agree to Khalifah’s opinion to wait until the morning to attack Kitchener’s troops stationed in Kararey plains yet they obeyed his command and fought to the last drop of their blood. Had Khalifah Abdullah followed their view to attack in the dark, the outcome of the battle would have been completely different (Zolfo, 1995).
Mamdani raises the indispensable questions “if most of the Ansar fought in spite of the certainty that the outcome would be death and defeat, why did the English forces, with such overwhelming odds in their favour, continue to dish out death and destruction? Why kill to the finish? Why leave the wounded die?” Mamdani reveals the true motive behind the astonishing savagery of the British: total dehumanisation of the adversary. He discusses that Churchill testifies that many in the troops were fuelled by a sentiment of revenge. They considered the Mahdists as “vermin—unfit to live”…“I must personally record that there was a general impression that the fewer the prisoners, the greater would be the satisfaction of the commander” (Mamdani, 2012:70).
However, apparently the total dehumanisation of the Sudanese army at Kararey was not adequate to sanitise the imperial image, therefore, the savagery did not end in the battlefield. Kitchener wanted to uproot the memory of El Mahdi. A few days after the battle he ordered the destruction of the El Mahdi tomb and beheaded El Mahdi body and threw it in the Nile and used his skull as inkpot (Mamdani, 2012).
“They belonged anyway!”
It seems that the British wanted to add the last finishing touch to the portrait of savagery painted by the British troops and to assure that the wound was healed. They sent a replica of Gordon statue riding a camel to be erected in Khartoum next to the Palace where he was killed. The original statue was erected in London at the Royal Academy. Margaret and Alick Potter wrote, “Gordon was widely regarded as a national hero, and such intense feelings led easily to criticism of the statue. Why was Gordon riding such an outlandish beast as a camel?” (Potter, 1984:102).
The turbulent long journey of the statue from London to Khartoum speaks of the determination to finish the revenge to the last touches. It arrived via the sea in Alexandria to be sent south 600 miles by the train to Alshelal and then by a steamer through the Nile to northern Sudan, then by train again to Khartoum North, and then via the Blue Nile in a vessel to Khartoum. The statue survived a collision with another steamer in the sea; it also fell twice in the waters and fished out the two times. The statue was erected and then re-erected because the muddy soil sank under its heavy weight at the first time.
It seems that the erection of the British “national hero” in Khartoum was not sufficient to send the intended message of humiliation to the people of Sudan. Hence, Sir Wingate, the British Governor-General, suggested that another statue of Kitchener should be erected as a tribute next to Gordon’s. Kitchener who was at Khartoum at the time in an expedition “to shoot big game: elephant, lions and in particular the rare white rhinoceros” welcomed Wingate’s idea of the statue (Potter, 1984:102). However, this time, the British national hero, Kitchener, would not be riding a “primitive” animal such as a camel; he would be mounting a rather “sophisticated” one, a horse!
The astonishment is not only in the fact that the two statues were erected in the heart of Khartoum to reinforce the message of humiliation to the Sudanese nation; it was in the fact that Wingate came with what the Potters called “ingenious” way to make the Kitchener statue. He used “several tons of brass gathered up in the shape of cartridge cases spent in the Battle of Omdurman—material which was shipped to the United Kingdom and alloyed with tin to provide the bronze needed for the casting”! (Potter, 1984:105). What else could be more capable of such degradation?!
The Potters narrate that they mentioned the information of how the Kitchener statue was made in a conversation with the first Sudanese Commissioner for Archaeology, Thabit Hassan Thabit, who was for a time responsible for looking after the statues. The Potters say that he laughed a deep throaty laugh and his voice was punctuated with mirth, he replied, “They belonged anyway!” the Potters say “and they joined his laugh” (Potters, 1984:105).
May be the commissioner was trying to amuse the writers. But I think it is true; they belonged. Nothing else would suit more as a material to make the embodiment of savagery other than the very evidence of that savagery.
The Sudanese Parliament made a decision to remove the two statues right after independence in 1956. However, the decision was not executed until 1958 under the General El Ferik Abboud regime. Although, the removal of the two statues was expected after independence as a decolonisation act, the way they were removed urges anyone to question the veracity of decolonisation. The statues were removed in an ostentatious ceremony with attendance of the British ambassador and a guard of honour consisting of a hundred Sudanese troops formed up facing the statue contrasted with the national military music band who played not just several Scottish songs, but also “God Save the Queen”!
Margaret and Alick who witnessed the ceremony describe the majestic way Gordon’s statue was veiled and “gently, ever gently it came down”, as the band played “sad sustained notes echoing round the Palace close by, where Gordon had died.” The ceremony was repeated again to veil and remove Kitchener’s statue the same way, playing the same music. The two statues were kept in the museum until their repatriation to London. Margaret and Alick reveal that they learned from some sources that there was an order “to place fresh flowers from time to time before the two statues while they were in the museum” (Potter, 1984:108-110).
The story of removing the symbols of subjugation and dehumanisation by the very victimised nation is appalling; yet, it speaks volumes to the mendacity of independence. It is an allegoric drama that exposes the suppressive nature of the relation the conqueror had established with its subjects for years to come. This point becomes more discernable when we realise some facts about Abboud’s regime. It came to power in a coup overthrowing the first democratic government after independence. The coup came at the time when there was conflict in the Sudanese Parliament about accepting Western aid. The political groups that used to be close allies to colonial administration were in favour of accepting the aid.
During colonialism, the British empowered these groups economically and politically and provided them with education and training opportunities. Mainly, they were given vast pieces of land for cotton production schemes. Hence, British colonialism made sure that it had local agents whose interests were linked to imperial interests. When these groups were faced with the rejection of more popular forces that formed a coalition and demonstrated to oppose the Western aid, they collaborated with the army to execute Abboud’s coup with the countenance of Western powers. Expectedly, the first thing General Abboud did was accepting the aid from the West (Warburg, 1978).
Thus, it is not illogical that the act of decolonisation carried out by the Abboud regime actually mocked the very independence it was supposed to reinforce. The blueprint laid by colonialism to assure its influence after independence is denoted in Margeret and Alick’s narration. They state that a Sudanese newspaper, El Sudan El Gadid (new Sudan), described the removal of the statutes as “ a demonstration of good will… a proof of maturity and a gesture of civilised behaviour” they continue “in fairness we must admit it was all of that …the ceremony had evoked thoughts of common endeavours in which both people had shared education, the professions, cotton growing and many other fields of activity.” (Emphasis is mine)(Potter, 1984:108).
Abboud dictatorship, the way it came to power, and the way it executed what was supposed to be a decolonisation act signifies the fruit of the groundwork for exploitation spearheaded by Kitchener and sustained by his successors in colonial administration. They put down the foothold for neo-colonialism.
Would the British ever apologise?
The Omdurman Battle is double-faced coin in the Sudanese sub-consciousness. People remember it as the tragic moment in the history of the nation when their achievement of the national independent state, which took them decades of vicious strife, was demolished in only two hours losing twenty-six thousand men. They also recall it as the shining moment in the nation’s memory; a moment that evokes hope and strength where the heroic national army demonstrated unparalleled valour and bravery. Often, Sudanese people use the proverb “men died in Kararey” to mean the “true” men died in Kararey. The proverb is usually cited in both humorous and stern occasions.
If someone is challenged to do something precarious s/he would say it humorously to indicate that s/he lacks the extraordinary capabilities the men of Kararey had. If someone witnessed another acting in a despicable manner s/he would say it to allude that nobility died along with Kararey men. Many families still visit the site of the battle regularly to mourn the tragic death of Mahdiyya troops.
In its attempt to avenge, the empire actually presented an abstract of its truth. The British troops surpassed the Sudanese army by destructive technology and that reflects the empire’s kernel of civilisation. The story of the Omdurman Battle along with the story of the two statues are striking resemblance of the story of the empire. If a massacre were the method to avenge and it was made possible by vicious weaponry, the essence of modernity the empire claimed to bring to the “natives” is found in that method and its tool: use of force and violence. Also, if Kitchener’s figure were built shamelessly out of the very bullets that massacred the army of the nation he conquered, the empire body was built out of the slaughtered hopes and accomplishments of other nations along with their right to exist. If Kitchener beheaded El Mahdi body, threw it in the Nile, and used his skull as an inkpot, the empire beheaded societies, threw them out of history, and used their sweat and blood to write history on its own terms. If the statues were left behind in the heart of Khartoum as a reminder of colonial capacity of dehumanisation, the empire left behind the tools for more degradation of nations after colonialism.
The revenge led by General Kitchener was a devastating moment in Sudan’s history not just in terms of martial calculations, but also in socio-political and socio-economic accounts. The defeat of the Mahdiyya state was not only a moment of robbing the Sudanese nation from its accomplishment of building a national independent state. It was also the beginning of a fundamental transformation of the nation into a dependent debilitated country. For besides extracting Sudan’s resources under military colonialism, the British laid the foundation for further exploitation after independence, which has ever since been taking place.
*Rabah Omer is an independent researcher and youth organiser.
Churchill, Winston.1899. The River War. Longmans, Green and Co. London.UK
Mamdani, Mahmoud. 2012. Define and Rule. Native as Political Identity. Harvard University Press.
Musa, Mohamed Elmustafa. 2015. Al-Mahdiyya Revolution by the Pens of Poets and Novelists of the British Empire. Sudanile Magazine. 19 September 2015.
http://www.sudanile.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=87506:2015-09-19-14-17-01&catid=34&Itemid=55London.UK Accessed 27 September 2015
Nicoll, Fergus.2013. Gladstone, Gordon and the Sudan Wars” The Battle over Imperial intervention in the Victorian Age. Pen and Sword. UK
Potter, Margret & Allick.1984. Everything is Possible: Our Sudan Years. Allan Sutton Ltd. London.UK
Warburg, Gabriel.1978. Islam, Nationalism and Communism in a Traditional Society: The Case of Sudan. Frank Cass. London. UK
Zolfo, Essmat Hasan.1995. Kararey Battle: A Military Analysis of Omdurman Battle. University of Khartoum Press. Khartoum Sudan