Derek Boothby: The Mahdist War 1881-99


With the rise of ISIL, one cannot help but look back at the Mahdist War which took place between 1881 and 1899. In the mid-19th century Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire and Ottoman authority extended southwards to include Sudan. The ruler, Muhammad Ali, was Egyptian but the strict authority that he exercised – the imposition of high taxation, compulsory military service and taking slaves at will — was on behalf of the Ottomans. Resentment in Sudan grew and intensified as years passed.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the much shorter sea route to India and the Far East than going around the southern tip of Africa, Britain became involved. In 1875 Britain became the largest shareholder in the Suez Canal Company and in 1882 invaded Egypt to wrest control from the fading Ottoman Empire. Following the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, British troops remained in Egypt to protect British interests.

To the indigenous Sudanese, the arrival of the non-Moslem British was even more unacceptable to their religion and customs. In June 1881, Muhammad Ahmad, a Sudanese Islamic cleric, declared himself as Al Mahdi al Muntazar ("the awaited guide in the right path")

and generally referred to thereafter as the Mahdi. The Mahdist movement demanded a return to the simplicity of early Islam, abstention from alcohol and tobacco, and the strict seclusion of women. Stemming from years of servitude under the brutality of Egyptian Ottoman rule and new resentment against the British, the Mahdi called for a holy war thereby providing a focus for

protest and unrest and channeling it into a religious war. Urging jihad against imperial Egypt, he formed an army which although not militarily trained was composed of warriors totally and mercilessly committed to the cause.

By 1882, the Mahdists had complete control of Sudan except for the city of Khartoum.

In 1883 British military action to overcome the Mahdists was unsuccessful and it was decided to withdraw from Sudan except for the garrison in Khartoum under General Gordon. Despite requests from Gordon in 1884 for reinforcements, the British government declined to take action with more troops on the ground until eventually popular support at home forced British Prime Minister Gladstone to mobilize relief. This, however, took time to assemble and deploy up the river Nile and across the deserts of Sudan and overcome fierce Mahdist resistance along the way.

Some 1,400 British troops battled their way through 14,000 Mahdists. The siege of Khartoum by some 50,000 Mahdists continued until in January 1885 when the British garrison was overrun and all the 7,000 defenders including General Gordon were massacred. General Gordon's body was decapitated and his head was taken to Al Madhi on a pike. The British relief column arrived just two days later and in light of the chaos and continued Mahdist threat the British decided towithdraw completely from the Sudan.

In June 1885 Al Mahdi died and infighting broke out over claims to leadership of the movement. But Mahdists remained in control of Sudan and sporadic fighting against Egyptian-British positions to the north continued for several years. In 1896 the British returned to Sudan and the final battle took place in September 1898 when 11,000 Mahdists were killed and 16,000 wounded. The Mahdist leader, Khalifa, fled into hiding but he was found and killed in November 1899 which brought the Mahdist rising to an end.

Derek Boothby lives in Manchester.


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