After the battle of Omdurman, at which an Anglo-Egyptian force slaughtered the Mahdists, one observer saw a black Sudanese soldier from Kitchener’s force leading away a slave woman by the hand. When a local merchant tried to snatch her from him, the soldier shot him dead. The woman, it transpired, had been the trader’s concubine. But the soldier was her brother. The slaves had their vengeance.

Victorian attempts to end the African slave trade ‘led to the first modern jihad’. Review by James Barr

James Barr, Saturday Review,
The Times, London,28 August 2021

Review of: Neil Faulkner, Empire and Jihad: The Anglo – Arab Wars of 1870-1920 , Yale University Press, 2021

When I was growing up we had a robust Victorian piano, one of 2,000 uprights its manufacturer, John Broadwood & Sons, thumped out each year. “That domestic and long suffering instrument”, claimed one vicar of the time, “has probably done more to… bring peace and happiness to families in general, and to young women in particular, than all the homilies on the domestic virtues ever penned.”
Trusty weapon in the moral armoury though it was, our piano was — I now realise — a thoroughly imperial product. Assembled at the empire’s very heart in Westminster, its mahogany came from Jamaica, while an African elephant died to provide the ivory for those delicate keys. 

Slaves in Zanzibar c 1880

A pair of tusks, Neil Faulkner explains, “could make a hundred keyboards”. However, while we balk at the killing of 100,000 elephants a year that the Victorian appetite for ivory eventually entailed, what appalled the pianos’ owners at the time was not animal rights, but the discovery that the ivories their daughters were tinkling had been carried out of the bush by slaves.

The man who publicised the awkward link between ivory and slavery was the explorer-missionary David Livingstone, who confided before one expedition to Africa, his desire to “come out uneaten”. His story provides the opening of Faulkner’s new book. A Marxist historian best known for his work on TE Lawrence, he tells the earlier story of British imperialism in northeast Africa, arguing that Victorian attempts to end the African slave trade led to a backlash and the “first modern jihad”.

Although smothered by superfluous facts and frequent digressions, the basic story told by Faulkner is this. By the mid-19th century the main demand for slaves came from the Middle East, mostly for domestic service or for sex in the harems of the Arab, Turkish and Persian wealthy. For instance, in 1908 the Ottoman sultan’s harem alone contained 370 women. The number of slaves cleared through the slave market of Zanzibar trebled from 60,000 a year in 1800 to 175,000 a year in the 1850s.

There, naked in the marketplace, they were poked and prodded by Arab traders. “Yet more intimate examination,” Faulkner says, “took place behind a rough awning. Since serial rape was to be the fate of such women, only the most detailed inspection would suffice.” A German botanist reported that pretty young girls fetched more than strong but ugly women, while old ladies could be “bought for a mere bagatelle”. 

After protestations from the British public, in 1868 the Royal Navy started targeting the seaborne trade off the coast of east Africa. In April and May 1869 an RN squadron rescued 970 people from 13 slave dhows. Eventually in 1873 the sultan of Zanzibar was forced to shut down his island’s slave market. Under this pressure, slave traders switched their route to the Nile. By 1870 perhaps 100,000 slaves were transported down the river each year.
One man who intercepted a boat on the river described finding its unwilling passengers “packed like anchovies, the living and dying festering altogether”. Supply met demand where the African and Arab worlds intersect, in what is now South Sudan. By 1885, half the population of Khartoum — a city of 50,000 — were slaves. The khedive of Egypt realised that stamping out slavery was good cover for extending his rule southwards.

A series of foreign adventurers responded to disingenuous job adverts that looked for volunteers to disrupt the trade. Without exception, they failed. As one senior British officer in London put it: “As long as there is a demand for slaves in Lower Egypt and Palestine, so long will there be a slave trade.” 

A washed-up but popular army officer, Charles Gordon, who became the khedive’s governor-general in Sudan, believed he had a better plan. “God has allowed slavery to go on for many years; born in the people, it needs more than an expedition to eradicate it; open out the country, and it will fall of itself,” he claimed. His approach (“the best policy with these people is a bold one”) was enough to alarm the slave traders, but his Egyptian employers were in dire financial straits and Gordon could not pursue his mission to the full. Despite his evangelical fervour, Gordon had no more joy than his predecessors, and in 1880 he returned to Europe. 

Having taken on too much debt to dig the Suez Canal, the Egyptian government went bust in 1876, and was forced to sack soldiers to pay off its European creditors. Although narrow and shallow, the canal made Egypt even more important strategically, especially for the British Empire. A destabilising revolution by disgruntled army officers in Egypt was a challenge that Britain – recently worsted by defeats in Afghanistan and South Africa — decided it could beat.

In 1882 the British Army overwhelmed the Egyptians at Tel el Kebir after the Royal Navy pounded Alexandria. Having surveyed the devastation caused, a British officer admitted that the sailors’ aim “had not been very good”. Britain’s Indian troops, however, did better. “They cut heads off as if they were cabbages,” remarked one squaddie, impressed. 

Faulkner contends that the rise of the Mahdists — the Muslim followers of the “Mahdi”, the “Guided One” — was “the bitter fruit of Gladstone’s liberal interventionism”, but this is not quite right. When the British took over Egypt they unwittingly inherited a holy war, one admittedly stoked by Gordon’s earlier hyperactivity, but that predated Gladstone’s second term in office. The year before the British invasion a former Nile boat builder turned religious thinker, named Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah, had proclaimed himself the mahdi. With the support of the slavers and his soldiers, many of whose men had “nothing but a knotty stick in their hands”, he thrashed an Egyptian army. When the implications of the rise of what Faulkner characterises as “a reactionary regime of sheikhs, slave traders, and wife beaters” dawned on London, the chancellor of the exchequer proposed sending Gordon (for whom sections of the press were rooting loudly) back to deal with the problem. “If the mahdi is a prophet, Gordon, in the Sudan, is a greater.” 

The resulting tragedy is well-known. In 1885 Gordon was cornered by the mahdi in Khartoum and, when a relief force failed to reach him, came to grief. His head was hung on a tree, to take the curses of the faithful. The mahdi died soon afterwards, his apocalyptic predictions unfulfilled. His movement lost momentum, although it inspired further unsettling disturbances in Somaliland. Faulkner rattles through the final 20 years of his book’s span, such as when Germany tried to turn the Muslim world against the British in the First World War. One is left with the sense that the exhaustive details, such as the height of a flagpole and the dimensions of every boat encountered, which bog his earlier chapters, left him short of energy and space. On the essential story of the Sudanese campaigns, Michael Asher’s Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventurer (2005) remains an easier read, although Faulkner is better on the domestic Victorian context. Alive, the mahdi had exploited a mixture of feelings: the slave traders’ self-iinterest, local chauvinism, anger at high taxes and a wider, general sense of spiritual malaise. Faulkner is wrong to blame this all on Britain: foreign interference, from Napoleon onwards, was seen by Egyptian thinkers as a symptom of a deeper, and fundamentally spiritual problem rather than its cause.

However, Faulkner is right to say the British decision to reconquer the Sudan in the 1890s was not from fear of jihadism, but concern that the French might seize the headwaters of the Nile. This triggered the campaign that absorbed Sudan into the British Empire and made Herbert Kitchener, the victor of Omdurman, a household name. 
After the battle of Omdurman, at which an Anglo-Egyptian force slaughtered the Mahdists, one observer saw a black Sudanese soldier from Kitchener’s force leading away a slave woman by the hand. When a local merchant tried to snatch her from him, the soldier shot him dead. The woman, it transpired, had been the trader’s concubine. But the soldier was her brother. The slaves had their vengeance.

* Neil Faulkner, Empire and Jihad: The Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870-1920, Yale University Press, 2021.