Modern Sudanese history starts with the French invasion of the Ottoman province of Egypt, which paved the way for the future conquest of Sudan by the Khedive.

Information about the pre-Khedivate history of Sudan is sketchy. However, while Islam came to Egypt in the 640s, and pressed southward, it is well known that it did not reach Southern Sudan.  At the time home to a variety of semi-nomadic tribes, the historical development of South Sudan led to the split of what used to be the biggest African country, in 2011.


The founding of the Khedivate

At the end of the XVIIIth century, Egypt, an Ottoman province since 1517, was already drifting towards autonomy. Having a central importance in European strategic planning and a vibrant economy, Egypt became the target of the rising Napoleonic regime, since the Ottoman central government had already lost, gradually (beginning of the XVIIth century) its ability to direct affairs in the region.

In August 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte proposed a military expedition to seize Egypt, which started in the following year. Despite many decisive victories, the Armée d’Orient had to put an end to the campaign and to retreat as a result of the strong Anglo-Ottoman offensive. On 30 August 1801 French commander Jacques-François de Menou signed the Capitulation of Alexandria, putting an end to the French expedition in Egypt.

However, the victory of the Napoleonic armies against the Mamluks during the invasion paved the way for the rise to power of the founder of the Khedivate of Egypt, Muhammad Ali. Initially an unknown Albanian soldier of the Ottoman Empire, Muhammad Ali managed to climb up the social order, gaining the buluk bashee rank (captain of a company), that generated his placement in Egypt during the French invasion, as second in command. On the expulsion of the French, the Mamluk armies were in arms in the upper provinces, trying to take advantage of the chaotic situation and sent against them, Ali’s expedition ended in disgrace.

In an evil hour, the governor of Cairo, Khursuf, sent an order to Ali to leave the city with his armies, but Ali refused and demanded that his soldiers were paid. Soon, the conflict resulted into the installation of Tahir Pasha, the first commander of the Turkish troops as ruler of Cairo. His rule lasted about three weeks after which Ali took power and soon engaged in conflicts with the Turks, Albanians, Mamluks and Egyptians.

After repeated failed attempts to remove and kill him, the Sultan, focused on the Russian-Turkish conflict, found it impossible to dispossess Ali. Soon, the Sultan sent Muhammad Ali the regular firman, investing him with the title of Viceroy (Khedive) of Egypt.

Ali was in power, but he feared the Mamluks. He associated with their leader, only to betray him soon, and it is well known that his own men, the Albanian fighters, rioted against him also. By August 1815, all the troops in the vicinity of Cairo marched to the city with the purpose of killing Ali. He survived only because he was at one of his palaces near the European quarter of the city, and it is remembered that Ali sent arms to the Franks to defend him. It is well known that Ali’s imperialist aspirations made the European powers fear that they would lose grip of the situation in the region.  The title of Khedive implied subordination to the Sultan but, in fact, it was only a polite fiction: Ottoman power in Egypt was finished and Muhammad Ali, needed support from another great power.

To create the military machine needed to carry out his ambitions, Muhammad Ali had to reorganize his army, and very early in the administration of his government he attempted to organize a corps following the system of European tactics. Ali secured the services of several Frenchmen, who had remained in Egypt after the departure of Napoleon and gradually started to build a strong army.  Eager to adopt the military techniques of the great powers, he also sent students to the West and invited training missions to Egypt, transforming the period of Khedivate into a period of early European domination.


The Conquest of Sudan

By 1820 Muhammad ‘Ali, the new Viceroy of the Ottoman sultan established his rule and was ready to conquer Sudan, to acquire slave recruits for his army and gold for his treasury.  Ali sent his third son Isma’il at the head of 10,000 men across the desert and, by 1821, all of north and central Sudan was his.

The armies of Isma’il Kamil Pasha met little resistance, and it is said that all the Sudanese chiefs submitted without resistance.  However, Isma’il requested high taxes, and extorted large numbers of slaves and cattle, generating an upheaval that led to his death. In fury at the death of his son, Ali ordered attacks throughout Sudan, leaving behind a depopulated land that would need another sixty years to recover.

Map of Sudan

In 1825, ‘Uthaman Bey, a Mamluk, founded the Khartoum, the city that nowadays stands as the capital of Sudan. Despite some beginnings of reforms, Muhammad Ali soon realized he needed an  exceptional administrator to reverse the oppressing governing methods that  were used in Sudan – in 1826 ‘Ali Khurshid Agha Pasha took power, introducing a convenient system of taxes that motivated the Sudanese who fled to come back and cultivate their abandoned  lands.

In the following years, Kurshid led annual slave-raiding expeditions in the southern lands, often with the help of Frenchmen, to discover the source of the Nile. By 1848, descriptions of the flourishing land of the White Nile were already published, but the Turco-Egyptian presence was little. The Sudanese administration only controlled the area of Khartoum and some “islands of authority”, focusing more on their expeditions for capturing slaves.

After his death, Muhammad Ali was succeeded by ‘Abbas I, whom unlike his grandfather was conservative and tried to keep Europeans  out of the region, while spending as little money as possible to govern Sudan. His successors, Sa’id Pasha and Isma’il Pasha, on  the other side, were both western oriented, but Isma’il abandoned his successors decentralization for a despotic rule, leaving nonetheless the legacy of a Western-like set of reforms: he introduced railroads, river streamers and  telegraph networks, created a modern army and government schools and abolished slavery.

The construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 generated a growing interest in the region for the British, since they had now a new connection to the Indies. The corruption of the Turkish and Egyptian troops made Isma’il engage British explorers in the massive expeditions that started in 1870. By 1873 the first ruler of Ecuatoria, the British leader of the expedition, Sir Samuel Baker, was succeeded by another Englishman, Charles George Gordon.  

The expansionist policies of Isma’il led also to the annexation of the Bahr al-Ghazal Empire in 1873 and of the region of Darfur, in the same year.

Already indebted to the European powers and facing revolt in Darfur and chaos in the Bahar al-Ghazal, Isma’il agreed, in 1877 to appoint Charles Gordon Governor of the whole Sudan to crush the slave trade, signing the Anglo-Egyptian Slave Trade Convention. Although he stabilized the Ethiopian frontier and suppressed the revolt in Darfur, he was illiterate in Arabic and did not understand the complexities of the Khedivate.

The expansionist policies of Isma’il left him indebted to the European powers. Because he could raise no more loans, the crisis culminated with selling the Egyptian and Sudanese shares in the Suez Canal Company in 1875 to the British government. Soon, direct British intervention followed, and Isma’il abdicated in 1879.

The bankruptcy of Egypt and the purchase of the Suez Canal by the British (which secured their connections with the Indies) made the next stage in Egyptian-Sudanese history rather predictable. However, despite the annexation to the Khedivate of the entire Sudanese territory and the introduction of formal Islam, due to the geographic diversity, great distances and the limited resources of the central authorities, the ethnic and linguistic diversity of Sudan were little disturbed.

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