History of the Nuba, part II

History, part I
History, part III

IV. Invasions of Kordofan
V. The Turkiyya
VI. The Mahdiya (1881- 1898)
VII. The Condominium (1899 - 1953)


IV. Invasions of Kordofan

1. Sennar
In a battle at Dongola in 652, the Makurian forces halted the Arab invasion of Nubia. The Baqt, a treaty concluded between the Arabs and the Makurians, allowed trade to flourish between Nubia and the Arab world for nearly seven hundred years. Caravan routes traversed the country from south to north and from west to east. The commerce attracted Arab merchants who settled among the indigenous people along the Nile. Arabs also found a place in the Red Sea Hills, where gold was found. Gradually, over a period of nearly a thousand years, the influence of the Arabic settlers grew. Intermarriage with indigenous elites and wealth from trade, rather than force, brought the Arabs to positions of esteem.

The slow process of Arabization and Islamization was hastened by the rise of the Funj Kingdom of Sennar.1 The Funj were Africans, who arrived in the area of ancient Alodia in 1504. Within decades, Sennar ruled over a large part of Northern Sudan. Its monarchy embraced Islam in 1523, inviting Muslim scholars and missionaries to spread the faith. Arab culture and social organisation became more and more dominant. Sennar thrived on trade along the caravan routes, on slaves and on the gold found in the realm of the kingdom. The influence of Sennar stretched at least into Southern Kordofan, and during the sixteenth and seventeenth century migration from the river towards the west brought the Arab influence into this province of Sennar. The first tribes that migrated during this period claim to be Arabs, but the genealogies they give are usually as creative as they are unlikely.2

For an uncertain period of time, but probably beginning in the latter half of the sixteenth century a part of Kordofan called the Ghudiyat was a province to Sennar. The ruling elite of the Ghudiyat was of Funj origin and resided at Abdel Baka. According to MacMichael, their rule was only predominant during a short period: from 1755 to 1768. But they remained where they were after the demise of Sennar.3 You may remember that the Warke, or people of Dilling, originated from there. At the time Nadel recorded the historic relations between the Warke and the Ghudiyat (around 1939), each new chief of Dilling still recognized the suzerainty of the Sultan of the Ghudiyat. At least ten generations of Dilling chiefs had travelled to Abdel Baka to receive the symbols of their authority from the Sultan.4 It is quite remarkable that this relationship survived into the twentieth century: Kordofan was taken from Sennar by the Darfurians; it was invaded by Arab nomads; Sennar itself was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and the Mahdi and the Khalifa ravaged Kordofan before it finally became part of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In ‘A Premise for Precolonial Nuba History’ J. Spaulding speculates that the same relationship existed between the Sultan and other tribes related to the Warke: the Kaduru, the Ghulfan and the Tabak.5 Nadel doesn’t mention it, but it would not be too far-fetched to assume that more Nuba tribes, through the Ghudiyat, once were tributary to Sennar.

2. Keira
For at least seven hundred years Jebel Marra in Southern Darfur was the centre of a Kingdom or Sultanate that was first dominated by the Daju (900-1400?), then by the Tunjur (1400?-1650) and eventually by the Fur (1650–1916). Politically the Kingdoms of Darfur were more influenced by developments to their west and north than by the situation at the Nile.6 Point of gravity for these developments is the Kanem-Bornu Empire centred around Lake Chad. Kanem-Borno was influential because for centuries it controlled the main route for trans-Sahara trade. The empire was first ruled by the Zaghawa, or Duguwa, until about 1075 AD the Sayfuwa took over. Succession was not a matter of conquest, but rather of one elite supplanting the other. As Islam followed the same trail as the caravans across the desert, the elites of Kanem-Borno were relatively early to convert to Islam. This played a major role in the power shift from Zhagawa to Sayfuwa.7

Now back to Darfur: the Daju are the first recorded people to have established a state around Jebel Marra. They are believed to have been related to the Zhagawa by some; they could also have been one of the Ouaddai tribes according to others.8 Whatever happened exactly: the power of the Daju Kingdom declined at a time when the Sayfuwa moved their capital from the east of Lake Chad to the west of it, possibly because of the rise of the Bilala Sultanate, in the late fourteenth century. The Daju were replaced by a people called the Tunjur. Their origin is even more obscure than that of the Daju. Some say the Tunjur came from the West, through Borno and Ouaddai.9 The Tunjur were Muslims or were converted to Islam during their reign in Darfur that lasted until about 1650 AD.

The Fur were a people living in the Tunjur realm and they probably didn’t have to fight very hard to gain control of the institutions. The Tunjur intermarried with the Fur and eventually the Fur became dominant. Their reign was known as the Keira Sultanate, founded by Suleiman Solongdungo around 1650.10 The Keira Sultanate lasted until 1916, when it was annexed to the Sudan by the British-Egyptian administration. The population in the Sultanate was made up of a large variety of ethnic groups that lived together without too many conflicts. The Keira rulers first settled the relationship with the Ouaddai to their west before turning their attention eastward. For several centuries they controlled at least part of Kordofan. Wes African Muslims performing the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) started to trek through Keira towards the Nile. They crossed the river at Dongola and from there moved on to the Red Sea, to cross to Mecca by boat. This steady movement to and from Mecca, together with the trade (mainly in slaves) made Keira prosperous, and the Sultans were keen to protect the caravan routes. They also invited Arab merchants from both the western Islamic regions and the Nile region to settle in their territory. From time to time Keira and Sennar would be in conflict over Kordofan until 1784/5. Keira conquered the region and remained in control until the Egyptian Viceroy Muhammad Ali Pasha sent his forces south in 1821, in search of slaves for his army.

3. Tagali
Both Sennar and Keira considered Kordofan as a province. Sennar was more influential in the south while Keira’s power was felt in northern Kordofan, and they contested each other for control over central Kordofan. Nothing indicates however that either state was able to exercise much authority. Apart from an occasional raid for slaves or a campaign to press home their demands for tribute, they left the people alone for most of the time. It is generally assumed that the indigenous population of Northern and Central Kordofan largely consisted of Nuba people, who either blended with the steadily arriving Arab settlers or withdrew to the sanctuary of the Nuba Mountains in the South.

There was one genuinely Nuba centre of power in Kordofan: the Kingdom of Tagali. It lies in the Tagali Hills, in the north eastern part of the Nuba Mountains. The first account about Tagali was given by J. Bruce. He spent some time in Sennar in 1772 and says there were several villages surrounding Sennar that were inhabited by slaves from the Nuba Mountains, taken mainly from Dair and Tagali. The Nuba formed Sennar’s infantry.11 The Funj Chronicles, written in the nineteenth century, shed more light on the nature of the Tagali Kingdom and its relationship to Sennar. Around 1650 Sultan Baadi II of Sennar attacked the Mek of Tagali because his people had robbed the pilgrim caravans to and from Mecca. Tagali yielded to Sennar and paid an annual tribute in slaves.12

The Tagali Kingdom grew more influential and from this time stems the expression that there are 99 Nuba hills: the Meks of Tagali were said to rule over 99 hills; this was giving them too much credit. But at the height of its power, in the first decades of the eighteenth century, Tagali had a great deal to say in surrounding hills like Rashad and Gadir, and it ruled over several Arab speaking tribes in the plains towards the east. Tagali also had control over the gold trade (that was centred in Sheibun) and it received tribute from some more distant tribes.13 While the reign of Sennar waned and was eventually ended by the invasion of the Turkish armies, the Meks of Tagali managed to maintain their authority into the time of the Condominium.

4. Baggara
The next group of people to influence affairs in Kordofan were the Baggara. The Baggara tribes are cattle nomads who consider themselves Arabs and claim to be descendent from the Juhayna. I found it really difficult to get a clear idea of the origins of these Juhayna, their wanderings into the Sudan and the way they settled in Kordofan. The difficulties are explained by Yusuf Fadl Hassan:

the Juhayna includes the Arabs of that name and other groups who tended to attach themselves to the Juhayna and became related to them by tracing their relations back to a mythical or semi-mythical common ancestry. The term Juhayna lost its true meaning and came to mean virtually Arab; it included practically all the nomads.14

For the sake of clarity I will describe some of the lines that were later pulled together by the common practice of the Arab inhabitants of Kordofan to trace their ancestry to Abdallah al-Juhani.

A. Juhayna
The actual Juhayna came from the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt with the first wave of Arab conquests. From there they ventured into eastern Sudan, some settling among the Beja, others slowly moving west. Some Juhayna groups possibly came to eastern Sudan across the Red Sea. All this occurred over a longer period of time, from the ninth to the thirteenth century AD.

By and large the Beja country had served as a highway through which many Arab tribesmen passed either from Egypt. or directly across the Red Sea on their way to the Nile.15

B. Judham
West of the Nile a second route of migration took an increasing number of Arabs towards Darfur and North Kordofan. They followed the river up to Dongola, from where they turned south-westward on the Darb’ al-Arba’in [Forty Day’s Road] across the desert to Dar Fur. Among these, the Judham Arabs were predominant. As the plains of Darfur were slowly occupied by the first waves of immigrants, groups arriving later tracked on towards the west, entering the realms of the Kanem-Bornu Empire.16 In a letter to the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, dated 1391, the king of Bornu complains about the brutality of the Arabs, who pillage the country and sell off its people as slaves. He asks the Sultan to use his influence to end the atrocities.17 Whether this letter had the desired result the story doesn’t tell.

Among the Arabs settling in the plains of Darfur and Northern Kordofan we find the Kababish and the Fazara. The Kababish seem to be Arabs of mainly Judham origin who were later joined by other Arab tribes coming from the Nile. The Fazara are a northern Arab tribe that migrated to Egypt in the fourteenth century and from there continued into Sudan. Both Kababish and Fazara were later said to have descended from the Juhayna, but this is not very likely.18

C. Baggara
Finally we get to the tribes that call themselves the Baggara. Around 1500 AD the plains of northern Darfur and northern Kordofan were occupied, and so were the regions to the west, in Ouaddai and Bornu. The Arab tribes in northern Darfur and Kordofan kept herds of camels and sheep.

Subsequent arrivals, who could not find room in this region, had to hurry southwards – that is, into southern Kordofan and Dar Fur. The new belt, although rich in pasture, was not climatically suitable for either camels or sheep. Gradually, the Arabs, like the natives, adopted cattle breeding and thus became known collectively as the Baqqara (from baqara or cow).19

The origins of the Baggara are a bit obscure. They themselves claim to be of Juhayna descent, and their oral histories state that they came to Kordofan from Tunis and Fezzan (in Libya). MacMichael already commented that there was a lot of air in the Baggara genealogies. He believed the Baggara came from the north through the Nubian Kingdoms and had little to do with the Juhayna Arabs that came from the east.20 Jean-Claude Zeltner dismissed any large-scale Arab migration from North Africa into the region of Lake Chad prior to an 1842 movement of Arabs from Fezzan to Kanem (east of Lake Chad).21 Today the Baggara will acknowledge the improbability of the route through Chad, but they will maintain that they are Juhayna. Point remains that the Juhayna came only from the east, not from the north along the Nile. According to Hasan, they are probably distant offspring of Judham Arabs and some other Arab tribes that came to the Sudan together with them.22

The most important Baggara tribes in Kordofan are the Hawazma, the Misseriya Humr and the Misseriya Zuruq. They started to occupy land to the west and the north of the Nuba Mountains from the sixteenth century onwards. The Nuba of central Kordofan, who had already been pushed back by the incursions from Sennar and Keira, gradually withdrew further south. For centuries they were living relatively peaceful though, at least according to Sagar:

Vast tracts of land surrounding all the jebels [mountains] were cultivated, so that when eventually the Baggara Arabs, searching for pasture and water for their rapidly increasing herds, arrived in Kordofan from the west some 120 years ago [around 1800], they naturally turned southwards into this prosperous country and divided it amongst themselves. Meeting with no opposition in the plains, they drove the Nuba into their hills and occupied all the best watering places… Stories told by present-day Baggara, passed from father to son, tell of a country “yellow with grain”, and names given by the inhabitants to hills and khirs [seasonal currents] suggest that places which are now mere wastes were then inhabited and cultivated. An instance in point is Jebel Simasim, some 10 miles north of Jebel Ghulfan, where the Arabs found vast piles of simsim [sesame] stored, showing that then the Nuba of Ghulfan could cultivate unmolested at such a distance from their own homes.23

This was to change very soon. Again according to Sagar:

Slave raiding began at once, and the Nuba were cooped up in the hills. The usual procedure was that each sub-tribe of Baggara protected, as far as possible, the hills in its own zone, in return for supplies of grain and slaves, and raided, as far as they could, hills belonging to other sub-tribes. Cultivation in the plains consequently ceased, for fear of the sudden onset of the dreaded horsemen… To grow their grain the Nuba set to work and terraced the hills, and do kept themselves from starvation. But crops grown in such barren soil were poor and often failed, so that in bad times they were compelled to sell their own slaves, and often their own children to the Arabs for grain.24

And that was only the beginning.


V. The Turkiyya

1. Muhammad Ali Pasha
For the next phase in the history of Sudan that directly affected the Nuba we turn to the north, to Egypt, and beyond, to Turkey.25 From the beginning of the fourteenth century AD, a new power emerged in Turkey that replaced the remnants of the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople fell in 1453 and the Ottoman Empire started to expand into the regions once held by the Romans. Central Europe [only just] withstood Ottoman conquest, but Southeast Europe, the Middle East, Egypt and the North African coast were conquered and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire.

In Egypt the Ottoman Empire replaced the Mamluk Sultanate in 1517 AD. The Mamluks remained influential though. We will not bother ourselves with the ups and downs of the Ottomans, until the year 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. The Ottoman Empire was clearly in decline, and the Mamluks successfully challenged the authority of the Pashas [the Ottoman Sultan appointed a new Governor, or Pasha, every two years]. This led to chaotic scenes that need not worry us, but that did give Napoleon a pretext to invade the country ‘in order to restore the authority of the Ottomans’. The Sultan was not amused. He sought and obtained the help of the British to regain control over Egypt and the French occupation didn’t last three full years. After some more years of struggle Muhammad Ali Pasha became the ruler of Egypt, in name of the Ottoman Sultan, but really, in name only.

Muhammad Ali Pasha ruled Egypt as if it were his personal property and he managed to restore order in the country. After killing the leaders of the Mamluks he set out to expand his influence. He conquered Libya and then, in 1820, sent his son Ismael south to invade Sudan. Muhammad Ali Pasha had four reasons to seek control over Sudan: to vanquish the remnants of the Mamluks who had settled at Dongola; to take control of the caravan trade to the Red Sea; to get to the gold mines, and to capture slaves to fill the ranks of his standing army. The invasion was successful: Ismael defeated the Mamluks, and he ended the rule of Sennar in 1821. In the same year Muhammad Ali’s son-in-law Muhammad Bey, the Defterdar, conquered Kordofan from Keira. The last resistance in the centre of Sudan was crushed in 1822.

The consequences for the population of Kordofan were terrible. Perhaps the best thing is to let MacMichael do the talking:

Previously, it is true, Kordofan had seen wars and tumults, but taxation had been light and the rulers just according to the standard of the day. Now all was altered: a foreign race seized the country and administered it exclusively for their own benefit, and in defiance of every law of humanity and justice.

Relying on accounts by Palme and Petherick,26 he continued:

The Defterdar was a monster of inhuman cruelty and gruesome stories are told of the outrages perpetrated by him and his successors. Money and the gratification of lusts were their only objects. Not only did they crush the native under a heel of iron, but they incidentally swindled their own government at the natives’ expense at every turn.27

2. Slave raids
As we have seen in the previous chapters, slavery and slave trade was nothing unusual in the Sudan. From the Baqt between the Muslims and the Nubians, to the wealth of Keira, to the army of Sennar: slaves were always in demand. And the Nuba were always considered to make good slaves. Even the Tegali Kings, who were Nuba, raided neighbouring tribes for slaves. Slaves were the most important ‘export product’ of Sudan, followed at a distance by gum, gold and ostrich feathers. Keira was the main supplier, sending raids to the Central African hinterland. Sennar also contributed to the slave caravans, sending mainly Nuba northwards and to the Red Sea. Exact numbers are not available, but it seems that before the Turkiyya, about 4000 slaves annually found their way to Egypt from or through Sudan.28  

After the conquest of Sudan by the Egyptians, the slave trade became a different matter. Muhammad Ali wanted to create an army of Sudanese that would enable him to dispense with his own mutinous Albanian and Turkish troops, and defy the Ottoman Sultan.29 To the French Consul he declared that he wanted to create a Nizam Jadid [New Model Army], and that he would deploy those unfit for military service in his many agricultural and industrial projects.30 Muhammad Ali perpetually urged his commanders to collect and send as many Sudanese slaves as they could to the training camps at Aswan:

You are aware that the end of all our efforts and this expense is to procure negroes. Please show zeal in carrying out our wishes in this capital matter.31

By 1823, 30.000 slaves, mainly from Al Jazirah and from Kordofan, had been sent to Aswan. Only 3.000 survived the sudden change of environment. Despite this obvious failure, Muhammad Ali continued to demand slave soldiers to man the garrisons in Sudan and to form new regiments for his own army. The number of slaves sent to Egypt more than doubled to an estimated 10-12.000 annually. On top of that several thousands of men were kept in Sudan to fill the file and rank of the army there. And these figures do not even include the number of slaves that were traded to the Arab peninsula across the Red Sea, nor the many slaves that were kept in Sudan as concubines, domestic servants or labourers. It is hard to imagine this constant flow of human merchandise taken from the heartlands of Africa, mainly over land, through swamps and deserts and endless savannas.

In Kordofan, Rustum Bey carried out orders from the Governor-General of Sudan, Ali Kurshid Pasha, to raid the Nuba. Rustum took 1.400 people captive in 1830, and another 1.500 in 1832.32 These are just some random figures really. There is no clear indication of how many people were dragged off in captivity. Apart from the military campaigns to capture slave soldiers, the Baggara also raided the Nuba villages, to pay the taxes imposed by the Turkiyya. The accounts of European travellers provide ample details about slave raids and slave trade in Kordofan during the Turkiyya. Pallme is often sited:

The Viceroy of Egypt institutes annually, once or twice in the course of the year, an actual hunt in the mountains of Nuba, and in the bordering countries, and seizes upon a certain number of the negroes by stratagem of force… The burden of this sanguinary fate falls most heavily upon the miserable inhabitants of the Nuba mountains. In the year 1825, four years, therefore, after the conquest, the number of slaves which had been led away into captivity was estimated at forty thousand; and in the year 1839 the total number amounted at least to two hundred thousand, without reckoning the thousands stolen by the Bakkara and bought by the Jelabi.33

It would probably be a mistake to attribute the figures given by Pallme to the Nuba alone. Ali Kurshid Pasha personally led campaigns against the Dinka, the Shilluk, the Ingassana and other African peoples34 , and I think the slaves taken from these and similar campaigns are part of the two hundred thousand Pallme mentions. But the main thing is of course that the captured people suffered terribly. Arthur Holroyd provides an eyewitness account:

The troops stationed in Kordofan were marched annually after the kharif [first rain] to Jebel Nuba, for the purpose of capturing slaves from these mountains. These expeditions were called ghaziyeh and when I arrived at El Obeid the troops had just returned with the produce of such an expedition. The handsome women were sold for the harems of the Turks and Arabs; the able-bodied men were placed in the ranks; the decrepit of both sexes, the pregnant females, and young children, were allotted to the soldiers in lieu of money to the amount to a moiety of their arrears. I once witnessed this distribution; and a more heart rending scene cannot be imagined: for though these blacks had been seized two or three months, and had been deprived of their liberty, they felt severely the final separation of their friends and families.35

In the 1840’s and 1850’s, the slave raids were focused on the Bahr al Jabal and the Bahr al Gazhal. European traders looking for ivory broke the state monopoly and started to sail up the White Nile to hunt for elephants and trade with the inhabitants of the South. Soon the elephants ran out and the only profitable trade left was slavery. Arab slave traders started to participate as well. The most notorious was without doubt Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur. He carved out his personal empire in the Bahr al Gazhal, entirely based on the slave trade. Setting up a network of trading forts known as zeribas, his control reached well into today’s Central African Republic and southern Chad. This eventually brought him in conflict with Egypt.

3. Khedive Ismail
Muhammad Ali Pasha, who only in words had tried to end slavery, died in 1848. His immediate successors were not very interesting but in 1863 his grandson Ismail came to power. He carried the title of Khedive of Egypt. Khedive Ismail considered the modernisation of Egypt as his personal project. It would be fair to say he succeeded, but at too high a price. He overstretched the Egyptian population and he amassed such huge national debts that the French and the British intervened and eventually got rid of him in 1879.36

A. suppression of the slave trade in Sudan
Paradoxically, the same conquest of the Sudan that led to an intensification of slave raiding also opened up the country to western travellers. Their accounts raised awareness in Europe that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was not unique. Especially the British Abolitionists started to demand an end to slavery in Egypt and the Sudan. Initially their protests did not sort much effect. The demand from Egypt did decrease in the 1840’s and 1850’s, but mainly for economic reasons. There was, however, another sharp increase in trade in the 1860’s, after the introduction of cotton cultivation to Egypt. It was only from the 1870’s onwards, that attempts to abolish slavery markedly diminished the demand from Egypt.37

Khedive Ismail was quite serious about ending the slave trade in Sudan. He started to block trade routes along the Nile and across the Red Sea, and sent an army down to Bahr al Ghazal to end the activities of Al-Zubayr. However, Al-Zubayr defeated the Khedive’s troops and he established a new trade route over land, from the areas south of Darfur, through South Kordofan to El Obeid. Eventually Ismail figured that the best way to pacify the Bahr al Gazhal was to make Al-Zubayr governor of the area, which he did in 1873. Al-Zubayr then turned his attention to Darfur that was still a centre of slave trade. Al-Zubayr took El Fasher, the capital of the Keira Sultanate. He had envisioned himself as Governor of Darfur but when he came to Cairo in 1875, Khedive Ismael kept him in captivity instead.38

Another initiative of the Khedive to end the slave trade was to send an English explorer, Sir Samuel Baker to the region known as Equatoria. Actually the Khedive was more interested in bringing the south of the country under his influence, but officially the campaign was aimed at tackling the slave trade at the source. Baker spent three years in Equatoria and only managed to create a lot of animosity against the Egyptian authority. He plundered the country to feed his troops, used excessive violence and ended up trading with the very slave merchants he was supposed to oust from the region. Determined to see the project through, the Khedive then sent Charles G. Gordon to pacify Equatoria, in 1874. Gordon succeeded within three years39, after which he was appointed Governor–General of the Sudan. In this capacity he continued to fight the slave traders, until he resigned in 1879, exhausted from the many years of incessant work.

B. Events in South Kordofan
For the Nuba some things had already changed under Ismail’s predecessors. Official large scale slave raids had ended by the time the Khedive came to power, but raids by Baggara, private slave traders and even by neighbouring tribes remained a cause for insecurity. The Egyptian administration left most of the Nuba tribes alone and those who were expected to pay taxes were no longer pressed to such extremes as before.40 The Kingdom of Tagali, although somewhat restricted in its power by the Egyptian Governor, flourished for several decades and withstood Egyptian attempts to subdue it.

As mentioned before, since the conquest of the Sudan several European travellers made it to Kordofan. In 1837 Muhammad Ali Pasha sent an expedition into the Nuba Mountains – he was looking for gold – and to that adventure we owe the account of geologist Joseph Russegger, who came as far as the Tira Mountains. During the rule of Khedive Ismail, travellers start to mention Jebel Dair and Dilling as places they visited. Most remarkable is the enterprise of the Catholic missionaries led by Comboni. In 1875, they established a mission post in Dilling, which they had to abandon when the Egyptian authorities started a campaign to subdue Jebel Dilling. The missionaries returned to Dilling in 1877, and stayed there until the outbreak of the Mahdist Revolt. One of the missionaries, G. Martini, wrote:

although these people are not Muslims, they have a great inclination towards the precepts and customs of the Muslims as they see these practised by the Baqqara living on their borders… The Nubas have learnt from the Muslims to swear by the Koran, to weep for the dead, to call Muhammad the Prophet of God, and some other things.41

From the few sources available emerges an impression of stabilisation. After several decades of plunder and intense raiding in the Nuba Mountains, the Egyptian authorities seem to have been content with a nominal control, leaving the Nuba alone except when a group would become too bold in one way or another (like Tagali or Dilling). The relationship between the Baggara and Nuba remained tense, but apparently, towards the 1870's the Nuba had been able to arm themselves with guns. And we must be aware that the Nuba were not a harmless, defenceless lot: they would raid each other and they would raid the Baggara just as well. The influence of Islam was becoming evident in the northern hills, but the Catholic missionaries were able to establish themselves in Dilling, which also says something about the growing stability.

C. Involvement of the British in Sudan
Khedive Ismail spent too much money. All the wealth of Egypt and Sudan couldn’t cover his expenses. He sold his large share in the Suez Canal to the British, but the revenues did not even begin to cover his debts. Egypt was bankrupt. The British and the French, trying to save their interests, put the Khedive under legal restraint in 1876. When he ceased to cooperate, the British played ball with the Sultan in Constantinople, who dismissed Ismail in 1879, and appointed his son instead. In the following years the situation in Egypt deteriorated, a revolt threatened to ruin all European investments in the country, as well as the trade through the Suez Canal. The British decided to invade Egypt, supposedly to restore order. They remained until 1956.42


VI. The Mahdiyya (1881-1899)

1. Governor-General Gordon
Charles Gordon fought the slave trade for two years, from 1877 to 1879, but he was unable to end it permanently. The resistance of the slave traders and the influential families engaged in it was too strong. It would have taken a large army to suppress the unrest, and there simply wasn’t any money: Egypt was bankrupt, the budget for Sudan was extremely limited and England was not going to pay for any large scale operation in Sudan. Pressured by the British Government, Gordon abandoned his initial policy of caution. He appointed foreigners as governors, replaced Egyptian administrators by Europeans, and turned to violence to suppress the trade. This led to a number of revolts in Kordofan, in Bahr al Ghazal and in Darfur. Using increasingly more force, Governor-General Gordon managed to keep the country under control. When Khedive Ismail was replaced by his son, Gordon resigned. He was exhausted.

His successor, Governor-General Muhammad Ra’uf, was not half as able as Gordon. I will quote a large paragraph from Mowafi, because it sums up matters handsomely:

The policy of oppression… had alienated the Sudanese people who believed that slavery was permitted by their religion. The fact that the campaign against slavery was conducted by Christians made the people think that the government was acting against their religion. Moreover, the attempts to suppress the slave trade struck at an important source of wealth and had shaken the basis of the domestic and agrarian economy which was based on slave labour. [Many slaves had obtained their freedom, but their] masters had not been compensated for the loss of their slaves. In spite the people’s economic losses, the taxes remained unchanged… The Government, under Ra’uf showed no mercy in the collection of taxes, and force was used to collect them. On the other hand, he permitted the slave trade to revive… The appearance of the “Mahdi” Muhammad Ahmad provided the leadership necessary to unite all the discontented forces of the country to achieve the termination of the Egyptian rule in the Sudan.43

2. Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah, or the Mahdi
Muhammad Ahmed was a young religious teacher who resided on an island in the White Nile near Kosti, called Aba Island. He preached a simple and spiritual life to a modest number of followers. In 1881, he proclaimed to be the Mahdi: the Expected One who would deliver the Muslims from tyranny. The belief that such a redeemer will come is part of the Islamic traditions called hadiths. They are a collection of sayings of the Prophet Mohamed, considered by Muslims as guidelines for the proper conduct of life almost of the same importance as the text of the Qur’an. According to several hadiths, the Prophet announced the coming of a religious leader at a moment when the world was in great turmoil. This leader would be ‘from his tribe’; he would be ‘of his name’ and he would lead the people to a life of peace, and free the world from injustice, corruption and oppression. Through the centuries, many men have proclaimed to be this expected Mahdi, in one revolt or another.

Muhammad Ahmad is said to have been a devout man, who travelled a lot in Sudan. His journeys took him to Kordofan and Darfur, where he sensed people’s readiness to welcome anyone who would end their misery. Muhammad Ahmad’s fame grew, and so did the number of his adherents. He was joined, in 1880, by a man from Darfur, called Abdullahi Muhammad. Abdullahi was a Baggara from the Ta’aisha tribe, and eventually he was to succeed Muhammad Ahmed in 1885. Some say he was an important figure from the start. MacMichael was not the only one to write along these lines:

This man was a most valuable adherent, for he was thoroughly acquainted with the restless Bakkara tribes, and had great influence with them. It was at his suggestion that Muhammad Ahmad again made a tour through Kordofan, - this time with the definite design of fomenting the discontent that was rife.44

During this second tour of Kordofan, Muhammad Ahmad secured the support of many influential sheikhs of the Baggara tribes. He also tried to win over Adam Dabbalu, the King of Tegali. The King remained cautious and only promised to stay neutral in case Muhammad Ahmad would revolt. Muhammad Ahmad then returned to Aba Island.  He openly declared himself as the Mahdi in June 1881 by sending dispatches to various notables, tribal chiefs and adherents to join him in his divinely ordained mission. Some say the Egyptian authorities only became alarmed when the Mahdi called on people to stop paying their taxes. In a proclamation issued sometime between November 1881 and November 1882, the Mahdi wrote:

Verily these Turks thought that theirs was the kingdom and the command of [God's] apostles and of His prophets and of him who commanded them to imitate them. They judged by other than God's revelation and altered the Shari'a of Our Lord Mohammed, the Apostle of God, and insulted the Faith of God and placed poll-tax [al-jizya] on your necks together with the rest of the Muslims.... Verily the Turks used to drag away your men and imprison them in fetters and take captive your women and your children and slay unrighteously the soul under God's protection.45

The Egyptian authorities tried to suppress the revolt by sending troops to Aba Island, but the Mahdi’s followers defeated them. Knowing he could not stay where he was, the Mahdi turned to Kordofan with his followers, called the Ansar [helpers]. According to Stevenson:

It is said that, having reached Tegali again, the Mahdi wished to stay there for a while, but was persuaded to continue southwards.46

He eventually established himself at Jebel Gadir, where he was welcomed by the Mek. According to Edward Lino, this was not just out of mere coincidence.

Abba Island at that time, 1881, was part of the Kingdom of the Reth of the Shilluk... The Reth's seat was in Fashoda and continues to be up to date… The father of the Mahdi… had a married relationship with the Umda of Abba. On behalf of the Mahdi, when the fight started, he sent an emissary to the Reth:  "This is the son of our daughter… he would like to save our people from the slavery and oppression being carried out by the Turks." Instead of going there directly, he contacted the Nuba because there is an institutionalized relationship between the Eastern Nuba and the Reth of the Shilluk.47

Apparently several items essential to the coronation ritual of the Reth [King] of the Shilluk had to be brought from the Nuba Mountains. Among them was a glittering stone.48 Whatever the truth in it, the story is too good to be left out, and I haven’t found any other allusion as to why the Mahdi would go to Jebel Gadir. There is a good explanation why he wanted to establish himself on a mountain though:

at every junction of the operation the Mahdi simulated the activites of the Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, the conscious enacting of the traditions of the Prophet aimed at reinforcing the popular legitimacy of the nascent charismatic. Thus, the Mahdi’s hijra [withdrawal] from Aba to Kordofan corresponds to Muhammad’s hijra to Madina when threatened by authorities in Makka. Similarly the early followers of the Mahdi were labelled Ansar, as were the ‘companions’ or ‘helpers’ of Muhammad. Finally, as the Mahdi reached Mount Qadir in the Nuba Muntains, he renamed it Masa in conformity with the Prophet’s tradition.49

A personal assistant to the Mahdi remembered:

While we were at Gadir, the Mahdi’s followers increased and we were fed by the Nubas. Khalifa Abdullahi was with him, but he was a man of no great importance.50

Much of what happened in the years that followed has been described by Joseph Ohrwalder, one of the missionaries in Dilling. The Ansar attacked Dilling repeatedly and eventually subdued it. Ohrwalder was taken prisoner and was kept in captivity for ten years.51 The Mahdi defeated several convoys sent against him, and went on to capture El Obeid in 1883. Adam Dabbalu, the King of Tagali, was taken prisoner as well, in 1884, He died in captivity. While the Mahdi concentrated on the conquest of Khartoum, his adjutant Hamdan Abu Anga continued to strengthen the Mahdi’s authority in Kordofan. Ohrwalder says that:

Almost all the inhabitants of Jebel Nuba sent messengers to say that they were the Mahdi’s subjects.52

This is probably an exaggeration, but I suppose the tribes in the northern hills did recognise the Mahdi’s authority. Only Jebel Dair withstood the Ansar.

3. Abdullahi Ibn Muhammad, or the Khalifa
The Mahdi was moving against Khartoum and the British Government was not inclined to stop him. After all, Sudan was Egypt’s problem, not theirs. It only asked Charles Gordon to assure a safe withdrawal of the British and Egyptian troops from the country. Gordon has left an account of his first and final meeting with the Cabinet on 18 January 1884:

At noon he, Wolseley, came to me and took me to the Minister, and came back and said: "Her Majesty’s Government wants you to understand this. Government are determined to evacuate the Sudan, for they will not guarantee future government. You will go and do it?" I said "Yes". He said "Go in." I went in and saw them. They said: "Did Wolseley tell you our ideas?" I said "Yes, he said 'You will not guarantee future government of the Sudan', and you wish me to go and evacuate it." They said "Yes" and it was over ...53

Unfortunately for Gordon, by the time he arrived the way north was cut of and he was trapped in Khartoum. The Mahdi sent him a few handsome letters, demanding that he would surrender and convert to Islam, so his life could be spared.54 Gordon refused and on January 26, 1885, his head was brought to the Mahdi’s tent. Six months after the fall of Khartoum the Mahdi died of typhus. He was followed by Abdullahi ibn Muhammad, who became the Khalifa, or successor. The Khalifa ruled over northern Sudan, from the Beja country to Darfur. It would go well beyond the scope of this story to get into details of his turbulent reign, but we will have a look at what happened in the Nuba Mountains.

For the siege of Omdorman and Khartoum, the Mahdi had ordered all able men from the Baggara tribes in Kordofan to join him in battle. Most of them did so, reluctantly, under threat of severe penalties. Abu Anga put down a revolt of Baggara tribes that no longer wanted to contribute to the war, and he raided the Nuba hills for slaves that could serve in the Mahdi army. After the Mahdi’s death, affairs under the Khalifa only worsened for the Nuba. The Tagali royal family was massacred when the sons of Adam Badallu refused to send soldiers to the Khalifa. Jebel Dair continued its resistance, but Gulfan was taken after a group of Nuba deserters had found refuge there. Abu Anga ‘finally left the Nuba hills in April 1887 with an immense booty of slaves.’55 His successors continued to plunder and raid.

Raids from Baggara against the Nuba became rare, because most of the Baggara men were off. Actually now some of the Nuba started raiding Dervish posts. In contrast Jebel Dair concluded a treaty with the Dervish Governor that opened trade on El Obeid. Meanwhile the Khalifa had to face the British (more about their motivation to become involved in the following chapter). He ordered still more of the Baggara to come to Omdorman and a giant army assembled in Kordofan and devastated the country. Several hills were nearly depopulated, like Gulfan, Debria and Kadaru. Many men and women from the Miri hills were taken to Omdorman. The Khalifa’s army was defeated at the Atbarra and he fled with the remaining Dervishes to the vicinity of the Nuba Mountains. He was eventually killed, on November 24, 1899, by Colonel Wingate.

The Nuba who had been abducted by the Dervishes to Omdorman gradually returned home. They brought back Islam, after having been exposed to it in the north for years. They also came with their fire arms. The spread of fire arms throughout the Nuba Mountains was furthered by the need of the Baggara to replenish their herds. Preferring their spears and swords anyway, they traded most of their guns for cows. This development made the job of pacifying the Nuba tribes a lot more difficult for the British who took up the administration of Kordofan.56


VII. The Condominium (1899-1956)

1. Reconquest of Sudan
In 1884 the British Government had decided not to interfere in Sudan. It asked Gordon to organise the evacuation of British and Egyptians from Khartoum and prepared to safeguard the border between Egypt and Sudan. Only eight years later Herbert Kitchener started preparations to reconquer Sudan. What had changed?

To begin with, there were the ambitions of the Mahdi and his successor. In a letter to ‘the families of Fez’ the Mahdi wrote:

Know that shortly insh’allah, I shall come with the party of God to Egypt, for the affair of the Sudan is finished.57

The Khalifa tried to invade Egypt in 1889. His troops were beaten badly by the Egyptian army that had been reorganised by the British. Left undisturbed, surely the Mahdist movement would eventually try again. But this was not the most important reason why the British Government decided to go back to Sudan.

The British occupation of Egypt triggered the scramble for Africa. The British, the French, the Portuguese, the Italians and the Germans: they all wanted a piece of the African continent. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, the colonial powers agreed to a set of rules by which the division of Africa was to be pursued. France and Great Britain were equally ambitious: France wanted to create a string of colonies that would stretch from Africa’s west coast to its east coast. Great Britain aimed at a similar sphere of influence, starting at the Cape and ending in Egypt. The idea was to link these vast territories by rail and water way, ensuring access to valuable resources from the interior, and an expansion of possible markets across the continent. Clearly, with such ambitions, occupation of the Sudan was only logical. The final reason was that the British Government strove for control over the sources of the River Nile and its course. The Nile waters have always been vital to the economy of Egypt of course, but the British were thinking already of building a large irrigation dam at Aswan.

The actual invasion of Sudan started in March 1896. It took two-and-a-half year before Omdorman was taken (September 1898), and another year to defeat the remnants of the Khalifa’s army (November 1899). Meanwhile the British had to worry about more than just the Khalifa’s troops. The French Government had sent a force from Brazzaville to Sudan, to establish a post on the White Nile and claim the area of Fashoda as a protectorate of France. They arrived there in July 1898. In September, the British Government sent Kitchener up the Nile with a powerful flotilla of gunboats. The stand-off between France and Great Britain was a logical consequence of their respective ambitions in Africa, that crossed right there in the Fashoda region. Diplomacy prevailed over military confrontation, well… actually, it would be better to say that the French were not strong enough to hold on to Fashoda, and didn’t want to risk an all-out war with Great Britain. So by the end of the year the French troops withdrew, leaving all the Sudan to Great Britain.

2. Condominium
On January 19, 1899 Britain and Egypt signed a condominium agreement under which the Sudan was to be administered jointly. In general the British ruled while the Egyptians executed their policy and paid for the administration - or, as the London Times of April 18, 1900 put it:

Two men have jointly bought a horse, A contributing one third, B two thirds of the price. A rides the horse, B grooms it and pays its upkeep. That is approximately the situation in Sudan.58

The first 25 years of the Condominium, most of the troops in Sudan would be Egyptian. After the Independence of Egypt in 1922, the British ordered all the Egyptians out of Sudan and administered the country alone, even though the official terms of the Condominium Agreement were not changed. To replace the Egyptian troops, the Sudan Defence Force was formed of Sudanese soldiers and mainly British officers. By 1951, Egypt demanded that Britain would withdraw from Sudan. The British Government only agreed to do so in 1953, when Egypt recognised the Sudan’s right to self-determination. January 1, 1956, the British had left Sudan: the country was independent.59

Throughout the Condominium, the British Administration grappled with the future of Sudan. Especially the problem of where the southern provinces should belong was hard to solve. Culturally they would probably fit better with the British protectorates of East Africa (roughly present day Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania), but at the same time South Sudan was quite interwoven with the North. There were no roads, railways or lines of communication between the South and the East African protectorates. All trade was with the North, mainly through Arab merchants. The South lacked skilled people to fill the administration, and it lacked the capacity to develop larger economic projects. Many Southerners were living in the North as labour migrants. Apart from the economic ties, it would be impossible to separate African Sudanese from Arab Sudanese in several areas, like Bahr al Ghazal.

During the first twenty years, the British had no official policy towards the South. Pacification; organisation of the administration and the establishment of clear national borders had their priority. From 1922 onwards though, they were actively striving to develop the South separately from the North. The spread of Islam seemed to be their main worry, because it went hand in hand with nationalist tendencies. The White Flag League, formed in the early 1920’s, revolted against the British presence in Sudan in 1924. The leader of the League, Ali 'Abd al-Latif, was a former army officer whose parents had been slaves. Either his father was a Nuba and his mother a Dinka, or it was the other way around. This is by no means reason to claim him as a fore-fighter of the Nuba cause though. Abd al-Latif was a nationalist, and the White Flag League was striving for integration of Sudan with Egypt. Abd al-Latif believed the two countries were linked by the Nile, by Islam and by the Arab culture.

In an attempt to halt the influence of nationalism, the administration in the South started to favour local authorities. Arab administrators were sent back to the North. Arab traders were banned from the South and at the same time labour migration from the South to the North was stopped. Christian missionaries were invited to set up schools throughout the South, teaching in English rather than in Arabic. In the end, this policy utterly failed: the development of the South remained far behind with the North. The rising nationalist movement in North Sudan demanded that the unity of Sudan would be respected. At the same time emerging nationalist movements in the East African protectorates were not at all enthusiastic to add the worries of another vast, underdeveloped region to their own problems. This brought about a dramatic turn in British policy: from 1946 onwards, the South was to be prepared for its future in a united Sudan.60 Do I need to add that the British policy contributed to the outbreak of the north-south conflict?

3. Administration of the Nuba Mountains
The same policy as in the South was applied in the Nuba Mountains. Once they had established their authority, the British started to look for ways to keep the Nuba and the Arabs apart. This was not done with a joint administration with the South in mind, but out of the idea that the Nuba had to be protected from an unsuccessful assimilation into the Arab culture surrounding them. Personal sentiments played a large part in this approach. British officials were afraid that without preventive measures the Nuba would turn into some debased sort of half-cast Arabs. Or, as Stevenson wrote:

The ‘best’ type of Nuba, in the eyes of many British officials, were those uncontaminated by Arab influence or admixture, and the mixed populations of, say, Eliri and Talodi, and the semi-arabicizid people of Kadaru or the Daju hills near Lagowa, were considered miserable and decadent.61

He probably referred to Vicar-Miles:

I should like to lay stress on the undesirability of an Arab–Nuba blend… The result is always an undisciplined, drunken, half-caste Arab who has no background and no tradition to keep him up to the mark.62

And Stevenson, in 1984 (!) agreed:

That there is some truth in this when with half-acculturation tribes appear to lose many of the good points of their older culture and take on what is worst in the new, it would be hard to deny in many instances.63

Eventually it became quite obvious that the policy of separation was totally impractical, even more so in the Nuba Mountains than in the South. There was no clean-cut border between Arabs and Nuba, and economically the Nuba were even more tied to the North than the Southerners were. As in the South, the British turned their policy around. We will look at the changes in policy in more detail. Meanwhile we have to keep in mind that, no matter what the British tried, the cost of occupation always outweighed the revenues in Kordofan. A few British officials with limited financial means and a small north Sudanese staff had to keep things quiet in a vast province. With this outlook it is easier to understand that, despite the obvious good intentions of many of the administrators in the field, little was done for the social and economic development of the region.

From 1898 to 1912, the Nuba Mountains were a sub-province of Kordofan; from 1913 to 1928 they were called Nuba Mountains Province, with its capital in Talodi. It consisted of three districts: the Western, Eastern and Southern Jebels. Each district was ruled directly by a British District Commissioner [D.C.] and an Assistant D.C., supported by an Egyptian Mamur and Submamur. 64

The District Commissioner [...] is most simply described as a Jack of all trades. He hears civil and criminal cases, supervises police and prisons, arranges for the assessment and collection of taxes, patches up fends, makes simple roads, bridges and houses, assists in the compilation of maps, encourages economic development, enforces quarantine, and frequently acts both as medical and matrimonial advisor to his constituents.65

To exercise some authority over the different tribes – to make them pay their taxes and to keep them from raiding their Nuba or Baggara neighbours – the D.C.s looked for a person in the community that could be make accountable. They considered the kujurs to be the most influential individuals. Kujurs come in different sorts and sizes: some are merely herbalists and traditional healers, others are considered to be very powerful men or women of priest-like stature who are in touch with the spirit realm. From the latter category, the British would choose one individual – preferably the rain priest - to make him Mek [head] of a hill or range of hills. The Mek would be vested with some tokens of authority, and was henceforth supposed to make ‘his’ people do as they were told. This was not very effective, in the first place because the kujurs’ authority was limited, and would more often than not rely on their skills in organising raids on neighbouring communities.66

4. Pacification
In their attempts to pacify Kordofan the British first concentrated on the Arab tribes who had supported the Mahdi. Seeing this, the Nuba initially paid their petty taxes which they considered protection money from the Arab tribes. Once these tribes were disarmed, the Nuba no longer saw any reason to pay and they started to resist British rule. The British could not really understand this: they had delivered the Nuba from the harassment of the Dervishes and the Baggara, and in return the Nuba rebelled against the very authority that had brought them peace? There was only one word for it: ingratitude. Now if these Nuba Meks would not listen…

A wild and ignorant population such as that of southern Kordofan can only be impressed with a sense of their comparative insignificance by a display of power and they should be afforded a tangible sign of the power of the Government to enforce its administration when necessary … For this reason I consider an increase in the garrison of Southern Kordofan necessary, and patrols in sufficient force to overawe the native mind.67

The British launched a large number of punitive expeditions from 1903 onwards, against various tribes and for various reasons. Francis Balfour, who was second inspector in the Nuba Mountains in 1916, described the usual patrol as follows:

From time to time a hill went ‘asi’ (to rhyme with ‘classy’ and having no connection with posteriors), a word which meant locally something nearer to subordinate than rebellious. The people retired to their hill tops, preferably after gathering the harvest, which could always be stored in the many caves, if there was serious trouble. Tribute, satisfaction to some raided neighbour, the surrender of some malefactor or of stolen property – in short whatever the demand for the moment might be – was refused and authority was defied. The next move in the game was the dispatch of a small mixed force, which profited by some realistic field training, with enough bullets flying about to teach the men to keep their heads down, but casualties on either side were usually few. In due course terms were asked for and granted, a bar to the General Service Medal was authorised for Patrol No.- - and, generally speaking, a good time had been had by all. 68

Justin Willis points out that many of those patrols were not so harmless, and that they were quite frequent:

I have so far identified twenty-seven patrols in the Nuba Mountains which involved more than one company of soldiers: Tegali, 1903; Daier, 1904; Kitra, 1904; Shat-el-Safia, 905; Nyima, 1908 and 1917; Burham, 1908; Katla, 1909, 1910, and 1925; Tagoi, 1910; Tira Lumman, 1910; Kimla, 1911; KrongoBakheit, 1911; Heiban, 1911; Tira el Akhdar, 1912, 1913, 1915, and 1922; Tendilla, 1913; Mandal, 1914; Miri, 1915; Koalib/Lira, 1919; Tuleishi, 1926, 1945; Julud, 1926; Lafofa, 1929.69

The patrols made numerous victims among the Nuba. Many men were taken captive and forced into military service, cattle might be taken and villages were burned. The largest patrol was Patrol No. 32 against the Nyimang Hills. The Mek of Nyimang refused to surrender some young men wanted for raiding. The thing spiralled out of control when a kujur, known as Sultan Agabna, fuelled defiance of the British authority. The British treated the patrol as a military operation involving more than 3,000 soldiers, with artillery and maxim guns. The rebelling hills were surrounded and the population was either driven out by force or starved into submission. About 500 Nuba were killed. Let me quote a few lines from the official report:

At midnight on the 6th [January, 1918], a very determined attempt to escape was made by practically the entire population of Sagan and Kushi. Coming down from the hills in large numbers, the Nubas approached the zareba [usually a fence made of thorny bushes, but here a strongly reinforced defence line] near the North West corner of Sagan, but being turned more to the West by the fire of the 4th Battalion, they fell on the line of No 1 Camel Corps. By weight of numbers, about a dozen forced their way over the zareba, most of whom were accounted for by the Arabs who rushed on to Jebel Komorro on hearing the firing. The remainder were driven back on to the hills with very heavy losses from rifle and Maxim fire. Fifty five dead and ten wounded were found lying on, or in front of, the zareba, but a large number also, with animal-like vitality, dragged themselves away to die on the hills, or later to fall into our hands in a wounded condition.70

Patrols went on until 1930, and then there was one more, in 1945, against Tulishi. The reports, the photos of burning huts and the letters from British participants of the patrols give quite a different impression than the occasional dry remark by Nadel, for example:

During the early years of British rule certain bellicose and recalcitrant tribes were forced, in the interest of public security, to leave their hill fortresses and move to settlements down in the valleys.71

And what to make of Stevenson’s understanding of the patrols? He wrote:

On many occasions troops had to be concentrated for patrols against recalcitrant hills which refused to ‘come in’. It would be tedious to list all these actions and skirmishes here. Some of the outstanding earlier ones were mounted against Shatt Safaya, Dair, Tagoi, Tira, Nyimang, and Katla, and several hills were attacked more than once... These patrols, for various reasons, were to go on intermittently for many years until they gradually diminished, and fell off entirely in the 1930s.72

Nothing about the violence, nothing about the burning of Nuba villages, nothing about the many casualties. That would just be… tedious? Anyway: it happened that way and from our viewpoint, nearly a century later, we might wonder what difference there was between the British pacification and the attempts of the Government of Sudan, in more recent times, to put down yet another rebellion in the Nuba Mountains?

5. Closed District
Arab officials administrated most Southern districts; Arab culture and Islam were spreading rapidly with trade and labour migration, and the British felt compelled to halt this development. It certainly wasn’t just to protect the Nuba that the British tried to apply the Closed District Order of 1922, to the Nuba Mountains. Egyptian nationalism had been a hidden motivation for the British to limit or possibly eradicate Arab influence in the South and in the Nuba Mountains. The revolt of the White Flag League in 1924, had shown that the many Southerners and Nuba who had served in the army might be infected with the fever of nationalism. They should not be permitted to be in contact with Sudanese Arabs. As a result travel from the Nuba Mountains to and from other districts was no longer free; labour migration was limited; Arab merchants were banned and trade was left to (Christian) Greeks and Syrians.73

Labour migration was probably the biggest concern of the British. Ironically it had been encouraged at first by the Administration:

"The Sennar Dam was being built and constructors were unable to get enough Sudanese workmen for the job. [...] The Eliri Arabs, of Hawazma, Rowaga and Kowhala slave origin, were the first to go and seek work. The Nuba followed. It would have made the D.C. of today shudder to see his predecessor persuading Nuba and Arabs alike by honeyed words and promises of high wages to go to the river for work! Labour had to be found. The Sudan had to be developed. The Jebels had a suitable population for the work."74

Few men were left to work the fields in the Mountains. When labourers returned to marry, they paid money for bridal prices that before had been rendered in services to the father of the bride. Bridal prices rose, inciting more men to go and look for work. Another way to earn money was to join the military, which many Nuba did.

6. Cotton
The administration of the Sudan cost money, certainly in areas like the Nuba Mountains where tax revenues were negligible. To address this issue the British introduced cotton to the region as a cash crop. The cotton trade would not only increase tax revenues, it would solve a lot of problems: the employment was going to keep young Nuba men from migrating to the cities in the north; bore holes would not only serve to irrigate the plants but also to provide the people with fresh water; roads for transportation would disclose the isolated areas, which in turn would make it easier to register and administer the entire Nuba population.

The introduction was successful and from 1927 onwards ginneries were constructed in Talodi, Kadugli, Lagowa, Dilling and other places. Unforeseen by the British was the role of Arab entrepreneurs (or Jellaba as they were called): soon 80 % of the cotton was grown on Arab owned plantations. The Nuba often combined work on their far farms with day labour on the plantations. They started to sell some of their thurra and sesame as well; living standards were on the rise. As a result the Nuba cultures were strained only further from the influence of money and the close interaction with Arab Sudanese.

7. Devolution
As a counterbalance to Nationalism and unionist tendencies, the British wanted to strengthen local, tribal authority. They introduced indirect rule to North Sudan through the Powers of Nomad Shaykhs Ordinance of 1922. To strengthen the position of nomad Sheikhs, they were given judicial authority. It was applied to the Baggara in the Nuba Mountains by 1926, together with the Village Courts Ordinance. It could not be applied to the Nuba: most tribes were too fragmented and authority was not clearly established.

The Nuba remained under traditional rule until the introduction of the Power of Sheikhs Ordinance of 1927. Jurisdiction came under 'native administration' that would direct the 'native police' and collect taxes. The British installed three levels of courts, from local to regional scale. The presidents of the courts would be Sheikhs or Meks. They could handle cases according to the competence of their court or send them on to a higher court. They were allowed to fine those found guilty, or to imprison them.75 Had a Mek previously been a kujur, now he might be a former officer or someone who at least could read and write.76

The implementation of the Ordinance demanded administrative reforms. The British were cautiously working towards a confederacy of Nuba tribes. Administrative units could now be comprised of several tribes, sometimes both Nuba and Arab would fall under one district. This was the case in the Tegali Kingdom for example, that had survived all turmoil and officially became the Mekship of Tegali.

By 1929 the administrative boundaries were again redrawn: the Nuba Mountains province was amalgamated with Kordofan. Economically and socially the two provinces were too much interwoven to administer them separately. Kordofan was the name of the combined province, of which the Nuba Mountains constituted four districts: Western Jebels, Eastern Jebels, Southern Kordofan, Southern Jebels. The policy to keep Nuba and Arab separated was not abandoned: actually the British sometimes went out of their way to see that Arab influence on the Nuba would be limited to the minimum.77

8. Nuba Policy
Although patrols lessened in frequency towards the end of the 1920s, it became more and more evident that direct rule did not work. The D.C.'s were overburdened. The Meks couldn’t comply with British expectations without losing their authority among the young men in the community. As I have described above, the British Administration was trying to figure out what kind of future they might offer the Nuba. J. A. Gillan, Governor of Kordofan from 1928 to 1932, put it this way:

Can we evolve a structure or a series of structures, to fit all these different cultures and stages of civilisation? Can we at the same time preserve all that is best in the Nuba side by side with an Arab civilisation?78

Are their traditions and culture worth maintaining while they learn to stand on their feet; or shall we stand aside and let them slip into a non-descript… arabicisation before they know their own minds?79

Time was running short though. In 1930 the D.C. in Dilling complained that there was no policy whatsoever to guide the integration of the Nuba into the surrounding economy

The urgency of the matter lies in the economic progress of the Arab; the contacts are bound to increase; for economic reasons the races must mix and if a policy for Nuba is to be stated, it must be formulated now.80

In his 1931 memorandum, Gillan gave an analysis of the problem. He also offered a series of practical measures. His successor as Governor, Douglas Newbold (Governor from 1932-1936), tried to address the different issues raised in the memorandum, but he was also realistic about the problems:

The Nuba policy as set forth in Mr Gillan’s printed memorandum and approved by the Central Government is a positive civilizing policy, based on what is best on local tradition and culture. It does not aim at keeping the Nuba in a glass cage, not in making the NubaMountains into a human game reserve, but envisages the evolution of Nuba civilization through Nuba leaders and Nuba communalities.81

In the late 20's and early 30's Sir Angus Gillan, Governor of Kordofan, attempted to turn the tide. He wrote to the office in Khartoum:

"I would therefor ask:
1. That as far as possible Government Departments would recruit labour from other than Nuba sources
2. That Northern Governors would endeavour to round up and repatriate out-of-work Nubas."
(Gillan, 1931)

In 'The Dilemma of British Rule in the Nuba Mountains' (1985) Osman A. Ibrahim describes the response to this request:

"In many cases the Nuba who left the hills looking for a job in other provinces would be repatriated against their wish, to the extent of issuing them with railway warrants up to al-Ubayyid. There was no official fund for repatriation at first and returning Nuba were put to work in Dalamy and their travel expenditure was deducted from their wages."

9. Education
The Nuba policy was impractical and contrary to the interest of the Nuba. The best example is the matter of education in the ‘authentic’ areas. For nearly twenty years the Sudan United Mission (SUM), a Protestant missionary society from New Zealand and Australia, was allowed to operate elementary schools in Heiban, Abri, Kauda, Moro, and Tabanya without making any progress. The Church Mission Society (CMS) that started working in the western areas in 1933, hardly performed any better. The societies had insufficient means and the British constantly changed their policy. What to think of the experiment to teach the Nuba children Arabic written in Roman script? Meanwhile the British allowed an Arabic curriculum at well-functioning elementary schools in ‘arabised’ areas.82

Douglas Newbold, Governor of Kordofan from 1932 to 1936, was more realistic than his predecessor:

The Nuba policy… does not aim at keeping the Nuba in a glass cage, not in making the Nuba Mountains into a human game reserve, but envisages the evolution of Nuba civilisation through Nuba leaders and Nuba communalities.83

Newbold recognised the need for proper education. Government elementary schools for Nuba were opened in Abri, Kauda, Salara and Katcha. Arabic became the language of instruction. By 1940, Nuba children were no longer restricted in their school choice. SUM was now only giving sub-grade education in so-called bush schools. CSM continued its elementary education and opened an intermediate school in Katcha.84

10. Reversal of British policy
Toward the end of WW II the British acknowledged the economic and geographical impossibilities to disjoint the South from the Sudan as a whole:

"The policy of the Sudan Government regarding the Southern Sudan is to act upon the facts that the peoples of Southern Sudan are distinctively African and Negroid but that geography and economics combine (...) to render them inextricably bound for future development to the Middle Eastern and Arabicised Northern Sudan: and therefore to ensure that they should, by educational and economic development, be equipped to stand up for themselves in the future as socially and economically the equals of their partners in the Sudan of the future."85

Unfortunately for the Nuba, there was hardly any basis for the development of local leadership. As Nadel put it:

"In the Nuba Mountains we are faced with problems of creation rather than of development. The indigenous political institutions, still largely in an embryonic stage, hardly possess the prerequisite elements for us to utilize or build upon. More specifically, few Nuba tribes offer an ancient system of chieftainship or some form of leadership which could be entrusted with the new political tasks."86

Nonetheless the British insured in the following years that all tribes were ruled by local chiefs, often forcing the population to accept their new leaders against traditional notions of authority. Arabic became the language used in schools, efforts were made to revive cotton cultivation (which had suffered from labour migration and army service), to construct water reservoirs and roads. And very little more could be done to prepare the Nuba for the independence of Sudan. According to Stevenson the Nuba were slowly integrating into the society:

By the end of the Condominium period the Nuba were finding more employment in government services as teachers, clerks, medical assistants and dressers, in shops and offices and, outside the hills, in factories, sanitary squads and on the railways. (...) for many years now they had been eager and valued recruits for the army and police. Health had improved (...); each of the main towns now had its governmental hospital, there were dispensaries under medical assistants in many smaller centres, and leper settlements were started in 1936. (...) In spite of the flooding in upon them of the outside world with more organization and direction and outward changes in clothing, food and work, the cheerful and vigorous Nuba had retained their independence of outlook and much of their directness and simplicity87.

History, part I
History, part III


1. R. Iyob and G. M. Khadiagala: Sudan: The Elusive Quest for Peace (2006), pp.23.
2. H. A. MacMichael: The Tribes of Northern and Central Kordofan, 1912.
3. Ibid.
4. S. F. Nadel: the Nuba, an anthropological study of the Hill Tribes in Kordofan, 1947, pp. 360.
5. J. Spaulding: A Premise for Precolonial Nuba History; History in Africa, Vol. 14 (1987), pp. 369-374.
6. The wide plains of Kordofan between Darfur and the Nile served as a buffer. There was a trade road to Egypt though, known as the 40 day track.
7. D. Lange: Ethogenesis from within the Chadic state: some thoughts on the history of Kanem-Borno; Paideuma 39, 261-277
8. H. R. Palmer: The Kingdom of Gaòga of Leo Africanus Part I; Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 29, No. 115 (April 1930), pp. 280-284.
9. Sir R. C. Slatin: Fire and Sword in the Sudan, 1879-1895; translated by Sir F. R. Wingate, 1896-7.
10. R. S. O’Fahey: State and Society in Dār Fūr, 1980.
11. J. Bruce of Kinnaird: ‘Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1172 and 1773’, published in 1790.
12. For the full story: P. M. Holt: The Sudan of the Three Niles: The Funj Chronicle, 910-1288/1504-1871, 1999.
13. R. c. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984, pp. 41-42
14. Yusuf Fadl Hasan: The Arabs and the Sudan, 1973, pp. 136.
15. Ibid. pp. 142.
16. Ibid. pp. 164
17. Ahmad b. Abdallah Al-Qalqashandi: Subh al-A’shafi Sina’at al-Insha’, 1913-14, Vol. VIII, pp. 116-118
18. Hasan, pp. 165-6
19. Yusuf Fadl Hasan: The Arabs and the Sudan, 1973, pp. 167.
20. H. A. MacMichael: The Tribes of Northern and Central Kordofan, 1912, pp. 146.
21. J. Owens (ed.): Arabs and Arabic in the Lake Chad Region, 1994 (Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, Band 14), pp. 81-4.
22. Yusuf Fadl Hasan: The Arabs and the Sudan, 1973, pp. 170.
23. J.W. Sargar: Notes on the history, religion and customs of the Nuba (1922); Sudan Notes and Records 5, pp. 139-40.
24. Ibid. pp.140.
25. Information for the following is mainly drawn from the online encyclopedia ‘Wikipedia’, the English version, as of January 13, 2007.
26. J. Pallme: Travels in Kordofan, 1984 (translation), pp. 17-26, and J. Petherick: Egypt, Sudan and Central Africa. With Explorations From Khartoum on the White Nile to the Regions of the Equator, Being Sketches from Sixteen Years' Travel. 1861, pp. 276-281.
27. H. A. MacMichael: The Tribes of Northern and Central Kordofan, 1912, p. 20.
28. R. Mowafi: Slavery, Slave Trade and Abolition Attempts in Egypt and the Sudan, 1820-1882, 1981, p. 32.
29. H. Dodwell: The Founder of Modern Egypt, 1931, p.50
30. E. Driault: La Formation de l’Empire de Mohamed Aly de l’Arabie au Soudan 1814-1823, Correspondences des Consuls de France en Egypte, 1827, pp. 225-26
31. R. L. Hill: Egypt in the Sudan, 1820-1881, 1958, pp. 12-13. from a letter dated September 23, 1823.
32. Official Journal of Egypt, No 19, 15 Muharram, 1246 and No. 388, 3 Muharram, 1248.
33. I. S. Pallme: Travels in Kordofan, 1844
34. R. Mowafi: Slavery, Slave Trade and Abolition Attempts…, 1981, p. 21.
35. A. T. Holroyd: Notes on a Journey to Kordofan, in 1836-7; Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 9. (1839), pp. 163-191.
36. Wikipedia.com as of January 15, 2007.
37. R. Mowafi: Slavery, Slave Trade and Abolition Attempts in Egypt and the Sudan, 1820-1882, 1981. This study uses a large number of official documents and travel accounts, but to avoid writing a history to my footnotes, I will not list them. Those interested in the subject of slavery in Sudan now know where to look.
38. Ibid.
39. R. Mowafi: Slavery, Slave Trade and Abolition Attempts… pp. 72-75.
40. H. A. MacMichael: The Tribes of Northern and Central Kordofan, 1912, pp. 31-32
41. E. Tonioli and R. Hill (ed.): The Opening of the Nile Basin, 1974, p. 297.
42. Wikipedia.com as of Januari 15, 2007
43. R. Mowafi: Slavery, Slave Trade and Abolition Attempts… p. 90.
44. H. A. MacMichael: The Tribes of Northern and Central Kordofan, 1912, p. 36.
45. M. Mirak-Weissbach: Why The British Hate Sudan: The Mahdia's War Against London; The American Almanac, September 4, 1995.
46. R. C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984, p. 57.
47. Commander Edward Lino in an interview with Sudan Vision, February 24, 2004.
48. More information might be found in E. E. Evans-Pritchard: The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan, 1948 (but I am not sure).
49. R. H. Dekmejian and M. J. Wyszomirski: Charismatic Leadership in Islam: The Mahdi of the Sudan; Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 14, No. 2. (Mar., 1972), pp. 193-214.
50. J. A. Reid: Reminiscences of the Sudan Mahdi, Sheikh Mohammed Ahmed: By His Personal Servant Mohammed el Mekki Ghuleib, Who Is Still Living in the Sudan; Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 35, No. 138. (Jan., 1936), pp. 71-75.
51. F.R. Wingate: Ten Years' Captivity in the Mahdi's Camp, 1882-1892, 1892 (from the manuscripts of Father Joseph Ohrwalder)
52. Ibid. p. 95.
53. Quoted by A. Moorhead in ‘The White Nile’, 1960.
54. G. Sverdrup, Jr.: A Letter from the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad to General C. G. Gordon; Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 31, No. 4 (1911), pp. 368-388.
55. R. C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984, p. 59.
56. Information on this chapter from R. C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984, pp. 58-61 and H. A. MacMichael: The Tribes of Northern and Central Kordofan, 1912, pp. 43-50.
57. F. Nicoll:  Sword of the Prophet: The Mahdi of Sudan and the Death of General Gordon , 2004. p.230; quoted from Abu Salim, vol.4, pp. 481–2.
58. Quoted by G. Warburg in ‘The Sudan Under Wingate: Administration in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (1899-1916)’, 1971.
59. Wikipedia: History of Sudan; the East African Protectorate; History of Egypt, as on January 21, 2007
60. M. O. Beshir: The Southern Sudan; Background to Conflict, 1968.
61. R. C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984, p. 64.
62. Vicars-Miles, ‘Notes on Nuba administration’, p. 33, SAD 631/10/1-64.
63. R. C. Stevenson: Opus. Cit., p. 64.
64. A. H. M. Ibrahim: The Dilemma of British Rule in the Nuba Mountains, 1898-1947, 1985.
65. H. A. MacMichael: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1934.
66. J. Willis: Violence, Authority, and the State in the Nuba Mountains of Condominium Sudan; The Historical Journal, 46, 1 (2003), pp. 89–114.
67. Kordofan province annual report, 1905, SAD 701/25/164-9.
68. F. C. C. Balfour: Article on 'Faqi 'Ali' (unpublished), 1951; Sudan Archive, Durham, 303/8/27
69. J. Willis: Violence, Authority, and the State in the Nuba Mountains…
70. L. K. Smith: No. 32, Operations in the Nyima Hills, Nuba Mountains Province, 1917-1918; Sudan Archive, Durham, 643/13/15
71. S. F. Nadel: the Nuba, an anthropological study of the Hill Tribes in Kordofan, 1947, p. 6.
72. R. C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984, pp. 62-3.
73. M. O. Beshir: The Southern Sudan, Background to Conflict. 1968, pp. 39-41.
74. Sudan Archive, Durham: GS 460. MS. Vicars Miles; 167
75. A. H. M. Ibrahim: The Dilemma of British Rule in the Nuba Mountains, 1898-1947, 1985.
76. J. Willis: Violence, Authority, and the State in the Nuba Mountains…
77. A. H. M. Ibrahim: The Dilemma of British Rule…
78. J. A. Gillan: Some Aspects of Nuba Administration, 1931; Khartoum: Sudan Government Memoranda, no. 1., 6-7.
79. Ibid. 12.
80. Dilling Archives, Southern Kordofan: General Administrative Policy-Devolution, a Note by D.C. Dilling; file SCR/1.A.1/1.
81. K. D. D. Henderson: The Making of the Modern Sudan, 1952, pp. 495-6
82. Anderson, L.: Educational Development and Administrative Control in the Nuba Mountains Region of the Sudan; The Journal of African History, Vol. 4, No. 2. (1963), pp. 233-247.
83. Henderson, K.D.D.: The Making of the Modern Sudan, 1952
84. Anderson, L.: Educational Development and Administrative Control…
85. The 1946 Memorandum on Southern Policy; Beshir, M.O.: The Southern Sudan, Background to Conflict. 1968
86. Nadel, S.F.: The Nuba, an Anthropological Study of the Hill Tribes in Kordofan, 1947, p. 494.
87. R. C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1965


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