The Suez Canal and the European Scramble for Africa

July 4, 2010

Three Empires on the Nile: The Victorian Jihad, 1869-1899
Author: Dominic Green
Free Press: A division of Simon and Shuster Inc.
©2007 Dominic Green
Rating 3 Stars – Very Good

The 19th century European scramble for African colonies was initiated by events in the 18th century. One of the most important of these events was the opening of the Suez Canal. This short cut to “British” India had a great impact on the peoples that share the River Nile; Currently the Nile Basin includes 10 countries. In 1869, ten years after the start, the Suez Canal which was constructed by the French, with British finance and Egyptian labor was opened. The British interests in India would not let the canal fall into hostile hands, meaning neither Egyptian nationalists or the French. To control the Canal, Britain must control Egypt and therefore it must control the Nile basin. This was the basis for the late 18th century imperial conflicts over the Nile. The Three Empires of the Nile: The Victorian Jihad 1869-1899 introduces the reader to this important history.
The author does not define which are the 3 empires mentioned in the title or what exactly was a Victorian Jihad. The British and the Ottoman Empires are certainly recognized as empires but the Ottoman Empire the sick man of Europe was hardly a player; so perhaps the author meant the Egyptian Empire. Higher up the Nile from Egypt is the Sudan. The rebellion led by the Mahdi and his dervishes came to control great expanses of Sudanese and even Egyptian territory, but only for a few decades. It would be hard to call this state a nation let alone an empire but the Mahdist state was a powerful contender. The French imperial ambitions in Egypt and its attempt to link West Africa colonies to its Red Sea colony Djibouti were part of the complexities as were the Ethiopian Emperor’s conflict with both the Egyptians over the Red Sea ports and later the Mahdists Sudanese along the Blue Nile. The 3 empires mentioned in the title must be the British, Egyptian, and Mahdist Sudanese regimes. The construction of the Suez Canal was followed by imperial conflict which ended with the British occupation of Egypt and the defeat of the dervishes lead to British control over the Sudan with the aid of Egyptian puppets. The Victorian Jihad presumably is the occupation by Britain of first Egypt and then the Sudan. The conflicts over the Nile had impacts on the whole continent of Africa but this is barely discussed in this book. The reader will have to find this information elsewhere.
Egypt was officially a part of the Ottoman Empire with the Khedive subordinate to the Turkish sultan. This was a problem as Britain found the weak Ottoman Empire useful and propped it up. So it was difficult to annex Egypt which belonged to an ally. But the Ottoman Empire was losing its grip and Egyptian nationalism which Britain saw as a threat to the Suez Canal was on the ascendancy. Egypt an empire within an Empire controlled the provinces of the Sudan which were larger than Egypt itself. It also had several ports along the Red Sea which were of strategic importance. The slaves and ivory or the Sudan were a great source of income and labor for Egypt. But just as the Ottoman Sultan was losing control of his empire; the Khedive was losing control of his. The Khedive Ismail administered the provinces of the Sudan with governors including anti slavery Europeans in Equatoria while using Sudanese slave traders in Darfur and Gazelle. Samuel Baker was appointed governor of Equatoria, but failed to secure Lake Nyanza (Victoria) from the Buganda Kabaka (Ugandan King) . Charles Gordon was later appointed governor of Equatoria and after failing in all dimension of this assignment was invited back by Ismail to become Governor General of all the Sudan.
The Khedive Ismail, and his son Tawfik who succeeded him were neither Turks nor Egyptians but Albanians. The Khedives who were not popular indebted their subjects and sold out the Egyptian interests in the Canal to the Europeans. Ismail had incurred enormous debts and the second time he went bankrupt the British had the Sultan depose him and replaced by his incompetent son Tawfik. Tawfik was subject to the dual control of the French and the British who above all wanted the European debts incurred by Ismail repaid.
But the foreign Khedives were also challenged by two forms of Egyptian nationalism, religious and military. Al Afghani Jamal a Shiite who promoted Sunni Islamism and Abdu Mohammed founded the Muslim Brotherhood were exiled by Ismail. Egyptian Colonels led by Col. Ahmed Urabi took control of the house of notables and the war ministry but when they tried to take over the country in a military coup the Khedive Tawfik called on the British. Urabi lost the battle for Cairo and was exiled to Ceylon. As the French did not participate in this military action the dual control of Egypt ended and the British occupation of Egypt was complete.
Meanwhile, in the Sudan the instability and battles in Egypt allowed the rise of the self declared Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmet. This Muslim zealot the son of a boat maker, led a rebellion against the Egyptians and established the first Sunni Islamic State in modern times.

The British having occupied Egypt wished to leave the Sudan to the Mahdi and slavery. But the orders from London to abandon the Sudan were refused in Cairo and Khartoum. This reaction was not only based on nationalism. The Khedive and other Turkish notables did not want to lose their empire after losing Egypt and practicality, the Governor General of the Sudan felt it was impossible to evacuate 10,000 people from Khartoum and 6 other Egyptian strongholds without a substantive military escort. The Egyptian army was almost non-existant and the British were not offering help. The Khedive Tawfik asked Evelyn Baring the British Administrator who was the virtual viceroy of Egypt for a British officer to take on both policial and military responsiblity for the Sudan. The only officer chosen was Charles Gordon. After twice failing in the Sudan he was assigned by the British to evacuate Khartoum. This Gordon knew could only be done with military assistance but he was sent only with two officers.

Charles Gordon, who had developed a Christ complex during his 4 year absence from the Sudan, was Governor General of the Sudan responsible to the Khedive but was also under secret British orders as well. He did not follow the British orders to withdraw from Khartoum, when he was under siege spurned the Mahdi’s offer of clemency, died a hero to Britain defending Khartoum and suffered the “crucifixion” he sought.

Gordon’s adversary the Mahdi died shortly after him, due to the typhus epidemic which resulted from the unburied bodies left after the battle for Khartoum. Khalifa Abdallahia who succeeded the Mahdi was neither the esthetic nor the charismatic leader that his predecessor was. This illiterate extended the Mahdist state up the Blue Nile taking territory and the life of the Emperor Johannes IV from Ethiopia. But after the death of the Mahdi the entire state became a death camp for its citizens. Under the Khalifa more than half of its 8 million citizens died due to starvation and disease.
The British Prime Ministers during the decade covered by this book were interesting conflicted individuals. Disraeli the converted Jew, Gladstone the self flagellator and Salisbury who articulated the concept of British rule from the Cape to Cairo had very inconsistent colonial policy motivated by short term expediency, the Irish problem and Gordon’s death,rather than any clear strategic planning. The fact that 40% of Gladstone’s investments portfolio were Egyptian and that the occupation of Egypt returned those investments to liquidity was noted to be a material conflict of interest.
The faults of the Europeans in particular the failure of Wolsey to relieve Gordon, and the brutal revenge of Gordon perpetrated by Kitchener when he took Khartoum and brought the Sudan under British rule are described and decried. The French imperial focus on Egypt and the attempt to counter the Cape to Cairo with the Atlantic to the Red sea and the standoff at Fashoda on the White Nile, between Kitchener and Marchand are a well written side bar.
This is good history which gives and an understanding of how Britain came to occupy the Nile Basin and is important to understand the 19th century European Scramble for Africa and 20th century Egyptian history. It is also an interesting study of the Egyptian, British and Sudanese protagonists at the end of the 18th century.

Further Readings on the Nile:
The While Nile: Alan Moorhead:
The Blue Nile Alan Moorhead: 3 stars
The above books are informative concerning the Victorian Explorers looking for the source of the Nile and their experiences with indigenous African kingdoms. It is quite Eurocentric but has good pictures and a few good maps and are recommended with the above caveat.


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