Wednesday 19 June 2024

The Mahdi - the rise and fall of Sudan’s Mahdist government of a boat-builder’s son

In the second half of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire, weakened by internal strife and external pressures, maintained a tenuous hold over its territories through local rulers known as pashas. In Sudan, the pashas ruled with relative autonomy, though their governance was marked by heavy taxation and corruption. Meanwhile, British interests in the region grew, driven by the strategic importance of the Suez Canal and the desire to suppress the slave trade. The convergence of Ottoman administrative control, local discontent, and British strategic imperatives set the stage for an explosive conflict.

The Mahdist Revolt erupted in 1881 under the leadership of Muhammad Ahmad, who proclaimed himself the Mahdi, a messianic figure in Islamic tradition. His message resonated with the oppressed Sudanese, galvanizing them against the Ottoman-backed Egyptian administration and foreign influence. The revolt quickly gained momentum, culminating in the capture of Khartoum in 1885.

General Charles Gordon, dispatched by the British to evacuate Egyptian forces from Sudan, found himself besieged in Khartoum. Despite explicit orders to withdraw, Gordon, driven by a sense of duty and perhaps hubris (meaning excessive overconfidence), chose to hold the city, hoping for reinforcements that never arrived. His defiance led to a brutal siege, ending in his death and the city's fall to the Mahdists. Had Gordon adhered to his orders and evacuated, the tragic loss of life and subsequent British humiliation might have been avoided.

Following their victory, the Mahdists established a theocratic state, initially characterized by internal cohesion and military prowess. However, their expansionist ambitions led to overextension. In 1889, the Mahdist forces invaded Egypt and Ethiopia, draining resources and stretching their supply lines thin. These aggressive campaigns, coupled with internal dissent and administrative inefficiencies, weakened the Mahdist government.

In 1898, a well-organized Anglo-Egyptian force of 26,000 troops, equipped with modern weaponry and led by General Herbert Kitchener, launched a decisive campaign against the Mahdists. The Mahdist forces, though numerous and fervently motivated, were outmatched by the disciplined and technologically superior Anglo-Egyptian army. The Battle of Omdurman marked the collapse of the Mahdist state, reasserting British-Egyptian control over Sudan. This victory underscored the might of modern military strategy and technology, sealing the fate of a revolt born from desperation and religious fervor.

It can be argued that by the Mahdist government driving out the Egyptian rulers of Sudan, it achieved the objectives of the common people. Once it went beyond those limited goals that powered the revolt, the opportunity to keep control of its home territory was undermined by invading foreign African countries backed by modern weaponry such as gunboats and Maxim guns.

Muhammad Ahmad, later known as the Mahdi, was born in 1844 in Dongola, Sudan, to a humble family of boat-builders. He received an Islamic education and became a religious leader and mystic in the Sufi tradition. Emphasizing piety and reform, he gained followers and proclaimed himself the Mahdi in 1881. He led a successful revolt against the Ottoman-Egyptian rulers, culminating in the capture of Khartoum in 1885. The Mahdi died of typhus on June 22, 1885. His successor, Khalifa Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, took over leadership of the Mahdist state. The government collapsed after an ill-fated invasion of Egypt and Ethiopia backfired, resulting in heavy loss of combatants, and justification for re-invasion.

The irony of Laurence Olivier playing the Mahdi lies in the fact that a white actor was cast as a black African leader, a decision reflective of Hollywood's history of whitewashing. Criticisms of this casting include the erasure of authentic representation and perpetuation of racial insensitivity. Additionally, films often fail to portray both sides of conflicts, neglecting the perspective of Sudanese people fighting for self-government and self-determination, principles enshrined in the 1941 UN Charter. The Anglo-Egyptian invaders were portrayed as rational, and reasonable. Facts of history such as instructions given to Madhist combatants to show restraint against prisoners of war were omitted.

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