Fashoda Affair

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The Fashoda Affair of September 1898 was a product of long-standing tensions between Britain and France over their relative influence in Egypt. Since the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715) France had harbored ambitions of building a canal through the Suez isthmus, linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and dramatically shortening trade routes between Europe and Asia. Thus, in 1858, French commercial interests, backed by the French government, formed the Suez Canal Company. Owned jointly by the French and the Khedive of Egypt, the company completed the canal in 1869. Initially, the British government attempted to thwart the massive project. As the Egyptian government incurred growing debts in the 1860s and 1870s, however, Britain began purchasing Egyptian shares in the Suez Canal Company, thereby enhancing British authority in the country. With Egypt increasingly unable to pay the interest on its outstanding loans by the mid-1870s, the country's finances were placed under Anglo-French control. When this growing European suzerainty led to violent nationalist uprisings in 1882, Britain intervened militarily. A divided French government declined to participate. In consequence, the British established themselves as de facto rulers of Egypt, incurring the resentment of many French political leaders.

For the next fifteen years, Britain maintained its authority in Egypt while struggling to suppress Islamic fundamentalist dervishes further south in the Sudan. The threat emanating from this area became particularly acute in March 1896, when Ethiopian forces, assisted by French and Russian advisors, defeated an Italian army at Adowa. This raised the prospect of French and Russian intrusion into British territories in East Africa, as well as an alliance between Ethiopia and fundamentalist Muslim elements in the Sudan. The British government despatched Major-General Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850–1916; later Earl Kitchener of Khartoum) with an expeditionary force that defeated the dervishes at Omdurman on 2 September 1898. After learning of the presence of a French force further up the Nile, Lord Kitchener proceeded upriver, meeting the smaller French detachment at Fashoda on 19 September. This force, under Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand, had been despatched to the headwaters of the Nile to find a suitable location for a dam that would divert the river and undermine British control of Egypt. A standoff ensued, as the French and British governments refused to budge. Public opinion in both countries became increasingly agitated. War, however, was never a likely outcome of the confrontation. Outnumbered on the ground in the Sudan and outgunned by the royal navy at sea, France had little choice but to back down and order the withdrawal of Marchand's force on 3 November 1898.

Fashoda represented a low point in Anglo-French relations in the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, it encouraged the two European powers to defuse their rivalries in Africa and sign the Entente Cordiale of 1904. Théophile Delcassé, the French foreign minister from 1898 to 1905, recognized that France could not risk a direct confrontation with Britain in East Africa, especially when France's principal ally, Russia, was not prepared to provide assistance. Thus, in March 1899 France signed a convention that effectively renounced its claims to the upper Nile. According to the document, the British and French spheres of influence in the region would be marked by the watersheds of the Nile and the Congo, respectively. The willingness of France to concede Britain's influence on the Nile encouraged the British to support French claims elsewhere in Africa.

Growing concerns over aggressive German foreign policy and the expansion of the German navy reinforced Britain's desire to iron out disputes with the French, particularly as France could also facilitate better relations between Britain and Russia. Britain gradually abandoned its policy of encouraging the independence of Morocco. On 8 April 1904, the two countries signed a series of agreements in which France recognized British influence over Egypt. Since Egypt's financial affairs remained under the management of an international committee that included a French representative, this concession was crucial in enabling Britain to consolidate its control over the country. The British reciprocated by acknowledging French influence over Morocco. The Entente Cordiale, as the agreements were known, removed ambiguities in the two principal areas of Africa where European influence was still disputed. In the process, it helped end the "scramble for Africa" that had prevailed among the European powers since the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. Thus, many historians see the Fashoda Affair as a turning point in Anglo-French relations. The standoff in the Sudan brought the Anglo-French rivalry in Africa into focus, allowing Britain and France to negotiate solutions to specific disputes and develop closer relations in the process.

See alsoBerlin Conference; Delcassé, Théophile; Egypt; France; Great Britain; Imperialism; Kitchener, Horatio Herbert.


Bates, Darrell. The Fashoda Incident of 1898: Encounter on the Nile. New York: 1983. An account of the Fashoda Affair and the tensions it produced between Britain and France.

Judd, Denis. Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present. London, 1996. An episodic survey of the history of the British Empire, with several chapters devoted to the British role in the "scramble for Africa."

Otte, Thomas. "The Elusive Balance: British Foreign Policy and the French Entente before the First World War." In Anglo-French Relations in the Twentieth Century: Rivalry and Cooperation, edited by Alan Sharp and Glyn Stone. New York, 2000. An analysis of the specific factors that contributed to the Anglo-French Entente of 1904.

Nikolas Gardner

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Fashoda Affair

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