In the intensifying European scramble for African territory from the 1880s, Britain faced threats from imperial rivals to its influential treaty position in the upper Nile, south of Egypt. Threats from Germany and Italy could be bought off diplomatically, but France was less accommodating. Indignant over its 1882 exclusion from Egypt, France declined to recognize the Sudan as a British sphere. Testing the water in the mid-1890s, Paris sent a military expedition into the Sudan to show its ambitions in the Nile valley. Confronted, Britain resolved on unequivocal conquest and occupation, and a powerful Anglo-Egyptian expeditionary force under Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850–1916) invaded the Sudan early in 1896. The country being invaded was a militant Islamic Mahdist state, ruled by the caliph Abd Allah (1846–1899), that had been resisting foreign influence and interests for over a decade. For this regime there could be no question of any negotiation with European invaders seeking to subdue caliphate power.
During the early months of their march of conquest, Kitchener's forces were able to occupy a large portion of Sudanese territory without facing much resistance, partly because of the over-whelming British rail and other technological superiority, and partly because their swift cavalry movements took their enemy by surprise. To try to block the southerly British advance, the caliph ordered total mobilization to defend what remained of his dominion. Beaten back, the Mahdist army stayed in the fight until the last months of 1898, which saw the final phase of the campaign. At Karari, north of his capital of Omdurman, Abd Allah threw his last substantial garrison against Kitchener in September 1898, meeting the enemy himself.
In the gory battle of Omdurman (or, more accurately, the battle of Karari), the Sudanese fought fiercely, deploying their handful of artillery pieces and machine guns. But across open ground they were overwhelmed by the concentrated, massed firepower of vastly superior British armaments. Nearly 11,000 Sudanese were killed and thousands more injured, for the loss of forty-nine dead and a few hundred wounded in Anglo-Egyptian ranks. To finish off warriors who lay on the ground to try to duck British firepower, Kitchener's Lancers launched one of the British army's last major cavalry charges. With some of his leading commanders either dead on the field or taken captive, Abd Allah tottered back with the remnant of his forces to a deserted Omdurman before withdrawing eastwards, where he held out despairingly for a further year. The 1898 battle had signaled the end of the Mahdist state in the Sudan.
Kitchener's virtual annihilation of the Mahdists at Omdurman strengthened his reputation for efficiency in colonial soldiering and boosted his standing as Sirdar (commander in chief) of Egypt's army. It also enabled him to face down French troops at Fashoda, Egyptian Sudan, later in 1898, clinching a bloodless victory and putting a decisive end to penetration of a British sphere. At the same time, the unsparing ruthlessness of Kitchener's campaigning in the Sudan, including the killing of wounded Mahdist soldiers (which he
justified on grounds of military necessity), earned him notoriety among British Liberal imperialists. At Westminster his excesses were denounced as a stain upon the morality of Britain's empire-building in Africa.
Daly, M. W. Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898–1934. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.
Holt, P. M., and M. W. Daly. A History of the Sudan: From the Coming of Islam to the Present Day. 5th ed. Harlow, U.K., 2000.
Jeppie, Shamil. "Sudanese War of 1881–1898." In Encyclopedia of Religion and War, edited by Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, 417–418. New York, 2004.
Magnus, Philip. Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist. London, 1958.
historical capital of the sudan.
Although Khartoum is the official capital of the Sudan, Omdurman is the country's historic, cultural, and spiritual capital. It is also part of a tri-city metropolitan area (with Khartoum and Khartoum North) that forms the country's political, industrial, and commercial heart. Originally an insignificant fishing village on the west bank at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, Omdurman became a major city at the end of the nineteenth century when Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi made it his military headquarters in 1884. After the Mahdist forces destroyed Khartoum (1885), the Mahdi's successor, Khalifa Abdullah, made Omdurman his capital, and the city grew as the site of the Mahdi's tomb. The Battle of Karari (1898), which took place near Omdurman, marked the defeat of the Mahdist state in Sudan by the Anglo-Egyptian army of Lord Kitchener. Although most of the city was destroyed after the battle, the Mahdi's tomb has been restored and embellished. The Khalifa's former residence is now a museum. Recently, Omdurman has grown rapidly, and has an estimated population of well over two million. The major Sudanese political groups have their headquarters in the city, as do the television and radio networks and the famous soccer and cultural clubs. Although the official headquarters of the army is in Khartoum, the principal military installations are in Omdurman, including those of Sudan's air force.
Ahmed, Medani Mohammed. Current Studies on the Sudan. Omdurman, Sudan: Mohamed Omer Beshir's Center for Sudanese Studies, 1998.
Pollock, John. Kitchener: Architect of Victory, Artisan of Peace. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001.
Woodward, Peter, ed. Sudan after Nimeiri. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.
robert o. collins
updated by khalid m. el-hassan