The Mahdist Jihad 1881-1885

[ 1881 - 1885 ]

Siege of Khartoum, (March 13, 1884-Jan. 26, 1885), the Mahdi's siege of Khartoum, capital of the Sudan, which was defended by an Egyptian garrison under the British general Charles George ("Chinese") Gordon. The Mahdi's capture of the city and the slaughter of its defenders, including Gordon, caused a storm of public protest against the alleged inaction of the British government under Lord Salisbury.

The British government had become the prime European support of the khedive of Egypt but sought to remain aloof from the affairs of the Egyptian-ruled Sudan, especially after the Mahdi's tribesmen rose in revolt beginning in 1881. In early 1884, following a series of Mahdist victories, the British only reluctantly acquiesced in the khedive's selection of Gordon as governor-general of the Sudan. Gordon reached the capital of Khartoum on Feb. 18, 1884, and had succeeded in evacuating 2,000 women, children, and sick and wounded before the Mahdi's forces closed in on the town.

From that time, the British government's refusal of all of Gordon's requests for aid, together with Gordon's own obdurate refusal to retreat or evacuate further, made disaster virtually inevitable. The Siege of Khartoum commenced on March 13, but not until August, under the increasing pressure of British public opinion and Queen Victoria's urgings, did the government at last agree to send a relief force under General Garnet Joseph Wolseley, setting out from Wadi Halfa (October 1884). After learning of two victories won by Wolseley's advancing forces, the Mahdi's troops were on the verge of raising the siege; but the further unaccountable delay of the relief force encouraged them to make a final, successful assault at a gap in the ramparts caused by the falling of the Nile's waters. The city's garrison was butchered, Gordon with it. The forerunners of the relief force, consisting of river gunboats under Lord Charles Beresford, arrived off the city on January 28, two days too late, and, after a brief gun duel with the Mahdist defenders, retreated downriver.

Soon after, the Mahdi abandoned Khartoum and made Omdurman his capital.

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Developments in Sudan during this period cannot be understood without reference to the British position in Egypt. In 1869 the Suez Canal opened and quickly became Britain's economic lifeline to India and the Far East. To defend this waterway, Britain sought a greater role in Egyptian affairs. In 1873 the British government therefore supported a program whereby an Anglo-French debt commission assumed responsibility for managing Egypt's fiscal affairs. This commission eventually forced Khedive Ismail to abdicate in favor of his more politically acceptable son, Tawfiq (1877-92).

After the removal, in 1877, of Ismail, who had appointed him to the post, Gordon resigned as governor general of Sudan in 1880. His successors lacked direction from Cairo and feared the political turmoil that had engulfed Egypt. As a result, they failed to continue the policies Gordon had put in place. The illegal slave trade revived, although not enough to satisfy the merchants whom Gordon had put out of business. The Sudanese army suffered from a lack of resources, and unemployed soldiers from disbanded units troubled garrison towns. Tax collectors arbitrarily increased taxation.

In this troubled atmosphere, Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah, a faqir or holy man who combined personal magnetism with religious zealotry, emerged, determined to expel the Turks and restore Islam to its primitive purity. The son of a Dunqulah boatbuilder, Muhammad Ahmad had become the disciple of Muhammad ash Sharif, the head of the Sammaniyah order. Later, as a shaykh of the order, Muhammad Ahmad spent several years in seclusion and gained a reputation as a mystic and teacher. In 1880 he became a Sammaniyah leader.

Muhammad Ahmad's sermons attracted an increasing number of followers. Among those who joined him was Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, a Baqqara from southern Darfur. His planning capabilities proved invaluable to Muhammad Ahmad, who revealed himself as Al Mahdi al Muntazar ("the awaited guide in the right path," usually seen as the Mahdi), sent from God to redeem the faithful and prepare the way for the second coming of the Prophet Isa (Jesus). The Mahdist movement demanded a return to the simplicity of early Islam, abstention from alcohol and tobacco, and the strict seclusion of women.

Even after the Mahdi proclaimed a jihad, or holy war, against the Turkiyah, Khartoum dismissed him as a religious fanatic. The government paid more attention when his religious zeal turned to denunciation of tax collectors. To avoid arrest, the Mahdi and a party of his followers, the Ansar, made a long march to Kurdufan, where he gained a large number of recruits, especially from the Baqqara. From a refuge in the area, he wrote appeals to the shaykhs of the religious orders and won active support or assurances of neutrality from all except the pro-Egyptian Khatmiyyah. Merchants and Arab tribes that had depended on the slave trade responded as well, along with the Hadendowa Beja, who were rallied to the Mahdi by an Ansar captain, Usman Digna.

Early in 1882, the Ansar, armed with spears and swords, overwhelmed a 7,000-man Egyptian force not far from Al Ubayyid and seized their rifles and ammunition. The Mahdi followed up this victory by laying siege to Al Ubayyid and starving it into submission after four months. The Ansar, 30,000 men strong, then defeated an 8,000-man Egyptian relief force at Sheikan. Next the Mahdi captured Darfur and imprisoned Rudolf Slatin, an Austrian in the khedive's service, who later became the first Egyptianappointed governor of Darfur Province.

The advance of the Ansar and the Beja rising in the east imperiled communications with Egypt and threatened to cut off garrisons at Khartoum, Kassala, Sannar, and Sawakin and in the south. To avoid being drawn into a costly military intervention, the British government ordered an Egyptian withdrawal from Sudan. Gordon, who had received a reappointment as governor general, arranged to supervise the evacuation of Egyptian troops and officials and all foreigners from Sudan.

After reaching Khartoum in February 1884, Gordon realized that he could not extricate the garrisons. As a result, he called for reinforcements from Egypt to relieve Khartoum. Gordon also recommended that Zubayr, an old enemy whom he recognized as an excellent military commander, be named to succeed him to give disaffected Sudanese a leader other than the Mahdi to rally behind. London rejected this plan. As the situation deteriorated, Gordon argued that Sudan was essential to Egypt's security and that to allow the Ansar a victory there would invite the movement to spread elsewhere.

Increasing British popular support for Gordon eventually forced Prime Minister William Gladstone to mobilize a relief force under the command of Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley. A "flying column" sent overland from Wadi Halfa across the Bayyudah Desert bogged down at Abu Tulayh (commonly called Abu Klea), where the Hadendowa Beja--the so-called Fuzzy Wuzzies--broke the British line. An advance unit that had gone ahead by river when the column reached Al Matammah arrived at Khartoum on January 28, 1885, to find the town had fallen two days earlier. The Ansar had waited for the Nile flood to recede before attacking the poorly defended river approach to Khartoum in boats, slaughtering the garrison, killing Gordon, and delivering his head to the Mahdi's tent. Kassala and Sannar fell soon after, and by the end of 1885 the Ansar had begun to move into the southern region. In all Sudan, only Sawakin, reinforced by Indian army troops, and Wadi Halfa on the northern frontier remained in Anglo-Egyptian hands.

The Mahdiyah (Mahdist regime) imposed traditional Islamic laws. Sudan's new ruler also authorized the burning of lists of pedigrees and books of law and theology because of their association with the old order and because he believed that the former accentuated tribalism at the expense of religious unity.

The Mahdiyah has become known as the first genuine Sudanese nationalist government. The Mahdi maintained that his movement was not a religious order that could be accepted or rejected at will, but that it was a universal regime, which challenged man to join or to be destroyed. The Mahdi modified Islam's five pillars to support the dogma that loyalty to him was essential to true belief. The Mahdi also added the declaration "and Muhammad Ahmad is the Mahdi of God and the representative of His Prophet" to the recitation of the creed, the shahada. Moreover, service in the jihad replaced the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, as a duty incumbent on the faithful. Zakat (almsgiving) became the tax paid to the state. The Mahdi justified these and other innovations and reforms as responses to instructions conveyed to him by God in visions.

Six months after the capture of Khartoum, the Mahdi died of typhus. The task of establishing and maintaining a government fell to his deputies--three caliphs chosen by the Mahdi in emulation of the Prophet Muhammad. Rivalry among the three, each supported by people of his native region, continued until 1891, when Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, with the help primarily of the Baqqara Arabs, overcame the opposition of the others and emerged as unchallenged leader of the Mahdiyah. Abdallahi--called the Khalifa (successor)--purged the Mahdiyah of members of the Mahdi's family and many of his early religious disciples.

Originally the Mahdiyah was a jihad state, run like a military camp. Sharia courts enforced Islamic law and the Mahdi's precepts, which had the force of law. After consolidating his power, the Khalifa instituted an administration and appointed Ansar (who were usually Baqqara) as amirs over each of the several provinces. The Khalifa also ruled over rich Al Jazirah. Although he failed to restore this region's commercial wellbeing , the Khalifa organized workshops to manufacture ammunition and to maintain river steamboats.

Regional relations remained tense throughout much of the Mahdiyah

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Muhammad Ahmad (1843?-85), a devout Muslim, withdrew to Aba Island on the White Nile River in Sudan, where his piety attracted many followers, including members of the militant dervish sect. He soon declared himself the Mahdi, "the expected guide," and began a holy war against the Egyptians, who were controlled by the British from Cairo. The government sent soldiers to capture him, but they were attacked by the Mahdi's followers and forced to retreat. On August 12, 1881, the dervishes were again victorious at the Battle of Aba. The Mahdi and his forces moved westward to Qadir Mountain in the Kordofan, Sudan. Twice expeditions were sent against him, and twice they were ambushed and annihilated. Meanwhile, thousands of Muslims flocked to the Mahdi's side, and Egyptian soldiers shied away from fighting fellow Muslims led by a man rumored to have great supernatural powers. In mid-1882, the Mahdi's forces took the offensive against government garrisons thoughout Kordofan. One by one the garrisons fell, but when poorly armed fanatical Mahdists tried to storm the city of El Obeid, they were cut down by overpowering rifle fire. The Mahdists then besieged the city to starve it into submission; they destroyed an expedition coming to its relief; and on January 17, 1883, the city surrendered. A new army under the command of a British officer was organized and dispatched to recapture El Obeid; constantly harassed en route, it was finally routed. The British government advised the Egyptians to abandon the Sudan to the Mahdists and sent General Charles George "Chinese" Gordon (1833-1885) to oversee the evacuation of Khartoum. Gordon decided to defend the city instead. For almost a year, the Mahdi's forces besieged Khartoum defended by Gordon and a small garrison, which awaited the arrival of a relief force. On January 26, 1885, the Mahdists overran the city's fortifications and killed the defenders, including Gordon. Two days later the relief force arrived but was order to withdraw. Though the Mahdi died five months later, his successor, the khalifa ("the adviser") Abdullah (1846?-99), led the dervishes to victory and liberated Sudan from foreign rule.

<table class='table table-bordered col-lg-12 col-md-12 col-sm-12 col-xs-12 margin20 row-30' border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="100%" style="font-family: 'Times New Roman'; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);"><tbody><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">State</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Entry</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Exit</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Combat Forces</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Population</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Losses</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Britain</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1881</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1899</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">60000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">39000000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">10000</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Egypt</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1881</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1899</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">200000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">23000000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">4000</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Ethiopia</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1881</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1899</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">100000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">5000000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">25000</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Mahdi</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1881</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1899</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">100000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">5000000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">500000</font></td></tr><tr><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">Sudan</font></td><td width="16%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1881</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">1899</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">25000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">6000000</font></td><td width="17%"><font face="Arial" size="2">7000</font></td></tr></tbody></table>

Total Casualties 546000 Killed and Wounded
Casualties Killed / Wounded
Military Casualties Killed 546000 /Wounded
Civilian Casualties Killed / Wounded
Note
Belligerents Initiation Date Termination Date
Khedivate of Egypt and Mahdist Sudan 1881 1885 View
Kingdom of Great Britain and Mahdist Sudan 1881 1885 View
Ethiopian Empire and Mahdist Sudan 1881 1885 View
Kingdom of Italy and Mahdist Sudan 1881 1885 View
Weapon Name Weapon Class Weapon Class Type
BL 5-inch howitzer Vehicle Towed Artillery
Maxim gun Vehicle Specialty
Lancaster pistol Manportable Handguns

Related Conflicts

No Releted Conflicts