Winston Churchill: Crusade against the Empire of the Mahdi - Genesis of Jihadism?

Joseph Croitoru

Posted Dec 12, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Winston Churchill: Crusade against the Empire of the Mahdi - Genesis of Jihadism?

by Joseph Croitoru

Winston S. Churchill’s war report from the Sudan is being rediscovered. The uprising against Anglo-Egyptian rule in the Sudanese provinces at the end of the 19th century was also the beginning of Islamic jihad, according to the publishers. Joseph Croitoru has been reading all about it. 

There needs to be a good reason for deciding to translate a war report, more than a century old, from English into German. Even where the report in question is the work of as prominent a politician and writer as Winston S. Churchill, this by itself could hardly have been the decisive factor.

The crucial clue is to be found in the blurb accompanying the German edition, which has been translated, edited and introduced by Nairobi-based Swiss journalist Georg Brunold, and published by Eichborn Press.

“It was during the Mahdi uprising (1881-1885) that Islam showed for the first time showed its modern face as a radical political force: the militant fundamentalism that we believe we know it by today. Mohammed Ahmed, the Mahdi and God’s representative on earth, conquered Sudan and set up a caliphate.”

Sensationalist title

The publication, which runs to almost 450 pages, is perfectly timed; the West has only recently rediscovered the Sudan War and, with it, Churchill’s pertinent contribution. And as has been already the case with some of the other translations of the book, published originally in 1899 under the title “The River War A Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan”, a rather sensationalist title has been adopted for the German version also: “Kreuzzug gegen das Reich des Mahdi” (Crusade Against the Empire of the Mahdi).

In his excellent introduction to Churchill’s experiences in Sudan, which also looks at the more recent modern history of the country, Brunold draws the reader’s attention to the fact that militant 19th century Islam had already made its appearance long before the Sudanese uprising. The objective tone adopted by writer and translator is not done justice to here, however, by the choice of the word “crusade” in the German title. This, it seems, is intended to provide a sensationalist element by association – with George W Bush’s “crusade” against terror springing readily to mind.

Colonial crusade?

Whatever else it may have been, the campaign against the Mahdist state’s initially successful expulsion of the Egyptian-British occupying forces, was not a crusade – that much is made abundantly clear by Churchill’s war report. The motivation was colonialist rather than religious. Confusing colonialism with crusades is just historically wrong – and something that has been done often enough as it is by Muslim fundamentalists such as Sayyid Qutb or Osama Bin Laden.

Churchill did not allow himself to be swayed by the demonisation of the Mahdi, and his comrade-in-arms and successor, Abdullahi Bin Sayyid, that was going on in England. How far this demonisation actually went, however, is largely concealed from the reader, who must make do with a few scattered hints from an author who is critical of what he sees as the tendentiousness of the West’s representation.

For Churchill, in any case, as chapter 17 makes clear, the Mahdi, whom he never actually met, was “a man of considerable nobility of character, a priest, a soldier, and a patriot.”

The national war of liberation fought by the Sudanese against the Egyptians and their British allies had not, in the eyes of Churchill, so much to do with religion; first and foremost it was a war fuelled by a sense of injustice. The insurgents claim that they were fighting a holy war he said was what “characterised” and “strengthened” their cause, but it was “not the reason” why they were fighting.

Apologia of British colonialism

In spite of all critical distance, however, Churchill the war correspondent remains an apologist of British colonialism and, as such, a child of his time. The first five chapters of his book, detailing events in Sudan and the British involvement prior to the beginning of the 1896 Sudan campaign, are in any case heavily based on accounts by fellow and appropriately polarised western contemporaries. There is very little to be discovered here about the true nature and condition of the Mahdi state, the “Caliphate”.

Though the religious effulgence that had surrounded the Mahdi movement faded following the early death of its leader in 1885 and it subsequently turned into a military dictatorship under Abdullahi, these things do not suffice, as far as the author is concerned, to explain the strength of the Sudanese ruling government under the successor to the legendary Mahdi. This he ascribes much more to Abdullahi’s skilfully constructed network of contacts amongst the local emirs.

Nevertheless, Churchill, too, was of the opinion that the Sudanese people were being suppressed, above all by their own rulers; an idea, of course, which allowed the colonial rulers – and Churchill too – to justify the Sudan campaign.

The author, who arrived in Sudan in 1898 and experienced only the final stages of the war as a cavalry lieutenant, describes the details of the campaign almost exclusively from a military point of view.

Objective reporter

Chapters 6 to 16, for example, along with meticulous description of the construction of the infrastructure, primarily of the railway, snaking its way alongside the Nile as it was extended further and further south, contain detailed descriptions of various battles and skirmishes – most of which information was certainly put together on the basis of conversations Churchill had had with the soldiers involved.

These passages, which make up the lion’s share of the book, will appeal more to the specialist, who, in any case, will very likely have read the much more substantial English original already. The version we have here in German translation is heavily abridged. The picture that emerges of Churchill himself as he describes his own experiences of conflict is of an objective reporter who is not going to be taken in by propaganda.

Respect for the courage of the Sudanese fighters

He has the greatest of respect for the courage of the Sudanese fighters. Although the author is clearly fascinated by the deadly array of modern weaponry – from gunboats to machine guns – at the disposal of the invaders, he is also clearly also appalled at the prospect of the damage they can inflict.

This comes across very clearly in Churchill’s report on the aftermath of the bloody and decisive battle fought to capture the government headquarters of Sudanese ruler Abdullahi at Omdurman on September 2, 1898, the final act in a three-year war of reconquest by the forces of colonialism.

The horrors of war

The sheer number of casualties alone that the author records for this decisive battle, bears witness to the nature of what we would now refer to as an asymmetrical war. While the combined Egyptian and British casualties amounted to 482 dead and wounded, the number of Sudanese dead alone ran to 9700, with well over a thousand more injured.

The descriptions of the fate that befell the latter, many of whom were forced to lie unattended on the battlefield – in some cases for days – only to die in agony, are amongst the most moving in a work that, at this point, almost becomes an anti-war book.

But only almost. Despite Churchill’s criticism of the destruction of the Mahdi’s grave and desecration of his remains carried out by the British commander-in-chief Kitchener, he nevertheless goes on to justify the Sudan war in familiar colonialist terms. It has all been about deliverance from tyranny and its replacement by civilising progress.

His final appeal is made to the victor’s reason. What the Sudanese need now, he says, in not hordes of missionaries or speculators, but to be left in peace to get on with the slow, step-by-step business of reconstruction – overseen by the British, of course.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker