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The Wellesley Periodical Index identifies the author at Conder. In transcribing the following passage I have relied on the Hathi Trust’s online version and its invaluable OCR text. Links in the text take you to material in the Victorian Web, which includes contemporary articles from Victorian periodicals and reference works. Click on images to enlarge them. Please notify the webmaster if you encounter typographical errors. — George P. Landow

Decorated initial I

N the September number of ‘Maga,’ 1882, a paper will be found which describes the state of Moslem feeling, and their expectations of an approaching triumph of the faith at the time of the Egyptian war. In this paper the writer ventured to suggest the probability that the figure of the Mahdi might become an important one in the history of the Levant, and referred to the first victory of the Soudani prophet, which had hardly at the time attracted that amount of general attention which we now see it to have deserved.

Egypt and the Sudan. Click on image to enlarge it.

Nor can it be considered unnatural that in our own age and country civilised society should long remain sceptical concerning the power of religious movements among unarmed and almost savage races, especially when the regions concerned are those in which the benefits of civilisation and the power of Western warlike resources could not fail to be well known. That prophets should arise close to lands where Mr. Cook's tourist is a familiar figure, and religious wars be waged where the railroad and the steamer have already lost their novelty, does indeed seem at first improbable in the highest degree. Nor is it less astonishing that in a sceptical age, and within reach of the telegraph and the diplomatic agent, the policies and intrigues of great nations should suddenly be swept aside, and the attention of Europe concentrated on a spectacle which is equally at least, if not more, appropriate to the times of the rise of Islam or the triumph of Christianity—the spectacle of a fighting race deeply imbued with faith in the pretensions of an inspired leader, and confronted on the other hand by a man equally supported by strong religious belief, and equally indifferent, because of such conviction, to the opinion of the world or to the material dangers of his undertakings. Surely in the reply which is thus given to the philosophies and incredulities of our day, we see strong proof that faith yet remains, even in the nineteenth century, one of the most powerful motives of human conduct, not only amongst Arabs or Russians, but even among those nations which are accustomed to rely on the most matter-of-fact reason and the most material considerations.

The Mahdi, then, in spite of the warnings given by some who knew the East—in spite even of his destruction of General Hicks's army, and of the rapid advance of his vanguard on the road to Mecca—in spite of the forebodings uttered early in November in well-informed quarters, -remained to the Liberal party and to the Cabinet, if not to the nation, an object almost of contempt, — a “fanatic” who could be repressed in a moment by an English regiment, or persuaded by an unprotected emissary of Eng land. It required the defeat of Baker Pasha to convince the Government, either that their overconfidence was fatal, or that they had been ill advised by their trusted agents in Egypt. It is not intended here to repeat what has been already said concerning the character and influence of the Mahdi, and the expectations connected with his appearance. They will be found detailed in the paper already noticed. The object of the present article is to inquire [673/674] we now stand in reference to the movement which we have under taken to repress; what are the true motives of the actors in the drama, what has already been done, and what remains to be accomplished.

General Gordon has described the condition of affairs produced by the victories of the Mahdi as a “fever,” against which fortification was useless. This fever is by no means recent, nor has its power been confined to the Soudan alone, or to Egypt. It is a fever which has infected the Arab race, and which is mainly due to the decline of Turkish power and to the war of 1877. In Arabia, in Syria, and in Mesopotamia, not less than in Egypt, vague hopes of freedom have been spreading for several years; and the local troubles in Syria, not less than the revolt of Arabi and the consequent rising of the Soudan, are incidents only in an historic drama which as yet remains only half played out. How the future is to develop, and what will be the ultimate settlement of the Arab question, we have yet to see. The action of England, of France, of Russia, the resistance of Turkey, and many other influences, must be taken into account; but when we reflect on the condition of Italy at the time of Garibaldi's rising, or on the triumph of the wild Arabs over the disciplined forces of Rome, we should be committing a great mistake if we failed to recognise among the Arab-speaking races those elements of popular disquiet which have so often in history been the harbingers of great historic changes.

One fact alone has perhaps been unexpected by those who have studied the condition of the Arab race—namely, the desperate and determined courage of the warriors who opposed General Graham. Recent experience had not tended to give us a high opinion of the valour of the Bedawin. In the Egyptian campaign they took no serious part; but, like the Arabs of Napoleon's time, they hovered between the contending parties and harassed each in turn. We now, however, see the Arab in earnest, and recognise what he can do at his best. The change is due partly to difference between the degraded tribes of the Delta and the finer Desert race—partly to the fact that the Egyptians under Arabi were as hateful (or perhaps more so) to the Bedawin as were the English invaders; whereas in the present instance the tribes see on the one part the detested tyrant and the foreign infidel fighting side by side, and on the other success, freedom, spoil, or paradise—all dear to the hearts of the wild children of the wilderness.

No stronger test of faith could be proposed to man than that demanded by 'Othmān Digna when he called his soldiers to face the deadly hail of bullets and the cold hedge of bayonets; but on the other hand, it is not only among wild Arabs that such faith is yet to be found. And no greater instance has been witnessed among us for many a year than that of the man who went forth so calmly and promptly on his errand of mercy in contempt of death, because of his hope that in him might be found the “saviour” foretold of old for Egypt (Isaiah xix. 20). Let us look, then, for a moment at the motives which influence the Mahdi's followers and the chiefs who command them. They are probably two in all; to the many, religious belief—to the few calculating leaders, freedom from subjection to Egypt, and immunity from any in terference with the profits of the slave-trade. The ringleaders in the movement are thus doubly [674/675] guilty of the blood of their followers, because not only has it been shed in a hopeless resistance, but it has been shed for a cause which is not truly the cause which they have at heart.

Religion and trade profits are then the incitements which keep alive the movement, and in support of this view a few words may be devoted to each motive in turn. The romantic character of the Arab race is too well known to need more than a passing allusion. The power of Muhammad lay in great measure in the charm of his poetry; and the Anacreontic bards of Arabia were famous among their fellows long before his time. The imagination is excited by the wild landscape of the desert in a manner which the dweller in cultivated lands can little appreciate. The fancy of the Arab peoples the wilderness with ghostly and demoniac forms; and the silence which op presses the mind in such vast solitudes, where the cry of the eagle or the bark of the jackal is re-echoed by the naked crags, can only be known by those who have wandered alone in such a region. Thus the ghoul, the afreet, the ghostly wild goat, under which form the demon appears to the hunter, are creations of the imagination ever present to the Arab mind. The tribes who love to tell the wondrous stories of Zir and Jandabah, the fables of Lokman, and the songs of Antar, are men of character very different from the hopeless and timid peasants of the Delta. The Korân appeals to their imagination in a degree of which the fellahin are incapable; and its legends, its fine poetic images, its oft-repeated descriptions of paradise and of hell, its claim to be a “reading made plain in the Arab tongue” to unlettered men by an unlettered prophet, appeal to the Bedawi of to-day, just as they appealed to his ancestor twelve centuries ago, “Made fair to men is the love of pleasure, of women, and children, and stored talents of gold and silver, and steeds of mark, and flocks, and corn-fields. Such are the things of this world's life. But God! goodly is the home with Him. Shall you tell of better things than these prepared for those who fear God, in His pre sence? Theirs shall be gardens beside which the rivers flow, and in which they shall abide for ever; and wives of stainless purity; and acceptance with God. For God regardeth His servants.”

This was the vision which was before the eyes of the men of Teb or of Temanieb, when they charged the British square.

“God is round about the unbelieving. The lightning blindeth their eyes: when it gleameth on them they walk on in it, but the darkness closeth on them, and they stand still.” Such is the language of triumphant faith, which is dear to the Arabs of to day as of old. Such words reechoed from the camp of Arabi, when, nightly, he assumed the green turban and the flowing robes of a sherîf as the faithful gathered round him, and the derwish prayed, and the cymbal girl clashed a chorus in the intervals.

Such faith is not, however, what we mean when we speak of the brave warriors of the Soudan as fanatics. It is fierce hate of the Christian, and the desire of exterminating the non-Moslem, which at times disfigure the lofty character of their religious fervour. However much we may admire their courage and devotion, we must not forget that neither the Arab of to-day, nor the Arab of Muhammad's day, was more than a barbarian, deeply imbued with [675/676] superstitions of the most primitive character, scarcely superior in many ways to the savages of South Africa or America, untamable and unimprovable as are most of the older uncivilised races of the world.

Were religious conviction the only cause of the brave charges which General Graham's troops withstood, we should have nothing to say in defence of the recent campaign. Have we not sent against the Mahdi a man who, as all his friends well know, is actuated not by personal motives or by ambition, but by the conviction that he is an instrument for the fulfilment of ancient prophecies? The politician and the soldier are thus bidden to stand aside that the prophet may be met by one who, in zeal, in faith, and in sincerity, is able to vie with him even among his own people.

“I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians.” “The spirit of Egypt shall fail.” “In that day Egypt shall be like women; it shall be afraid, and fear. . . And He shall send them a saviour—a great one,—and he shall deliver them.” Such are the words which are ever echoing in the mind of Gordon, and in them is found the main motive of his actions. What those actions are, it would be unfair to say before we really know the circumstances; and how far success is possible, only those on the spot can rightly judge.

But lest it should appear that a false comparison has been suggested between the motives of General Gordon and his antagonists, we must here pause to note the true basis of the confidence which inspired the brave savages who charged to certain death. We hear that charms, said to have been blessed by the Mahdi, were distributed among them, and guaranteed by the chiefs to be a certain protection against the bullets of the enemy. There can be little doubt that the fury of the Arab onslaught was in great measure due not to the hope of Paradise so much as to the sense of immunity from ordinary danger. ’Othmân Digna's followers were naturally inclined to place complete reliance on supernatural powers, conveyed to them through the medium of charms from the holy leader, to whom Divine favour could not have granted lesser powers than those generally believed to be enjoyed by the derwish initiated.

General Graham's victories have thus had several important results. In the first place, the tide of revolution has been rolled back along the most dangerous line of advance —namely, that on Mecca, through Suakim—the line whereby a triumphant Mahdi would be expected to proceed to the Holy City of Islam. In the second place, the death of some 6000 warriors represents, at the ratio of density for population in the desert, the depopulation of some 3000 square miles of country. Whether or not the spirit of the race be broken is, for the moment, a secondary consideration, for without doubt, the two battles have shorn of fighting men a very large area of country east of Berber. Thirdly, the Arabs have dis covered that, even when fighting under the direct lead of ’Othmân, they have no supernatural immunity from wounds and death, and no certainty of victory, because of the sanctity of their cause. In the vicinity of Suakim we may now pause with safety to allow these bitter lessons to sink into the minds of our gallant and simple foes.

’Othmân Digna has, we hear, been compelled to argue that even Muhammad was defeated, and that [676/677] prophets foretell a long struggle preceding final victory. Whether he is sincere himself in such belief, we cannot at present judge. He certainly is not blinded by faith to a sense of personal security. Like Muhammad at Bedr, he viewed the battle from a height; but he failed to follow the example of the great founder of Islam, who, when his followers gave way, descended from his prayer platform to charge on his horse—throwing in the air a handful of dust at the infidels.

True, Muhammad was repulsed in 623 A.D. at Mount Ohud, near Medina, but the number of men he then lost was only seventy in all; and the mighty slaughter of Temanieb is only equalled in the history of the early wars of Islam by the Moslem loss at the Yermük, when 4000 of the faithful fell. This last battle was, however, a victory, not a defeat; and the rout of the Roman levies, surprised by Khaled's wondrous march from the Euphrates to Gilead, was the real crisis which determined the triumph of Islam throughout the East. At Temanieb, England was able, fortunately, to count on her own legions, not (as in the case of Rome) on native mercenaries; and in General Graham she possessed a leader not unfitted to meet the forces of Islam. The confidence inspired by the calm voice, the slow deliberate manner, the commanding figure, of this kindly Scottish leader, inspired those feelings which are not always felt when generals who telegraph brilliant despatches, and who live alone as superior beings, are playing their part before a British public rather than striving to “do the work thoroughly”—as General Graham prides himself in doing.

Our eyes are therefore now turned to Khartúm rather than to Suakim—to the dangers to which General Gordon is exposed from Zebeir and the slave-traders, from intrigue, violence, and fanaticism; and the slave question is becoming yet more important an element than formerly in the ultimate set tlement of that long and arduous struggle on which we are now probably only beginning to enter.

How many and how varied are the dangers (including not impossibly those caused by his own actions), the recent short messages from Khartûm allow us in some measure to judge. That General Gordon depended upon the arrival of British troops is now past doubt, though his grounds for the expectation are not known. It is to be feared, however, that this hope may have induced him to remain where he is till retreat has become impos sible and succour trebly difficult. It was from Suakim, apparently, that the advance of an English force was expected; and perhaps it may be conjectured that but for the delays which occurred, and the increasing heat, General Graham would, as Gordon expected, have been ordered to march to Berber immediately after his last victory.

General Gordon has himself confessed how ingrained in the nature of the races with which he deals is the idea of slavery as a natural law. Among many indications of the low standard of civilisation which obtained among the Arabs of Muhammad's day, and which was consequently sanctioned by the Korân, the references to slavery may be counted. The Prophet speaks of the blood-feud as a sacred duty. He condemns the thief to lose his right hand, and the faithless wife to be immured alive; and of slaves the Korân says most naively, in comparing them with their masters, “Shall they be held equal? No: praise be to God.” [677/678] Although the first converts to Islam were mostly slaves, and although the freeing of those who had done aught worthy of such reward was inculcated as a pious deed, the Korân contemplates as the only natural condition of society one in which slaves, even if professing the faith, are to remain in bondage to Arab freemen.

Slavery, then, is no crime to a Moslem, but a usage sanctioned by religion and by immemorial custom. Not only in Cairo, in Damascus, or in Stamboul, are slaves still to be found numerous, but throughout Arabia, and among the wild tribes of the Syrian desert, all powerful sheikhs take pride in the numbers and valour of negro bondsmen. The polite pasha will inform the visitor that slavery no longer exists in the Turkish empire, and that such slaves as re main are merely domestic servants; but if you have a friend who knows the city—whether it be Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, or any other Arab town—he will take you to the quiet street, where, behind the minaret of a modest mosque, you step suddenly into the court of the great barrack, which is the slave market of the district. Here, in a little mud-walled room, you may see the poor Nubian woman sitting, often with a black child in her arms, and her cheeks scored with the slave-master's mark of ownership. In another part of the building, delicate Circassians will fly as you approach to inner chambers, and stalwart Abyssinians or thickset negroes await a purchaser as porters or household servants. Greek slave-women have ceased to fill the harems of Cairo, it is true; but a Galla slave-wife, bought for £10 or £20, is probably as much (or as little) esteemed as ever. The great stream of human cattle is driven continually from Africa, across the Red Sea to Mecca, and through Syria to Baghdad and Asia Minor : the market which we are told to close is the whole Turkish empire, and the Arabian continent from sea to sea.

As to the condition of these slaves, it must be confessed that it is often quite equal to that which they would enjoy were they free. The rich Moslem master is often pious and kindly, and often afraid of the immediate consequences of violence. The Korân inculcates on him the greatest consideration for such of his women-slaves as have borne him children; and the amount of work expected from the slaves of Asia is light compared with that which freemen accomplish in Europe. But, on the other hand, there is no security, and no choice for the slave, and fearful crimes often occur in consequence. If, however, the task which we set before us is the suppression of slavery among those Moslems who come under our influence, let us at least clearly appreciate the magnitude of the work which we shall have to undertake.

The religious element has perhaps as yet been the more dangerous of the two; but the slave question will remain as a real motive long after the Mahdi has been discredited by defeat, and the zeal of the credulous victims of his preaching has cooled or been extinguished: and there is no subject connected with the Soudan that will more exercise the ingenuity of British statesmen to deal with in a satisfactory manner. What has been done as yet, has been the disillusionment of some of the religious enthusiasts of the Soudan, and the manifestation of British power; but that which remains to be done is far more arduous. Were she but firmly established in Egypt, England [678/679] would become the natural protector of the whole Arab race, and might witness, unmoved, the gradual decay of Turkish authority in Arab-speaking lands. The Arabs surround the Indian route on all sides; and the possessor of Cairo has a most important influence on Mecca. The size of Egypt proper is scarcely greater than the island of Cyprus; and it is indisputable that, with able administration, such as is available in the Indian department of Public Works, the whole Delta would become one of the richest and most prosperous of oriental lands. Only one word seems wanted to secure that steady hold on the situation which can alone lead to a successful outcome. What hinders that this word is not spoken? Protect Egypt, and the Soudan question becomes no more difficult than the manage ment of our Indian frontiers. Fanaticism may blaze up for a brief time, but the Prophet has pronounced no condemnation against Christians, so long as they are guided by the commands of their own religion. If we are to fight hand in hand with the oppressor against the freedom of the Arab, we shall earn undying hatred; but our natural position is that of lords of Egypt in friendly alliance with the independent tribes of all the surrounding deserts. Such views are premature perhaps, and may fail to find acceptance as they did during a former crisis; but through the indecisions and vacillations of the present Administration, it can hardly be doubted that we are advancing inevitably to such a solution of the puzzle; and we may yet hope that a time is in store for us when, securely posted in Cyprus and in Cairo, commanding from both sides our route to India, and allied to the warlike races of Arabia and Africa, we may calmly await the final catastrophe of the fall of Turkey, for which, however much we may regret its occurrence, we cannot now be held responsible. If such be indeed the future, it will not be to the man who bombarded Alexandria, who caused the death of two thousand peasants at Tel-el Kebir, who allowed Hicks Pasha to protest in vain, who deserted Sinkât and Tokår, who depopulated the Eastern Soudan, roused to revolution by the fatal initial error of his own policy, that the credit of success will be due. Those who allowed the adherents of Arabi—the grey-haired men who were chained in gangs, in order to be transported to the Soudan—to go forth to certain death against the wishes of their English leader, are reaping a bitter return for hypocrisy and deceit; and should it prove that, last but not least, the Ministry have abandoned to his fate the man who so gener ously risked life and reputation to save them, we doubt not that the wrath of England awaits them as a certain punishment. It will be the statesman who planted our flag in Cyprus, who acquired an interest for us in the Suez Canal, and who would, had he been spared, have given us a real route to India by the Persian Gulf, who will be remembered as the bene factor of his country, and the friend of peace.

Related material


[Conder, Claude Reignier (1848-1910)]. “Fanaticism in the Soudan.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. 135 (April 1884): 673-79. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Iowa Library. Web. 4 September 2020.

Last modified 2 September 2020