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The Edinburgh Review identifies the author as Francis Wallace Rowsell (1838-1885), who was a lawyer in the Admiralty. In transcribing the following passage I have relied on the Hathi Trust’s online version and its invaluable OCR text and integrated brief footnotes in the main text, added additional subtitles for easier reading on screen, and added a map from the 1856 Imperial Gazetteer. Click on images to enlarge them. Please notify the webmaster if you encounter typographical errors. — George P. Landow

The most pressing difficulty of the day lies in the provinces separated from Egypt proper by the Nubian desert, and known by the general name of the Soudan. This boundary of the desert keeps the warlike and independent tribes of the Soudan quite apart from the inhabitants of Egypt, and has made the Soudanese and the Egyptians two distinct peoples that have not the least sympathy with each other. So says Colonel Gordon, who knows them well. Amongst these ‘blameless Ethiopians,’ as Homer called them, the Pharaohs established a colony at Meroe, which subsequently became independent; but the Romans during their occupation of Egypt fixed the Nubian desert as their southern limit. Un happily, some sixty years ago, Mohammed Ali invaded and conquered the country, and pushed up to the Abyssinian highlands. His object may have been to extend trade, to find gold, and to conquer territory; but the actual result has been a continual drain on the resources of Egypt. The Soudan has swallowed up whole armies—it has opened a wider field to the slave-trade in its worst form—and it has contributed to impoverish and exhaust Egypt. . . .

[In] 1819. . . anarchy in the Soudan attracted the restless spirit of Mohammed Ali, and induced him to send his sons, Ismail and Ibrahim, with a considerable force to conquer the country. The cruelties committed by Ismail, the revenge taken by the Sheikh of Shindi, who invited the Egyptian and his officers to a banquet, and, when the guests had partaken freely, set fire to the house and burned them all alive, and the revenge taken on the people of Shindi for this act, may be said to constitute the first chapter in the modern history of the Soudan. The subsequent chapters are the somewhat dull records of the acts of governors-general down to 1841, when advantage was taken of the suppression of a rebellion at Kassala to rearrange the whole territory, and to subdivide the Soudan into seven provinces, Fazoglou, Senaar, Khartoum, Taka, Berber, Dongola, Kordofan. But so great was the strain in men and money upon Egypt in order to keep hold on this vast possession, that Said Pasha, the Viceroy, who visited the Soudan in 1856, almost decided upon abandoning it altogether.

Unluckily for Egypt, he was turned from his purpose. Had he persisted he might have been spared the disastrous and costly mutiny in 1862, when 8,000 Soudan troops, unpaid for eighteen months, revolted and taxed the strength of the Egyptian Government to suppress them. His successor would not have been subjected to the dangerous temptation to which he so easily yielded, of extending Egyptian sovereignty beyond those southern and eastern limits within which it was already impossible to assert it effectually. The expedition of Sir Samuel Baker, interesting and instructive as its record is, would not have been made at the expense of Egypt; the vain conquest of Darfur would not have been undertaken, nor the Senheit territory filched from the Abyssinians; Harrar and the equatorial provinces would not have been added to the burdens of Egypt; and, above all, that country would have been spared the humiliating blot on her escutcheon which the Abyssinians placed there in 1876. Abyssinia twice destroyed a fully equipped Egyptian army corps, and on the second occasion took the commander, the son of the Khedive, prisoner.

But the greatest calamity of all which has befallen Egypt in the Soudan is the last. It seems to have been thought time of the surrender of the place to the British, and they were also anxious to crush the rising power of the Mahdi. Ac cordingly about 15,000 men were sent to the Soudan under General Hicks, a retired officer of the Bengal Army, whose gallant death at the head of his forces forbids us to criticise his military operations, which ended, as is well known, in total destruction. But it should be borne in mind that no officers or men in the British service formed part of the expedition, and that it was in no way countenanced or assisted by the British authorities. All the Europeans who accompanied the expedition were volunteers. The English view of the whole situation may be learned from a despatch of Lord Dufferin's, dated April 2, which will be found among the published papers. In it he announced the appointment of Ibrahim Bey as head of the department of the Soudan. Lord Dufferin impressed upon the new minister his belief that the disturbances were to be attributed mainly to the misgovernment of the Egyptian authorities at Khartoum, and that the chief strength of the Mahdi was derived from the despair and misery of the native population. “If, added Lord Dufferin, “the Egyptian Government were wise, it “would confine its efforts to the re-establishment of its ‘authority in Senaar, and would not seek to extend its ‘dominion beyond that province and the bordering river “banks. By this modest policy the annual drain on the ‘Egyptian Treasury would be greatly diminished if it did not “altogether cease; and if he succeeded in endowing Dongola, ‘Khartoum, and Senaar with a just, humane, and benevolent administration, there could be no doubt the ultimate ‘recovery of so much of the abandoned territories as it might ‘ be desirable to re-annex would be easily effected at a later ‘period.’

The Insurrection Led by the Mahdi

Meanwhile the difficulties inherent in the government of the Soudan were aggravated and inflamed by an outbreak of religious enthusiasm. The original El Mahdi was the twelfth Imām in descent from the Prophet of Islam, and his reappearance on earth as a conqueror and a sovereign has more than once served to colour a religious insurrection. The present year, which we believe completes the thirteenth century from the Hegira, has long been regarded by the Moslem as an epoch in the history of their faith and of the world. We have yet to learn whether this insurrection is a local disturbance of savage tribes in Central Africa, or whether, as some pretend, it has more extensive ramifications throughout the Mussulman world in Northern Africa, Arabia, and Asia. But the immediate result is that the threatened incursion of this Mahdi and his followers must be arrested, if indeed he is able to maintain his authority over the wild tribes who are said to have flocked to his standard. But this is doubtful, for whence can he draw his resources of money, animals of transport, food, and arms? It is quite possible that this insurrectionary movement may turn out less formidable than it appears to be at a distance. It may disperse as quickly as it has arisen, for it is difficult to conceive that large bands of wild tribes, many of them hostile to each other, can be col lected and retained in union by religious fervour alone; they must be bound together and led on by the hope of plunder. [Note: Mr. Villiers Stuart remarks that the fanatical adherents of the Mahdi are the slave-hunters of the Soudan; he is their champion; they have staked their cause upon him, and this fact, much more than his religious pretensions, accounts for his influence over them (p. 309).] This is the danger to be guarded against; and it can effectually be arrested by selecting and holding a fortified position on the Nile, whether at Khartoum, Wadi-Halfa, or even Assouan, which would break the wave of invasion, should it ever arrive there.

In former articles in this Journal we have more than once pointed out that the religious element in the Egyptian ques tion, and in the Egyptian rebellion, was too little considered. That element has burst upon us now in full force, and unless some energetic measures be taken at once, the fanatical hordes that have annihilated Hicks Pasha’s army may advance to the confines of Egypt, and what is there to prevent the lighting up of a religious war, with its attendant massa cres and horrors, from Khartoum to Alexandria? The Mahdi, in the name of the universal God, claims to unite all nations and colours of Islam against the unbeliever and the degenerate Moslems who are allied or in thrall to him. The power that has been able to stem similar torrents in India. can alone stem it in Egypt under existing circumstances. Egypt, paralysed in its physical strength, and on the brink of ruin from debt, from rebellion, from war, from cholera, cannot stand on its own feet without support. England alone can keep the peace, and shut the door against the warriors in a Jehad. Whether she can do this best by stiffening through the presence of her troops in Egypt the weak joints of the Egyptian Government, or by landing an Indian contingent at Suakim, and in her own name making good the frontier which we have indicated as alone essential, is a question for the responsible advisers of the Queen.

Abandoning the Sudan

But there is no escape from the duty so clearly imposed upon us of maintaining the integrity of the reduced Egypt we have engaged to defend. We say a reduced Egypt, for we cannot doubt that, under the present circumstances of the country, to relinquish the occupation of the Nubian provinces west of the White Nile is not only not to be regretted, but to be desired. At the same time we think it necessary to hold the territory between the Nile and the Red Sea, to the east of the great river, because it commands the most important trade routes, both for the legitimate exports of the interior and for the traffic in slaves. Parts of this region are comparitively fertile and watered by the affluents of the Nile. Suakim and Massowah may become stations of increasing value, and they are within comparatively easy reach of Anglo-Indian forces and of our naval power. The slave trade can only be effec tually checked by stopping the means of export by the river and by the Red Sea.

The objection people make to the abandonment of the Soudan is the same that was made when Said Pasha wished to give it up, viz., that anarchy would return. Has there really been anything else there since the last of the native princes, Dunkus or others, ceased to wield authority over the people? It will hardly be suggested that the Turkish, Circassian, or Egyptian rulers who have been imported into the country have set the inhabitants an example of softer manners; that they have done aught serious or effectual to stop the slave trade which is a source of profit to them; or that they have done anything towards advancing the people in the ways of civilisation. “At no time,” says Colonel Stewart, “was the province of Fashoda wealthy, but it was completely ruined by an Egyptian Governor called Selim Bey the Kurd, who extorted large sums from ‘the peasantry, and sold many of them into slavery.” . . .

What is the furthest concession in the way of territory that Egypt can make in the Soudan? For our part, after some careful study, we are led to the conclusion that a force stationed at Khartoum, sufficiently strong to hold that key of the White and Blue Niles, should for the present mark the southernmost limit of Egyptian sove reignty; that the project of a railway from Suakim to Berber, 250 miles, should be encouraged in every way as being a better and more practical pioneer of civilisation than all the bayonets imaginable; that Massowah should be abandoned to its natural owners the Abyssinians, who, immediately they get an outlet and a port, will come under the influence of civilising agencies superior to all that the Egyptians can furnish, and whose territory could be made a new and in dependent point of departure for opening up the equatorial provinces.

There need be no formal renunciation of all those principalities and provinces which are included by geographers in the territory of Egypt, causing it to have a nominal area equal to about two thirds of European Russia, though the Egypt over which the Khedive actually rules be no larger than Belgium. It will be enough if the shadowy pretensions over Kordofan, the Shillook country, Darfur, Senaar, Bahr el-Gazal, the Albert and Victoria Nyanza country, be aban doned for the present, and Egypt spare herself the cost and the strain of having to give validity to her claims. Some day when, with the aid of railways from Suakim to Berber, or, as Mr. Mackenzie Wallace suggests, from Kosseir to Keneh and from Massowah to Gondar, the process of evolution shall have gone so far as to bring Egypt face to face with the survival of the fittest among her present nominal tributaries, then she herself may be enabled to undertake again the part of ruler and civiliser, for which she is now wholly incompetent. [149, 151-55]

Related material


Rowsell, Francis Wallace. “The Egyptian Question.” Edinburgh Review. 159 (1884): 145-85. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 1 September 2020.

Last modified 2 September 2020