Subverting the Sultan: British Arms Shipments to the Arabs of Darfur,
Dr. Andrew McGregor
Aberfoyle International Security
In recent years the Sudan government has been responsible for pouring weapons
into Darfur at a time when territorial and environmental tensions were already
high. Rather than encourage and supervise resolutions to these issues the
government has chosen to inflame ethnic and racial divisions in the region. The
well-known devastation created by this policy has a precedent in British
activities in the region in 1915-16 as part of the buildup to the
Anglo-Egyptian invasion that brought the independent Sultanate of Darfur under
the control of the Khartoum government.
Anglo-Egyptian Rule in the Sudan
Darfur's independence was first shattered by an invasion led by the powerful
slave-trader and freebooter Zubayr Pasha in 1874. Zubayr's conquest was quickly
taken from him by the Turko-Egyptian government, which controlled the rest
of the Sudan at the time. The Egyptians in turn were expelled by the forces of
the Mahdi, whose Islamic movement took control of most of the country except
for a small strip of the Red Sea coast.
After the Mahdist government of Sudan was crushed at Omdurman by the
British-led Egyptian Army in 1898 a so-called British-Egyptian Condominium
government was created to administer the Sudan. Though a partnership in theory,
government decisions were made exclusively by the senior partner, the British.
Units of Sudanese and Egyptian troops were available to enforce the
government's writ, but the senior officers were all British soldiers on loan to
the Egyptian Army. The Governor General of the Sudan was also exclusively
British, creating friction with Egyptian nationalists who justifiably
questioned the balance of this 'partnership'. Added to this were civilians of
the Sudan Political Service, powerful and independent men who often worked in
isolation from other Europeans for long stretches of time. Almost exclusively
drawn from Oxford and Cambridge universities, they were fluent in Arabic and
expected to make most decisions in the field without having to refer everything
to the Governor General in Khartoum. For over five decades this low-cost and,
indeed, low-interest, form of administration worked surprisingly well, in large
part because of British willingness to apply overwhelming force to any sign of
defiance, especially in the early days of the Condominium.
Darfur remained outside the Condominium. It had been intended that it would
form part of the Sudan in 1898, but a member of the Fur royal family, 'Ali
Dinar, beat the British back to the capital of al-Fashir after the battle of
Omdurman, deposing a British-supported pretender while re-establishing the Fur
Kingdom. The British recognized 'Ali Dinar as sovereign of distant Darfur in
exchange for an annual tribute and a nominal acceptance of the Sudan Government
as the suzerain power.
Most of the British inspectors were trained in Arab language and culture, and
had little sympathy for what they saw as backwards and ignorant Black Africans,
regardless of their skills or achievements. For the Fur these achievements were
considerable. For three centuries they had ruled a prosperous trading nation
with a rich culture, building political unity from a nearly impossible ethnic
and linguistic diversity.
The Arabs were never enthusiastic about Fur rule, but the centralized authority
of the region created a tense but workable relationship between the tribes and
the Sultan, who had recourse to a large professional army. Tribute was usually
paid, and a degree of order prevailed between African and Arab tribes who might
otherwise raid each other to their mutual impoverishment. What had changed by
the late 19th century was the encroachment of European imperialists, the French
to the West, and the British to the East. The Arab leaders realized that they
now had a new card to play by manipulating this presence to their advantage. A
similar phenomenon occurred in the Sultanate of Dar Sila on Darfur's western
border, where the nomadic Arab tribes besieged the French with complaints about
the 'African' Sultan Bakhit. The Sudan government's relationship with Darfur
began to change in 1914, when the British became interested in using the Arabs
against the African tribes who dominated Darfur.
The security of the Darfur border region was placed in the hands of one of the
Sultan's most trusted lieutenants, Khalil 'Abd ar-Rahman. Determined to put an
end to the insolence of the Arabs, Khalil pursued an active policy of force
against the tribes, creating an incident in 1913 when he attacked a large party
of Zaiyadia Arabs fleeing the Sultan's troops. The attack took place on the
Kordofan (Sudanese) side of the border, causing a great deal of anxiety amongst
the handful of British administrators who regarded this as a direct challenge
to government authority in the region.
The problem was that there was no uniform policy in dealing with the Arab
tribes, especially those that routinely crossed the border to seek refuge from
the Sultan or the Khartoum government, depending on the circumstances. The
generally pro-Arab inspectors were divided on the timing and degree of support
to be offered to the Arabs, while the Inspector-General, Rudolf von Slatin
Pasha (who knew 'Ali Dinar from their mutual captivity in Omdurman during the
days of the Mahdist government) favoured a conciliatory relationship with the
Sultan. Before the Mahdist revolution Slatin had been governor of Darfur in the
old Turko-Egyptian regime. Under the Condominium government Slatin was given
nearly total control over the nomadic tribes and the appointment of their
leaders, mostly men known personally by Slatin and regarded by him as loyal to
With the outbreak of a European war in August 1914, the Austrian-born Slatin
was expelled from the Sudan as a security risk despite having been a member of
the Egyptian Army since 1879. No European had such intimate knowledge of the
peoples of Darfur as Slatin. Tribal policy in the western Sudan now passed into
the hands of less-experienced British officials. In November 1914 the Ottoman
government declared war on the Allied Powers, followed soon after by a
declaration of jihad for all Muslims by Ottoman Sultan Muhammad Rashad V in his
role as Caliph of Islam. From this point on a religious dimension emerged in
the deteriorating relations between 'Ali Dinar and the Khartoum government.
Governor-General Wingate (an experienced intelligence hand in the Egyptian
Army) began to make funds available to the Kordofan inspectors to mount
espionage and other secret operations against Darfur.
Preparing the Grounds for War
The Ottoman Sultan's proclamation of jihad had no impact on the Arabs of
Darfur. The bitter legacy of the Turko-Egyptian 19th century occupation of the
region meant that the Arabs had no interest in supporting the Ottomans. The
survival and growth of the tribe remained paramount, and the key to this was
seen to be cooperation with the British.
With the Kababish Arabs raiding the eastern frontier of Darfur in 1915 the
Sultan appealed to the Government for arms and ammunition to defend his
territory, a natural request to make of the suzerain power. The Kordofan-based
Kababish were the largest nomadic tribe in the Sudan. In 1911 they had been
bold enough to strike into western Darfur to raid one of the Sultan's own
caravans carrying a large shipment of arms. The tribe's loyalty was more
important to the Khartoum government than 'Ali Dinar's satisfaction, so the
Sultan's request for arms was denied. In the end the British relented to
sending 1,000 rounds, a ridiculously small amount. Larger considerations were
at play here; 'Ali Dinar had for years battled French encroachment on his
western border and had repeatedly requested arms from the government, only to
be denied in every case. The British did not wish to create an incident with
their wartime French allies by giving a Fur army the means of defeating a
French expedition. The British and the French had already been negotiating
the limits of the western border of Darfur before the war, but put off a
decision until the war was over.
By May 1915 'Ali Dinar was sending threatening letters to the leader of the
Kababish Arabs. He accused them of joining the infidels but suggested they
follow the path of jihad instead. The Kababish chief, 'Ali al-Tum, immediately
dumped the letters on the closest British inspector with a warning that the
government should take care of this 'fanatic'. The British inspectors in
Kordofan now began to realize the thinness of their rule, and broached the idea
of a preemptory invasion of Darfur.
Governor-General Wingate and most of his fellow officers in the Sudan were
refused in their applications to transfer to the fighting on the Western Front
on the grounds of their experience and irreplaceability in the Sudan. These
were all professional soldiers who began to realize that their own efficiency
in keeping Sudan quiet during the war was cutting them out of the opportunities
for promotion and decorations they could get in Europe. Once planted, the idea
of creating a new battleground for the Great War began to take on steam.
Rumours of German officers in al-Fashir and diabolical cruelties committed by
the Sultan began to circulate. Eventually these rumours and other fantasies
were all packed off to London labeled 'Intelligence'.
Musa Madibbu and the Rizayqat
Normally Arab complaints of the Sultan's hostility were grounded in the Arab
tribes' own prevarication in paying the annual tribute. Therefore the
Government usually responded with a few words of sympathy and a suggestion to
pay the tribute more promptly. In July 1915 the Governor-General instructed his
agents to advise Musa Madibbu, chief of the Rizayqat tribe, to avoid paying the
tribute, advice sure to result in fighting. It was thought that any government
invasion of Darfur would benefit greatly from having the Sultan's army
'embroiled with the Rizayqat'. Wingate, whose experience in intelligence work
included what may be called 'dirty tricks', suggested that in his
correspondence with the Sultan, Madibbu should name any supporters of 'Ali
Dinar in his own tribe as the individuals preventing him from collecting the
Musa Madibbu was interested in enlisting the aid of the Sudan Government in a
growing struggle between his tribe and the Fur Sultan. In 1913 the Rizayqat had
narrowly beaten a Fur punitive expedition, but losses were heavy and Madibbu
did not believe the Rizayqat could duplicate their win. In September 1915
British Inspector John Bassett offered to loan the Rizayqat arms and ammunition
to defend themselves from the Sultan. The total amount came to 300 rifles and
30,000 rounds, enough to turn the Rizayqat into potent challengers to Fur rule.
In December a similar loan of 200 rifles and ammunition was made to 'Ali al-Tum
and the Kababish. Musa Madibbu had no intention of taking on the Sultan
himself, however, and wrote to the Government that 'we are poor Arabs and have
no power to resist this man'. By this point both the Arabs and the Government
were trying to manipulate each other. The dispute grew as the Sultan sent Musa
Madibbu a pair of sandals to run away with, while Musa replied that he would
soon be watering his horses at the Sultan's capital of al-Fashir.
The new Government policy was a reversal of its long-standing efforts to disarm
the Arab tribes of Kordofan. The region was still awash with 35-year old rifles
seized by Mahdist fighters from the ill-fated Hicks Pasha expedition of 1883,
but many of these had lost their sights or seen their barrels sawed off to make
them easier to carry. Even those still intact commonly used pebbles for
ammunition in lead-poor Sudan. The supply of modern weapons and ample
ammunition was a dramatic change to the strategic situation in Darfur.
By April 1916 460 Arabs of the Kababish, Kawahla, and other Arab tribes had
been deployed in a string of eight posts along the Darfur frontier. All were
armed and paid by the Government. The Arabs were ordered to carry out scouting
forays into Darfur, but, as one inspector wryly put it, 'their vigorous
interpretation of the term reconnaissance' took them some 300 miles right
across Darfur. The new British-supplied weapons were used by the Arabs to
attack their old rivals in French territory, the Bidayat and the Gura'an. There
were suggestions that a Government man be sent to the Arabs to reign in their
excesses, but eventually it was decided it was better to look the other way, as
a government representative would simply be a witness to 'enormities' that he
could do nothing to prevent.
As the Egyptian Army crossed Kordofan 'Ali Dinar sent a strange report to
Sultan Muhamad Rashad in Istanbul that reflects his agitation and a great deal
of wishful thinking besides:
We beg to inform Your Majesty that the Moslems who have abandoned Islam and
embraced Christianity have been punished in a miraculous way never heard of on
this earth – except during the time of the Prophets… It fell on a tribe called
Rizeigat, subjects of ours who had abandoned the light of Islam and followed
the advice of the Christians, the dogs – The heaven rained fire on them and
they ran to the river and diving therein, turned into black coal – In another
place Heaven rained red blood.
'Ali Dinar failed to meet the British at the border with his army, fearing that
if he moved his troops up, Musa Madibbu would sweep in behind him and loot
al-Fashir (presumably with those Rizayqat who had not been turned into coal).
The Sultan now took on a more friendly tone in his communications with the
Rizayqat chieftain. The Sultan announced that he was satisfied with Musa, and
in a mix of threat and encouragement informed the Arab chief that the Fur army
had already met the Anglo-Egyptian invasion force, and that though each of his
men was hit at least ten times by the infidels' bullets, there were no
In May 1916 the Sultan's army was defeated at the battle of Birinjia, followed
several months later by the Sultan's own death at the hands of an
Anglo-Egyptian mounted infantry task force. While this put an end to Fur
resistance the nomads of Darfur were just getting started. By the middle of
1916 the nomadic African Bidayat, Gura'an and Zaghawa tribes were all raiding
from French territory into northwest Darfur. 'Ali al-Tum led the Kababish
against the Berti in northern Darfur, defeating them and seizing their herds on
the pretext that they were 'enemies of the government'. From there they turned
to raiding Dar Zaghawa (a territory straddling the Chad/Darfur border). At the
same time the Bani Halba of southern Darfur were looting herds without any
concern for whether their owners were pro or anti government.
In October a raiding party of 200 Kababish was in the Ennedi region (modern
north Chad) seizing women and children. In retaliation the Bidayat and Gura'an
raided the Arabs of northern Darfur in November, then turned south to take
3,500 head of cattle and 50 women and children from the Fur. In December, 1916,
a column of the Egyptian Army Camel Corps was sent to northwest Darfur to
cooperate with French units against the Bidayat and the Gura'an. The provision
of arms had unleashed a storm of retaliatory violence that the government had
great difficulty reigning in over the next several years.
The Darfur campaign never achieved recognition as part of the Great War. This
was a great disappointment to the expedition's British officers, but
designation as a part of the World War meant that London would be responsible
for the costs of the conquest. Although the invasion was justified as a strike
against German and Ottoman forces in Africa, the conflict received the official
designation 'Patrol 16 of the Egyptian Army' making it a purely local affair.
This revisionist slight of hand allowed the entire bill to be sent to Cairo
In the end, the Arab tribes contributed almost nothing to the conquest of
Darfur. The violence of raid and counter-raid swept across northern Darfur long
after the campaign of 1916. Even the Great War had come to an end by the time
French and British colonial officials cooperated to bring an end to the
destruction of life and property. Like the current situation in Darfur the
Sudan government had introduced modern arms into the region while aggravating
ethnic and territorial conflicts that were usually resolved by traditional
methods of conciliation. As the chaos spiraled out of control the colonial
government (like today's regime in Khartoum) chose to disclaim any
responsibility. Unfortunately the lessons of history have little attraction for
Show Footnotes and
. So-called since the entire ruling class of Egypt at the time was composed
of Turks, Circassians, and other races of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish rather
than Arabic was the language of both the elite and the military.
. I have used the term 'Fur army' in this paper in reference to the
Sultans's forces, but the army was in fact composed of many different tribes
and ethnic groups. The two senior commanders were both slaves from the southern
hinterland, named Sulayman and Ramadan.
. National Records Office, Sudan: NRO INTELL 2/2/11, pt.2; Letter from 'Ali
Dinar to His Majesty Sultan Muhammad Rashad, 1334 (1916)
McGregor, Andrew: A Military History of Modern Egypt: From the Ottoman Conquest
to the Ramadan War , Praeger Security International (Greenwood Press),
Westport Conn, 2006.
Prunier, Gérard: Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide , Hurst & Co.,
Theobald, AB: 'Ali Dinar: Last Sultan of Darfur, 1896-1916 , London,
1965 (out of print).
Von Slatin, Rudolph: Fire and Sword in the Sudan , London, 1896-97
(out of print).
Copyright © 2006 Andrew McGregor.
Written by Dr. Andrew McGregor. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Andrew McGregor at:
About the author:
Andrew McGregor is director of Toronto-based Aberfoyle International Security (AIS) and former senior editor of the Global Terrorism Analysis Program
of the Washington DC based Jamestown Foundation. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern
Civilizations in 2000 and is a former Research Associate of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of an
archaeological history of Darfur published by Cambridge University in 2001. His latest book is A Military History of Modern Egypt,
published by Praeger Security International. Dr. McGregor has written over 700 articles on international military and security issues
for organizations including Jane’s Intelligence, the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies.
He also provides frequent commentary on military and security issues for international newspapers, radio and television, including the
New York Times,
Financial Times, CNN, Fox News, al-Jazeera, the CBC and the BBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the AIS website at
Published online: 06/09/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.