Colonel Gordon and the Mahdi

posted to on November 12, 2001

In the future--if there is a future--humanity will study the cultural artifacts of the United States and Great Britain just as scholars study Roman epic poems. To fully understand Empire, you have to study how its artists flatter their masters. Since Empire loses vigor from generation to generation, it is no wonder that Anglo-American late capitalism, the bastard offspring of Ancient Rome, has not produced a Virgil. Instead, in its dotage, it tends more and more to draw upon the movies to sing its splendors, with Rambo and Ronald Reagan standing in for the Aeneid and Julius Caesar.

When Great Britain met its first battlefield defeat in the colonial world at the hands of the Mahdi-led "fuzzy-wuzzy" and dervish, it was thrown into as much of a quandary as the United States was after Somalia militiamen caught the US Marines in a devastating crossfire. How could savage tribesmen armed primarily with sword and spear defeat the best-trained and best-armed military in the world?

To begin to grasp this imperialist trauma and, further, what drives a kind of neo-Mahdist revolt of today, there is no better place to start than "Khartoum," a 1966 British-American co-produced film that starred conservative icon Charlton Heston.

Written by Robert Ardrey of "Territorial Imperative" fame, "Khartoum" made its debut when the United States was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with its own defiant rebels, in this case believing in Communism rather than Islam. Of course, with Communism no longer a factor in world politics, it is no accident that malcontents across three continents are now returning to 19th century millenarian ideologies.

Striving for a kind of kitschy grandeur, "Khartoum" begins with a 5-minute overture that superimposes the word "Overture" on a blank screen so the audience will understand that it is not dealing with some technical difficulty. Frank Cordell's overture has two motifs that are heard throughout the film. The "Gordon" theme is a second-rate "Pomp and Circumstance" march, while the "Mahdi" theme sounds like the standard camel-walking-across-the-desert music heard a million times before in films like "Lawrence of Arabia."

When the overture ends, the first images appear: silent pyramids and a gently flowing Nile. A narrator portentously states, "The Nile was always there." Indeed, Egypt and the Sudan--the two countries whose fates were intimately linked to the Nile--are timeless as well. These were lands of "mystery," where "the gods" were always a factor. It is out of this Orientalist stew of timelessness, gods and mystery that the Mahdi emerged. With this kind of introduction, it is a safe bet that any scenes dramatizing social and economic grievances would be left on the cutting floor. (It is sad to reflect upon the fact that producer Julian Blaustein had also produced the 1950 film "Broken Arrow," which was written by blacklistee Albert Maltz and which took a sympathetic view toward the American Indian.)

Once the legendary underpinnings are in place, the movie can cut to the chase. The first scene depicts the massacre of a 10,000 expeditionary force made up of Egyptian conscripts and their commanding officer, Colonel William Hicks. Sent to subdue the Mahdist rebels, this British version of General Custer meets an Arab version of Sitting Bull.

Perhaps for these British officers, there was little difference between the "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" and some North American Indians they once did battle with. General Garnet Wolseley, who would eventually head up an abortive mission to rescue Gordon from Khartoum, made the rounds across the British Empire, including Canada where he commanded the Red River Expedition. This was a force sent against Louis Riel and the rebellious Metis, composed of trappers and hunters with mixed Native and French Canadian ancestry. According to Robin Neillands:

"Wolseley's force made their way across the wilderness to Manitoba in canoes paddled by French-Canadian 'voyageurs'. The rebellion had collapsed before they reached Fort Garry but the 'voyageurs' were to enter Wolseley's mind again in the Sudan a few years later. During this expedition he began to gather around his headquarters a group of efficient and forward-looking officers." ("The Dervish Wars," p. 45)

In other words, counter-insurgency tactics learned in native Canada would come in handy in the Sudan. After Canada, Wolseley moved on to West Africa, where he fought the Ashanti from 1870-1873. By this time, he was the youngest General in the British army at the age of 40.

His higher-ups regarded Colonel Hicks, who was less skilled than Wolseley at colonial subjugation, as mediocre at best. Sent out to capture the Mahdi in September of 1883, he suffered from the sort of over-confidence that marked British participation from the outset. When the Mahdi offered him mercy if he surrendered, Hicks told him no deal. The film accurately depicts the British troops (including 100 'cuirassiers', or cavalry, in anachronistic chain mail) deployed in a standard 'square' formation, which put horsemen and cavalry on the perimeter, and supply wagons in the middle. Weakened by many days of travel in the hot sun and short on rations, the British force was decimated by the sword-wielding Mahdists.

Since the film is entirely from the British perspective, the Mahdist fighters are seen as an undifferentiated mob of howling, 'jibba' (smock) wearing fanatics. In reality, the Mahdist army contained different types of soldiers, based on social and ethnic origins. The term dervish, derived from the Persian term 'darawish' or beggar, was applied across the board to the Mahdist soldiers. For example, an 'ansar' infantryman was armed with sword and spear. He came from the Beggara group of livestock-herding tribes, who were of mixed Arab and black descent. Riflemen were known as 'jehadiya' and had often formerly served in the Egyptian army. These tended to be blacks from the Hadendowa tribe, who were part of the Beja people and were called fuzzy-wuzzies by the British because of their butter-matted hair. For all of the racial preconceptions one might carry into this narrative, it is interesting to consider that blacks had most of the guns.

The British were shocked by the defeat of Hicks. In a speech to the House of Lords one month later, Lord Fitzmaurice said, "An Army has not vanished in such a fashion since Pharoah's host perished in the Red Sea."

Following the scene of Hicks's defeat, the film shows the triumphant Mahdi addressing his troops. Played by a scenery-chewing Lawrence Olivier, this Mahdi rolls his r's--"tomorrow" comes out as "tomorrrrrow." This heightens the character's exoticness in lily-gilding fashion.

While the Mahdi ("expected one") united people around his own brand of Islam, the real man was not just a religious fanatic. He had a social vision for the Sudan, cloaked as it was in the Koran.

Born in 1844, Mohammed Ahmed-Ibn-el-Sayed-Abdullah became interested in religion at an early age. His carpenter father encouraged his development by sending him to a 'khalwas,' or religious school, that was traditionally led by a 'fakir', or holy teacher. Part of his instruction involved learning the Koran by heart. Mohammed Ahmed's asceticism and dedication gained attention from teachers and local people. Most scholars, as well as his enemies in the British army such as Charles Gordon and Winston Churchill, share Neillands's view of the Mahdi:

"The broad thrust of Mohammed Ahmed's teaching followed that of other reformers in other religions. His Islam was one devoted to the words of the Prophet and based on a return to the original virtues of prayer and simplicity as laid down in the Koran. Any deviation from the Koran was therefore heresy. There was also a political edge to this doctrine. Mohammed Ahmed's contempt for the Egyptians and Turko-Circassian people, who oppressed the Sudanese, co-operated with the slavers and led a life of indolence and luxury, was all too plain but he offered hope as well. The way to paradise lay through humility and a strict observance of the tenets of Islam.

"There was nothing particularly new in Mohammed Ahmed's doctrines but he was an inspiring teacher. His message - that this world was but a testing ground and paradise awaited those who followed the Muslim faith - had a strong appeal to a people who found their daily lives hard in the extreme and welcomed the promise or prospect of a better life if not in this world then in the one to come. As far as this life was concerned, a better life depended on getting free of the 'Turks'." (Dervish Wars, p. 63)

You'll note that Neillands refers to the Mahdi's "contempt" for those who "co-operated with the slavers." Keep this in mind when we take a closer look at the British anti-slavery stance in the war against the Sudanese people.

"Khartoum" now shifts to the chambers of Prime Minister William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson), who has assembled a high-level strategy meeting to figure out a response to the Mahdist revolt. The atmosphere can be likened to that which probably prevailed in the White House following Sept. 11. Taking into account the unflappable spirit of the British ruling classes, the scene could best be described as one of hand-wringing trepidation. As Neillands puts it:

"Her Majesty took a very poor view of armies led by British officers being cut to pieces by sword-armed savages. This opinion even stretched to armies led by former officers like Valentine Baker. Baker was clearly not a gentleman; he may even have been a bounder and was currently serving in the forces of another power, but he was British and relentlessly brave. In Her Majesty's opinion repeated massacres of forces led by British officers in the Sudan were deleterious to British prestige. If they continued it might set a bad example to discontented folk in other parts of the Empire. Something had to be done to restore British military standing and Her Majesty expected someone - possibly the Prime Minister - to do it. The Queen's view was widely shared by the British public and the British press and they were not to be denied."

In other words, Great Britain faced nearly the same situation the United States faces today. In the final analysis, just as was the case in 1883, the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban is necessary to prevent a bad example being set for discontented folk in parts of the American Empire. It does not matter if the Taliban are a bunch of nasty religious fanatics. We cannot have American hegemony being challenged anywhere and under any conditions. It might give Venezuelans or South African the wrong idea.

The characters in that room were a microcosm of British imperial power. Sir Evelyn Baring (Alexander Knox), a Kissinger-like realist and cynic, sees politics as a way to advance the fortunes of his family bank using the leverage of his post as Governor of Egypt. Lord Granville (Michael Hordern) is Gladstone's Foreign Minister and a hard-core self-described imperialist--this was at a time when euphemisms were unnecessary. Representing the military high command are Colonel J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), who would become Gordon's aide in Khartoum, and the aforementioned General Wolseley (Nigel Green).

Although by no means a consensus, they agree to give Colonel Gordon a chance to sort things out, even though success seems uncertain. With Granville urging a hawkish interventionist course and Baring warning dovishly against troop commitments, Gordon is a sensible compromise. At any rate, nobody else would be willing to step into the developing quagmire except someone like Gordon, whose fanaticism matched the Mahdi's. Notwithstanding Gordon's religious zealotry and reputation for being a loose cannon, he had shown audacity in putting down the Taiping rebellion ten years earlier, whence he earned the nickname "Chinese." He would be dispatched to Sudan to collect information and to evacuate Egyptian citizens from Khartoum. Although Gordon was ordered not to take military initiatives, his reputation as a colonialist warrior must have raised the possibility in Gladstone's mind that Gordon might "improvise" after arriving there.

But if Gordon was fanatical, at least he was on the side of the angels. (And he would be the first to affirm that.) Indeed, his impeccable moral standards would help to forestall any domestic criticisms of Gordon's mission in the Sudan as imperialist meddling. As a long-time opponent of slavery, the government could defend his assignment in the Sudan as a second tour of duty against the scourge of slavery.

On his first tour of duty in 1873, Gordon had signed on with the Khedive Ismail to wipe out slavery in the Sudan, a country that Egypt was attempting to liberate, all the better to bring under colonial subjugation. With the Suez Canal looming as a strategic asset for the country, the Khedive sought to gain control over the territory surrounding the White Nile in the Sudan. In order to procure British support for his endeavors, the Khedive pledged to wipe out slavery in the Sudan, a cause that Great Britain had long been associated with. Through the pressure of the Anti-Slavery Society and individuals like Wilberforce, the British government not only abolished the trade itself, but also made warfare on traders.

The British War Office released Gordon for duty in the Sudan and he assumed the post of Governor. In keeping with his reputation for honesty and frugality, Gordon told the Khedive that he would accept a salary of only £2,000 per year rather than the £10,000 offered him. He told his sister, "My object is to show the Khedive and his people that gold and silver idols are not worshipped by all the world." (Marlowe, "Mission to Khartum", p. 33)

Since some of the Mahdi's followers appeared to be disgruntled ex-slave traders, the British public--deeply committed to the anti-slavery cause, at least the way they understood it--could not possibly object to Gordon's presence. His mission would be the sort of thing that only the British version of the anti-American "hard left" could object to, just as we oppose US Marines rescuing the Haitian people from Macoute terror, or NATO preventing genocide in Kosovo.

With his eventual triumph over the slave-traders, especially their most powerful figure Zobeir, Gordon was elevated into an anti-slavery icon. Emin Pasha, another Governor of the Sudan who was originally a Jewish-born Austrian doctor named Eduard Schnitzer, sang Gordon's praises:

"[T]hanks to Gordon Pasha's eminent talent for organization, thanks to his three years of really superhuman exertions and labours in a climate which very few have hitherto been able to withstand, thanks to his energy which no hindrances were able to damp... Only one who has had any direct dealings with negroes ... can form a true estimate of what Gordon Pasha has accomplished here." (Moorehead, p. 208)

Of course, Emin Pasha had become much the expert on 'negroes' during his tenure in the Sudan:

"After many years' of experiences of the Negroes and intimacy with them I have really no hopes at all of a regeneration of Negroes by Negroes--I know my own men too well for that--nor have I yet been able to bring myself to believe in the hazy sentimentalism which attempts the conversion and blessing of the Negroes by translating the New Testament and by moral pocket handkerchiefs' alone." (Stanhope White, "Lost Empire of the Nile", p. 142)

After Gordon arrives in Cairo to begin lining up all his ducks in a row, he goes through diplomatic formalities including attendance at a belly-dancing performance at the Khedive's palace in his honor, an event that actually took place. Charlton Heston sits there with a look of some discomfort on his face, but one that by no means could have matched the expression on the real Gordon's face, who was very likely a repressed homosexual.

Once that is out of the way, he rolls up his sleeves and gets down to business. His first important consultation is with the infamous slave-trader Zobeir Pasha (Zia Mohyeddin), whom Gordon nominates as Governor of the Sudan! What could explain this reversal? More likely than not, British imperialist interests carried more weight in his mind than fighting slave-traders. Principle had little to do with anything. If the only political actor in the Sudan who could command an allegiance matching that of the Mahdi was a slave-trader, so be it.

In an interview with William Thomas Stead's "Pall Mall Gazette" (Stead was the world's first interviewer in the sense we understand this format today), Gordon spelled out his version of a domino theory. If the greatest danger facing Great Britain were losing its grip on the Mideast, then of course concerns about the rights of black Africans would have to take a back seat. Gordon told Stead:

"The danger to be feared is not that the Mahdi will march northward through Wadi Haifa; on the contrary, it is very improbable that he will ever go so far north. The danger is altogether of a different nature. It arises from the influence which the spectacle of a conquering Mohammedan power, established close to your frontier, will exercise upon the population which you govern. In all the cities in Egypt it will be felt that what Mahdi had done they may do: and as he has driven out the intruder and the infidel, they may do the same. Nor is it only England that has to face this danger. The success of the Mahdi has already excited dangerous fermentation in Arabia and Syria." (Moorehead, p. 238)

Although the British government might buy into the Zobeir proposal, summed up in Churchill's words that "the Pasha was vile, but indispensable," the British public might have trouble swallowing the elevation of "the greatest slave-hunter who ever existed." (Moorhead, p. 253) After loud protests from the Anti-Slavery society, and cynical support on its behalf from the Conservative Party, the Cabinet nixed the nomination of Zobeir on March 6, 1884.

While it is understandable that a movie like "Khartoum" might fail to explore the question of how slavery had become so widespread in the Sudan to begin with, scholarly literature leaves much to be desired as well. If it is the case, as the argument goes, that Sudanese resentment over the outlawing of slavery helped to fuel the Mahdist revolt, then why would the revolt have continued after the nomination of Zobeir? Was this nothing but an inchoate rebellion of warlords over lost privileges? To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand how slavery had become such a running sore in the Sudan to begin with. Before understanding this, it is essential to understand the overall economic relationship between Egypt and the Sudan.

To begin with, it is necessary to understand that Egypt, which was part of the Ottoman Empire throughout the 1800s, was considered a kind of "economic miracle" prior to the Mahdist revolt. Under the Khedive (Viceroy) Ismail, development proceeded at a rapid rate, all the while accumulating debt in the fashion of modern-day "economic miracles" such as the Asian Tigers in the 1990s. Alan Moorehead states:

"When Ismail succeeded his uncle Mohammed Said in the vice-royalty in 1863 Egypt was financially sound and even prosperous. The American Civil War had caused a sharp rise in the price of cotton, and the Egyptian crop had increased in value from £5,000,000 to £25,000,000. Ismail transferred his private debts to the state, increased the taxes, and got to work. He spent money with an abandon which eclipsed anything the oil sheikhs of the Middle East have achieved in the twentieth century." ("White Nile", p. 149)

To further complicate matters, Egypt had recently become a bone of contention between Great Britain and rival imperial powers over control of the newly developed Suez Canal. A joint project of France and the Ottoman Empire, Ferdinand de Lesseps's engineering miracle created a direct route between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Its debut on November 17, 1869 was marked by lavish celebrations all across Egypt, including a banquet for 3000 guests in Cairo, for which 500 cooks and 1000 servants were imported from France. Guests included Emile Zola, Théophile Gautier, Henrik Ibsen and other well-known critics of bourgeois values.

Mounting debt eventually forced the Khedive to sell his Suez Canal shares to Great Britain for £4,000,000. With this change of ownership, Egypt effectively became a British colony.

Overseeing British penetration of the Egyptian economy was the aforementioned Sir Evelyn Baring, a man eminently qualified for such duties by temperament and family ties. Created by Sir Francis Baring at the end of the eighteenth century, the bank became a linchpin of British influence abroad. The Duc de Richelieu said in 1812, "There are six great powers in Europe, England, France, Austria, Prussia … and the Baring brothers." (Neillands, p. 29) Baring first got his foot in the door of the Egyptian government in 1876, when the 'Caisse de la Dette' (commission on the debt) put representatives of creditor nations in charge of various agencies. Baring and a Frenchman were put in charge of the Ministry of Finance, an act reminiscent of making a George Soros employee head of the Argentine Treasury--an event that actually transpired not too long ago.

The Khedive Ismail was eventually driven from office in June of 1879. Two years later, as Great Britain and other creditor nations began to squeeze Egypt in much the same fashion that Argentina and Turkey are being squeezed today, popular discontent provoked an officer's revolt led by Colonel Ahmed Arabi, a 19th century precursor to Nasser.

In 1881, Arabi was 42 years and from humble circumstances. The son of a rural sheikh, he had nothing going for him except honesty, nationalist consciousness, and--a rarity for the Turkish-dominated Khedival army--an Egyptian birthright. Taking note of threatening developments, the French and British creditors issued a joint statement. They would "oppose all internal and external threats to the Khedive and the current order of things in Egypt." (Neillands, p. 38)

Just as might be expected, the statement touched off a rebellion. After Great Britain and France demanded the resignation of the Khedive and the formation of a new government, the proud Egyptians responded by naming Colonel Arabi their new ruler. To quell this outbreak of democracy, the French and British sent a squadron of warships and more than 25,000 troops that drowned the country in blood, beginning with a ten hour bombardment of Alexandria. Even with nominal French support, the ever-cynical Sir Evelyn Baring explained why Great Britain had to go it alone, just the way the USA must today: "There can be no doubt that the bombardment was justifiable … not merely on the narrow ground of self-defense but because it was clear that in the absence of effective Turkish or international action, the duty of crushing Arabi depended on Britain alone." (Neillands, p. 43)

If Egypt was to be bled dry while satisfying its creditors, it was only natural that it would make its colony Sudan share the pain. Since Sudan was not part of the cash economy and had few natural resources that could generate foreign revenues, Egypt resorted to a time-tested method, one that in fact had been pioneered in Europe. By imposing a tax, the Sudanese tribesmen would be forced to enter the cash economy. But except for ivory what did the Sudan have that could yield currency on the world market? The answer was human bodies. By imposing taxes on the ethnically mixed Arab-black Beggara pastoralists of the north and east, they would naturally be pressured into capturing black Africans of the Dinka tribes who lived in the south and who could be sold for hard currency.

The male slaves ended up as soldiers or cotton-picking fellaheen in Egypt, while the women became domestic servants or consigned to the harems of North Africa and Turkey. In order to line up British support for its initial foray into the Sudan, Egypt made all sorts of verbal commitments to ending slavery. The real solution to the problem was not in codes, nor in proper enforcement. As long as Egypt put pressure on Sudan to help meet its financial obligations to European creditors, there would be a slave trade. It was the world capitalist system that created a market for slaves, just as capitalist immiseration has created a market for prostitutes from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. To end prostitution or slavery, you need to end want and the commodity it generates: cash.

We could not expect the Mahdi or his followers to develop a sophisticated ideological analysis of the oppression from the north. To the tribesmen who donned the 'jibba,' the demand was simply "Kill the Turks (they did not distinguish between Europeans, Egyptians and Turks) and cease to pay taxes."

Piecing together the whole story on Mahdism and slavery is a daunting task. The English-language scholarship on the revolt is written from a heavily Eurocentrist perspective. One is forced to often read between the lines. After the death of the Mahdi, who succumbed to smallpox shortly after the fall of Khartoum and the execution of Charles Gordon, and until the British re-conquest of the Sudan in 1896, a Mahdist state existed under the leadership of the Khalifa 'Abd Allahi. The Khalifa was a military leader, who while lacking the Mahdi's religious charisma, did attempt to build a state based on Mahdist principles.

According to Robert O. Collins, the Khalifa banned the slave trade in the chattel form that it had taken during Egyptian rule. Without suggesting that this ban was based on anything except Machiavellian considerations of retaining power, Collins is unambiguous: private slave trading was prohibited. Without a doubt, the Mahdist commanders continued to retain captured soldiers as slaves in their own ranks, but this kind of class relationship had little to do with the sort of massive assault that took place prior to the Mahdi revolt. Collins writes, "Slatin [a European who converted to Islam after being captured by the Mahdi] mentions the great pomp and circumstance with which 400 male slaves were marched through Umm Durman; a number which would have caused the great slave traders of the Turkiya [Egyptian colonization] to sneer in contempt." (The Southern Sudan, 1883-1898, pp. 57-58)

In any case, the prospects for Mahdi independence and social emancipation were severely limited by the social and economic backwardness of the region and by growing pressure from the colonists during a period of ever-increasing European incursion. After finally taking control over the Sudan, the British created a civil service, railways, taxation, police and all the other accoutrements of colonial rule. Except for occasional nationalist outbursts, the British kept order in the country in classic "white man's burden" fashion. They made sure to utilize all the time-tested methods for keeping their subjects in line, including divide and conquer.

They sought to deepen racial divisions that had existed in the past. Understanding that the southern tribes felt alienated from the north for obvious historical reasons, the British made sure to impose political-geographical obstacles that would deepen the divide. Muslim northern Sudanese were banned from the south by law. While excusing the British as being protective of the victimized southerners, the eminent scholar P.M. Holt is forced to admit:

"The work the British administrators in opening up and pacifying the Southern Sudan, their devotion to duty at the cost of health and life, cannot be too highly praised. Yet there was an insidious danger in their position. Their isolation, the great burden of their individual responsibilities, and their immunity from criticism by the people they ruled, tended to confirm the idea that the system of administration they represented was the only possible system, and must endure indefinitely. The personal rule of the British administrators was in its origin beneficent; the mistake was that it went on too long." (A Modern History of the Sudan, p. 149)

Too long, indeed.

The other tried-and-tested method involved sending in Christian missionaries to the southern Sudan. Although "proselytization had, from the outset, been forbidden in the Muslim north," the "pagan south, on the other hand, was opened to the missionaries." Holt describes a situation that not only is too familiar for students of colonial rule, but one that anticipates Sudan's current-day problems:

"The missionaries were entrusted with the development of education in the south. This made possible the early, if limited, organization of schools at a time when the government's meagre resources were needed for the north. As time went on, however, the defects of missionary education began to appear. The sectarian differences of Europe and America were incongruously transported to the marshes and forests of central Africa. The language of instruction at the higher levels was English; Arabic, except in a debased pidgin form, was unknown. A new barrier of language and religion seemed to have been added to those already existing between north and south. The missionaries, for their part, had reason to fear that the admission of northern Muslims into the region would endanger the permanence of their work."

How could Great Britain have made such a tragic mistake, especially since it was committed to the values of Western Civilization, unlike the Muslim and pagan peoples of the Sudan? One can only wonder.

While we should not succumb to making facile parallels between the Mahdi and any contemporary figure such as Osama bin-Laden or the Ayatollah Khomenei, there is little question that the world is encountering a social-religious movement that has many of the characteristics of the Mahdist revolt. With the triumph over Communism, there has not been an End of History. Instead, what we have seen is a re-creation of the type of struggle that was generated by a set of circumstances that existed in the Victorian era when one superpower ruled the world. Instead of gunboats, we have B-52s.

The most important thing for the left is to come to terms with the nature of this revolt, which while cloaked in Islamic theology, addresses global inequality. If we fail to see the class divide that exists between the United States and its "terrorist" enemies, many of whom have nearly the same kinds of flaws as the Mahdists, it is very likely that we will be bypassed. In the Victorian era, a wing of the Second International opposed the colonial revolt because of the purported superiority of Western Values.

In a January 5, 1898 article titled "The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution," Eduard Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco:

"There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. Even before the arrival of Europeans in Africa, brutal wars, robbery, and slavery were not unknown. Indeed, they were the regular order of the day. What was unknown was the degree of peace and legal protection made possible by European institutions and the consequent sharp rise in food resources..."

For the sake of the left today, any such thinking must be rejected out of hand. Whatever the limitations of outbursts against imperialism today, they take place on our side of the class divide. While not endorsing the precapitalist slavery of the Mahdi, nor Taliban misogyny, we understand that the main enemy of progress is US imperialism, with all its latter-day versions of Gladstone, Gordon, Granville and Wolseley.


1. Evelyn Baring, Modern Egypt, (Routledge, 2000)

2. Winston Churchill, The River War, (Carrol and Graf, 2000)

3. Robert O. Collins, The Southern Sudan 1883-1898, (Yale, 1962)

4. Charles Gordon, Journals, (Negro Universities Press, 1969)

5. P. M. Holt, A Modern History of the Sudan, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1961)

6. Henry Keown-Boyd, A Good Dusting, (Leo Cooper, 1986)

7. John Marlowe, Mission to Khartum, (Victor Gollancz, 1969)

8. Alan Moorehead, The White Nile, (Harper-Collins, 2000)

9. Robin Neillands, The Dervish Wars, (John Murray, 1996)

10. Brian Robson, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, (Spellmount, 1993)

11. Stanhope White, Lost Empire of the Nile, (Robert Hale, 1969)