Sudan: British colonialism's divide and rule (1896-1939)

Updated January 2011

As the scramble for the partition of Africa between the colonial powers reached frenzy proportions in the last years of the 19th century British expansion northward from East Africa to the Mediterranean Sea conflicted with French expansion across the Sahel to the Red Sea in Sudan (Heleta 2007, 3; Lobban 2010, 25). Britain's de facto occupation of Egypt and the Suez Canal provided both the base for an invasion of the Sudan and the excuse of coming to Egypt's rescue by recovering territory lost to her by the indigenous Mahdist rebellion of 1881-1885 by invading Sudan in 1896 (Heleta 2007, 3; Lobban 2010, 25). In 1898 British forces completed the military occupation and the Sudan became subject to joint Anglo-Egyptian governance, but the Condominium was dominated by Britain (Lobban 2010, 25, 26; Shay & Liberman 2006, 5). From the first British rule distinguished between the Muslim Arab dominated north, historically integrated with the Mediterranean/Red Sea economic and cultural nexus, and the south that was romanticized as a primordial "purely African way of life" (Heleta 2007, 3, 4).

The British found an overwhelmingly Muslim but highly stratified society in the north. Wealth, power and high social status were concentrated amongst the Arabs, who were primarily located around the Nile Valley and centred on Khartoum, and whose identity was marked not only by the fluency in Arabic and immersion in Arab culture, but also by affiliation to Arab lineages, clans and tribes; all others were part of a sudani, "a black people" (Sharkey 2008, 25, 29). Immediately within Arab dominated society was a free Arabic speaking sudani, composed of the descendents of subjugated peoples and of imported slaves and, lower ranking still, a sudani made of slaves (Sharkey 2008, 25, 29). Around them, but subject to them to various degrees, were non Arabic speaking Muslims, such as the sudani of Arabic fluent Nubians located on the Nile between Khartoum and Egypt, that of the cattle rich Felani and Fur of Darfur in the west and of the Beja in the north east (Sharkey 2008, 23, 25, 27, 30). To the south and the west (Ethiopia) lay an unsubjugated non Muslim sudani where fresh supplies of slaves were to found (Sharkey 2008, 29).

In line with the propaganda used at home to justify the 1896 invasion, the British suppressed the slave trade and then gradually slavery itself, but the basic social structure itself, which accorded well with their own racist worldview, was retained and developed (Sharkey 2008, 29; 30; Lobban 2010, 32). Savo Heleta (2007, 4) notes that "the British administration heavily invested in the north, modernizing and liberalizing political and economic institutions and improving social, educational, and health services... [The] British encouraged Islamization of the north". The purpose of this was to further undermine the Mahdists' religious power through education, the nurturing of new socio-economic classes whose interest clashed with Mahdist religious, social and political programmes and the development of a modernist Islam as a bulwark against Mahdism and against secularism and nationalism (El-Baatahani 2001, 252; Collins 2006, 38). These investments were directed unevenly, as aptly illustrated by colonial recruitment policies. The academic education required for positions in the colonial administration was made available to high status Arab youths who were to be the coopted agents of colonial modernisation, Arabic speaking black men could find a place in government service by undergoing training to be a soldier or a labourer and the rest were excluded (Sharkey 2008, 29, 30).

The 1919 Revolution in Egypt led to a change in policy as the government sought to exclude potentially subversive northerners with western educations from governance by the adoption of "indirect rule" through traditional leaders (Collins 2008, 37, 38). This proved to be popular amongst officials and the rural population, easy to implement since traditional centralised polities already existed and cheaper than employing educated administrators (Collins 2008, 37, 38; Lobban 2010, 32). Parallel to this the education focus shifted from the development of elite secular western schools to support for mass Muslim religious schools (Collins 2008, 43)

In the south the administration aimed to "build up a series of self-contained tribal units with structure and organization based upon indigenous customs, traditional usage, and beliefs" by isolating the south from northern economic development and cultural influence with the intention of integrating it with British East Africa (Heleta 2007, 3, 4; Lobban 2010, 25). Traditional leadership structures were to be coopted and developed as structures of "indirect rule" administratively separated from the north and Christian missionaries were encouraged to check the centuries long diffusion of Islam southwards ans encourage the adoption of English in the place of Arabic (Heleta 2007, 4; Lobban 2010, 25). None of these goals were easily attained: Years of resistance to penetration by slave raiders from the north made the subjugation of complex southern communities a seemingly endless, tediously repetitive and resources draining process that was not wholly completed until the 1930s, while their socio-politically fragmented character made indirect rule structures difficult to create and cumbersome to use resulting in a minimalist approach to colonial presence and activity that amounted to neglect (Lobban 2010, 32; Collins 2008, 35, 36, 41-43). Progressively in the south all things Arab and Muslim were removed (Arab traders immediately), excluded (Arab and Muslim troops in 1910) or discouraged (Arabic, Arab clothing; Lobban 2010, 25). The Passports and Permits Ordinance of 1922 was designed to cement the wall between north and south: Northern administrators were transferred out, northern traders lost their licences and northerners required permits to travel there(Lobban 2010, 25; Collins 2008, 41).

Protests at the arrest by the British in Khartoum of Abd al-Latif, a southern convert to Islam and founder of the anti-British/pro-Egyptian White Flag Association, snowballed into mutinies of Sudanese and some Egyptian troops in 1924 (Lobban 2010, 33). After the suppression of the revolt all Egyptian troops were withdrawn and Egypt's involvement in governance became nominal, though Egyptian interests and influence remained (Lobban 2010, 33; Praeger 1956). Progressive measures were taken to isolate the south from further northern contagion and by 1943 Arabs were effectively barred from the south and Muslim missionary work was banned (Lobban 2010, 33). Thus, while the north developed economically and socially and became increasingly integrated with the wider Arab world culturally and politically, the south was steadily isolated, its economic and social progress retarded and its political and cultural development channelled to serve British "divide and rule ends" (Lobban 2010, 33). The rapid and ruthless suppression of the 1924 uprising quelled political aspirations amongst the members of educated urban elite in the north and cowered them into acceptance of the domination of the British and their traditionalist rural allies as indirect rule was rolled out, an attitude reinforced as they struggled to maintain themselves with the onset and progress of the Great Depression after late 1929 (Collins 2008, 41). The collapse in export earnings from cotton, Sudan's main cash crop, devastated the economy and government revenue fell by 40% forcing in turn massive state retrenchments and salary cuts and a docile, immiserated, tranquility settled on the colony until the onset of the Second World War in late 1939 (Collins 2008, 44, 45).

In 1931 students at Gordon Memorial College went on strike in protest at the effect that government economies had on them and, though the matter was resolved by negotiations, the radicalization of the students and graduates led to the formation of two politicized religious groups around the leadership of Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, the Sudanese nationalist and heterodox Mahdiya movement, and around his opponent Sayyid Ali al-Mirghani, the Egyptian orientated orthodox Khatayima movement (Collins 2008, 45). The activities on these rival groups did not greatly trouble the colonial government, but they stimulated a heated discussion amongst intellectuals about the nature of Arab identity, its expression in the Sudan and the significance of these for relations with other Arabs and other Sudanese (Collins 2008, 45; Sharkey 2008, 31-32).


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