The present map of the Khartoum-Omdurman region of Sudan was created by the British War Office in July 1898 to assist the British Empire in exacting revenge following one of the greatest humiliations in its modern history and to finally win the war that they and their Egyptian allies had been fighting for 17 years against the Islamist Mahdist movement for control of Sudan.
In 1881, Egypt (which would become a British protectorate in 1882), which had long ruled Sudan, faced a rebellion led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, a charismatic Sufi mystic, who declared himself the ‘Mahdi’ (the ‘Guided One’) of Islam. In March 1884, Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, which was commanded by General Charles Gordon, one of the most famous and revered British military leaders, was besieged by a massive Mahdist force. In late January 1885, the Mahdists overran the city, killing Gordon, an event which was regarded as an unprecedented national horror in the British mass media. The Mahdists then quickly took control over all of Sudan.
However, Britain, supported by Egypt, would never let go of its bitterness over Gordon’s fate, and resolved to fight the Mahdists to their extinction, regardless of the difficulty or cost.
In 1896, eleven years after the disaster at Khartoum, General Sir Herbert Kitchener, one of the legendary British commanders of his era, was appointed Sirdar, or Commander-in-Chief of the Anglo-Egyptian Army. His mission was to mount an expedition into the heart of Sudan and eliminate the Mahdist state once and for all.
Kitchener headed south at the command of 8,200 British regulars and a mixed force of 17,600 Sudanese and Egyptian troops, supported by 12 river gunboats, and armed with the most advanced weaponry, including new ultra-powerful mobile artillery pieces, Maxim machine guns and Mark IV hollow point bullets which expanded on impact.
After winning a series of victories and pushing the line of control ever further south, in the summer of 1898, his force approached its ultimate target, Omdurman, the Mahdist capital.
However, taking Omdurman was far from a fait accompli, as the Mahdists, now led by the ‘Khalifa’ (‘the Successor’), Abdullah ibn Muhammed, far outnumbered Kitchener’s forces, and even more importantly, were notoriously clever fighters, masters at stealth tactics and ambuscades, factors that could counter the Anglo-Egyptians’ overwhelming technological advantages.
Critical to Kitchener’s chances of defeating the Mahdists on their home turf, was a strong understanding of the geography in the Omdurman-Khartoum region. The desert topography on both sides of the Nile along the approaches to Omdurman was rugged and full of twists and turns – perfect for facilitating surprise Mahdist attacks.
It was at this juncture, in July 1898, that the Intelligence Division of the War Office ordered the present map to be drafted from the very best available sources. This included high quality reconnaissance sketches made by the British expedition that unsuccessfully attempted to save Gordon in 1885, as well as various Egyptian military mapping. While the region had never been systematic trigonometrically surveyed, the sum of the sources still yielded in a very high-quality picture.
The result was the present work, the most accurate map of the Khartoum-Omdurman region to date. It extended from both the Blue and White Nile Rivers, at points about 25 miles south of Khartoum, and then north along the consolidated Nile as far as ‘Matemma’ (El Matamma). ‘Khartum’ (Khartoum), which is noted to still be ‘in ruins’ since the siege of 1885, appears in the lower right, at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers, while across the united Nile, to the northwest, is Omdurman, which is shown with its street outline and defensive lines.
The Nile is delineated with considerable precision, yet the map alludes to the treacherous nature of the mighty river by the labeling of locations of wrecked boats, such as the ‘“Tal Howeiyah” wrecked 29.1.85’ and the ‘“Bordein” wrecked 31.1.85’. In most places, the detailed coverage of the landscape hugs the course of the Nile, carefully labeling villages, archaeological sites, verdant riverbank lands and swamps, named highlands, as well as the various caravan routes, along with notes regarding the qualities of the land. However, in the immediate Omdurman area the coverage extends well inland, showcasing the topography to the north and west of the city with considerable precision, depicting numerous named highlands (with spot heights), as well as features such as wadis and ‘Natural sandstone caves’, creating a picture that would be highly valuable to the British high command.
On September 2, 1898, Kitchener’s army met the Mahdist forces, which numbered around 50,000 men, at the Battle of Omdurman, which was fought to the north of the city between the villages of ‘Kerreri’ (Karrari), and ‘Fighaia’ (Egeiga). While the Anglo-Egyptians immediately gained the edge, as their fearsome guns proceeded to cut down vast numbers of enemy fighters, the Mahdists fought bravely and made several large-scale stealth maneuvers that caught the British off-guard. However, the Kitchener’s men managed to recover their advantage, although not without melodrama, and pressed on to overcome the Mahdists and take Omdurman. The aftermath of the battle was a scene of horrible carnage, as while the Anglo-Egyptians suffered only 47 deaths and 3,832 wounded, over 12,00 Mahdist fighters were killed, while 13,000 were injured and 5,000 were taken prisoner.
While the surviving Mahdists fled south and fought on for another 14 months, the showdown at Omdurman proved decisive, as it guaranteed the eventual Anglo-Egyptian conquest of all of Sudan.
A Note on Editions and Rarity
The map was issued in two editions. The first edition was printed by the Ordnance Survey Office in Southampton. This was followed by the second edition (represented by the present example), which was printed by the venerable firm of Edward Stanford Ltd., which had a long-standing contract to publish War Office maps. There seems to be no significant difference between the two editions, save for the addition of the extra imprint and the fact that it seems the Nile is coloured blue in the Stanford edition, while it is left uncoloured on the first issue.
Both editions of the map are rare. We can trace only 6 institutional examples of either of the editions, although it is difficult to tell which issues are held by these libraries.
The present example of the map comes with an august provenance, being from the library of the noble estate of the Spletchley Park, Worcestershire, owned by the Berkeley family, which has an over 900-year-long history of service the English, and later British, crown.
The Mahdist War: Epic Contest for Control of Sudan
The Mahdist War (1881–99) was one of the longest and most brutal colonial conflicts ever fought by Britain. At its essence, Britain and her protectorate Egypt sought to wrest control of Sudan from the Mahdist Islamist rebels who had rapidly conquered much of the country. The 18-year long conflict resulted in many stunning defeats and victories for both sides, as well as involving the other regional players, such as France, Ethiopia, Italian Eritrea and the Belgian Congo Free State. The conflict was extensively covered in real time (via telegraph) by the major European newspapers, ensuring that it was one of the earliest modern worldwide media spectacles. Winston Churchill, who fought for a time in Sudan, wrote The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan (1899), a bestseller which dramatically raised his profile on the eve of his first election to Parliament.
Sudan had been occupied by Egypt since 1819; however, large segments of the Sudanese population continued to actively resist the foreign presence, mounting innumerable insurrections over the years. In 1873, General Charles Gordon, a British general who had achieved international great fame due to his super-human exploits in China during the Second Opium War (1856-60), was recruited by the Egyptians to serve as the Governor of the Equatorial Provinces of Sudan, with mandate to quell the insurgencies. Gordon, while a Christian religious fanatic, with a somewhat reckless streak, could, at times, prove a skilled operator. He achieved some measure of success in Sudan, but grew exhausted by what was a thankless task, resigning in 1877. After that point, the political situation in Sudan became increasingly unstable, opening the door to momentous events.
Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah (1844-85), was a regional Nubian leader and Islamic mystic, who through his great charisma and bold strategic cunning suddenly rose to become the most prominent insurgent leader in Sudan. Proclaiming himself the ‘Mahdi’ of Islam (the ‘Guided One’), he formed a movement of hundreds of thousands of loyal followers. In 1881, the Mahdists broke out into open rebellion against the Egyptian administration.
The Egyptian Army gradually lost control of the Sudanese countryside, although they managed to hold Khartoum and were able to maintain their lifeline down the Nile to Egypt (albeit with great difficulty). By 1883, the Egyptians had 7,000 troops garrisoned at Khartoum, under the command of William Hicks, a retired British officer contracted by Cairo. Churchill described Hicks’ rag-tag force as “perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war”. At the Battle of Shaykan (November 3-5, 1883), in Kordofan, Central Sudan, Hicks’ force was annihilated by the Mahdist warriors; from that point on the Egyptians completely lost control of the situation.
Britain, who had made Egypt a protectorate in 1882, was initially reluctant to get involved in Sudan. Even the best-case scenario would still be a monstrously bloody and expensive debacle. However, the situation down south was becoming so alarming that it threatened the security of Egypt proper; dramatic action was deemed necessary.
It was decided that maintaining Egypt’s rule over Sudan was not viable, such that the best course would be to mount a staged, orderly withdrawal of all Egyptian garrisons in the country. Unfortunately, forging a retreat agreement with the rebels was not possible; the Mahdi rejected all requests to parley or compromise.
General Gordon was pressed back into service to oversee what would be a difficult and dangerous mission to withdraw the Egyptian forces from Sudan. There was tremendous opposition to this appointment in British official circles, as many considered Gordon to be borderline-insane (with good reason); however, Queen Victoria was his greatest fan and her intervention secured his service.
Gordon, accompanied by a modest British force, arrived to command the Egyptian garrison at Khartoum in February 1884. However, beginning on March 13, the Mahdi, at the head of 50,000 warriors, speedily moved in to besiege the city. Gordon, who was caught off guard by this turn, managed to send a mayday cable to London.
British Prime Minister William Gladstone, whop personally despised Gordon and was known to have privately opposed Britain’s involvement in Sudan, was reluctant to send a relief force; he procrastinated as long as possible. Eventually, pressure from Queen Victoria, as well as public opinion fanned by the yellow press, forced him to send a relief expedition to Sudan, led by the legendary General Sir Garnet Wolseley (who had achieved great fame for his missions in Canada and the Gold Coast).
The Nile Expedition, or ‘Gordon Relief Force’, was marshalled at Wadi Halfa, on the Egyptian-Sudanese border, on October 26, 1884. The force took three months to fight its way up the Nile to reach the environs of Khartoum. However, on January 28, 1885, when they first sighted the city, they learned that Gordon, and almost all his 7,000 troops, as well as 4,000 civilians, had been slaughtered on January 26, when the Mahdists stormed Khartoum. Wolseley carefully withdrew his force from Sudan, leaving almost the entire country under Mahdist control.
The British public was furious with both Gladstone and Wolseley for not rescuing their hero. Gladstone was voted out of office, while Wolseley’s career took a temporary hit.
Britain proceeded to mount a series of expeditions into Sudan, the earliest of which were unsuccessful. During the Suakin Expedition of March 1885, a force led by Lieutenant-General Sir Gerald Graham, proceeded inland from the Red Sea coast, and while initially successful, it was forced to withdraw upon being bogged down by guerrilla attacks in the interior.
The Mahdi, Muhammed Ahmad, died of natural causes on June 22, 1885 and was succeeded by the Khalifa (‘the Successor’), Abdullah ibn Muhammed, who provided the Mahdist cause with continued competent leadership.
In 1886 to 1889, the British sent a force into Sudan to rescue the besieged Egyptian Governor of Equatoria (the far south of Sudan), Emin Pasha. While successful in its prime objective, the mission suffered many costly misadventures and failed to wrest any part of country from Mahdist control.
In 1895, new political circumstances supported a more robust British position with respect to the Sudan, which remained entirely in Mahdist hands. The British government, headed by the hawkish Lord Salisbury, used rumours of French designs upon the Nile and the Mahdist’s on-going war with Britain’s ally, Italy, in Eritrea, as a pretence to enforce Egypt’s claim upon Sudan. It also helped that Egypt’s economy had improved dramatically over the last decade, while its army had become much better trained and equipped.
In 1896, General Herbert Kitchener, an esteemed soldier with impressive experience in the Middle East, was appointed Sirdar, or Commander-in-Chief of the Anglo-Egyptian Army. Vast resources were given to Kitchener’s expeditions, including the best artillery and armoured boats, while the railway system was extended southwards to assist its progress. Kitchener’s 9,000-man strong force scored a quick and resounding victory, annihilating a major Mahdist garrison at Ferkeh, near Dongola, on June 7, 1896.
In 1898, Kitchener, after redoubling his preparations, led a force of 8,200 British regulars and 17,600 Egyptian troops on a mission to wipe out the Mahdists once and for all. While the Khalifa could count on 60,000 warriors, his force was dramatically outmatched in terms of weapons and technology.
Kitchener defeated the Mahdists at the Battle of Arbara (April 1898) and, in what proved to be a decisive showdown, captured Omdurman, the Khalifa’s capital, on September 2, 1898.
Later that month, as the main Mahdist force fled southwards, with the Anglo-Egyptians in hot pursuit, Kitchener’s party was stunned to encounter a small French force, under the command of Jean-Baptist Marchand, at the fort of Fashoda (today Kotok), on the White Nile. While the two parties greeted each other cordially, the so called ‘Fashoda Incident’ sent shock waves throughout the global diplomatic community, as it opened the possibility of a Franco-British conflict in Africa (France was seen to have boldly interfered in Britain’s zone of influence). Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and instead of pursuing such a foolhardy collision course, set the stage for the Entente Cordiale (1904), the enduring Anglo-French alliance.
Turning back to the Mahdist conflict, the British gradually assumed control over the majority of Sudan, while hunting down the reaming Mahdist detachments. The final action occurred at the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat on November 25, 1899, when an Anglo-Egyptian force, under General Francis Reginald Wingate, crushed the main Mahdist army, killing the Khalifa. Britain and Egypt then proceed to rule the country as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, in a de jure condominium, until 1956, whereupon Sudan attained its independence.
References: British Library: Maps 24.aa.73.; OCLC: 556816290, 497567515; Harold E. RAUGH Jr., British Military Operations in Egypt and the Sudan: A Selected Bibliography (2008), p. 283.
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