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The Empire and the century/British Rule in the Sudan

< The Empire and the century



The regeneration of Egypt since the British occupation has been founded on the control of the waters of the Nile. A sound system of irrigation has been the basis of all her rising prosperity. At first there was enough to do in regulating and distributing the water naturally brought down by the river. But as the area of cultivated land increased, and the demands for water began to exceed the supply to be distributed, the need of insuring the present and increasing the future prosperity of the country forced the rulers of Egypt to turn their eyes once more to the upper waters of the Nile, and the reconquest of the Sudan became a political necessity. The Battle of Omdurman was the logical consequence of Tel-el-Kebir.

But the last six years have wrought a great change in the prospects of the Sudan. It is still, and must remain, the key of Egypt, but it is no longer a mere conduit-pipe or line of communication to be guarded at all hazards. Under British administrators it is beginning to justify its existence on other grounds. Conquered for the sake of the Nile, it shows signs of bearing fruit of its own, like the vineyard that was dug over and over for the sake of its hidden treasure.

The obstacles to be surmounted were, indeed, formidable. The vast size of the country, the difficulties of transport and communication, the tropical and, in parts, unhealthy climate, the general ignorance of its resources and capacities, were only a few items. The consequences of Egyptian misrule had been accentuated a thousandfold by the dark days of dervish dominion. Wax, pestilence, and famine had played their dreadful parts. Lands once populous had become a wilderness. It was calculated that out of eight millions of population at the time of the Mahdi's rebellion no less than six had been altogether swept away in less than twenty years. The remnant had lost all the little civilization they once possessed; they had almost forgotten how to cultivate their lands. Education of any kind was totally non-existent; religion was replaced by fanaticism and superstition. In the distant provinces and along the frontiers of Abyssinia and Darfur a state of anarchy prevailed, and the only commerce was that in slaves. As for revenue, it seemed that the whole country must be dependent for years to come for the barest necessities of administration on the revenues of Egypt.

One difficulty, at least, the new rulers were determined to avoid. The Sudan was not to suffer, as Egypt had suffered, from the evils of internationalism. The Convention of 1899 between Great Britain and Egypt regulates the political status of the Sudan, and lays down that the British flag is to float side by side with the Egyptian. If the Sudan were merely a dependency of Egypt, it might well be argued that it was also apart of the Turkish Empire, and that the Capitulations should apply. But the British flag exorcises this danger. The mixed tribunals and consular jurisdiction are, happily, names signifying nothing south of Haifa. The British administrators were able to set to work unhampered by these diplomatic fetters.

The British flag had also an effect of another kind. It would have been impossible to persuade the Arabs to submit patiently to the dominion of the Eg5rptians, whom they had learnt to hate and despise. Direct British rule, of which the flag was the symbol easily understood by all, was a totally different matter. The proud tribesmen of Kassala and Kordofan yielded easily to the mere name of Englishman an allegiance which battalions of Egyptians could not have enforced Now and again, indeed, since the final defeat and death of the Khalifa at the Battle of Om Debreikat towards the end of 1899, the smouldering embers of fanaticism have flickered into a flame. New Mahdis have appeared from time to time, who might have proved dangerous under a weak Government The Sudan affords a ready field for religious pretenders, but their swift suppression has always nipped the rising in the bud. The latest and most dangerous of these false prophets appeared in the summer of 1908 in the same part of Kordofan in which the original Mahdi won his early successes, and gained a considerable following. But the Government struck swiftly and surely. He was surrounded by a force and brought for trial to El Obeid. It was a test case in the eyes of the Arabs. The new Mahdi had prophesied that he would be captured by the British, and the event was eagerly followed all over the Sudan. But he had not prophesied the result of the trial, and his prompt execution for armed rebellion set many doubts at rest. An Arab Sheikh, who had travelled to El Obeid in order to be present at the expected miracle, remarked to a British officer on his return to his home near Khartoum: 'No more Mahdis for me: I have seen enough; henceforth I shall cultivate my land.' There is no doubt that he represented the prevailing sentiment.

Frontier troubles were at first hard to deal with on account of the uncertainty of the Abyssinian frontier. Pursuit of raiding-parties might have produced friction with King Menelik. Happily, good relations have been preserved with that potentate, and the definite delineation of the frontier has enabled the brigand bands, for the raiders were hardly more, to be summarily dealt with. On the opposite side of the Sudan, to the west of Kordofan, lies Darfur, a tributary native State, now ruled by Ali Dinar, a member of the ancient line of Sultans. Darfur is so remote from the Nile, and of such vast extent, that it is on every ground desirable that its internal independence should be maintained. Fortunately, Ali Dinar is a wise and sagacious man, who is clearly alive to his own interests, and he has cooperated with the British authorities to restore tranquillity to the border.

Although no distinct line can be drawn, for the two divisions shade off into each other, the Sudan falls into two parts, the Arab and Mohammedan, and the Negro and Pagan. Each presents very different problems of administration. The negro tribes of the Upper Nile and of the remote Bahr-el-Ghazal have always been looked upon by their northern neighbours much as the Greeks in classical times looked upon the Barbarians—namely, as belonging to another category of the human race and by nature destined to slavery. Only that wonderful democratic leveller, the creed of Islam, can obliterate these distinctions. Some of the lower tribes, like the Dinkas and the more remote Niam-Niams, were powerful enough to maintain a sort of independence against the dervishes, but they were always ready to second the efforts of the Arab slave-dealers by raiding their weaker brethren and selling them into captivity. It takes time for them to learn the lesson that under British rule their old habits have to be put aside, and it takes time, too, for the smaller tribes to gain confidence in the new masters, and to realize that the British occupation does not mean merely a transfer from one set of slave-drivers to another. But wonderful progress has been made. British officers have visited and patrolled nearly the whole of the vast countries which border the Sobat, the Upper Nile, and the Bahr-el-Ghazal, and even the shyest and wildest tribes are rapidly settling down. Sometimes a sharper lesson has been found necessary. The most recently occupied province was the Bahr-el-Ghazal, which lies south of Kordofan, and stretches away from the western bank of the Nile to the Congo watershed. In the north of it the Dinkas, and in the south the Niam-Niams, were predominant. Both were fierce and warlike and averse to any kind of labour, and both were chiefly occupied in harrying their more peaceful and industrious neighbours. Both were reluctant to abandon their ancient ways, and against both force had to be applied. The Dinkas were first reduced, and as lately as the beginning of this year a strong column was sent out to patrol the country along the Congo watershed inhabited by the Niam-Niams. A certain Sultan Yumbio was the head and spirit of the offenders. By many overt acts of hostility he had displayed his disregard of the central authority. Hitherto invincible in his petty wars, and fortified by the deadly climate and impenetrable nature of the country, which had enabled him to maintain his position against the dervishes, he could not believe that the hour of submission was come. One skirmish was enough. Surprised by a swiftly-moving patrol, his forces were scattered after a brief resistance, and he himself was taken prisoner, only to die of his wounds the next day. His death was allowed by the submission of the whole country, and to-day peace reigns in the Sudan. One cannot but sympathize with this representative of the old order, thus brought suddenly into contact with a new system of right and wrong, backed by the sanction of irresistible force. But civilization has no room for him and his like, and his inevitable fate opens the way of progress and happiness to the negro tribes.

The future of the negro Sudan is only a part of that obscure and difficult problem common to a large part of Africa, the eventual future and destiny of the negro races. The establishment of peace and security of life and liberty is only the first essential preliminary to any consideration of the question. It will not be settled in a few decades, perhaps it will not in a few centuries. Far different is the case of the Arab Sudan. The Arab is capable of a very high degree of civilization. He has a good intelligence, and in all the manly qualities he is very far ahead of the Egyptian. And this is of the utmost importance. The tropical Sudan can never be a white man's country. Eventually it must depend very largely upon our being able to fill the lower ranks at least of the administration with trained natives. At present they are manned by Egyptians and Syrians. But if the country is really going to develop as it promises to do, it will have to draw largely on the administrative capacity of the native Sudanese. As yet this has been found practically impossible owing to the complete absence of any sort of education, except that which consists in committing to memory large portions of the Koran. The Government has set actively to work to remedy this deficiency. The Gordon College has played a valuable part in keeping prominently forward the need for an educational system; it has also done a great deal of practical work. There is now housed in the College a training-school for young men, containing already nearly a hundred pupils, all representative of the highest classes in the country, going through a five years' course designed to fit them for positions as schoolmasters and cadis or other Government appointments. A selected few are just on the point of passing out. Their zeal and aptitude for learning leave nothing to be desired, and the institution promises to be of great utility. Admission to it is eagerly sought by candidates from all parts of the country. The same is true of the primary schools which have been started in the principal centres. Technical schools are also doing their best to supply the lack of all kinds of trained artisans and mechanics, such as carpenters, fitters, and so on, which dervish rule had completely extinguished. The English foremen in charge of these schools report very highly on the capacity of their pupils. Indeed, many of them appear to be able to use their toes as well as their fingers, which naturally is a great advantage.

The Sudan used to be merely another name for sun-dried desert, even in the estimation of those who knew the country. To-day a fuller acquaintance with its resources has changed that view, and capitalists are scrambling over each other in their endeavours to obtain concessions of land. The fact is that there are immense tracts of soil suitable for the cultivation of cotton and corn. The one thing lacking is a supply of water for irrigation. Between the two Niles, between the Blue Nile and the Atbara, about the river Gaash in Kassala, and along the course of the Rahad and the Dinder tributaries of the Blue Nile, are millions of acres lying waiting for the engineers to perfect their schemes for controlling the waters of the Nile and its tributaries. Along the Nile itself, north of Khartoum, there is much to be done by bringing land under cultivation and pumping water during the flood and early winter. Mr. Leigh Hunt and Mr. Grieve are pioneers in this work, and their experience will prove of incalculable value some day when the water from the great lakes can be brought down without paying so great a toll in the Sudd country. It will then be possible for the Sudan to take water from the Nile for large irrigation all the year round, but at present, during the scanty summer supply, Egypt's claims have first to be considered. All the experiments up to the present, however, show that cotton can be successfully cultivated during the flood and winter, and cotton-growing has a great future before it.

Cotton and corn are far from being the only products of the Sudan. The gum trade has attained very considerable proportions since the reopening of the country. The best gum is the sap of the gray-barked acacia, which grows best in Kordofan, between El Obeid and the Nile. It is brought down to Omdurman by boat or camel, and the sorting of the different kinds is one of the sights of the beach. From the Bahr-el-Ghazal there comes even now a certain amount of first-class rubber, and more is hoped for when that province has been fully explored.

Altogether the economic prospects of the Sudan are promising enough. The mere fact that the annual revenue has increased from about £8,000, immediately after Omdurman, to over £500,000 tells its own tale. It would have been easy to increase this total by squeezing, but the reverse policy has been wisely followed, and future years will reap the benefit of it. Three things are necessary for further progress: an increased supply of labour, improved means of communication, and large irrigation schemes. Both these last mean, of course, a considerable capital expenditure. The labour question seems likely to solve itself in a few years' time. The demands for all sorts of commodities, which is everywhere springing up, is driving people to labour. Five years of settled security have already had a great effect on the increase of population. The number of children of five years old and under, all over the Sudan, is very remarkable, and it is encouraging both as a symptom of present prosperity and as a sign for the future. As for irrigation schemes, the Sudan now possesses an irrigation service of its own, and various large schemes are being carefully considered. Their execution, however, as well as many other developments, depends largely upon improved means of communication, and especially communication with the sea.

Goods going to Khartoum have now to be brought from Alexandria to Luxor, there transferred on to the narrow gauge to Assouan, thence carried by boat to Haifa, and once more put on board the tracks of the Sudan Railway, which runs to Khartoum. It is a long, cumbrous, and expensive process. The new railway which is being rapidly constructed from the present line near the mouth of the Atbara to the Red Sea will simplify the transport question enormously. Once Khartoum is within easy reach of the sea, trade and commerce will be greatly stimulated. Machinery and material of all kinds will be able to come in at a reasonable cost, and it will be possible to begin to think of opening up other parts of the Sudan by means of light railways and many other enterprises which are now practically prohibited. The new railway will be completed by March of next year, and it is reasonably hoped that it will prove a great step forward in the development of the country. One very satisfactory feature of its construction is that no difficulty has been experienced in obtaining an adequate supply of native labour.

The terminus of the new railway on the Red Sea will not be Suakim, on account of the difficulty caused by coral reefs in approaching its harbour. A satisfactory port has been found thirty miles up the coast. The name of the new port has caused considerable discussion. Its native name is Sheikh-el-Bargoud, which literally means Saint Flea—rather curiously, as, although the Sudan possesses many other insect pests, it is said to be too hot for fleas. Such a name being clearly impossible, what is it to be called? So far the name settled upon is Bunder Sudan, meaning the Port of the Sudan, not a very striking title. No doubt the really appropriate name would be Port Cromer, but if that is rejected, it seems a pity that it should not be named after the present Khedive of Egypt, on the analogy of Port Said, and called Port Abbas. In an Oriental country such compliments are very greatly appreciated. They are also (the Sudan is not yet a wealthy country) inexpensive.

The new railway is, for the time being, the central point of Sudan politics, and beyond a doubt the country is ripe for the development which is looked for. It is still, of course, a considerable drain on the Egyptian exchequer, but Egypt gets a more than sufficient return for her expenditure. Command of the all-important water-supply, a peaceful and contented neighbour, and an ever-increasing market for her trade, are things worth many times over the outlay she has made. Very shortly the Sudan may be able to provide the whole cost of its own administration, and so relieve Egypt entirely of the annual burden. Such a result would have appeared almost incredible six years ago. Immense credit is due to the little band of British officers and civilians, who, in spite of all discouragements, and in the face of one of the hottest climates in the world, have laboured so unceasingly and so skilfully at the great task committed to their care.