Welcome to this week’s History Thread! Because we’re running behind, I’ll be brief. This week’s topic is atrocities, whether murders or massacres or genocides or what have you. Not the cheeriest topic, but humanity has a long, hallowed history of being horrible so it shouldn’t be hard to come up with examples. Speaking of which…
Today’s picture: On March 13, 1884 the forces of the Mahdi besieged the Anglo-Egyptian garrison at Khartoum. This was the dramatic high point of the Mahdist Wars, a rebellion led by a messianic Sudanese cleric who believed he was the Twelfth Imam and planned to unleash Armageddon on the world. He gained a large deal of support in the Sudan, with that country suffering under the oppressive rule of Egypt’s Khedivite for sixty years. And the Mahdi might well have succeeded if the British, always looking for new territory to exploit, hadn’t decided it was a good time to move into Egypt themselves.
After several Egyptian expeditions to crush the Mahdi were defeated, the British government sent Charles Gordon, the notoriously eccentric soldier of fortune, to make an assessment of the situation in Khartoum and, if necessary, evacuate the city. A messianic sort that Imperial Britain seemed to generate in bulk, Gordon decided to defend the city, despite being hopelessly outnumbered and far from rescue. The Mahdi obliged Gordon, laying siege to the city and setting in motion a classic imperial melodrama. Eventually the British government organized a relief expedition, which spent so long traversing the Nile that Khartoum fell in January 1885, being subjected to a ferocious sack and massacre just days before the expedition arrived. The Mahdists ruled the Sudan until 1898, when a huge Anglo-Egyptian army under Lord Kitchener arrived to pound them into dust.
If you’re looking for a war without clear heroes or villains, this is a good one from a modern perspective. The British, of course, mostly wanted control of the Suez Canal and the Nile River, with Sudan itself being a sideshow to their Cape-to-Cairo imperial ambitions. The Egyptians were perfectly capable of oppressing the Sudanese on their own, though having the British on their side didn’t hurt. Then the Mahdi comes and institutes a genocidal theocracy that makes ISIS and the Taliban look like liberal democrats. This is a true Alien vs. Predator war, if ever there was one.
For a longer, albeit Anglocentric analysis of this campaign, your present author wrote an in-depth article here.