Conquerors of Britain: Muhammad Ahmad

Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah (August 12, 1844 – June 22, 1885) was the leader of a religious order in Sudan who, on June 29, 1881, proclaimed himself as the Mahdi or messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith. His proclamation came during a period of widespread resentment among the Sudanese population of the oppressive policies of the Turco-Egyptian rulers, and their Imperial overlords, the British.

Facing the revolt the British sagely decided to abandon the Sudan in December 1883, hoping to hold only several northern towns and Red Sea ports, such as Khartoum, Kassala, Sannar and Sawakin, but not before being defeated in a number of battles where Egyptian troops under British command were routed by Ahmad’s followers often armed only with spears and long knives. The evacuation of Egyptian troops and officials and other foreigners from Sudan was assigned to General Charles George Gordon, a prominent British empire-builder with a “proven” track record and even quite a trail in China, Asia and Northern Africa — he had been reappointed governor general with orders to return to Khartoum and organize a withdrawal of the Egyptian garrisons there.

Gordon reached Khartoum in February 1884. At first, it has to be admitted, he was greeted with jubilation as many of the tribes in the immediate area were at odds with the Mahdists. Transportation northward was still open and the telegraph lines intact. However, the uprising of the Beja soon after his arrival changed things considerably, reducing communications to runners.

Gordon considered the routes northward to be too dangerous to extricate the garrisons and so pressed for reinforcements to be sent from Cairo. London hesitated and eventually rejected the proposal outright, and so Gordon prepared for a fight.

In March 1884, after some probing, offensive actions by Ahmad’s men convinced Gordon that he could carry out only defensive operations and he returned to Khartoum to construct defensive works.

That month Muhammad Ahmad reached Khartoum and Gordon was completely cut off.

Under increasing pressure from the public to support General Gordon, the British Government under Prime Minister Gladstone eventually ordered Lord Garnet Joseph Wolsely to relieve Gordon. He was already deployed in Egypt due to the attempted coup there earlier, and was able to form up a large force of infantry, moving forward however at an extremely slow rate. Realizing the importance of preventing any semblance of their “speedy” arrival Ahmad staged attacks against a flying column of camel-borne troops under the command of Brigadier-General Sir Herbert Stuart, which were not quite successful but served their purpose well — succeeded in slowing down the advance.

At Metemma, 100 miles (160 km) north of Khartoum, Wolseley’s advance guard met four of Gordon’s steamers, sent down to provide speedy transport for the first relieving troops. They gave Wolseley a dispatch from Gordon claiming that the city was about to fall. However, only moments later a runner brought in a message claiming the city could hold out for a year. Deciding to believe the latter, the force stopped while they refit the steamers to hold more troops.

Wolseley’s force finally arrived in Khartoum only on 28 January 1885 to find the town had fallen during the Battle of Khartoum two days earlier. When the Nile had receded from flood stage, Ahmad’s men got in through the river gates. The garrison was slaughtered as per tradition in those parts, and Gordon himself was killed fighting Ahmad’s warriors on the steps of the palace, hacked to pieces and beheaded — which particular atrocity Ahmad had not sanctioned and in fact had expressly forbidden. However when General Gordon’s head was unwrapped at Muhammad Ahmad’s feet, he ordered the head transfixed between the branches of a tree “….where all who passed it could look in disdain, children could throw stones at it and the hawks of the desert could sweep and circle above.”

Thereafter Ahmad’s army continued its sweep of victories. Kassala and Sannar fell soon after and by the end of 1885 the Mahdi army had begun to move into the southern regions of Sudan. In all Sudan, only Suakin and Wadi Halfa on the northern frontier remained in Anglo-Egyptian hands.

Muhammad Ahmad’s contribution to the defeat and eventual demise of the British Empire and the liberation of the oppressed lands from its clutches can hardly be overestimated. Like Akbar Khan before him in Afghanistan, the victorious and undefeated Muhammad Ahmad proved that the British could scarcely hold their empire together and, more than on anything else, relied on the docility of the subjugated peoples to survive as their uninvited Imperial masters.

Muhammad Ahmad, the conqueror of the British in Northern Africa

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