In keeping with a piece of advice from Ray Bradbury that has been making the rounds, in which he suggests that writers must have a slightly creepy love affair with books, I say emphatically that this week I am creepily in love with books about Sudan.
Today, I am particularly in love with Three Empires On the Nile, a brilliant, dry, inspiring and horrifying account of the colonial hijinx that led to the grotesque mismanagement of both Egypt and Sudan in the last part of the 19th century.
The book touches on the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the ascendency of British imperialism, with a cast of characters that includes a parade of colonial notables including Gladstone, Gordon, Kitchener and the corrupt pseudo-monarchs of the disintegrating Egyptian vassal state.
Its second half is concerned almost entirely with the rise and fall of the Mahdist State in what is today South Sudan; the bookends of the movement’s rise and fall were the massacres at Khartoum (1885), which saw the death of Charles Gordon, and Omdurman (1898), presided over by Lord Kitchener.
Expanding its scope to include the Egyptian, Ottoman, French, Belgian, and British politics of the time, Three Empires on the Nile is brutally sarcastic toward both Colonialism and Islamism in the way that only 100 years of hindsight can provide.
Filled with colonial pratfalls and oodles of Stupid Prime Minister Tricks, it’s a riveting study in Victorian politics as well as a solid piece of historical adventure horror…oh, and it’s also a history book, not a thriller. Then again, can’t it kind of be both? Hellz yeah, if you’re a Colonialism geek like me.
The 21st-century end of the Mahdist story, incidentally, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which descended directly from the Islamism that created that group and therefore ultimately Al Qaeda, and the coup that led to Sudan becoming the very first Sunni state governed by Sharia law.
But wait, there’s more; the British expeditions into southern Sudan were originally prompted by the slave trade, which was an atrocity perpetrated primarily by northern, lighter-skinned Arabic-speaking Muslim Sudanese against the southern tribal peoples, primarily Christian and animist.
Sound familiar? Why, yes, yes in fact, the racial, ethnic and religious factors that drove the slave trade in Gordon’s time are precisely what drive it today, along with the mass slaughter of Sudanese blacks by government-supported forces, including both Sudanese government troups and Arabic-speaking Janjaweed militias in Darfur and what is now South Sudan. (South Sudan seceded last year — successfully, apparently, with international help).
But what makes this book so enjoyable is the evident disgust it heaps on the political animals of Victorian England and the arrogant and criminal disregard they showed both for their own heroes (Gordon) and their subject peoples. Concerned with resources and markets, not people, Colonialists of this era often wrapped themselves in the mantle of humanitarianism in order to royally fuck shit up. I have no doubt that at times, they believed they had the best of intentions. Of course, the other side of the coin is the frank corruption and ineffectiveness of the Egyptian and Ottoman states — or, even more so, King Leopold, who never had any good intentions for his private corporate rule over the Congo.
The title is, I believe — like all the best history book titles — a double-entendre; “Three Empires on the Nile” could be the British, Ottoman and French Empires…or it could be the British Empire, the Mahdi State and the Egyptian Empire, which may rightly be called that insofar as its conquest of Sudan was, in the minds of its leaders, explicit imperial expansion. Corruption and Egypt’s dependence on Britain meant that it could never become a real empire — but one doesn’t need to read very deeply to see the similarities between atrocities of every flavor, and the irrelevance of all good intentions in doing anything more than justifying self-interest.
The book’s very last line says it all: “Today, the price of a child slave in Khartoum is $35.”
Three cheers for Gordon and Kitchener and Gladstone. Three cheers for Muhammad Ahmad, self-proclaimed messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith, and Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt. Now somebody stick a fork in our ass and turn us over, we’re done.