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A Black corps d'élite

an Egyptian Sudanese conscript battalion with the French Army in Mexico, 1863-1867, and its survivors in subsequent African history

Richard Leslie. Hill

Publication Year: 1995

For several years, the armies of Napoleon III deployed some 450 Muslim Sudanese slave soldiers in Veracruz, the port of Mexico City. As in the other case of Western hemisphere military slavery (the West India Regiments, a British unit in existence 1795-1815), the Sudanese were imported from Africa in the hopes that they would better survive the tropical diseases that so terribly afflicted European soldiers. In both cases, the Africans did indeed fulfill these expectations. The mixture of cultures embodied by this event has piqued the interest of several historians, so it is by no means unknown. Hill and Hogg provide a particularly thorough, if unimaginative, account of this exotic interlude, explaining its background, looking in detail at the battle record in Mexico, and figuring out who exactly made up the battalion. Much in their account is odd and interesting, for example, the Sudanese superiority to Austrian troops and their festive nine-day spree in Paris on the emperor's tab. The authors also assess the episode's longer-term impact on the Sudan, showing that the veterans of Mexico, having learnt much from their extended exposure to French military practices, rose quickly in the ranks, then taught these methods to others.


Published by: Michigan State University Press


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pp. iv

Illustrations, Maps, Plans

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pp. vi-vii

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Preface and Acknowledgements

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pp. ix-xii

This is the story, recorded in detail for the first time, of an exotic incident in African American relations in the mid-nineteenth century. Secretly, on the night of January 7-8, 1863, an under-strength battalion of 446 officers and men with one civilian interpreter, sailed from Alexandria in a French troopship for service with the French expeditionary force in Mexico. ...


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pp. xiii-xv

Summary Concordance of Military Ranks obtaining in 1863-1867

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pp. xvii-xix

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Some Contemporary Ottoman Honorifics

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pp. xxi

Pasha and bey were distinctions of Turkish origin conferred on soldiers, sailors and civilians by the Ottoman sultan and, in increasing measure, by his representative, the governor-general (wan), who from 1867 was designated khedive (Persian khidev, rendered in Arabic/khidiw/khidiwi) of Egypt. In the Egyptian army distinctions were usually, but not automatically, associated ...

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1. Background to the Egyptian Sudanese Presence in Mexico

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pp. 3-20

The African soldiers who fought so gallantly in Mexico were, in one sense, pawns in a Euro-American imperial conflict. But they were not demeaned by it. Their story not only highlights some of the differing perceptions that prevailed about the institution of slavery-Egyptian, French, American-it also shows how the men themselves transcended their narrow lot. In Mexico, ...

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2. The Voyage to Veracruz

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pp. 21-28

The French provided one of their smaller troopships, the frigate La Seine (plate 2) commanded by Frigate Captain Jaures.1 The Sudanese force, detached from the 19th Regiment of the Line, were embarked on the night of 7-8 January 1863 at Dar al-Maks, the old customs house, in a secluded spot just outside the Alexandria harbor entrance. They had come by the new railway ...

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3. Acclimatization, 1863

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pp. 29-54

Veracruz in 1863 was a city of about 13,000 inhabitants cramped behind an already obsolete defensive wall-barely 2,000 meters long on the sea side and 700 meters at its greatest width. Travelers remarked that the place looked much like a small city of Andalusia, more Spanish than colonial Spanish. The war had introduced a lively scene of military activity everywhere. ...

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4. War in 1864

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pp. 55-64

The establishment of the Mexican monarchy gave illusory confidence to the international business world that an era of financial stability was approaching. A British company registered in London in 1864 as La Compania Limitada del Ferrocarril Imperial Mexicano (The Imperial Mexican Railway Co., Ltd.) acquired the perpetual concession to build and ...

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5. War and Weariness in 1865

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pp. 65-80

The year began with constant pin-pricks by an audacious enemy leader named Garcia, "a clever miscreant" in the eyes of the French command. Had they known, he was not the unsavoury guerrillero of this name but Colonel Antonio Garcia, commander of a force of regular Republican troops. Comandante Campos, who was no flatterer, described him as "calm and calculating, ...

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6. Mutiny of the Relief Battalion in the Sudan

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pp. 81-88

On 3 December 1864 the British ambassador at Istanbul cabled his prime minister, Lord John Russell, to the effect that the French government had applied to Isma'il Pasha for reinforcements to replace casualties among the Sudanese sent to Mexico two years earlier. On hearing of this the Ottoman government, in a mood of reproof, advised Isma'il Pasha to refer the French ...

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7. A Diplomatic Confrontation: the Government of the United States versus the Sudanese Battalion

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pp. 89-94

I n the preceding chapter we attributed the mutiny of the relief battalion at Kasala primarily to weaknesses in the Ottoman officer corps. There was also an element of color prejudice or racism, long evident in the Nile Valley. However, in the Ottoman world at large, there was no scruple about slavery itself or slave enlistment of soldiers being wrong. In the United States the attitudes ...

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8. War in 1866

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pp. 95-108

Just as we started on our first expedition several dispatch-riders had been cut off and killed, so that at this moment it was practically impossible to get the letters through. Bazaine gave orders for us to do the work, and on our bey calling for volunteers, we all stepped forward and said we were willing to go. Finally I was selected to go in charge of five picked men mounted on the best ...

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9. The Mission Completed

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pp. 109-114

The last and most colorful impression of the Sudanese on the eve of their departure from Mexico came from Colonel Henri Blanchot, the staff officer whose reminiscences gave generous scope for a romantic pen. Veracruz had been in French hands for six years and had changed beyond recognition. The disease-laden, ruined buildings in which lived a sordid populace, the festering ...

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10. The Voyage Home

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pp. 115-122

On 12 March 1867, La Seine, with Frigate Captain Pagel1 in command, left the foreshore at Veracruz to join the concentration of French troopships at anchor nearby: on the 16th of March she steamed out into the Gulf of Mexico. On board were the remaining 299 officers and men of the Sudanese battalion, with Algerian and French troops and 18 civilians including several ...

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11. The Veterans from Mexico in African History

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pp. 123-152

The climax of four years of fighting a clever army in Mexico was the battalion's triumphal reception in Paris as the Emperor's guests, followed by a hero's welcome and double promotion for most of them in Alexandria. This was the sweet foretaste of the bitter years ahead. The disbandment of the battalion1 and the dispersal of its personnel ...

Appendix 1 . The Contr

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pp. 153-186

Appendix 2. Other Sources Used

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pp. 187-198


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pp. 199-214

E-ISBN-13: 9780870139260
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870133398

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 1995