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  • The Micropolitics of Elite Marriage on Echo Island
  • Jay Spaulding


The modern culture of the northern Sudan, and not least those aspects of culture that bear upon the issue of gender relations, have often been interpreted in terms of Arab and Islamic principles. While the importance of this paradigm to understanding the present and very recent past is obvious, a satisfying historical perspective must also include an understanding of when and how present realities were constructed.1 An unusually rich collection of nineteenth-century private legal documents from the community of Echo Island (Jazirat Abu Ranat) in the Shaiqiyya country allows the exploration of this theme in some detail. For example, it is possible to demonstrate that as recently as the middle years of the nineteenth century, father's-brother's-daughter marriage (or indeed, cousin marriage in any form) was not a preferred cultural practice, nor was virginity at marriage particularly valued.2 Familiar modern conceptions of marital propriety may therefore not be taken as infallible guides to past behaviors.

The present study explores the complex micropolitics that governed the conduct of marriage on Echo Island among the families of the community that may be considered elite in the sense of being an old family, a large family, a family of special religious distinction, or a family who owned a saqiyya (a unit of land irrigated by an ox-driven waterwheel) landholding.3 The study begins with the hypothesis that at least in the beginning, there may have been a certain amount of social distance between families of long-standing repute in the area and newly rich [End Page 23] families who first rose to prosperity under the nineteenth-century Turkish colonial regime. The micropolitics of matrimony will be seen in the patterns of intermarriage that may be discerned among several diverse segments of the elite. Were these segments largely endogamous, or was intermarriage among fractions of the elite common? Did the behaviors evidenced by the Echo Island archive change significantly over time, or were they consistent throughout the period? Finally, how did these patterns correlate with the material values of bridewealth and of marriage settlement, or halal?

The Passing of Equal Bridewealth

Social theorist Jane Fishburne Collier has demonstrated that very important differences in the whole organization of society obtain between groups who marry with equal bridewealth, on the one hand, and competitive bridewealth, on the other. One-bridewealth societies tend to distribute wealth and power fairly equally among family units, whereas unequal bridewealth arrangements are consonant with the rise of competition and social hierarchy. Unequal bridewealth tends to generate wide differences in size, wealth, and status among family groups.4 The recent precolonial cultures of the northern Nile Valley Sudan were state societies in which the royal government imposed the principle of equal bridewealth upon the class of subjects through decree, backed up when necessary by the forcible imposition of unremunerated matrimony upon the recalcitrant. In the Nubian linguistic tradition immediately preceding Arabic on Echo Island, traditional equal bridewealth marriage was called kora. Subjects themselves may also have considered equal bridewealth preferable to competitive arrangements, for in some cases they continued to impose kora upon themselves voluntarily even into the twentieth century.5 It is therefore highly significant that on nineteenth-century Echo Island a change from equal to competitive bridewealth took place about midcentury.

In early years, the elite families of Echo Island evaluated their bridewealth payments in terms of a notional currency considered equal to silver coins, or ashraf. One may infer that one set rate for bridewealth prevailed across the community from the fact that the scribe who drafted [End Page 24] one of the earliest bridewealth certificates felt no need to specify what the payment actually was, referring to it merely as "a bridewealth of known quantity."6 In the overwhelming majority of cases, indeed with only one exception among those instances for which intact rated marriage certificates exist, people married with the same bridewealth, namely, 700 ashraf.7 In the single exceptional case, for the marriage in 1847 of a prominent holy man soon to become the political and spiritual leader of the community, the bridewealth transferred was rated at 1...


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