- The Darfur Sultanate: A History
Anyone acquainted with historical writing on Darfur will know of R. S. O'Fahey's singular role in collecting, photographing, and archiving source materials, and of his several books and many articles. The Darfur Sultanate: A History is the crowning achievement of four decades of research.
In commenting that the book "builds upon" (ix) his magisterial State [End Page 190] and Society in Dar Fur (St. Martin's Press, 1980), and omitting mention of a similar connection to his and Jay Spaulding's Kingdoms of the Sudan (Methuen, 1974), O'Fahey perhaps overstates the originality of the present volume. While he does indeed incorporate much material from his own and others' research and publications since 1980, many passages from those two seminal volumes are here reproduced verbatim. Nor is the period of coverage expanded: chapter 14, "Darfur since 1916: A Postscript" is, at five pages, aptly titled. Those interested in the Anglo-Egyptian colonial period, or in the events since independence—up to and including the current "humanitarian disaster" that has occasioned this book—must look elsewhere. While it therefore supersedes the 1974 and 1980 volumes, The Darfur Sultanate is not a history of Darfur.
O'Fahey is a gifted historian, equipped with great linguistic skills, mastery of sources, and clarity in writing. The Darfur Sultanate, however, is in parts (especially the footnotes) almost conversational, and infused with a valedictory tone. O'Fahey uses the first-person singular more than in earlier work, and from the lengthy and autobiographical preface (ix–xvi) to the bibliography he makes repeated reference to an intended disposition of his collected papers. Those knowledgeable of the larger O'Fahey corpus will overlook a paternalistic appropriation of Darfur: "c'est moi!"
It is a pity that technical errors in the author's earlier work are repeated here, and that others have crept in. Quotations from published sources are not always accurate: the Fishers' edition of Nachtigal (Sahara and Sudan, IV London 1971), for example, is frequently misquoted, usually without ill effect except upon one's faith in the reliability of citations that may be more difficult or impossible to check. Diagrams, misnumbered (viii) and retained from State and Society, have mistakes that were not in the originals: Sultan Muhammad al-Fadl reigned from 1830 to 1838, not "c. 1730–39", and al-hajj Ishaq's dates ("1785/6–1785/8") make no sense (40); the date ascribed to a sultanic charter of the maqdum Adam Iringa in diagram 6 (146) is wrong; and although the opportunity was taken to firm up definitions (diagram 10, 210–11) that in State and Society had question marks attached, the new version directs us to a page in the old book. While the title of diagram 11 refers to 1841, and its prototype in State and Society has 1891, the correct date is 1898. Other typographical and spelling errors raise doubt about whether changes in transliteration from O'Fahey's earlier work were intentional or mistaken.
As a historian of precolonial Darfur O'Fahey ends with the fall of the sultanate in 1916. But the reasons he gives for doing so—that crucial later sources, used only by him, have been destroyed (ix, 313–14), and that there are plenty of good "journalistic accounts" (301n) of the continuing crisis in Darfur—while possibly meant to disarm, are not convincing: Based on archival material, memoirs, government publications, and other sources, a great deal can be written with confidence on the colonial period (1916–56). Nor can the half-century since independence be left to the tender mercies [End Page 191] of conference-wallahs and vanity presses. As welcome as The Darfur Sultanate is, what one has wanted from O'Fahey is precisely what he has eschewed: an account, which he knows he is uniquely qualified to write, of what has happened to Darfur, and why, from the beginning to the end.