- Egypt’s African Empire: Samuel Baker, Charles Gordon and the Creation of Equatoria
Alice Moore-Harell, formerly of The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has written an interesting history of the extension of Egyptian rule over equatorial southern Sudan in the years 1869–1876. Based upon a wide variety of primary source materials and written in a lively and compelling style, this is a book that excites the reader with incidents and personalities that are always fascinating, sometimes disturbing, and occasionally appalling. Following her earlier work, Gordon and the Sudan: Prologue to the Mahdiyya, 1877–1880 (2001), the present book also constitutes the (chronologically) first volume of a projected trilogy on the career of Charles G. Gordon in the Sudan, with a final volume to cover the years 1884–1885.
It will come as no surprise to students of African history that the Egyptian administration of Khedive Isma’il (reigned 1863–1879) compromised its own stated policy of eradicating the slave trade in the Sudan, or that a succession of Turco-Egyptian governors-general actively abetted the slavers: political stability, economic interest, social relations, and cultural expectations all favored the slave trade. What this book contributes is a greater understanding of the divergences between official policy and administrative practice, between humanitarian concerns and the urge to explore, and, always, between the daunting challenges of the southern Sudan and the power of stubborn human will. If one does not admire Samuel Baker and Charles Gordon by the book’s end—their flaws are all too evident, as are the implications of their missions—one is still astonished that they not only survived the many dangers of Equatoria but also managed to accomplish things, however limited.
As the author points out, the choices of Baker to create an Egyptian realm in the far southern Sudan and of Gordon to administer it were unwise: “It is ironic that Baker, the civilian, was sent to conquer and annex Equatoria, while Gordon, the soldier, would now be employed to consolidate Egyptian control and administration” (92). As for the suppression of slavery and the establishment of legitimate trade, Baker recognized early on that slave traders had established business contacts with members of his own expedition, while the government in Khartoum [End Page 145] openly contracted with slave trading companies. For his part, Gordon came to realize that commercial exchange was futile with Sudanese who had essentially nothing to trade. The khedive meanwhile was anxious for results, especially of the profitable kind, but not so anxious as to induce him to provide meaningful support. And yet, somehow, both Baker and Gordon managed to at least deter the slave trade while flying the Egyptian flag.
All of this is set against a backdrop of pestilential swamps, angry natives, man-eating hippopotami, and clouds of mosquitoes. And then there is the sudd: an almost impenetrable barrier of aquatic plants on the upper Nile capable of crushing a boat. Baker tried to maintain a navigable channel through it, but it was slow going, to say the least: 700 men could clear only two kilometers per day. Small wonder then that both Baker’s and Gordon’s soldiers balked at the task and deserted whenever possible; and it seems especially unfair that both judged their miserable and unwilling Egyptian troops “lazy” and “useless,” or as Gordon put it, “effeminate” (148).
If the familiar image of Gordon as impulsive and erratic is upheld by this account, it is also interesting to learn of his many doubts and misgivings: In a letter of 1875 he writes “That this expedition is likely to be of any good to the people I do not believe, and it is absurd to talk of its civilizing effects. I cordially disapprove of the whole affair” (169). Later, more pointedly (and presciently), he writes, “I think sometimes that through my influence I am seducing the natives into a position where they will be a prey to my Arab successor” (202). Baker meanwhile, free of such self-doubt...