the desolation of khartoum -- 6/25/19

Today's selection -- from Baghdad Without a Map by Tony Horwitz. A history of modern Khartoum:

"It had long been the white man's burden to keep Sudan's 'fuzzy-wuzzies' in abject submission [to use the perjoratives of imperial Britain]. The history of Khar­toum [Sudan's capital] was nasty and short. Before 1820, the windswept plain at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles was uninhab­ited, except by passing camels. Then the Ottomans and Egyptians, and later the British, chose this malarial spit of riverbank as the ideal site for a garrison. Samuel Baker, an early English governor in the Sudan, knew better. 'A more miserable, filthy and unhealthy place,' he wrote, 'can hardly be imagined.'

"Khartoum quickly distinguished itself as the leading slave market in Africa. By some estimates, half the city's inhabitants in the 1850's were slaves, destined for Arabia or Turkey. The Sudanese eventually revolted, under a messi­anic figure known as the Mahdi, and laid siege to a small British force under the command of Charles George Gordon. 'It is a useless place and we could not govern it,' Gordon wrote from Khartoum in 1884. 'The Sudan could be made to pay its expenses, but it would need a dictator, and I would not take the post if offered to me.'

Portrayal of Gordon's death by George W. Joy

"It wasn't. Instead, Gordon's severed head was offered to the Mahdi, then stuck atop a pole on the banks of the Nile. Thirteen years later, Sudanese dervishes charged out of Khartoum, clad in chain mail, to meet British Gatling guns in the battle of Omdurman. The British lost twenty-­eight men; the Sudanese ten thousand. Winston Churchill, who took part in the battle, called it 'the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians.' A war correspondent of the day wasn't so impressed: 'It was not a battle but an execution.' The British hurled the Mahdi's head into the Nile and settled in for sixty more years of dominion.

"Now, after three decades of independence, Khartoum was a sprawling junkyard of British imperialism. The graves of eighteen-year-old Cameron Highlanders and 1st Grena­diers felled by Dervish spears -- or more often by malaria­ -- lay in a weed-infested cemetery at the edge of town. George Gordon's own gunboat rotted on the city's riverbank, unmarked and unremembered, near where the slate-gray waters of the Blue Nile meet the dull dishwater brown of the White Nile. Five miles upstream, naked boys fished from the half-sunk hulls of rusted British paddle-wheelers. Khar­toum's broad avenues had been laid out at the turn of the century in the shape of a Union Jack, with the streets form­ing three superimposed crosses. Now the city plan was a tangled, potholed smudge. Trapped in the perpetually stalled traffic, it was impossible to avoid feeling, as George Gordon had, that the only important question in Khartoum was how to 'get out of it in honor and in the cheapest way . . . it is simply a question of getting out of it with decency.'"



Tony Horwitz


Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia


PLUME by the Penguin Group


Copyright Tony Horwitz 1991


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