Reviews and Short Notices
Slaves of Fortune: Sudanese Soldiers and the River War, 1896–1898. By R. M. Lamothe. James Currey. 2011. xvii + 227pp. £45.00.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 119–120, December 2012
How to Cite
Gifford, J. (2012), Slaves of Fortune: Sudanese Soldiers and the River War, 1896–1898. By R. M. Lamothe. James Currey. 2011. xvii + 227pp. £45.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 119–120. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8314.2012.01267.x
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
R. M. Lamothe's study of the Anglo-Egyptian reconquest of the Sudan examines the River War from the perspective of the Sudanese soldiers of the Egyptian army. For this already well-documented conflict in British imperial military history, Lamothe attempts to take an Africanist approach by highlighting the long-forgotten role these men played. In doing so, Lamothe demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between how British imperial forces shaped the lives of Sudanese slave soldiers and also how these soldiers impacted upon both British and French imperial destinies on the African continent.
The term ‘slave soldier’, as Lamothe acknowledges, is a problematic one and one that in north-east Africa during the nineteenth century was an equivocal and ever developing term. It must be understood that Sudanese soldiers had been serving in Egyptian armies since the Pharaonic times and those that enlisted into the ‘new Egyptian army’ during the 1880s and 1890s ‘embodied an indigenous, long-standing institution of military slavery in the Nile Valley, one that Britain merely inherited and then adapted according to its imperial needs’ (p. 3). Lamothe asserts that the military and social standing as a ‘soldier’ was more important to these men than the legal status as a ‘slave’, and, as such, they ‘were more often proud than ashamed of being “slave soldiers,” and thus self-manumitted in many respects’ (p. 3).
Lamothe himself admits that this is a rather eclectic study that draws upon, and increases our understanding of, social history in terms of Sudanese soldier identity; ‘new military history’ for its examination of the daily lives of these soldiers; and ‘new imperial history’ for its consideration of British martial race ideology and Ornamentalism. Lamothe's semi-chronological examination of the River War serves as the backdrop to a detailed thematic examination of the lives of these Sudanese soldiers from recruitment. He examines the means by which these men were enslaved and enrolled; the military organization and deployment of Sudanese units; the ethnic backgrounds and enlistment status of these soldiers; and the military roles and combat record of Sudanese battalions prior to the River War. By examining Sudanese soldiers' identity and social condition, Lamothe argues that socio-economic stability, even advancement, was a real possibility for these men. Against the backcloth of the River War, Lamothe analyses the daily conditions for Sudanese soldiers in terms of pay, rations, clothing, arms, the role of women, health and disease, discipline and retirement. These more practical matters are considered alongside the less tangible interaction between Sudanese soldiers and their British military brethren through the lens of interracial camaraderie and competition. It becomes evident that these relationships were multi-layered, and were ‘engendered as much by Ornamentalism's “constructed affinities” as they were by Orientalism's notions of “otherness” ’ (p. 7). These themes are drawn together in the final chapter where Lamothe highlights not only the pivotal military role played by the Sudanese but also the vital non-combatant role these men occupied in facilitating relations between the British and indigenous populations of the Upper Nile during the Fashoda crisis.
Lamothe draws upon a wide range of both British and Sudanese archival material, and published contemporary accounts. In particular, the study highlights the complex construction of the Sudanese battalions and the difference in relations between British and Egyptian soldiers as compared to British and Sudanese soldiers, the latter being perceived as much more comradely.
However, whilst being rich in detail the book would benefit from sharper editing in terms of the number of large block quotes that are used throughout the text. Moreover, perhaps it would also benefit from placing the reconquest of the Sudan within Britain's wider imperial scope. For example, the Fashoda crisis is dealt with briefly in the final chapter. This confrontation with the French in 1898 was not just about the security of the Nile waters, the lifeblood of Egypt, but, from a European perspective, it was the climax of a set of territorial disputes in Africa that would determine the relative rank and weight of Britain and France as Great Powers. The French defeat at Fashoda denied them their dream of a continuous belt of territory across Africa whilst it brought Britain one step closer to the imperialist dream of a ‘Cape to Cairo’ route. That the Fashoda incident, and thereby the role of the Sudanese, is dealt with all but briefly is even more of a shame since the author acknowledges that the ‘official mind’ of the Victorians understood the potential of the Sudanese soldiers in terms of affecting the Egyptian Question and the wider Scramble for Africa.
Be that as it may, this is a rich study that adds to our understanding of the complex socio-economic make-up of the Sudanese battalions. It was these battalions that played an unknowing pivotal role in shaping not only the future of the Upper Nile but also the European outlook upon the African continent at a crucial juncture.