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Prisoners of the Mahdi

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Prisoners of the Mahdi
The Story of the Mahdist Revolt Which Frustrated Queen Victoria's Designs on the Sudan ... By Byron Farwell. (W. W. Norton & Company: 1989. Pg. 400.) ISBN: 0393305791.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - April 14, 2002

Without doubt, the Victorian era witnessed the height of British Colonial power. Britain trampled over one civilization after another, offering the indigenous populations the 'honor' of serving the might of the white, British, Christian empire. The British thought that they were indestructible. Yet, they were brought down a few notches in 1885, when an aspect of the British Army, under the command of General Charles "Chinese" Gordon was defeated by a rag-tagged band of religious fanatics armed with nothing more advanced than rocks and spears.

In 1874, Gordon was appointed a Governor over the Sudan and commenced upon a campaign to eliminate slavery in Sudan. This raised the ire of many, both because they saw Gordon's activities as interference into matters that he had no right to mettle in, and because he was interfering with a lucrative business. In 1881, Mohammad Ahmad, a Sufi Muslim religious leader, began to organize a holy war to cleanse the Sudan and the world of evil. He started with the British. Styling himself as al-Mahdi, arabic for 'messiah' or 'prophet', the Mahdi, who was already recognized as a holy man, gathered around him a loyal group of followers. With lightening speed he gained overwhelming public support, which enabled the Mahdist revolt to sweep across the Sudan and parts of Egypt.

On the 26th of January 1885, the Mahdist captured Khartoum, where Gordon was killed a few days later. The Mahdist had defeated the might of the British Empire. Shortly thereafter the Mahdi consolidated his power, and established Omdurman as the capital of his new Islamic Empire. The Mahdi, and his successor, Abdulla Ibn Mohammed (Khalifa Abdulla), ruled their kingdom, which was spread out over one million square miles, with an iron fist. The Mahdist empire stood for fourteen years, until it was toppled in 1898 when General Lord Kitchener retook Omdurman for the British.

When the Madhi took Omdurman, he acquired a variety of European captives who were forced to endure horrific conditions while under the control of the Mahdist. In Prisoners of the Mahdi, Bryron Farwell chronicles their captivity by retelling their story through their letters, journals, and other writings. For the purposes of this history, Farwell concentrates primarily upon the captivity of three men, Rudolf Slatin, Father Joseph Ohrwalder, and Charles Neufeld.

Each man's story is as unique as it is intriguing, and illustrates the wide range of experiences the European captives underwent. For example, Slatin, an Austrian, converted to Islam and, although treated as a slave, went on to take a number of wives. By contrast, Ohrwalder, who had been a missionary priest in the Sudan, became a merchant. He did this in order to support a group of nuns. Of the three, Neufeld's experience was the worst. He displeased the Mahdi and as a result spent tens years in prison, bound in chains.

Farwell's account is mesmerizing, and is both a historical narrative, as well as serving as a biography of Slatin, Ohrwalder, Neufeld, the Mahdi, and Khalifa Abdulla. This book not only makes fascinating reading, but it will also serve, for many, as an introduction to an almost overlooked aspect of British and Sudanese history.

The only drawback to this otherwise excellent book is that it concentrates almost solely on the lives of Europeans under the Mahdist. This is a fact acknowledged by the author, and it is a result of his almost exclusive use of English-language source material. If you wish to learn more about the Mahdi, from the Sudanese viewpoint, I'd recommend the following book:
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