(EMPIRE in AFRICA and the CARIBBEAN – continued)

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Britain at War in Egypt and Sudan, 1882-86

Benjamin Disraeli supported the spread of empire and what he thought were the glories of British power, but he lost the elections of 1880. Many had been unhappy with him for having raised taxes and unhappy over the cost of military operations. The champion of Britain's Liberal Party, William E. Gladstone, presented himself as favoring peace, liberty and fairness, and his Liberal Party won a substantial majority in Parliament, which returned Gladstone as prime minister.

Gladstone kept British gains in southern Africa, including rule over the Boers. The Boers were not pleased and rebelled against British rule. In early 1881, during the First Anglo-Boer War, the Boers defeated the British at Majuba Hill, the British losing 93 killed, 133 wounded and 58 taken prisoner. The Boers lost only one killed and five wounded. Gladstone ended British rule over the 20,000 or so Boers but maintained Britain's control over foreign affairs of the Boer republic.

Suez and Egypt

In Egypt the British and French were still in control of the Suez Canal and still with the power over Egypt's government, in cooperation with Egypt's nominal ruler, the Ottoman sultan. A member of the Egyptian army, Ahmad Arabi (or Urabi), led a revolt against Ottoman rule and took control over Egypt's government. He was a nationalist and hostile also toward Europeans in Egypt. The British demanded that Arabi's government resign. The British and French sent naval squadrons to Egypt's coast at Alexandria, and this offended Egyptians. In Alexandria, on June 11, 1882, people rioted and killed approximately 50 Europeans, and British ships bombarded coastal forts there.

Gladstone believed in peace and was unenthusiastic about empire, but he felt compelled to quell the disorder, and he sent an army into Egypt. In September that army defeated Arabi's army at the Battle of Tell al-Kabir, thirty miles south of Cairo. The British lost 57 killed, 382 wounded and 30 missing. Then they occupied Cairo, where they captured Arabi. They tried him on December 3 and sentenced him to death, but the sentence was changed to exile in Ceylon.

The British stationed troops at the Suez Canal. They re-established Tewfiq Pasha as the Ottoman viceroy to Egypt, and they made themselves responsible for Egypt's external relations. As Egyptians were to see it, their country had become an economic colony, totally dependent upon the import of British manufactured goods and the export of its raw cotton.

Queen Victoria spoke of the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt having no army and only a few utterly unreliable police. There was concern in Britain over the protection of Christians in Egypt. Exercising her power to consult with and advise "her government" on matters of war and peace, Victoria complained that for the sake of a "more dignified position" for Britain its troops should remain in Egypt. "Once any troops are withdrawn," she complained, "we shall have no pretext for replacing them." In a letter to Prime Minister Gladstone, Victoria wrote:

... short of annexation, our power in Egypt and control over it ought to be great and firm, and we ought to show to other Powers that we shall maintain this position, though without detriment to them. We should maintain a large force there for a long time.

Gladstone wanted to withdraw British troops from Egypt as soon as possible, but the British never found the time right for withdrawal and would remain to the middle of the 20th century.

The Sudan

In the Sudan in 1881, Muhammad Ahmad led a pan-Islamic rebellion amid cries for war against infidels. He proclaimed himself the Mahdi (Messiah) – a person who was to rid the world of evil. With Britain responsible for Egypt's external relations and Egypt the nominal authority in the Sudan, Gladstone ordered Egyptian forces in the Sudan to withdraw, and he sent a British force to supervise the evacuation. It was led by the military hero and evangelical Christian, Charles Gordon.

Gordon arrived at Khartoum in February 1884 and took charge of 2,500 women and children and the sick and wounded, but before he could evacuate them, Ahmad's force surrounded the city. Gordon requested approval from Gladstone's government for military help from a Sudanese slave trader and warlord, Zubayr Rahama Pasha, but Gladstone's government rejected the idea. Concerned with propriety it saw an alliance with Zubayr Rahama Pasha as too controversial. During Gladstone's timidity, Gordon and his people remained in Khartoum behind weak fortifications and with insufficient food, and the British public was reading news of Gordon's heroic defense against Ahmad.

After ten months, Gladstone's government sent a relief column, but it arrived 48 hours after Ahmad's forces had overrun Gordon's position, leaving Gordon dead and the British public angry and humiliated. That was in January 1885. A few months later, in June, following the defeat of his 1885 Budget in parliament, Gladstone resigned. But he would return as prime minister in 1886.

Copyright © 2003-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.