The Dervish Warrior

April 23, 2011 0 Comments

The First Mahdist War, this bloody conflict began after the Muslim religious leader Muhammad Ahmad (c. 1843–85) had attracted renown as a holy man, living on the island of Aba in the White Nile, in Sudan. Around him a pious and militant sect gathered, including a core of especially militant Dervishes (as the British called them). Perhaps in response to his own obvious influence, Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the “expected guide”—in effect a prophet. He declared a jihad (holy war) against Egypt, which was controlled by British colonial forces based in Cairo.


In response to the Mahdi’s declaration, Anglo-Egyptian authorities sent two companies (200 men) of Egyptian troops to Sudan to take the Mahdi prisoner. The troops were attacked by the Mahdi’s now numerous followers at the Battle of Aba on August 12, 1881, and sent into retreat, with the loss of 120 men.


After the Battle of Aba, the Mahdi and his followers established a camp in the Jebel Masa mountains of Kordofan province, Sudan. They transformed this into a formidable stronghold. A 2,000-man Anglo-Egyptian expedition attacked the Mahdi’s stronghold, but was ambushed and virtually annihilated. Fourteen hundred of the 2,000 men engaged were killed, on December 8, 1881. Shortly after this, another expedition was also defeated in May 1882.


The Mahdi’s victories drew even more Muslims to the side of the triumphant leader. Worse for the British, their Egyptian troops began to refuse to fight the Mahdi, whom many believed possessed supernatural or, indeed, holy powers. Growing ever stronger, in 1882, the Mahdi assumed the offensive, launching attacks on government garrisons and outposts throughout Kordofan. Emboldened by the fall of one garrison after another, the Mahdi led an attack on the city of El Obeid, which was defended by 4,000 Egyptian soldiers. Here, however, the superior British arms of the Egyptian defenders took their toll and drove back some 30,000 Mahdists, of whom 10,000 were killed. The attackers regrouped and settled in for a siege, determined to starve the defenders out. When a relief column was sighted, the Mahdists ambushed it, killing 1,500 of the 3,000-man force and effectively cutting off El Obeid from the outside world. On January 17, 1883, El Obeid surrendered.

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