An extended 19th Century conflict between the Sudan and Egypt is remembered in the postal issues that supported vital military communications channels and subsequently commemorated the conflict and its protagonists including General Gordon, the British Army officer and former Governor-General of the Sudan.
In the 19th Century, the Khedivate of Egypt was officially a province of the Ottoman Empire and from the 1820s had extended its control southwards into the Sudan. By the mid-1800s, Major-General Charles George Gordon, a British Army officer and administrator, was an official in the Ottoman Empire and had been asked by the Egyptians to govern Equatoria province, comprising much of what is today South Sudan and Northern Uganda. As Governor-General of the Sudan, he ended slavery and public flogging amongst other social reforms which brought him into conflict with Egyptian Governors. This would bring his tenure to a close and soon after he left for London.
The 1880s heralded a growing radical Islamic following in Sudan under the self-proclaimed Mahdi and the Egyptian occupation led many Sudanese to rally to the Mahdi’s banner. The Egyptian forces stationed in Khartoum were insufficient to cope with the growing rebellion and they requested assistance from the British. General Gordon returned to the region and a joint British-Egyptian military force was assembled in Khartoum under his control with the principle aim of reporting on the best method of carrying out an evacuation.
Outnumbering their opposition many time over, the Mahdi was keen to exploit the moment and oust the Egyptians and British from the Sudan. The British were offered safe passage but Gordon remained at his post, acknowledging that the remaining Egyptian forces would be slaughtered. Further, reinforcements never materialised and a siege position became increasingly entrenched. Eventually, in 1885, the Mahdi’s forces overran the garrison in Khartoum and all British and Egyptian military were killed. Various stories about the carnage exist but very little can be verified. The manner of Gordon’s death in particular has been the subject of much debate and widely depicted in paintings (General Gordon’s Last Stand by George William Joy) and film (Khartoum starring Charlton Heston as General Gordon).
In Great Britain, the Victorians were incensed by the assassination of Gordon and his troops. There was demand for reprisal and General Kitchener was ordered to assemble a force that would re-establish Egyptian control of the Sudan. That was easier said than done. A large army had to be assembled in Egypt and then travel south to meet the Mahdi’s forces. Both Egypt and particularly the Sudan are predominantly desert but for the narrow strip of land close to the River Nile. The Nile could be used to transport men, supplies and equipment for part of the journey south but rocky outcrops in the river, known as the Cataracts of the Nile, were largely unnavigable by boat. Further, the river was prone to flooding at particular times of the year.
The planning required was immense. Railway lines were laid for trains to circumvent the river obstacles and allow short cuts to the meandering Nile. A number of gun-boats built in Britain were dismantled, shipped to Alexandria, re-assembled and initially used as transport until the Cataracts were reached where they were dismantled once again, taken overland before being re-assembled for onward passage on the Nile. These gunships were the telling factor in the lead up to the Battle of Omdurman close to Khartoum in September 1898. The Mahdi’s forces, like the British, had to remain close to the River Nile for water and they were bombarded by the gunships, weakening their strength prior to the battle where they were defeated and Egyptian control was re-established in the Sudan.
As the British and Egyptian military had moved slowly south, communications back to Cairo and London had to be maintained. For postal purposes, postage stamps of Egypt overprinted with ‘Soudan’ were introduced in 1897. The military also installed an overland telegraph system for more immediate communication, using telegraph stamps (first issued in 1897) as proof of transmission. The view on the telegraph stamps below is believed to be the overhead telegraph wires on the approach to Kassala with its two conical mountains in the background.
The gunships were put to good use after the conflict as transport craft on the River Nile and feature on the Sudan Postage Due stamps from 1901 until the middle of the 20th.century.
In the following decades, the people of Sudan acknowledged that General Gordon had attempted to introduce a just society – so much so that he was remembered in several issues of the country’s postage stamps. In 1931, an Airmail set shows a statue of Gordon on the back of a camel with an aircraft flying over the desert landscape (featured image). In 1935, a set of stamps commemorated the 50th anniversary of General Gordon’s death that included a view of the Memorial College in Khartoum that carries his name and again in 1950, two of the Airmail stamps in a set of eight stamps shows the College and a mail boat that also carries his name.
To view postal issues of the Sudan, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.