Thursday, September 11, 2008
Busy reading Thomas Pakenham’s excellent The Scramble for Africa; quite a head trip. The colonial antics of France, England, Germany etc would be comic if their consequences weren’t so tragic. Especially intriguing was the France v England match in the Sudan, which culminated in a face-off in the malarial swamps of the Nile, in a place then called Fashoda.
The Sudan itself had been carried away on a tide of Islamic fundamentalism – it was the first modern Islamic fundamentalist state. Despite the headline demise of General Gordon at Khartoum at the hands of the Mahdi’s army, the British seemed quite happy with the status quo, and were in no immediate hurry to avenge Gordon’s death.
Then some academic read a paper at a geography conference which claimed that a dam on the Nile at Fashoda could literally stop the river and basically hold Egypt to ransom. This news electrified both the French and British colonial departments.
The French sent a secret expedition to Fashoda. Two hundred French forces traveled up the Congo, then dismantled their steamer and hauled it up over the Congo/Nile watershed. Then they reassembled it and sailed down the Nile to Fashoda, carrying with them crates and crates of champagne (how they kept it chilled is anyone’s guess).
Meanwhile, The British sent an army into Sudan under Kitchener – ostensibly to assist Italian forces who were escaping from their defeat in Ethiopia. When he arrived at Khartoum he opened further secret instructions to sail up the Nile with a fleet of gunboats and occupy Fashoda (and if the French were already there, to take it without firing a shot).
The French expedition refused to surrender and the whole thing kicked off, with the two countries coming to the brink of war. Eventually the French backed down. This was so humiliating for them the British changed the name of Fashoda, wiping it off the map. General de Gaulle regarded Fashoda as a massive setback for French prestige and honour, and apparently “the Fashoda Syndrome” still lurks in the depths of the French psyche.