Exploring the material culture of the Sudan, Laura Servilan Brown reflects on her PhD research

This blog is from Laura Servilan Brown who has just finished her PhD on the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, or the British and Egyptian administration of the Sudan between 1899 and 1956. She commenced research in 2015, thanks to a John and Pat Hume postgraduate scholarship, and was working under the supervision of Dr. David Murphy, from the Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies, here at Maynooth. Laura has recently submitted her PhD thesis for examination.

The political fragmentation of the Sudan has sustained public interest in the region but despite this, little academic attention has been paid to its colonial legacy. This is in stark contrast to the renewed academic interest in the British Empire elsewhere, as the historiographies of other colonised areas is testament to. My work spans the time period between General Gordon’s death in 1885 and the 1924 assassination of the region’s governor-general Lee Stack, both key figures in the history of British involvement in the region.

My focus is on cultural aspects of this colonial administration, and examines themes such as the corporate culture of governing institutions, the nature of interpersonal relationships among participants of the administration, and how the region was popularly understood and consumed as a cultural commodity in Britain. It also explores the consequences of its condominium status, in which Britain governed the region alongside Egypt, including a detailed analysis of the difficult relationship between the two countries.

Figure 1: General Matthew’a jibba. Source: The British Museum.

An important aspect of my research has been the examination of the administration’s material culture as a means of better understanding interactions between colonial administrators and the largely non-literate local populations they governed, whose complex social culture is often poorly represented in traditional historiography. One of these objects was the jibba, or Sudanese-manufactured tunic, owned by Brigadier General G.E. Matthews, who served in the region between 1897 and his death at the battle of Arras in 1917, and which was donated to the British Museum in 1972. Manufactured from red, beige, black and blue patches of cotton sewn together, it is decorated with embroidery at the neck, cuffs and pocket, including a semi-anthropomorphic motif which may indicate a military rank. While it is impossible to definitively know when the item was manufactured, it is likely to have come into the owner’s possession between 1902 and 1910, when serving in the Upper Nile Province. It is known that during this time, Matthews was attempting to befriend local leaders in an effort to control the ivory trade, and this may have been presented to him in that context, as gift exchange between colonial administrators and local leaders was common.

The jibba was an object of great ceremonial value and political significance, and is continually referenced in the memoirs of British-born colonial officials, suggesting that it was a potent symbol of Sudanese identity, at least in European minds. Although in use for several generations prior to the late nineteenth century, it was particularly associated by British personnel with Mahdist Sudan, a period of brutal, Ottoman-style governance, from 1881 until its defeat by British and Egyptian forces in 1898. During these years, the jibba developed into the unofficial uniform of Mahdist troops, and into a symbol of the repression and persecution of the Sudanese people. It is extensively referred to in soldiers’ memoirs of service in the Sudan, who recall seeing it being worn by Mahdist troops in fierce desert battles, in which even British technological superiority did not necessarily guarantee victory.

Figure 2 : General Matthew’s jibba (detail). Source: The British Museum

E. J. Montague-Stuart-Wortley, part of the first group of British officers to serve in the Sudan, later recorded Sheikh Ibrahim Farah of the Jaalin tribe, fighting British troops at the battles of Abu Klea and Metamma, ‘wearing a jibba and carrying a spear’. Likewise, Emir Abu Anga, a prominent warrior in Mahdist Sudan, is described as ‘clothed in a jibba of red leather’ in a later memoir. Writing in 1926, the colonial administrator H.C. Jackson described visiting a Mahdist-era battlefield, which was ‘strewn with human skulls, bones and scraps of jibba that have defied the passing of the years’. The garment was also rapidly absorbed into fictional depictions of the Sudan, as evidenced by its mention in A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Feathers in1902. During his captivity in Omdurman, Harry Feversham, the novel’s British-born protagonist, has his European ‘clothes stripped from him’, and in their stead ‘wore only a torn and ragged jibbeh’, representing his cultural and physical dislocation from his original identity.

Figure 3 : British-manufactured matchbox depicting a Mahdist warrior: Source: Author’s own.

Whatever its true provenance, G.E. Matthews’ jibba can be seen as a representation of British horror-tinged fascination with Mahdist warriors’ fearsome appearance and reputation for clinical ruthlessness in battle. However, in addition to representing British fears of the savagery and fanaticism, it also acted as a potent symbol of a common past and a common enemy, as the Sudanese had greatly suffered under Mahdism. Indeed, the protection of Sudanese populations from the tyrannies of Mahdism was one of Britain’s stated justification for involvement in the region, a position which was more palatable to the British public and other European colonial rivals than her primary motivations of geopolitical self-interest. Nevertheless, however contestable and disingenuous this shared memory was, it allowed colonial administrators, and the populations they governed, to harness recollections of the tyranny and brutality of the Mahdist era, as represented in the jibba, in the creation of a new and reasonably stable regime.

Links to visual material

The British Museum Collections online – https://www.britishmuseum.org/research.aspx

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