Central African slit drum (probably made nineteenth century)

The famous recruitment poster has him pointing straight at us in full uniform - finger in foreground, handlebar moustache not far behind, and the words 'Your country needs you'. "He" is Horatio Herbert Kitchener - 1st Earl Kitchener, and one of the media stars of the First World War. By then Kitchener was already legendary as Kitchener of Khartoum. He had captured the city in 1898 after the murderous battle of Omdurman, which had left 11,000 Sudanese soldiers dead. After the battle, he presented to Queen Victoria a wooden drum from Central Africa. That drum is the object for this programme.

"I think it does signify the fusion between Black Africa, sub-Saharan Africa proper, and the Arab world. It looks like the kind of drum you would see in Central Africa, and yet it's etched with Arabic script." (Zeinab Badawi)

"When you look at the origins, the markings and the eventual destination of this item, you see the whole struggle for the Nile Valley in the nineteenth century. And by extension, the nature of the European conquest of Africa in the late nineteenth century." (Dominic Green)

This week's programmes are about the world in the nineteenth century, and the great shifts in the balance of imperial power, which had enormous consequences for every continent, and particularly for Africa. But this programme is also about internal struggle - in this case between Egypt and Sudan, and within Sudan itself between the north and the south. The slit drum began its life in Central Africa, in the region where the Sudan and the Congo share a frontier, and it would once have been part of the court orchestra of a powerful chief.

The biography of this drum is a story of Sudan in the nineteenth century, when Ottoman Egypt, Britain and France all converged on this enormous Nile country that had long been divided between an African south - practising its traditional religions - and an Islamic north. The drum tells three separate stories - of an indigenous African culture, of the East African slave trade centred on Khartoum, and of the European scramble for Africa around 1900. It's in the shape of a short-horned buffalo or bush cow, and it carries its stories carved on its flanks.

The drum is about nine feet (2.5m) long from nose to tail, and its about two and a half feet (0.7m) high, so it's about the size of a big calf, with very short legs. The head is small, and the tail short. The bulk is entirely concentrated in the body, which has been hollowed out - you can feel the tree trunk that this has come from. And running across the top of the back, is a narrow slit. The flanks of this cow drum have been carved to different thicknesses, so that a skilled drummer with a traditional drumstick can produce at least two tones, and as many as four distinct pitches. We've never done this before, but we are going to take it out of the case and play it.

The drum is made from a single piece of reddish African coral wood, found in the forests of Central Africa. It's a durable hardwood, often chosen to make drums with because it stands up well to repeated striking, it maintains a constant tone, and it is resistant to termites.

The main function of the drum in this first period of its life was music-making, marking community events such as births, deaths and feasts. Europeans dubbed these slit drums talking drums, because they were used to "speak" to people at ceremonies, and also to transmit messages over long distances - their sound can carry for miles - calling men either to hunt or to war.

But this was a society under threat. Both European and Middle Eastern powers had long had a presence in Central Africa, attracted by its abundance of ivory and of slaves. For centuries slaves had been taken from southern Sudan and Central Africa, brought north to Egypt and then sold on across the Ottoman Empire. When the Egyptians took control of Sudan in the 1820s, the slave trade intensified. Slave raiding and trading became one of the most profitable and powerful industries of the region. It was centralised by the Egyptian government in Khartoum, and by the late nineteenth century the city had become the greatest slave market in the world, servicing the whole of the Middle East. Here's the writer Dominic Green:

"The Egyptians had built up a substantial slave-trading empire, running from the fourth cataract of the Nile all the way down towards the northern shores of Lake Victoria. They had done this with some support from European governments, who were obviously concerned to get their hands on ivory as opposed to slaves, but were also concerned about the humanitarian aspect. And the Egyptian 'khedives', the rulers of Egypt, played essentially a double game, where they signed on to anti-slaving conventions, pushed on them by the Europeans, and then pretty much continued to make money out of the slave trade."

The drum almost certainly came to Khartoum as part of that trade. It could have been seized as booty by slave raiders, or given by a local chief. Many Central African chiefs collaborated with the slave-raiders to carry out joint raids on their enemies, selling the captives and sharing the proceeds.

Once the drum arrived in Khartoum it began a new chapter of its life, and here it was re-fashioned to take its place in this Islamic society, as we can see when we look at its sides.

On each flank of the drum, running pretty well the whole length of the body, is a carved rectangle containing circles and geometric patterns, instantly recognisable as Islamic designs, that must have been added by the new owners to protect against the evil eye. On one side the design is cut into the body of the wood, on the other the wood has been planed away, so that the design stands proud. This thinning of one side of the drum would materially change the sound it made, so although it could still have been used for its original purpose of music-making or calling people to arms, it would do so now with a different voice. The musical instrument has become a trophy, and the new carvings are "branding", a statement of political dominance over Central Africa and of allegiance to Islam.

By the 1880s Islam in Khartoum had become a significant political force. The Egyptian occupation of Sudan was greatly resented, and a new, profoundly Islamic, resistance to it was growing, led by a man who saw himself as both a religious and a military leader - Muhammad Ahmad. He declared himself the 'Mahdi' - the one guided by God - and he summoned an army to jihad, to reclaim Sudan from the lax, Europeanised, Egyptians. The Mahdist Revolt for a time swept all before it, causing consternation in Egypt.

Britain had a fundamental strategic interest in a stable Egyptian government. The Suez Canal, built by the French and the Egyptians in 1869, was an economic lifeline, the critical link between the Mediterranean and British India. When the Mahdist Revolt in Sudan threatened to bring Egypt to bankruptcy and political collapse, the British, concerned for the security of the Canal, moved swiftly to protect their interests. In 1882 they invaded and occupied Egypt. Not long after, when the Mahdists besieged Khartoum, the British turned their attention to Sudan. General Gordon went to the aid of the Egyptian army in Khartoum, hoping to defeat the Mahdist rebellion once and for all. It was the first time in modern history that a self-consciously Islamic army confronted the forces of western imperialism. Gordon's forces were cut off and defeated, and he was hacked to death. The Mahdists took over Sudan. In Britain Gordon became a martyr. Here's Dominic Green again:

"Gordon underwent one of those terrible Victorian deaths of being chopped to pieces and then reconstituted in marble statues and oil paintings all over Britain. Khartoum fell in January 1885, and once the outcry had subsided Sudan was pretty much forgotten about by the British until the mid 1890s. This was the time of the "scramble for Africa". Essentially the British strategy was to build a north-south connection from Cape, as they said, to Cairo. The French, inevitably then, were working from west to east, and an expedition under a Captain Marchand was despatched. It landed in West Africa and started staggering towards the Nile. The British realised this, and sent a force, a relatively small one, under Kitchener. And eventually, in 1898, 13 years after the siege, Kitchener's army faced off against the Mahdist army."

At Omdurman, just north of Khartoum, on 2 September 1898, Kitchener's Anglo-Egyptian army destroyed the Mahdist forces. On the Sudanese side about 11,000 died and 13,000 were wounded. The Anglo-Egyptian army lost just under 50 men. It was a brutal result - justified by the British as protecting their regional interest against the French, but also as avenging Gordon's death of 13 years earlier, and putting an end to what they saw as the shameful slave trade.

The drum was found by Kitchener's army somewhere near Khartoum, after the Anglo-Egyptian re-conquest of the city. And once again it was re-carved - or re-branded - to make a different political statement. If you look right at the end of the tail of this bush calf drum, you can see that Kitchener has carved a very small emblem of the British Imperial crown. The drum was then presented to Queen Victoria, and Sudan was ruled as an Anglo-Egyptian territory until its independence.

For most of that time, the British had a policy of ruling Sudan as essentially two separate regions - the Islamic Arabic-speaking north, and the increasingly Christian south. The Sudanese-born journalist Zeinab Badawi has a close personal connection to this history - her grandfather fought on the Sudanese side at Omdurman, and her father was a leading figure in the modern politics of this divided country. Here she is:

"I think that the drum is very apt, because on the one hand physically it obviously belongs to Central Africa, and yet it has got the Arabic script and that is very much Sudan. Because Sudan is this fusion between Black Africa proper and the Arab world. It is the real crossroads, like the confluence of the Nile, you know, where the White Nile meets the Blue Nile, in Khartoum. I actually showed the picture of this drum to my father, and he told me that back in the . . . I think it was the 1950s probably . . . my father was vice-president of the Sudanese Socialist Party, and he was in southern Sudan, and he says that a fracas broke out between the southern Sudanese and the northerners who were there. And at one stage he thinks he saw somebody get a drum that looked very much like this, but obviously newer, and started drumming on it to encourage other southern Sudanese to come to show their strength, to stop this argument getting out of hand between the northerners and the southerners."

Since independence, Sudan has struggled under decades of civil war and sectarian violence, and recently the south has been seeking a peaceful separation from the north. There will be a referendum in 2011 to decide how far such a separation might go.

In the next programme, we are looking at another exercise in re-branding - an object stamped twice, the two stamps encapsulating opposing sides in British political life . . . King Edward VII and the suffragettes both appear on the same British penny.