Newshour Newsletter

Newshour Newsletter

Sudan - in the footsteps of history

Sudan has been in the news this week as the International Criminal Court issued its long-awaited indictment against the country's President, Omar al-Bashir.

Fortunately Newshour's Owen Bennett-Jones was there with his producer, Dave Edmonds, as the news broke. So what was he doing in Khartoum?

I had gone to Sudan to make a history programme.

I wanted to learn more about the man who fought the British in the 1880s, a boat-builder's son who declared that having received instructions from the Prophet Mohammed he was the Mahdi or 'guided one'.

He rapidly became the undisputed leader, of, depending how you look at it, a religious revival intended to purify Islam or an anti-colonial struggle to expel foreign rulers.

Famously, it all culminated when thousands of the Mahdi's followers - the Mahdi army, to coin an Iraqi phrase - surged up to the Governor's palace in Central Khartoum and beheaded the senior British officer there, General Gordon.

It was a humiliating British defeat and the London press was quick to depict Gordon as a christian knight martyred by muslim savages.

Gordon's death was eventually avenged when General Kitchener arrived in Khartoum with an overwhelming force and crushed the Mahdi's followers.

And there's a vivid account of that campaign because a young man who was there wrote a book about it called 'The River War'.

The author was Winston Churchill.

'New colonialism'

Sudan became the world lead story when the International Criminal Court issued the country's president with an arrest warrant for war crimes. His response was defiant.

A new colonialism he called it and, in the streets, as enraged crowds gathered at the site where Gordon had been beheaded, old sensitivities rose to the surface.

Once again, they complained, the West was seeing the Sudanese people as uncivilised savages.

The Mahdi took on Gordon. President Bashir is taking on the ICC.

In his diaries Gordon, a very devout christian, had no doubt that the Mahdi and his men were over-excited natives hell-bent on destroying the civilised world.

Today the language has changed but, for many on both sides, the basic ideas are much the same.

We would love to hear your views. Please email me and let me know.

David Mazower
Assistant Editor, Newshour

Click here if you would like the Newshour newsletter to be sent to you every week.