The Story of Africa


- Black explorers


- White explorers


- The European scramble


- The African scramble


- Egypt and Sudan


- Religious conversion and resistence


- Royal and political resistence


- Tax and trade wars


- Railways

Egypt and Sudan


Ruled by outsiders

Madhi tomb
Since the decline of the pharaohs, Egypt had been occupied and ruled by successive waves of outsiders: the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians and Arabs.

In the 16th century all of North Africa, apart from Morocco, fell under Ottoman rule and remained so until the 19th century. In 1811 Mohammed Ali, a high ranking Albanian army officer serving the Ottoman Empire ousted the Governor of Egypt and appointed himself ruler. He remained nominally under Ottoman authority and was carefully observed by the British, who were determined to strengthen their position in North Africa. To begin with, Mohammed Ali pursued an independent domestic and foreign policy.

"Egypt may now almost be said to form part of Europe. It is on the high road to the Far East. It can never cease to be an object of interest to all the powers of Europe, and especially to England...

The population is heterogeneous and cosmopolitan to a degree almost unknown elsewhere. Although the prevailing faith is that of Islam, in no country in the world is a greater variety of religious creeds to be found amongst important sections of the community."
- First British Viceroy of Egypt, Earl of Cromer's account of why the British took over Egypt.

In 1820, with the encouragement of Britain, Mohammed Ali invaded Sudan in search of slaves and to keep his army occupied. The Funj sultanate was deposed. Southern Sudan was devastated and the Dinka still refer to the invasion as 'The time when the earth was spoilt'. Sudan was now under Egyptian rule.

New vision

At home, Mohammed Ali was an energetic man with great vision. He launched an extensive modernisation programme for Egypt inviting foreigners to come and give technical expertise.

Factories, primary and technical schools were built, irrigation projects were constructed, and vast tracts of land were put under cotton cultivation; the appointment of thousands of barber vaccinators greatly reduced the spread of small pox.

British pressure and the canal

For the first time Egypt had a growing number of Egyptians in its army (as opposed to foreign mercenaries). The British became anxious that Egypt was becoming too strong a force in the region. In 1838 they compelled Mohammed Ali to reduce his army and drop his protectionist trade policies. As a result, Egypt became flooded with British goods and local industry collapsed. British investment grew in Egypt and North Africa became a focus for Anglo-French rivalry. Mohammed Ali's successor Abbas, appointed General Gordon, Governor of Khartoum under pressure from the British. Under his rule, the 90 mile long Suez Canal was built with French engineering and Egyptian labour.

"The canal is a marvellous thing and shows how the Europeans can always do whatever they set about doing. It is as long as from Mengo to Wakoli's, eighty seven miles, and is all cut through the sand, and is so deep that it will take vessels seven stories high. It is not wide - one could throw a stone or an orange across from side to side; and when two ships meet they tie on up to posts on the bank to let the other pass...

We found workmen widening it in some places, and saw how camels worked in carrying away the sand; each camel knelt down till its panniers were filled, and then got up and went away when it was ordered to do so."
- Account of the 1902 journey from Buganda to Britain, by Ham Mukasa, official secretary to the Katikiro of Buganda. Taken from Sir Apolo Kagwa Discovers Britain.

The canal opened up a shipping route from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean for the first time (avoiding going round Africa via the Cape of Good Hope). But in the process Egypt was tipped into bankruptcy, with a debt that grew from £3 million in 1863 to £100 million in 1879. The British and French had the excuse they needed to move in and establish dual financial control of Egypt.

Mohammed Ali's successor, Ismail, was deposed and replaced by his son Tewfik. Resentment of British intervention grew among members of the burgeoning nationalist movement. The idea that Islam could be blended with modern scientific thought and technology grew with The Modern Movement (Salafiyya) under Mohammed Abduh who taught at the Azhar mosque university.

Find out more about Islam

Occupation in Egypt, revolt in Sudan

In June 1882 Alexandria broke out in riots, leaving several Europeans dead. The British retaliated, the Egyptian army mounted a rebellion, and by August, Tewfik's government had collapsed. The British army secured the Suez Canal and then assumed the role of an army of occupation. This intervention marked the end of Anglo French cooperation over Egypt. Taking advantage of the crisis in Egypt, the Mahdi rose up against Governor Gordon defeating him and retaining control over Sudan until General Kitchener defeated him in the battle of Omdurman. Egypt finally achieved independence in 1922.

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