A collision of rival visions — Empire and Jihad: The Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870-1920 by Neil Faulkner review

Faulkner orientates the reader through the clash between imperialism and Islamism via the African slave trade.

The battle of Toski in Egypt, 1889 between Anglo-Egyptian forces and Mahdist Sudanese.
The battle of Toski in Egypt, 1889 between Anglo-Egyptian forces and Mahdist Sudanese. Credit: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo.

Before this book deals with either empires or jihad, we are first plunged into the world of the African slave trade. None of its horrors are omitted. Columns of armed slavers fall upon sub-Saharan pastoral tribes whose way of life has not changed since the Iron Age. Their clubs, spears, and bows are no match for the slavers’ muskets, and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are rounded up every year to be dragged off to market. Countless numbers die on the way, as they march in shackles for weeks through the pitiless sun. Their routes can be followed by tracing the bones of the dead on the wayside, or the specialist centres established to turn captured boys into eunuchs.

On this occasion, neither Edward Colston nor the Royal African Company were responsible. The slaves were not destined for the cotton fields of the American south, nor the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. While a few of the slave masters may have been Portuguese, most of them were Arab-Swahilis or Arab-Sudanese. The rank and file of the armed slavers were themselves generally African tribesmen. The main beneficiaries of the trade were Arab and African merchants, as well as local east African potentates. Their captives’ ultimate destinations would be the harems, souks, and fine houses of North Africa and the Middle East.

British action to ban the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 had led to a great decline in these violent slave-raiding actions in west Africa. By contrast, the east African trade grew exponentially over the course of the early- and mid-nineteenth century. A public outcry in Britain, fuelled by the rise in evangelical Christianity and the reports of David Livingstone and other explorers, eventually led to official attempts to suppress the trade. Between 1868 and 1873, the Royal Navy was able to abolish the ancient maritime traffic of slaves between East Africa, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, with the consequent closure of the great slave emporium at Zanzibar. Yet, this by no means put an end to the trade. Slaves were instead brought overland by caravan down the Nile to satisfy the insatiable eastern demand.

Despite Britain’s efforts to combat the trade, Neil Faulkner, the author of this work, does not absolve it from culpability, albeit at a further remove. He contends that the growth of jihadi violence in Africa during this time was a baleful response not only to British attempts to end slavery, but also to the rise of globalisation and capital accumulation, powered by the development of the British Empire.

Over the nineteenth century, Middle Eastern and African producers were growing rich with the increase in western demand for luxury goods. Not only did their new-found wealth encourage them to buy more slaves for domestic purposes, but the production and transport of such luxury goods also required many more slaves.

Faulkner offers the example of the Victorian craze for pianos, ‘the must-have marker of upward mobility’. The soaring demand for ivory to make piano keys, among other luxury items, could only be met by the use of slaves to carry the heavy tusks out of the African interior. It was similarly the case for other labour-intensive products such as cloves, gum-copal, hides, sesame seeds, and tortoiseshell, for which slaves were used to cultivate or extract. As Faulkner observes, every genteel artefact could also be an artefact of barbarism.

Leading from this, Faulkner propounds a grand ideological and economic framework for the conflicts which arose in Africa in this period. At one pole was ‘Victorian “moral” capitalism’, which sought to turn ‘native people into coolies’, rather than outright slaves, ‘dark-skinned proletarians managed by colonial policemen, for the benefit of white plantation owners, big trading companies, and City of London banks’. On the other were native Arab and African elites – a ruling class of sheikhs, landlords, and slave traders – who, under the guise of Islamic piety, attempted to uphold their power and wealth against modernising western intrusion. The collision between these two rival visions – imperialist and Islamist – argues Faulkner, led the region into full-scale war and the rise of violent jihadi movements.

In the context of this framework, Faulkner lays out the history of the conflicts in east Africa from the latter part of the nineteenth century to after the end of the First World War. While it is a complex narrative, Faulkner’s notion of the clash of imperialism and Islamism helps to orientate the reader. The book covers Egypt’s attempts to increase its control of the Sudan under the pretext of campaigning against slavery with the assistance of foreign mercenary commanders, among them Charles Gordon. It also deals with the British invasion of Egypt in 1882, the subsequent British embroilment in the Sudan and later Somaliland, the death of Gordon at Khartoum and Kitchener’s later conquest in the 1890s, and finally with German attempts to raise the Islamic world against the British Empire in the First World War.

The book contains more detail than one might expect on the technicalities of the battles and campaigns. Some might attribute this to the fact that Faulkner is, among other things, the long-standing editor of a military history magazine. Yet, it is more likely to be down to a concern for fully illustrating the effects of grand political and ideological conflicts on ordinary people, whether they be British soldiers, enslaved Africans, or Egyptian farmers and city-dwellers. For the latter, the consequences of the British bombardment of Alexandria and the conquest of Egypt were not just the destruction of bazaars, mosques, and mud-walled homes with the death of thousands. The British desire to take control of the Egyptian government after its failure to pay back loans for the construction of the Suez Canal – a policy dictated, according to Faulkner, by the needs of London and Paris bondholders – meant that ordinary Egyptian people lost the hope of enjoying a nascent westward-looking but native-led liberal and nationalist government, as their rulers responded to the British invasion with a retreat into Islamist rhetoric and the threat of jihad.

Faulkner’s judgement of Muhammad Ahmad, the Sudanese Islamist leader who rebelled against Egyptian attempts to suppress slavery, in the process declaring himself the Mahdi, or prophet of the end times, is equally excoriating. Although from just a handful of stick-wielding slavers he managed to build up a grand state, he and his ilk had ‘nothing to offer the common people… the hoe-cultivators and riverside farmers, the pastoralists and petty traders, the plantation workers and general labourers, the women and the poor’. His totalitarian regime, devoted to the protection of the slave trade and the cultivation of Islamic fighters, relied on the familiar terrors to overawe the people: burning books, amputations, stonings, beatings, and demands that women should neither uncover their hair nor raise their voices in public above a whisper.

Some will dispute Faulkner’s view that the roots of violent jihad lie almost entirely in economic and social causes. Others may also think that many of the problems in Egyptian and east African societies had their roots in wider and more long-standing causes than just the gravitational pull of the British Empire. Nevertheless, Faulkner’s book offers a compelling, vivid, and sophisticated guide to a period of history which is still too-little known, despite its obvious resonances with recent relations between the Islamic world and the West.

Empire and Jihad: The Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870-1920 by Neil Faulkner, Yale University Press, pp

Bijan Omrani