13 March

The Battle of Khartoum, Siege of Khartoum was the conquest of Egyptian held Khartoum by the Mahdist forces led by Muhammad Ahmad. Egypt had held the city for some time prior, but the siege that the Mahdists engineered and carried out from 13 March, 1884, to January 26, 1885 was enough to wrest control away from the Egyptian administration. 

Since the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, the British military presence had ensured that Egypt remained a de facto British protectorate. Egypt also controlled Sudan, and the administration of Sudan was considered a domestic Egyptian matter by the British government. It was left to the Khedive’s government to administer. As a result, the suppression of the Mahdist revolt was left to the Egyptian army, which suffered a bloody defeat at the hands of the Mahdist rebels at El Obeid, in November 1883. The Mahdi’s forces captured huge amounts of equipment and overran large parts of Sudan, including Darfur and Kordofan.

The Mahdist forces backed their self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. He claimed to be the redeemer of the Islamic nation and enjoyed the support of many in Sudan who desired independence from their Egyptian rulers.

The rebellion brought Sudan to the attention of the British government and public. Prime Minister William Gladstone and War Secretary Lord Hartington did not wish to become involved in Sudan and persuaded the Egyptian government to evacuate all their garrisons in Sudan. General Charles George Gordon, a popular figure in Great Britain and former Governor-General of Sudan in 1876-79, was appointed to accomplish this task.

Gordon’s ideas on Sudan were radically different from Gladstone’s: he believed that the Mahdi’s rebellion had to be defeated, or he might gain control of the whole of Sudan, and from there sweep over Egypt. His fears were based on the Mahdi’s claim to dominion over the entire Islamic world and on the fragility of the Egyptian army, which had suffered several defeats at the hands of the Sudanese. Gordon favoured an aggressive policy in Sudan, in agreement with noted imperialists such as Sir Samuel Baker and Sir Garnet Wolseley, and his opinions were published in The Times in January 1884.

Despite this, Gordon pledged himself to accomplish the evacuation of Sudan; he was given a credit of £100,000 and was promised by the British and Egyptian authorities “all support and cooperation in their power.”. On his way to Khartoum with his assistant, Colonel Stewart, Gordon stopped in Berber to address an assembly of tribal chiefs. Here he committed a cardinal mistake by revealing that the Egyptian government wished to withdraw from Sudan. The tribesmen became worried by this news, and their loyalty wavered.

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Gordon arrived at Khartoum on 18 February, 1884, but instead of organising the evacuation of the garrisons, set about administering the city. His first decisions were to reduce the injustices caused by the Egyptian colonial administration: arbitrary imprisonments were cancelled, torture instruments were destroyed, and taxes were remitted. To enlist the support of the population, Gordon legalised taxation, despite the fact that he himself had abolished it a few years earlier. This decision was popular in Khartoum, but caused controversy in Britain.

Gordon was determined to “smash up the Mahdi”. He requested that a regiment of Turkish soldiers be sent to Khartoum as Egypt was still nominally a province of the Ottoman Empire. When this was refused, Gordon asked for a unit of Indian Muslim troops and later for 200 British soldiers to strengthen the defences of Khartoum. All these proposals were rejected by the Gladstone cabinet, since Britain was still intent on evacuation and refused absolutely to be pressured into military intervention in Sudan.Gordon began to resent the government’s policy, and his telegrams to Cairo became more acrimonious. On 8 April, he wrote: “I leave you with the indelible disgrace of abandoning the garrisons” and added that such a course would be “the climax of meanness”.

Knowing that the Mahdists were closing in, Gordon finally ordered the strengthening of the fortifications around Khartoum. The city was protected to the north by the Blue Nile and to the west by the White Nile. To defend the river banks, he created a flotilla of gunboats from nine small paddle-wheel steamers, until then used for communication purposes, which were fitted with guns and protected by metal plates. In the southern part of the town, which faced the open desert, he prepared an elaborate system of trenches, makeshift Fougasse-type land mines, and wire entanglements. Also, the surrounding country was controlled by the Shagia tribe, which was hostile to the Mahdi.

By early April 1884, the tribes north of Khartoum rose in support of the Mahdi, and cut the Egyptian traffic on the Nile and the telegraph to Cairo. Communications were not entirely cut, as runners could still get through, but the siege had begun and Khartoum could only rely on its own food stores, which could last five or six months.

On 16 March, an abortive sortie from Khartoum was launched, which led to the death of 200 Egyptian troops as the combined forces besieging Khartoum grew to over 30,000 men. Through the months of April, May, June, and July, Gordon and the garrison dealt with being cut off as food stores dwindled and starvation began to set in for both the garrison and the civilian population. Communication was kept through couriers while Gordon also kept in contact with the Mahdi, who rejected his offers of peace and to lift the siege.

On 16 September, an expedition sent from Khartoum to Sennar was defeated by the Mahdists which resulted in the death of over 800 garrison troops at Al Aylafuh. By the end of the month, the Mahdi moved the bulk of his army to Khartoum, more than doubling the number already besieging it. As of 10 September, 1884, the civilian population of Khartoum was about 34,000.