Sudan - An Analysis of the British Colonial Policy and its Legacy

Thesis (M.A.), 2009

13 Pages, Grade: 90


In 1900 Bernard Shaw completed the difficult task of drafting the Fabian’s society position in the manifest Fabianism and the Empire. The society’s progressive program advocated for socialist values, social justice and women rights. Against the background of these modern and leftist values though, the society’s position on imperialism is somehow astonishing. One of the motives for its supportive stand on imperialism lies in the yet valid division they made between domestic and international politics. Edward Pease’s The History of the Fabian society addresses the international system, for example under terms of efficiency and colonialism. According to him “the only valid moral right to national … possession is that the occupier is making adequate use of it for the benefit of the world community.”[1] From the “International Socialist point of view” national sovereignty and noninterference are not acceptable and the world must strive for an “international civilization” according to socialist merits. Pease as well as Bernard Shaw in Fabianism and the Empire accept colonialism as a fact and furthermore they illustrate the Great Powers’ advance as colonizers “only [as] a question of time.”[2] Their exclusive focus was the benefit of the British Empire without a minimal consideration of the dignity or the right to self-determination of the people the British were occupying and exploiting. “As for parliamentary institutions for native races, that dream has been disposed of ... [t]hey are as useless to them as a dynamo to a Caribbean.”[3] Following this theoretical background, the ensuing paper will focus on the British colonial policy in Sudan. Edward Shaw points out two possible “imperial policies” of which the second is “a bureaucratic policy where the majority consists of colored natives.”[4] This illustrates one of the policies the British attempted to implement in Sudan after their conquest of 1899. This paper will analyze various approaches of the British administrative in Sudan, as Indirect Rule and Native Administration. Beyond it, it will address the policy’s aims and actual results with which the Sudanese had to cope and which still interfere greatly in the daily reality of Sudan. It will try to draw connection between the actual situation in Sudan, and especially in Darfur, and the colonial legacy of the British policies.

The first period after the British conquest of Sudan was marked by a firm military rule, determined by the British’s fear of rekindling Mahdism,[5] which initially had severely challenged their occupation. Every institution or tradition linked to Mahdism was suspected and prohibited if possible. In this period Britain’s main aim was to extinguish every support for this former religious leader. Tariqas[6] which served under the Turco-Egyptian rule as essential social institutions were viewed with suspicion by the British. They refused to recognize tariqas officially as social or religious institutions because they suspected Mahdism lay at the roots of this popular Islam of the tariqas.[7] Accordingly they attempted to create an orthodox Islam, well placed under their control. In 1901 the British established a Board of Ulama as a reference for their religious policy. However, this effort failed because of the institution’s lack of influence in Sudan’s population. Darfur was historically the center of Mahdism. Later on, however, the ban was abandoned because the British attempted to influence the population for their benefit, using supra-tribal institutions as the tariqas.

Another policy realized and used to shape the Sudanese reality was Indirect Rule, which the Colonizer initially exercised through Native Administration. The latter built on a “policy of decentralization” aiming at governing Sudan mainly by means of a tribal hierarchies.[8] This policy of ‘tribalization’ transformed tribes from ethnic realities to administrative units, which entailed devastating effects for the colony. The British already had experience with Indirect Rule in Nigeria. They modified the Nigerian model and applied it to Sudan, where assumed it would lead to a Native Administration. First and foremost it was meant to decrease the danger of a emerging “effendi class” of Egyptian functionaries, which were feared because of their loyalty to the Egyptian cause.[9] Furthermore, it was considered a bulwark against the growing authority of Sayyid ‘Abd al-Rahman, and his son, leaders of the Mahdist movement. The British assumed that their emphasis on tribal structures and the intended increased impact of village sheikhs and tribal leaders were deemed to halt al-Rahman’s supra-tribal authority. The statutory of Indirect Rule commenced in 1922 with the ‘Powers of Nomad Sheikhs Ordinance,’ which set the first guidelines for the “traditional judicial functions” of several hundred sheikhs.[10] In 1925 the British legalized the customary judicial proceedings of village sheiks and elders, mainly in northern Sudan. These and further ordinances conferred to sheikhs and tribal leaders extended administrative and judicial power over their tribes. Through this excess of power, which by then practically exceeded all limits, the colonizer corrupted the very tradition of tribes because it altered the source of the leader’s authority; his power did no longer depend on his relationship with the clan, but on his relationship with the colonialists.

One obvious motive in favor of Native Administration was that it rendered possible the occupation of Sudan with minimal expenses and employment of English or Egyptian administrators. Indeed, one of the advantages of the concept of ‘tribalization’ was that it built on “collective responsibility of the tribe for the acts of its individual.” In 1935 Hamilton describes in The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from Within that,

[b]y strengthening the tribal structure and utilizing this responsibility for the production of criminals and for the compensation for damage done, a considerable part of the policing of the country can be accomplished without the use of Government forces.[11]


[1] Pease Edward, The History of the Fabian society, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1916), 116.

[2] Shaw Bernard, Fabianism and the Empire (London: G. Richards, 1900), 3.

[3] Shaw, Fabianism and the Empire, 16.

[4] [4] Shaw, Fabianism and the Empire, 16.

[5] Movement of the followers of Muhammad Ahmad (1844-85) who declared himself in 1881 to be the Mahdi; he led the liberation struggle against the oppressive Egyptian military occupation. The Anglo-Egyptian army defeated the Mahdists in 1898 at Omdurman, which set the stage for their control of Sudan.

[6] a school of Sufism, in Sudan mainly understood as religious Brotherhoods

[7] Mamdani Mahmood, Saviors and Survivors, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008), 137.

[8] MacMichael Herold, The Sudan, (London: Ernest Benn Ltd, 1954), 74.

[9] Holt, P.M., Daly, M.W. The History of the Sudan, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979), 136.

[10] Holt, P.M., Daly, M.W. The History of the Sudan, 136.

[11] Hamilton, J.A. de C., edited, The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from Within, (Faber & Faber Limited, London, 1935), 193.

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Sudan - An Analysis of the British Colonial Policy and its Legacy
Ben Gurion University
European Colonialism in the Middle East
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analyzing aspects of the British administrative in Sudan, policy’s aims and actual results, Darfurian region
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Sophie Duhnkrack (Author), 2009, Sudan - An Analysis of the British Colonial Policy and its Legacy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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