Conquerors of the land of the Fur

The Darfur Sultanate - Darfur's Sorrow
January 4, 2008

Until its incorporation into the territory that became modern Sudan in 1916, Darfur enjoyed a (briefly interrupted) 300-year history as an independent kingdom. It was a "Sudanic" state, one of a string of comparable kingdoms along the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Darfur's beginnings are as an ethnic kingdom in the 17th century, in which sacral kingship combined with Islamic faith and law to create effective administrative, legal and military structures.

The name Darfur means "land of the Fur", but the sultanate developed into a complex multi-ethnic empire by 1800, when it was Egypt's largest trading partner south of the Sahara. At that time, Darfur's territories stretched as far as the Nile, making it the largest kingdom within present-day Sudan. But it could not challenge the military organisation and wealth of the expanding Turko-Egyptian empire on the Nile, and in 1874 Darfur was overthrown by Egyptian slave traders.

There followed a decade of disorder in which the Ottoman Empire tried unsuccessfully to control this far-flung periphery, followed by another 14 years of incomplete absorption into the millenarian Mahdist state. When General Kitchener's Maxim guns slaughtered the Mahdist armies on the plains outside Omdurman in 1898, a scion of the former ruling family, Ali Dinar, escaped back home to Darfur where he restored the sultanate. Establishing a centralised and despotic rule - which was also remarkably effective in restoring law and order to most of the region - Ali Dinar ruled until 1916, when a British expeditionary force defeated his army, killed him and incorporated Darfur into the British Empire.

R. S. O'Fahey is the premier historian of Darfur and he has written the definitive English-language history of the Sultanate until its demise. His authority derives not least from the fact that during his many visits to Darfur in the 1960s and 1970s he had the opportunity to read the entire colonial-era archive as well as many pre-colonial land and court records (before their loss or destruction) and to talk to many knowledgeable and eminent Darfurians who are now deceased.

O'Fahey documents the complicated administrative, land, trading and religious systems of the sultanate and how they changed over time. Darfur possessed a continuous history as a single governed entity that preceded the rise of the Fur sultans, who inherited traditions of statecraft and approximate boundaries from prior empires. The legacy of this is a strong sense of common identity among Darfurians, both from the historically dominant Fur, the other powerful non-Arab peoples such as Zaghawa, Tunjur and Masalit, and the numerous Arab groups that live there. An important historical theme is the close integration of Arabs into Darfur's state and society.

Histories of calamity-struck places are prone to a form of inverted Whig history - reading the past for clues to the present catastrophe. O'Fahey struggles against this, detailing in particular the historical realities of Darfur's land tenure system and tribal structures, and providing a salutary rejoinder to some of the arguments proffered by both the belligerents themselves and contemporary commentators. After reading this book they will need to be much more careful with the historical record. Nonetheless, it is hard not to see deeply embedded historical patterns at work. Perhaps the most compelling parallel is between the present day and the 24-year interlude of war, anarchy and famine at the end of the 19th century, a period of turmoil that may have reduced the population by as much as two thirds.

Martin Daly is the most distinguished scholar of Sudan's colonial period, possessing an intimate knowledge of the imperial archives. The strength of his account is Darfur's two brief periods of imperial rule - the decade following the Turko-Egyptian Empire's conquest and the 39 years of British occupation in the 20th century. The latter begins with the scheming of Reginald Wingate, Governor-General during the First World War, who, desperate for some glory in this forgotten backwater of the Empire, fabricated intelligence that Sultan Ali Dinar was conspiring with the Ottoman rulers to declare war on Britain and then mounted provocative military patrols on Darfur's border, creating the pretext for an operation that overthrew the Sultan and brought Darfur into the Empire. Daly is also strong on the frankly racist ideology that coloured British rule, holding that Darfurians were best preserved in some sort of Orientalist time warp. Darfur was neglected even by the low standards of Sudan. Modern education was reluctantly extended solely to sons of chiefs and the economy and administration were retarded compared with former days.

One assumes that Daly's anachronistic subtitle, "A History of Destruction and Genocide", was the initiative of his publishers. His is a history of a frontier, of modest and intermittent interest to the great powers, where local chieftains and potentates perfected the arts of prevarication, equivocation and forestalling, trying to hold on to their bailiwicks. It is a sanguinary tale full of human suffering, but applying the label "genocide" to Darfur's history is surely stretching that much-abused term too far.

Alex de Waal is the lead author and editor of War in Darfur and the Search for Peace , Harvard University Press, 2007.

The Darfur Sultanate: A History

Author - R. S. O'Fahey
Publisher - C Hurst
Pages - 288
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 978185065 8535

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