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saving south sudan doc

The Swamp War

This is chapter seven of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia's sprawling 35,000-plus-word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. You can skip ahead and read the full text here or

Explorer, hunter, and onetime governor general of Equatoria, Samuel White Baker. Photo by Maull & Co/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite its colonial trappings and the best intentions of the international community, Central Africa has been steeped in turmoil since the beginning of history.

The name Sudan comes from the Arabic: “Bilād as-Sūdān,” or “Land of the Blacks.” Black Africans were a free source of labor and money for the northern Arabs. They were kidnapped, traded, and sold into slavery, becoming laborers, household servants, or personal guards. Slavery is not unique to the continent, but it emptied out much of Central Africa when Europeans accelerated the plunder of humans. Slavery is so endemic to Sudan that NGOs and religious groups were still buying back slaves in the north who had been kidnapped in the south as late as the 1990s, and the practice continues today.


Much of the colonial activity in the region focused on the Arab north, beginning first in Egypt and eventually creeping into Sudan.

The exploitation of the south began in earnest in 1856, when an Arab from northern Sudan named Al Zubayr Rahma Mansur set up a string of trading outposts to collect ivory and slaves in the region, which would later be dubbed Equatoria. He was known as “the Black Pasha” and ruled over the region by paying tribute in ivory and slaves to the Khedivate of Egypt, a vassal state to the Ottoman Empire. His preference was for those from the deep south, since the tall, lanky Dinka, Nuer, and Shilluk were warrior-like and imposing.

In March 1861, British explorer and avid hunter Samuel White Baker set off to Africa in hopes of meeting up with explorers John Augustus Grant and John Hanning Speke in their search for the source of the Nile. He traveled up the White Nile in December of 1862 and, two months later, met Speke and Grant, who arrived exhausted and sick from their 29-month exploration.

At the last navigable trading station of the upper White Nile, a malarial cesspool called Gondokoro, close to today’s Juba, the two explorers gave Baker enough information to seek out what would come to be known as Lake Albert and link it to the source of the Nile. For this accomplishment, Baker was given a knighthood and feted as a great explorer, even though his discovery was historically insignificant.


The British Empire had abolished slavery in 1833, but it took decades for this mandate to be enforced in Egypt. In 1869 Baker was asked by the European-educated khedive of Egypt to lead a military expedition to Equatoria to suppress the slave trade. Baker was made an officer in the Ottoman army and given a band of 1,700 men, many of them ex-convicts. On his entry into what is now South Sudan, he found that slavers had depopulated much of the area.

When Baker arrived with his mandate, the few locals he encountered were surprised that slavery was now considered illegal so shortly after the Egyptian government had hired the Black Pasha to manage the region. Baker recounts in his memoirs that it “was obvious to all observers that an attack upon the slave-dealing and slave-hunting establishments of Egypt by a foreigner—an Englishman—would be equal to a raid upon a hornets’ nest, that all efforts to suppress the old-established traffic in negro slaves would be encountered with a determined opposition, and that the prime agent and leader of such an expedition must be regarded with hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.”

In the end, Baker’s greatest achievement was arguably one for the other team. He was very successful in his determination to clear through 50 miles of matted vegetation and swamp, setting up six steamers to travel from Juba to Cairo and allowing slave traders to more easily operate in Equatoria.


Charles George Gordon, another former governor general of Equatoria, was murdered during an uprising. Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Getty Images

Baker was given a salary and made governor general of the region for four years, but he was not the military man the job required. Baker’s thoughts about slavery also changed: “The slaves were generally well treated by their owners; the brutality lay in their capture, with the attendant lawlessness and murdersx They purchased slaves, taught them their duties, fed and clothed them—they were happy; why should the Khedive of Egypt prohibit the traffic and thus disturb every household in his territory?”

Baker determined that ending the slave trade would bankrupt the economy and set the local officials against him.

At the end of this period he returned to Cairo to hand over his duties to the famous Colonel Charles George Gordon, a veteran of the Taiping Rebellion in China and a devout Christian evangelist. In 1877 Gordon was appointed governor general. As a professional soldier, he was more successful than Baker in curbing the slave trade. According to Baker, Gordon “extinguished the delusions which had been nourished by the Soudan [sic] authorities.”

Gordon set up numerous posts from Malakal to Uganda, and his suppression of slaving and poaching put him in direct conflict with his Egyptian counterpart, the governor of Khartoum. Gordon resigned, only returning when it was agreed that he would be appointed governor general of the whole of Sudan.


Another hurdle that Gordon faced during his tenure as minder of Equatoria was an uprising by Muhammad Ahmad, who called himself the Mahdi, or “Chosen One,” declaring himself the redeemer of the Islamic faith. The locals were now wary of foreign rule and quickly rallied around Ahmad’s fundamentalist Islamic movement, which found its greatest support among the Nuer and other tribes in the south.

Meanwhile, the Black Pasha, who had long held aspirations of becoming governor general, undermined Gordon by bribing local leaders, helping spark the chaos that would eventually lead to Gordon’s murder.

In 1884, Gordon offered to transfer leadership of Sudan to Mansur if he agreed to battle the Mahdi’s forces, who, ironically, also wanted to reinstate slavery. In January 1885, Gordon and his army were slaughtered in Khartoum by the spear- and sword-carrying “Ansar,” or followers of the Mahdi. As one story goes, Gordon’s head was put in the fork of a tree for locals to throw stones and garbage at.

Local forces had triumphed over well-intentioned, morally driven foreigners, and slavery returned to Sudan.

By the 1890s, the region was back under the control of the British, who split it into two distinct governances: Sudan and Southern Sudan. To protect the fractured tribes from predatory slavers and exploiters, Britain passed the Closed District Ordinance Act in 1920, which limited travel between the north and the south.

Following World War II, the Juba Conference was held as a forum to discuss relinquishing the colony. Britain initially sought to pass control of Southern Sudan to Uganda, a country whose Nilotic tribes and cultural similiarities might save the south from continued depredation by the Arab north. After all, the south was composed of English-speaking, Christian, traditional Nilotic tribes, while the north consisted of Arabic-speaking Islamic groups who still viewed their black neighbors as slaves to be traded.

In February 1953, Britain signed an agreement that resulted in another postwar divestment from one of its colonies. Britain ultimately decided to combine the south with the north, a package deal. The decision was partially made to appease the Arab world, which was becoming influential due to the discovery of Middle Eastern oil.

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