These seven letters were first published in the Summer and Autumn of 1914 in Nash's Magazine and Cosmopolitan Magazine; in the latter as "Egypt of the Magicians", I, II, III, etc., without sub-titles.
The articles are collected in:
And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments.
Egypt, Muslim since the Arab conquest in A.D. 639, became part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in 1517. By the late eighteenth century the rising mercantile European powers, in particular France and Britain, were threatening Ottoman rule there. A large, productive, populous country, dominating the eastern Mediterranean, and lying across the route to India and the East, Egypt was of great strategic and commercial importance.
After a brief French invasion by Napoleon in 1798, Egypt fell into chaos, out of which Muhammad Ali ('Ali Pasha'), a military commander sent by the Turks to restore order, emerged as the dominant figure. He established a dynasty, first under nominal Turkish sovereignty, and later under the British, which was to survive until the mid-twentieth century. He and his successors called themselves the Khedive, which roughly means 'Viceroy', and was later recognised by the Turks.
The cultivation of cotton from the 1820s transformed the rural economy of Egypt. It attracted interest from many trading companies and investors from abroad, and generated much wealth. Ali Pasha's successors continued to develop the country. In 1869 the Suez Canal was built in partnership with the French. The project was initially opposed by the British, but went ahead, transforming communications between Europe and the East. However, its cost was punishing, and the Egyptian government had to sell its share in the canal to the British, and cede control of the zone around it to the Anglo-French Canal Company. Egypt continued to experience serious financial difficulties, and the farmers suffered great hardship.
The British and French managed Egypt's economy through 'controllers' who sat in the cabinet. Notable among these was Evelyn Baring. later Lord Cromer, who was instrumental in stabilising the country's finances over the years. When a group of nationalist officers, under Colonel Ahmad Urabi—'Arabi Pasha'—rebelled in 1879-1882, the British and French saw that their position was threatened. They bombarded Alexandria and sent in their armed forces, defeating the Egyptian army at Tel el Kebir in 1882, and re-establishing the young Tewfik Pasha of the Muhammad Ali dynasty as Khedive, under British 'protection'.
Thus when Kipling visited Egypt in 1913, it was, in effect, part of the British Empire, though its formal status and its governing arrangements, were highly complex.
In 1820 Ali Pasha invaded northern Sudan, with the aim of adding this vast land up the Nile from Egypt to his domains. This was pursued further by his successors, and by the 1860s most of modern-day Sudan was conquered. The Egyptians made significant improvements—mainly in the north—especially in irrigation and cotton production.
In the 1870s, a Muslim cleric, Muhammad Ahmad, preached renewal of the faith and liberation of the land, and began attracting followers. Soon in open revolt, he proclaimed himself the Mahdi (The Guided One), and declared a Jihad, or holy war, against the ‘Turks’, represented by the Egyptian government troops, and seeking to put an end to the foreign presence in Sudan.
In 1883 the Egyptian government raised an army of 10,000 men, under the command of the English Colonel Hicks (Hicks Pasha) against the Mahdi. The expedition was ambushed and annihilated by the Mahdists, with forces from the Beja and the Baggara tribal groups ('Fuzzy-Wuzzies' as the British soldiers later called them.)
Another Egyptian force under Colonel Valentine Baker (Baker Pasha), was sent to Suakin on the Red Sea coast in an attempt to relieve the Egyptian garrisons besieged in Tokar; this force was also defeated by the Mahdi's general Osman Digna. Both these defeats are recalled by Kipling in his letters.
The British Liberal government under Prime Minister Gladstone had sought to stay out of affairs in Sudan. However in early 1884 they felt the need to intervene directly, and sent two British brigades already stationed in Egypt, with cavalry and artillery, to the support of the Egyptian army in Suakin. In February 1884 they took Fort Baker, attacked the enemy at el Teb, defeated the Mahdist forces, and relieved Tokar.
Meanwhile another British officer, General Gordon, had been seconded to the Egyptian forces and was appointed Governor-General of the Sudan. The Government in London saw his role as the withdrawal of Egyption garrisons from Sudan, with the aim of permitting some form of self-government under the Mahdi.
However, this was an extremely difficult task because of the number of small forces spread out over this vast country. It was also one for which Gordon, strong-willed, impulsive, prone to disregard orders,and convinced of the need to defeat the Mahdi by force of arms, was ill-suited. Sent by the Khedive to Khartoum, he was besieged by the Mahdists, decided that he was unable to extricate his garrison and called for reinforcements.
Gordon’s refusal to leave his troops, and his popularity in Britain, forced Gladstone's goverment to step in with the ‘Gordon Relief Expedition’, a British force to relieve Khartoum. Command was given to Lord Wolseley, who moved his soldiers south by gunboat up the twisting Nile, with a Desert Column taking a shorter but more difficult route over land.
They encountered considerable difficulties in making the journey and met some stiff resistance, arriving outside Khartoum on 28 January 1885, two days after the city had fallen to the Mahdi, and Gordon had been killed.
The Gordon Relief Expedition withdrew from the immediate area of Khartoum and the Mahdi later withdrew to Omdurman. Six months after taking Khartoum, he died, probably of typhus. He was succeeded by the Khalifa Abdullahi who was equally keen to stay independent of Egyptian or British control.
After Gordon's death, it was decided to build up a British, Indian and Australian force based on Suakin with a view to reasserting British authority, and steps were taken to construct a railway from Suakin to Khartoum ('the Suakin-Berber Railway')
The build up was under way by mid-March 1885, but was opposed by Beja tribesmen under Osman Digna, who attacked British troops who were building a defensive compound at Tofrek on 22 March. This was 'McNeill's Zareba', which Kipling refers to in "The Face of the Desert". Both sides suffered heavy casualties but the Beja losses caused the tribesmen to lose heart.
The British Government then had other concerns, so that was effectively the end of this 'Early Campaign', which fizzled out in the sweltering Sudanese summer of 1885. The Suakin-Berber Railway was abandoned after only fifteen miles of track had been laid.
The Mahdist forces in the Sudan were not finally defeated until the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, and the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat, a year later. The fate of Gordon was long remembered in Britain. In 1899 an agreement was reached establishing Anglo-Egyptian rule, under which Sudan was to be administered by a Governor-general appointed by Egypt with British consent.
In practice Sudan became a British imperial possession, and the British did much to establish orderly government and develop the Sudan's resources, as Kipling briefly describes in his seventh letter, "The Riddle of Empire". See also Kipling's "A Deal in Cotton" (1907), and "Little Foxes" (1909), both collected in Actions and Reactions (1909); also The Light that Failed, and "Fuzzy-wuzzy".
Of Kipling's biographers Andrew Lycett, in his authoritative and well-documented study, gives particular attention to these seven travel letters, and we are grateful to be able to quote him extensively in introduction. Lycett points out that in 1913, following fighting in the Balkans between Turkey and Serbia, Rudyard was concerned about the breakup of the Turkish Empire, and its possible effect on India:
After their winter break in Engelberg in January 1913, the Kiplings decided to investigate for themselves and proceed to Egypt, where they knew several people, ranging from Lord Edward Cecil, now Financial Adviser to the British agent and consul-general, to Lionel Landon, Perceval's brother, who, a couple of years earlier, had been awarded the Egyptian decoration the Order of Osmanieh (fourth class), in recognition of his work as Inspector of Irrigation in Sudan. The connection between the Middle East and Europe was evident in Rudyard's letter to Roderick Jones, the Reuters chief in South Africa, to whom he wrote, 'We are just off to Switzerland and, if Austria will only be reasonable, for Egypt in February – maybe even Khartoum.'
©John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved