I finished reading Explorers of the Nile, by Tim Jeal, which uses some new research to reflect on a number of men and women who explored parts of Africa in the 19th century. One particularly interesting part of the book deals with what has become known as the Fashoda Incident.
The French had been interested in extending their sphere of control east, all the way from Africa’s Atlantic coast to the upper reaches of the Nile, and thereby exclude Britain from Equatoria (South Sudan). The British sought to extend their control south from Cairo, all the way to Cape Town. In essence, on 18th Sept 1899 the two potential interests physically met at Fashoda, where Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand was camped after an epic journey from Brazzaville with 11 other French officers and 120 soldiers, and was confronted by the arrival of Kitchener with a more powerful flotilla of gunboats. Kitchener’s forces had two weeks previously defeated the Mahdi at the Battle of Omdurman.
It was an extremely delicate situation that might have caused a new war between France and Britain, but it was handled well by Kitchener. Marchand threatened to die for the honour of France. Kitchener flew the Egyptian flag, rather than the Union Jack, and did not press Marchand to lower the Tricolour. For several weeks there was a stalemate.
As Wikipedia relates: “News of the meeting was relayed to Paris and London, where it inflamed the imperial pride of both nations. Widespread popular outrage followed, each side accusing the other of naked expansionism and aggression. The crisis continued throughout September and October, and both nations began to mobilise their fleets in preparation for war.”
Eventually, Marchand’s men pulled out of Fashoda on 11th December 1899 without any blood being shed. Both sides agreed not to mention Fashoda in official documents, which is why the town is now called Kodok.
This was a pivotal moment in history for two continents. Firstly, it cleared the way for the signing of the Entente Cordiale, which drew to an end a millenium of intermittent conflict between France and Britain. Secondly, it helped to seal the fates of both Sudan and Uganda. Instead of becoming a separate country, Equatoria was eventually divided by the British between Sudan and Uganda. This lead to decades of conflict between the Arab government in Khartoum and the people in the south, and also to various conflicts in Uganda between those in the north of the country and those in the south. Obote and Idi Amin Dada, for example, both took advantage of this situation.
South Sudan became an independent state on 9 July 2011. There is still some unrest in parts of northern Uganda, though most of the rebels have moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I’m now reading Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, by Richard Dowden. Dowden spent some time in Uganda in the early 1970s, and went on to become a famous journalist covering Africa. He has an excellent understanding of many African issues.