Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Transborder" Exchanges of People, Things, and Representations: Revisiting the Conflict between Mahdist Sudan and Christian Ethiopia, 1885-1889*

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Transborder" Exchanges of People, Things, and Representations: Revisiting the Conflict between Mahdist Sudan and Christian Ethiopia, 1885-1889*

Article excerpt

The intertwined history of Sudan and Ethiopia in the late nineteenth century has received relatively little attention in the literature, and the few studies that focus on Sudanese-Ethiopian relations in the Mahdist period (1885-1898) consist of political histories fed by military and diplomatic events.1 Most of these otherwise valuable works lack transboundary perspectives that examine interaction and exchange patterns in specific border zones of Sudan and Ethiopia. Border studies dealing with this part of Africa certainly do exist; the historical and anthropological essays edited by Donald Donham and Wendy James more than twenty years ago analyze processes through which southern peripheries were incorporated into imperial Ethiopia from the 1890s up to 1935.2 These examples do not, however, address earlier border dynamics affecting political, economic, and social relations between Mahdist Sudan and Ethiopia in the 1880s. A pioneering study in this field is Alessandro Triulzi's work on the Bela Shangul border region south of the Blue Nile.3 Subjected to Mahdist influences in the early 1880s, this area was later incorporated into the Ethiopian empire.4 To the north, the border zone spreading from the Atbara River to the Rahad tributary of the Blue Nile was not affected by such a drastic political redefinition. It was nevertheless a main battleground for ideological and military ambitions opposing the Mandisi state against Christian Ethiopia, which culminated in 1885-1889. The armed confrontation ended with the death of Emperor Yohannes IV at the battle of Gallabat (9-1 1 March 1889). That same year, the accession of Menilek to the Ethiopian throne coincided with the end of the Mahdiyya's "militant phase."5

Notwithstanding heated religious discourses used by both sides as rhetorical instruments of legitimization6, the conflict did not hinder intense exchanges across an invisible "border." In this article, I analyze the ways in which people, things, and representations circulated between two African states that remained independent at a time of growing European hegemony in the world. Although Sudanese-Ethiopian relations were to some extent influenced by European imperialist processes, their territories were not separated by a European-drawn line.7 Using as primary sources Mahdist archives and accounts of foreigners that traveled or lived in Sudan or Ethiopia in the late 1880s, I explore Sudanese-Ethiopian relations through multiple interactions involving both state agents and local populations.8

Conceptualizing the Border

The border concept does not bear one single and universal meaning. Although it is basically associated with the notion of limit (and thus with otherness), it has acquired different meanings in the political jargon according to specific historical and cultural contexts. Two major meanings have prevailed in the modern Western world, conveyed by the English words border or boundary (line separating two territories or political entities), and border or frontier (area considered peripheral in relation to a defined center).9 The rather vague French term frontière includes both meanings. Are these concepts relevant or applicable to the case of Sudanese-Ethiopian relations in the years 1885-1889? Did Mahdist and Ethiopian elites design their political, religious, and economic activities according to specific conceptions of border!

Notions of border that developed in Mahdist Sudan and Ethiopia should be considered against the background of the conflict opposing the two countries in the midnineteenth century. In the period of Turco-Egyptian rule over Sudan (1821-1885), no separating line delimited the territories of Sudan from those of neighboring Ethiopia. A vast no man's land constituted a buffer zone between the farthest Turco-Egyptian posts and regions claimed by local Ethiopian lords.10 In the 1830s, this borderland became a major target for slave hunting. Indeed, the Pasha of Egypt asked for an increasing number of slaves from Sudan. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.