A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan

By Russell, Mona L. | African Studies Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan


Russell, Mona L., African Studies Review


Eve Troutt Powell. A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. xi + 260 pp. Notes. Works Cited. Index. Price not reported. Paper.

Eve Troutt Powell's A Different Shade of Colonialism presents a refreshing contribution to the growing but underdeveloped field of slavery in Islamic societies. Furthermore, her work adds tremendously to discussions of both nationalism and empire, particularly the role of the "other" in defining both. She sees the development of Egyptian nationalism as something more than "a Manichean binary relationship between colonizer and colonized. ..." Instead it was "a fluid relationship in which the colonizer came from more than one continent, and the colonized could aspire to be a colonizer not only by adopting the tools of the British or the traditions of the Ottomans, but also by making the Sudan a part of what defined Egypt as truly Egyptian" (8).

Her work opens with a case that represents a microcosm of all the issues associated with the relationship between Egypt, Great Britain, and the Sudan. In 1894, the British discovered the illegal transport and sale of six Sudanese women. The most prominent of the purchasers was AIi Pasha Sharif, president of the Legislative Assembly, who recently had petitioned the government to close down the Slave Trade Bureau on the grounds that the trade no longer existed. For Egyptian nationalists, this case meant proving that Islamic slavery was not the same as New World slavery and that indeed such a purchase was part of a mission to civilize the Sudanese, providing women with education and opportunity. For the occupiers, it represented "another example of the barbarity and despotism that kept Egyptians from being able to govern themselves, which justified the British presence in Egypt" (2).

In chapter 4, Powell examines the intricacies of this fascinating case. AIi Sharif tried to shield himself from prosecution by claiming Italian citizenship. This move was successful only in granting him a trial separate from the slave dealers and other prominent purchasers. The dealers claimed that the women were "wives"; however, testimony by at least one of the woman proved that they were commodities. Both arguments by slave dealers claiming marital bonds and those by the purchasers emphasizing the magnanimity of Islamic slavery and its connection to the household confirmed British suspicions about the flawed nature of Egyptian family life. Referring to the work of Lisa Pollard on this subject would have further enhanced Powell's arguments here.

The great irony of the 1894 case was that the Sudanese women were given manumission papers and a stay in the Cairo Home for Freed Slaves, where they would receive training for domestic service. In other words, they were "freed" into the volatile world of an uncertain labor or marriage market to do the same work they would have performed as "slaves" in an elite (or at least middle-class) household. Powell argues that this case was a metaphor for control of the Sudan, and just as oddly as the case ended, so too did the legal framework for control after Omdurman: an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium.

Between the introduction where she first discusses the case and the subsequent chapter where it is dissected, Powell lays the groundwork for understanding its significance. Chapter 1 deals with the Muhammad Ali's conquest of the Sudan in 1821 and Egypt's rule of the area until 1863. In particular, it examines the narratives of four bureaucrats whose works demonstrate "the interplay between personal experience and memory, popular myths, and the changing constructions of racial identity that occurred in Egyptian society after the official conquest of the Sudan" (29). Western and Egyptian historians have long discussed the Sudan's significance for Muhammad AIi in terms of hopes for gold and the creation of a new army. Powell digs deeper, seeking to understand how both the viceroy and his bureaucrats sought European categories of classification to define and map the Sudan, and in doing so created a territorial and theoretical Egyptian nation. …

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