Thirteen centuries of black African slavery in Sudan

Jok Madut Jok sets out a crucial part of African history that most South Africans are wholly unaware of


Following my article "ANC hypocrisy on jihad war in Sudan" on Politicsweb last week (15 February), I've copied out below an important summary of the history of slavery and racial and religious oppression in Sudan written by Jok Madut Jok, the historian from South Sudan currently professor of anthropology at Syracuse University in New York.

The text comes from his book, War and Slavery in Sudan (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, US, 2001). It is disgraceful that such a crucial subject in the history - and the present day - of Africa has been kept so much hidden from consciousness in South Africa, under ANC government. This is despite this book by Jok having been published almost quarter of a century ago.

The name Sudan comes from the Arabic Bilad as-Sudan, meaning "Land of the Blacks".

South Sudan became a separate state only in 2011. - Paul Trewhela


Chapter 3, "The Suffering of the South in the North-South Conflict"

Regarding religious identity, the Islamization of what is now northern Sudan following the defeat of the Christian kingdoms of Nubia in the seventh century ushered in the start of the religious identity contest that still pervades modern Sudanese society today.

Islam entered Sudan through long-distance Arab traders and slave-raiders between the seventh and eighth centuries. The Arab colonial forces in Egypt invaded Sudan and after a bloody fight, they imposed on the two Christian kingdoms of Maqurra and Allwa certain conditions, which included payment of annual tribute to the Arab invaders consisting of 350 slaves, gold, iron ore, foodstuff and animals. During this period slavery was legalized, and the situation worsened after the Arabs finally overran the Nubian kingdoms and started a new era of slave-based colonialism.

This lasted until it was replaced by Turco-Egyptian rule from 1821 to 1881. This period introduced North Sudanese to the South as partners of the Turks and Egyptians in slave raiding, devastation, and plunder. Mohammed Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Sultan's viceroy in Egypt, who established Turco-Egyptian colonial rule in Sudan, increased the export of slaves to 30,000 per year for the sixty years of the Ottoman rule. The experince of the people of the South with slave raids from the North did not allow for the distinction between the Turks (as foreigners) and the Northeners (as fellow Sudanese). They were all slave raiders from the North, in geographic terms.

In 1881, when the Mahdist state overthrew the Turco-Egyptian colonial rule, it did not only expand slavery, but made slavery the mainstay of the northern economy. It also forcibly drove millions of African Sudanese from their villages and made them die of hunger and war-related deaths. At times, the entire Mahdist state relied on revenues from the slave trade and the use of slave labor. [Mohammed Ahmed bin Abdullah (later named al-Mahdi) led an Arab uprising in Sudan to restore an "Islamic and national" government, in opposition to Turkish and Egyptian rule. Muslims believed that the Mahdi would appear at the End of Time and "would lead the Muslims to rule the entire world." (Wikipedia) - PT].

By 1898, the population of Sudan under the Mahdist rule and those areas within its proximity was reduced from eight million to two and a half million people. It is this Mahdist state, a source of horror at the time for the African communities where slaves were captured, that became a source of pride to North Sudanese because it represented victory over foreign (Turkish and Egyptian) occupation and the assertion of Sudanese nationalism.

To the Southerners, the era is remembered as a nightmare because it gave the Arabs a freer hand in their pursuit of black slaves and white ivory in the South. It is this historical experience that is partly the cause of the debate over the identity of Sudan today. What was a cause of freedom and national pride for one group was a benchmark of oppression and death for another.

In 1898, the British and the Egyptians recolonized Sudan under a colonial system known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium rule, which had overthrown the Mahdist state. The North considered this a humiiation while the South embraced it, at least initially, as a welcome intercession. Part of the reason for these opposing viewpoints relates to slavery. The Anglo-Egyptian rule had declared slavery illegal, to the relief of the South and to the outrage of the North. For Northeners, as a tradition sanctioned by Islam, an economic asset, and a matter of racial hierarchy, slavery was not supposed to be meddled with by a foreign rule. For Southerners, the declaration of slavery as illegal was long overdue and a government that would introduce such a policy was indeed "the real government."

Although the British colonial administration did not completely abolish the slave trade and slavery, but rather opted for a "modern" form of slavery, at least raiding and export of African Sudanese was greatly reduced. *

When the British were ending the imperial era in 1955, there was jubilation in the North. The cause of happiness was as much the coming of freedom as it was about the prospect of finally and effectively bringing the South under northern control. Conversely, the prospect of of colonial disengagement horrified the South. ... The South earnestly started what was to be known in history as the seventeen-year-long Anyanya war (1955-72), the first round of the unresolved North-South conflict. ...

The animosity that has resulted from the first  war, combined with historical experiences as explained above, has continued to set up vicious boundaries between the North and the South. They have created static self-definition and dynamic asprations. The Northeners consider themselves as descendants, defenders, promoters, and inheritors of the Muslim faith. They yearn to identify with and to develop as an integral part of the greater Arab nationalism. ...

The Southerners, on the other hand, have not made any attempt to be other than what they have always been. They have always referred to themselves in terms of their ethnic nationalities and have no desire to recreate these nationalities. They have viewed themselves as Dinka, Nuer, Bari, Zande, and hundreds of other nationalities.. ...

[The head of the ruling National Islamic Front], Hassan al-Turabi, speaking in March 1999 in Cairo,  explained that those who submit would become beneficiaries of Islamic benevolence, but those who resist would face Islamic jihad. It is this northern model of imposed unity, a model followed by all the Khartoum governments since the Mahdist regime and always rejected by the South, which has been the recipe for war, enslavement of Southerners, and persecution of non-Muslims who defied this model of governance. 

* Note by Jok: The British colonial government had to choose between the two existing kinds of slavery: modern slavery based on forced cheap labor, composed exclusively of African Sudanese, and the old archaic slave trade, involving raids and selling and buying of Africans - the indigenous population. Fearing that northern Arabs, historically accustomed to slavery, might revolt should the government insist on complete abolition, the colonial authorities allowed the slave owners to keep retainers or domestic slaves on condition that no export of slaves be practised .... [L]arge numbers of southern slaves were still taken to Arabia under the guise of pilgrimage voyage.

- Jok Madut Jok, War and Slavery in Sudan (Pennsylvania University Press, Philadelphia, US, 2001. pp 76-78, 189-90)