The mystic daggers that the Mahdist army of Sudan used in defeating the British army in 1883

One of the famous historical rebellions against colonial powers in the North Eastern African region is the Mahdist uprising in Sudan. It is talked about because of how a simmering regional revolt ended up becoming a springboard to challenge colonial rule by the British.

Oral history places the success of the 1883 defeat of the British army by the Mahdist army led by its supreme leader Muhammad Ahmad to the use of Muslim spiritualists who were trained in the art.

The victory can partly be placed on the kind of weapons used by the Muslim mystics which were called maces. The maces are said to be specially designed sphero-conical vessels with daggers embedded in them.  

Archaeologist Stephane Pradines, who has researched extensively on the uprising between 1881 and 1899, said the conflict was between the Sudanese dervishes and the Anglo-Egyptian colonial powers. He observed that the Mahdist wars were largely fought by the Muslim mystics who were about 40,000.

They possessed and fought with the war maces comprising of iron-winged, stone and rare iron-bull-headed maces.

The iron winged maces had Arabic inscriptions while the stone ones were used as badges of command. It is believed that the inscriptions were inspired by God and grant the bearer spiritual protection in battle.

The stone maces appeared similar to some central Asian maces from Bukhara while the winged maces and bull-headed ones bore resemblance to the Quajar models. Pradines explained that a number of maces had a set of twin daggers buried in crocodile skin. They opted for crocodile skin because of its symbolism. Crocodiles are perceived as wielding strength.

The maces also signified one’s rank and position in the Mahdist army. The shorter ones were used as badges of command in giving military instructions and were considered a symbol of authority by the commanders.

For the Mahdist to have defeated the William Hicks’ British Expeditionary Force with such weapons, it was found to be humiliating to the Queen and British public when Governor of Darfur and ex-member of the Hungarian infantry, Rudolf Von Slatin, narrated the happenings in his book ‘Fire and Sword in the Sudan’. Pradines indicated that only a little over half of the Mahdist army used swords and spears.

The Governor of Darfur described the Mahdist army as savages and barbaric in the way and manner they carried their slaughter with their maces. This spurred a military campaign by the British to Sudan in 1896, according to Pradines. He said the British army launched a campaign that sought to place Sudan under Egyptian rule.

Some 8,200 British soldiers and 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers led by officers of the British brigade annihilated the Mahdist army with their modern armory. The Mahdist army which was in the range of 60,000 was overpowered by the modern weapons of the British in the Battle of Atbara in April 1898.

The Mahdist era came to an end after the Anglo-Egyptian forces took over the Mahdist capital and later killed Khalifa Abdullah at Umm Diwaykarat. This led to the gradual disappearance of the mace used by the fierce Muslim mystics of the Mahdist army.  

The Mahdist also had an axe and begging bowl in addition to their sphero-conical maces. The axe symbolized freedom and the begging bowl represented deliverance and resistance against despotism.

Stephen Nartey

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