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June 2019 Item of the Month

Banner from Mahdist Sudan

The Sudan Archive contains a wide variety of material in different media, including documents, photographs and cinefilms, publications, and also museum objects. This banner from the Mahdist period of Sudanese history is part of the collection of Captain A.H.A. Alban DFC (1891-1982) who served as a District Commissioner in what is now South Sudan (1921-1942) and then as Consul in Gore, Ethiopia (1942-1952). In common with many such objects in our collections its provenance before it came into Alban’s possession is unknown.

Image of Mahdist banner [1881 x 1898]. A.H.A. Alban collection, Sudan Archive (Ref: G//S  1543)
Mahdist banner [1881 x 1898]. A.H.A. Alban collection, Sudan Archive (Ref: G//S 1543)

Egyptian occupation of Sudan was overthrown in 1885 by forces allied under Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah (1844-1885), recognised by his followers as the Mahdi. Mahdist forces’ most resounding victory was the capture of Khartoum on 28 January 1885. Initially distributed to allies across Sudan by the Mahdi as totems of adherence to a nascent Sudanese state, as the state consolidated through offensive and defensive operations such banners took on particular military significance, becoming emblems of specific divisions of the Mahdist army. Black flags such as this were used by the division commanded by Abdullah Ibn-Mohammed Al-Khalifa (1846-1899), the Mahdi’s eventual successor, and which comprised troops from Sudan’s south and west. By the time of the recapture of Khartoum by Anglo-Egyptian forces at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 this division was by far the largest Mahdist one on the field, and many such banners were taken as trophies on the day: the Sudan Archive holds two other examples from this group. During the Mahdist period units from various divisions were detached across Sudan on operations: Abyssinia was repeatedly invaded in 1887-9. Given Captain Alban’s period of service in Ethiopia there is a small possibility that he acquired the banner there, but purchase in Sudan is more likely.

The banner’s inscription is the standard one found on most such banners. It translates as:

‘O God, O Merciful One, O Compassionate One

O Living One, O Subsisting One, O Lord of Majesty and Honour

There is no god but God. Muhammad is his messenger

Muhammad al-Mahdi is the Successor to the messenger of God’

Of additional interest are the fabrics used in the flag’s construction, as such elements speak about the material culture and practice of contemporary Sudan and Sudanese. It is recorded that a tailor was employed in Omdurman to fabricate flags after Khartoum’s capture in 1885, and which promoted conformity in style and inscription. However, this particular banner has two fabric elements worth noting. The patterned border fabric is unusual and may originate from outside of Sudan, and the black material used as a background to the above text is stamped with a cartouche with at its centre a tughra (perhaps of Sultan Abdul Hamid II) and inscriptions that will require more research in order to identify its origin, manufacture and prior use.

Details from Mahdist banner [1881 x 1898], showing border patterned fabric and unidentified stamp and inscriptions. A.H.A. Alban collection, Sudan Archive (Ref: G//S 1543). Click to enlarge. The centipede-like motifs in the right-hand pattern vary in length between 3 and 4 cm; the diameter of the central circle of the left-hand motif is 63 mm.

The flag becomes something of a palimpsest in much the same way as another in our collections - a flag confiscated by police from demonstrating members of the White Flag League during the 1924 uprising in Khartoum. This was constructed from a pillowcase, the cotton fabric for which bears the seal of a manufacturer in Manchester. The Mahdist tailor perhaps working in Omdurman will have used (and dyed) whatever fabrics were to hand, and repurposing one which bore a seal of a defeated Turco-Egyptian enemy would no doubt have had particular appeal. British regimental museums hold many Mahdist trophies repurposed in much the same way. Objects such as these often chronicle connections between cultures at the same time as they proclaim messages of conquest and national freedom.

Note: for more information on this topic, see ‘A note on Mahdist flags’ by Douglas Johnson, Soldiers of the Queen 14 (August 1978) and online.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.