Before becoming the most famous prisoner in Omdurman, Slatin had been the governor of Dāra in southern Darfur since 1879 and since 1881, the governor of the whole of Darfur. 

This document (NRO-0001060) belongs to the archives held by the National Records Office. It is part of the Mahdiyya collection with the reference Mahdiyya 1/30/04. Written on 6 December 1889 by Rudolf von Slatin, it was sent to al-Ṭāhir al-Majdhūb, the leader of the Sufi brotherhood of the Majdhūbiyya in Eastern Sudan. It is most likely that this letter, like the rest of the correspondence in Mahdiyya 1/30/04, was seized in the Mahdist administrative centre of Tūkar when it was raided by an English expeditionary force in February 1891.

One of the striking aspects of this letter is the hesitant hand with which it was written, in contrast to the elegant ruqʿa script used elsewhere in official documents. This was clearly not authored by one of the many competent clerks of the Mahdist administration. Indeed, the author of this brief missive is none other than Rudolf Carl von Slatin (1857-1932) who took the name of ʿAbd al-Qādir after his conversion to Islam in early 1883. His mastery of Sudanese Arabic was, so it was said, unrivalled, having arrived in Cairo in 1873 when he was only sixteen and in Sudan the next year. But the same could not be said of classical Arabic. The Khalīfa would ask him, on occasions, to perform the adhān, apparently delighted at the expression of surprise and probably mild disapproval on the faces of the anṣār caused by Slatin’s sloppy pronunciation.

Before becoming the most famous prisoner in Omdurman, Slatin had been the governor of Dāra in southern Darfur since 1879 and since 1881, the governor of the whole of Darfur. When he eventually surrendered to the Mahdists in December 1883, he had been fighting them for the past two years. He briefly met the Mahdī (1840-1885) during the siege of Khartoum. The latter used him as an intermediary with Gordon, but his fate was more decisively linked with the Khalīfa ʿAbdullāhi (1846-1899). He was appointed a mulāzim, a lieutenant, and spent the eleven years of his captivity in close proximity with the new ruler of Sudan, until his escape in 1895.

The true nature of his relationships with the Mahdists remains one of the most perplexing dimensions of Slatin’s life. The picture he painted of the Khalīfa’s rule in his famed book, Fire and Sword in the Sudan, published the year following his escape, under the auspices of Reginald Wingate, then at the head of the Department of Military Intelligence of the Anglo-Egyptian army, used all the tropes of an Orientalist despot, while hiding most of the realities of his life in Omdurman, including the existence of his two slave wives, a Fur woman named Hasaniya, and Desta, an Abyssinian, who carried his child. Slatin had good reasons to erect a literary smokescreen. He was himself an unlikely protagonist for the imperial propaganda of the British. Because of his Jewish origins, his ascension in the Austrian army was limited by antisemitic regulations. His early trip to Egypt and his employment in Sudan were not coincidences. As a soldier, he had little future in his home country. His conversion to Islam worsened his reputation. Gordon could not comprehend why anyone would do such a thing, a judgement Slatin certainly resented. As for the Egyptian nationalist press, he was a willing British spy and not a true captive. In that regard, Fire and Sword represented a unique opportunity to present himself as the archetypal colonial hero he was not, at the expense of a more balanced account of the decade he spent as a Mahdist officer. Mostly estranged from the other Europeans, his integration within Mahdist society leaves little doubt, albeit on unknown terms.

This letter sheds some light on the matter. It was sent on 12 Rabīʿ II 1307 (6 December 1889) to the shaykh al-Ṭāhir al-Majdhūb (1832/3-1890), the nephew of Muḥammad Majdhūb b. Qamar al-Dīn, and the leader of the Majādhīb in Eastern Sudan. With ʿUthmān Diqna (c. 1840-1926), he was instrumental in mobilising the Bija tribes, essentially the Hadanduwa, for the jihād against the ‘Turks’ and the British. So, why would Slatin write to him in order to send him, of all things, a watch? The two men had met two years previously, in 1887, and both attended the council where the fate of Karl Neufeld (b. 1856), a German smuggler, was decided. They may have seen each other in 1885, during al-Ṭāhir’s first visit to Omdurman, but there is no record of such an encounter. The origin of his gift is easier to trace. Slatin had previously asked his family to send him twelve watches with the intention of offering them as gifts. The Khalīfa was said to be fond of them, as well as locks. If the letter found its way to Tūkar, where it was seized by the British expedition which captured the Mahdist headquarters in February 1891, it is unlikely that al-Ṭāhir ever saw the watch sent to him: two months after Slatin had sent his letter, he had passed away. The question of why he sent the watch remains unanswered. An easy explanation would be that Slatin was nurturing a valuable contact near Sawākin, a potential route of escape. But would it be so inconceivable that the shaykh of the Majādhib and the Austrian mulāzim had actually formed an unexpected friendship?

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