When the British forces led by the Colonel Holled-Smith (1845-1926) captured by surprise the Mahdist administrative centre of Afafīt, in the immediate vicinity of Tūkar, and forced the troops of ʿUthmān abū Bakr Diqna (c. 1840-1926), the amīr of Eastern Sudan, to retreat to Aṭbara, they seized a trove of documents. 

This document (NRO-M001000-2) belongs to the archives held by the National Records Office. It is part of the Mahdiyya collection with the reference Mahdiyya 1/30/02. It is a draft version of a translation in English from a letter sent by the Mahdī to ʿUthmān Diqna on 18 March 1884, probably realized in early 1891 by an agent of the Egyptian Military Intelligence. This letter is both an example of work the secret services, and a precious testimony of the early days of the Mahdiyya, when the miraculous success of Muḥammad Aḥmad seemed to call for other extraordinary events.

When the British forces led by the Colonel Holled-Smith (1845-1926) captured by surprise the Mahdist administrative centre of Afafīt, in the immediate vicinity of Tūkar, and forced the troops of ʿUthmān abū Bakr Diqna (c. 1840-1926), the amīr of Eastern Sudan, to retreat to Aṭbara, they seized a trove of documents. Most of them dealt with matters of taxation, food supplies and military operations, including a large number of receipts produced by the provincial treasury, the bayt al-māl. But the Department of Military Intelligence also found letter-books. They were collections of correspondence, mainly letters from the Mahdī (1840-1885) and the Khalīfa ʿAbdullāhī (1846-1899), copied in small notebooks. They allowed the Mahdist administration to keep a record of the most important legal decisions issued in the form of proclamations, and of texts of religious import. British Intelligence had already come across a similar volume two years previously, after the battle of Tūshkī on 3rd August 1889, which they believed belonged to ʿAbd al-Raḥmān wad al-Nujūmī (d. 1889), the famous Mahdist amīr who had lost his life during the fighting. Offering an unprecedented perspective on the inner working of the Mahdiyya, it proved an important source for Reginald Wingate (1861-1953), the head of Egyptian Intelligence, for the writing of Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan, published in 1891.

This antecedent made the two letter-books found in Afafīt all the more intriguing. The first one, the Maṣnaf al-Majdhūb, was copied by al-Majdhūb Abū Bakr Yūsuf (c. 1844-1899), one of the secretaries of the treasury of Afafīt and is now kept at the university of Durham (SAD 99/1). The second, entitled Maṣnaf Diqna, was most likely from the hand of Muḥammad al-Majdhūb b. al-Ṭāhir al-Majdhūb (c. 1860-1930), the leader of the Majdhūbiyya in Eastern Sudan after the death of his father in 1890 and a close advisor to ʿUthmān Diqna. It is today among the holdings of the National Records Office (Mahdiyya 8/07/60).

Once in possession of this important set of new sources, the Intelligence service began a meticulous examination of their content and eventually established an index for each in a subsequent report published in May 1891 by Wingate on the ‘Dervish Rule in the Eastern Sudan’, the drafts of which in Arabic and English can be seen on Sudan Memory (NRO-0001124/6). Besides those indexes, a few translations were also prepared but not included in the final report, as is the case with the document which concerns us.

Dated 20 Jumāda Awal 1301, that is 18 March 1884, this document is only the fourth letter sent by the Mahdī to ʿUthmān Diqna which has reached us. The former trader of Sawākin had then been appointed amīr of Eastern Sudan for less than a year, since May 1883, and the communication between the two men still left much to be desired, at least from the point of view of the Mahdī. His frustration toward his representative’s mutism was barely veiled. He pretended to understand that ʿUthmān Diqna may be following the practice of the ‘ancient people of God’, but he still vehemently required from his amīrs to write to him often and inform him of the evolution of the situation. He went even further and joined to his letter a copy of the latest dispatch from Muḥammad Khalīd Zuqal (d. 1903), the Mahdist amīr in Darfur, a template he strongly enjoined ʿUthmān Diqna to follow. With a dash of sarcasm, the Mahdī seems to infer that even Gordon (1833-1885) was writing to him more often, and his exasperation is quite perceptible. The frequency with which ʿUthmān Diqna was indeed writing to the Mahdī is unknown, no letter prior November 1885 having survived.

But why was the Mahdī so upset, especially considering that his ability to act in Eastern Sudan was rather limited? A first answer was that ʿUthmān Diqna was at that time in direct contact with the Anglo-Egyptian forces in Sudan near Sawākin, and so the sole Mahdist amīr fighting external foes. Having captured Sinkāt and Tūkar in February 1883, he had defeated in the same month the forces sent against him at the first battle of al-Tīb (el Teb) and then managed to keep his advantage despite important losses at the subsequent encounters with the British forces. In May 1883, when the Mahdī wrote to him, ʿUthmān Diqna had secured Eastern Sudan for the time being, thus directly contributing to saving the Mahdist Revolution. Still, for some reason, he had not felt the need to inform the Mahdī, or more probably, did not have the time to do so. The latter found itself having to rely on hearsay. Some of it needed confirmation, as that the amīr of the East had destroyed an army of 11,000 men. Other information, rumours repeated between the Red Sea and the Nile, had found their way up to the ears of Muḥammad Aḥmad, namely that the British had sent a particular kind of troops: virgin girls covered with metal plates on horses. That such an astonishing news may have not been reported by his amīr must have left the Mahdist leader both anxious to know more, and exasperated to rely on gossip from the market.

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