Abbreviations adc assistant District Commissioner

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ADC Assistant District Commissioner

CIVSEC Civil Secretary

DC District Commissioner

DPMD Darfur Province Monthly Diaries

£E Egyptian Pounds

FEA French Equatorial Africa

NDD Northern Darfur District

NDDMD Northern Darfur District Monthly Diary

NRO National Records Office, Khartoum

RHL Rhodes House Library, Oxford

SAD Sudan Archive, Durham

SDD Southern Darfur District

TNA The National Archives, London

WAC Western Arab Corps

WDD Western Darfur District

Aba diimang: hereditary governor of the southwest province of Darfur under the Sultans

Aba uumo: hereditary governor of the southeastern province

abid: slave

agawid: elders, mediators; sometimes used by the colonial administration to refer to chiefs participating in inter-tribal mediation efforts.

amanat: held in trust

angarib: rope bed

awaid: customs

Baggara: cattle-keeping ‘Arab’ peoples

bey: Turco-Egyptian official/chief

dar : abode, land, territory: under Condominium rule, an ethnic homeland, in which the majority ethnic group had dominant rights.

dimlij : sub-chief in central and northern Darfur

diya: blood-money

durra: sorghum

effendi: educated man; often used in derogatory way by colonial officials

faqih : holy man (fiki in Condominium documents)

fashir: royal residence

feriq: Baggara cattle camp

fitr: Islamic due

firsha: district chief among Masalit

genabek: form of address, ‘your honour’.

goz : area of stabilized sand dunes in Central, Eastern and Southern Darfur districts

hakura : land; estate

hakuma: government

jallaba : in Darfur refers to riverine traders (gellaba in some Condominium documents)

jibba: Muslim robe for men

khashm beits: lineage segments

kuttab : government elementary school

magdum: viceory

mandub: agent

meglis/mejlis: council, often used for meetings or gatherings involving local elites and officials

melik: king, title for paramount chief common in Northern Darfur

merkaz: district headquarters

muawin: subordinate administrative government official

mudiriyya: sub-province

mulahiz: police inspector

murasla: messenger

nahas: copper kettle drums, symbol of autonomous leadership

nas: ordinary people

nazir: paramount chief, used of Baggara leaders

omda: sub-chief

qadi: judge of Islamic law

shaibas: wooden neck restraints for prisoners

sharia: Islamic law

shartay: district chief, in central and northern Darfur

sulh: peace

tirja: fortified hills marking the boundary between Darfur and Wadai in the pre-colonial period

wadi: seasonal river, riverbed

wakil: deputy

wot: Dinka cattle camp

zariba: a thorn enclosure; camp

zeka: Islamic due

zol: ordinary man

zulm: oppression

zurug: dark blue, black


I have been the beneficiary of AHRC support to produce this thesis, and am particularly grateful for the support they provided for an extended period of archival research in Sudan. Without such support this project would simply not have been possible.

My research in Khartoum was facilitated in particular by the support of SUDAAK (Sudanese Association for Archiving Knowledge). My heartfelt thanks go especially to Badreldin El Hag Musa, Fawzia Galaledin and Mohamed El-Hassan Mohamed Abdu. Their help with arranging access to archives and navigating the endlessly complex world of arranging visas was absolutely invaluable, and their friendship was a great support in Khartoum. Thanks also to the staff of the National Records Office in Khartoum, especially Directors Taj-el-Din, Mohammed Azraq, Mrs Awatif, and, in the search room, Khalida Elsharief and Ahmed Mohamed Adam Hanafi. I was allowed wide access to the rich historical documentation available at the NRO, contrary to pre-conceived expectations. In Omdurman I was also lucky enough to make friends who were able to introduce me to Fellata and Masalit communities. I am grateful in particular to Cordoba and Khalil Idris who facilitated and translated interviews, and who were great friends throughout my time in Khartoum. I was also lucky enough to have the constant company in Khartoum of other young researchers, including Zoe Cormack and Paul Fean. Alden Young provided engaging friendship and stimulating discussion, maintained during his periodic visits to his true home in the UK.

In Durham, I benefited from the expertise and responsiveness of Mrs Jane Hogan in the Sudan Archive. Jane is one of the great treasures of Durham, as anyone who has worked in the Sudan Archive will testify. I have also had the benefit of input into my research from numerous individuals met at conferences and seminars. In particular I would like to acknowledge members of the IHR’s Colonial and Postcolonial new researchers workshop, who provided some of the most challenging and penetrating feedback I have received at any seminar or conference. I was equally influenced by attendance at the ABORNE (African Borderland Research Network) summer school hosted by Baryeuth University’s African Studies Centre. The opportunity to benefit from intensive contact with the amassed expertise of several of Europe’s foremost researchers in African Studies, and several active Sudanists, was a unique and formative experience. Douglas Johnson and Peter Woodward have also shared beneficial insights and, in Douglas Johnson’s case, generous access to his own research material. Other researchers and friends who have helped in the formulation of ideas in the course of discussion include John Donaldson, Mike Finch, Moritz Mihatsch, Iris Seri-Hirsch, and my long-time friend and colleague, Chris Prior.

The history department at Durham University also provided a warm and supportive environment for a PhD project. I was lucky enough to begin this project at the same time as Will Berridge began his own PhD thesis on the history of policing in Sudan. Will has been a great friend throughout, and I have greatly benefited from his consistently sharp and insightful comments throughout the course of our many discussions together. My friendship with him warded off the isolation that so many PhD students have to put up with. Also in Durham, Anna Jones, Peter Tenant, Matt Greenhall and Sarah Hackett have all made life more pleasant in many respects. Tamador Khalid-Abdalla has been a friend in Durham for many years, and I am also very grateful to her for helping us to arrange accommodation in Khartoum.
If not for the support of both Justin Willis and Richard Reid, I would not have been able to make the plunge back into research. Justin Willis also bears the responsibility for getting me into African History in the first place as an exemplary undergraduate and postgraduate supervisor. And Richard Reid kept me attached to the academic world, and maintained my enthusiasm for this field. Both have, in their own ways, been inspirational figures.

Most importantly, I have been the beneficiary of the highest quality of supervisory input that a PhD student could wish for. Cherry Leonardi has gone far beyond the call of duty to supervise and support this project. In the course of written comment and conversation, she has shared ideas and insights which have profoundly influenced the writing of this thesis. At times of my own uncertainty or low energy, her enthusiasm has maintained my own. Most importantly of all, she has provided a trusting supervisory environment in which a creative and critical dynamic has been consistently maintained. It has been a great privilege to have worked with her, and I am truly grateful for her continuing intellectual and personal support. I hope this thesis reflects at least part of her inspiring intellectual commitment and energy. Philip Williamson has also been a consistent source of sound advice throughout this project, and in the final stages gave me the benefit of his meticulous critical reading.

Special thanks go to my parents, Alan and Eunice, for their encouragement and belief in this work, and for my father’s reading of this thesis in its final stages. They have always encouraged me to achieve the best I can, and shown me, by example, to remain reasonably balanced throughout. Finally, and most importantly of all, endless thanks go to my wife Vanja, who has been the most crucial source of consistent encouragement and belief. She has patiently put up with my absences, physical and mental, as well as helping me to articulate some of the key ideas of this thesis. When my own confidence or energy has worn thin, she has always bolstered my efforts with love and support, and her presence has kept me connected to a more vivid, richer life beyond this work. Put simply (and without risk of sentimentality), the completion of this thesis would have been impossible without her.


In recent years the peoples of Darfur have experienced horrifying inter-ethnic violence, to some extent encouraged and facilitated by the Khartoum government, and leading to a wide debate over whether or not Darfur has experienced genocide. In the mass media the violence is often portrayed as racially motivated, with Arab perpetrators killing ‘African’ victims. This is, of course, an extremely problematic perspective from which to understand the events of recent years. Recent works seeking to explain the reasons for the crisis in Darfur have generally invoked a complex of interrelated environmental, demographic and political factors, which are regarded as developments of the post-independence period.1 Yet the period of British rule in Darfur, between 1916 and 1956, has also become increasingly prominent in debates about the current crisis. A characteristically forceful intervention by Mahmood Mamdani has argued that the British policy of ‘Native Administration’ in Darfur created an inherently discriminatory and exclusionary system of governance and land rights, which made serious inter-communal conflict only ‘a matter of time’.2 This is in sharp contrast to Sean O’Fahey’s view that the British had a minimal impact on local structures of authority: in his view colonial administration more or less replicated the Sultanate system.3

This disagreement centres on the question of the transformative impact of the colonial power, itself a key question in African history, though a historiography with which much of the scholarship on Sudan still avoids explicit engagement.4 There has been considerable discussion of the extent of the colonial state’s ability to re-make Africa in order to suit its own political and economic goals.5 This question can be expressed rather baldly: was the colonial state weak or strong? Alongside the endeavour to understand the character of the colonial state, has run another key enquiry: why did Africans put up with their subjugation to colonial governments at all? Was this the result of the overwhelming coercive power of colonial states? Or, if colonial states were in fact weak, did their authority depend rather on collaborative bargains with colonial subjects, bargains that benefited those subjects as much, or even more than, the state itself?

Asking whether the colonial state was simply ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ may be a rather misleading approach, as Alex De Waal has argued: strength may stem from apparent weakness, and vice versa.6 Contemporary analysis often assumes that violent states are weak states, as they rely on coercion rather than ‘capillary’ flows of power in order to exert power. But equally, a consistently coercive government may be very well able to achieve its goals, and appear a very strong government from the perspectives of its subjects.7 On the other hand, the making of accommodative bargains with local elites, like the chiefs of Darfur, may appear to be a sign of a colonial government’s weakness, its incapacity to rule directly through its own staff. And yet, the ability to strike such bargains may be seen as precisely the source of a colonial government’s strength: its capacity for accommodation and compromise, its essential pragmatism.8

This thesis, therefore, addresses broad questions about the character of the colonial state in the specific context of Darfur. As the first detailed study of Darfur’s colonial history, it enables an assessment of the colonial government’s intervention in local politics and societies in greater depth than has previously been possible. It provides a new view of state formation in Darfur’s colonial past, demonstrating that the entanglement of officials in local politics simultaneously constructed and recognised state authority in the heat of contest and debate.9 Darfur is generally seen as one of Sudan’s several peripheral zones, remote from the ‘core’ of state power. This thesis argues, however, that the politics of the margins are central to understanding the character of the Sudanese state and the nature of state power in these regions.10 I analyse state formation in Darfur by discussion of the three-way encounters between colonial officials, Darfuri chiefs and ordinary people, encounters which took place at the border between state and society, colonizer and colonized. Clifton Crais has noticed a scholarly reluctance to explicitly analyse the role of local bureaucrats in the construction of colonial authority in Africa at the local level, or to think through the ways in which state formation was itself a cross-cultural encounter.11 In the specific case of Sudan, Douglas Johnson has emphasised the need for more detailed research into the ‘fundamental question of the administrator’s relations with the people he ruled’.12 This work addresses these issues.

Chiefs are central to the thesis: they are considered as ‘intermediaries’ between the state system and society, in line with recent analyses of their position.13 But the thesis also regards British officials as ‘intermediaries’, both interpreting state policy at the local level and attempting to translate local conditions in reports to their superiors. Furthermore, rather than viewing chiefs as ‘local’ and officials as ‘alien’, I argue that both chiefs and officials were attempting to construct a personal authority to which neither was ‘naturally’ entitled. Chiefs and officials both posed as ‘experts’ on ‘their’ people, while in fact neither possessed the extent of knowledge about their people that they claimed. In short they formed a mutually dependent local political elite, performing effects of both distance from and intimacy with ‘their’ people, drawing on a common political discourse in order to emphasise their mutually reinforcing position.14 The contradictory pursuit of effects of both intimacy and distance has important implications for how we understand the conflicted ways in which the state was locally manifested.
Timothy Mitchell has analysed the importance of what he terms the ‘state effect’ in the construction of modern political authority: the effect of an ‘inert “structure” that somehow stands apart from individuals, precedes them, and contains and gives a framework to their lives’.15 Admittedly, the colonial administration did try to produce ‘state effects’ at times: in the enactment of ‘tribal gatherings’, and in inter-district meetings, where the existence of an unbroken, ordered hierarchy linking the local to an imagined centre was asserted. But a focus on the points where such state effects break down, for instance in the heat of chieftaincy or inter-tribal, cross-border disputes, allows investigation of the divisions in colonial hierarchies and suggests the importance of the personal ties between administrators and their local clients in determining the local character of colonial authority. Officials often wanted to protect the interests of ‘their’ people against their rivals under a neighbouring administrator. Yet neither did these local, highly personalised dynamics stand apart from the very real relevance of institutions and structures. For example, chiefs reinforced their positions as powerful individual patrons through their control of the increasingly bureaucratised systems of ‘Native Courts’ and, later, local councils. The experience of colonial authority in Darfur suggests that drawing a binary distinction between the ‘oral’ and the ‘written’, ‘formal’ and ‘informal’, ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘patrimonial’, is analytically misleading.16 Forms of authority and strategies of coping with or accessing power combined these modes to differing extents at different times and places: the personal and the institutional interacted with and reinforced one another. As Nugent states, institutions are not ‘abstract things, but… the product of social practice’.17 States and institutions are not necessarily ‘weak’ because they are embedded in society: a distinct boundary between state and society may indeed be more inhibiting to the exercise of power than a blurred border zone.

This combination of bureaucratic and highly personalised cultures of authority had implications beyond both Darfur in a geographical sense and beyond colonialism in a temporal sense. The neo-patrimonial political culture of post-colonial Sudan was a direct inheritance from British colonial rule.18 Indeed, the Sudanese state was primarily built not centrifugally from the government offices of Condominium Khartoum, but centripetally, from the outside in: from the chieftaincy politics of the so-called peripheries, engaged in by officials, chiefs and ordinary people. This would be the legacy of colonial rule in Darfur, and, by inference, elsewhere in Sudan.
This introduction proceeds by giving an outline of Darfur’s geography and populations, before considering interpretations of the recent violence in the region, particularly contending assessments of the impact of British colonial rule and the policy of Native Administraion. It then examines existing interpretations of colonial chiefs, both in Darfur and Africa more widely, before considering Darfur’s relationship to the modern Sudanese state, particularly through the lens of the influential ‘core-periphery’ model of Sudanese political geography. Proposing a greater focus on the politics of the ‘peripheries’ as a means of understanding the formation of the Sudanese state, the introduction then goes on to consider the position of the district commissioner in Darfur (and colonial Africa more generally), and the complex, fragmented ways in which ‘the state’ was locally manifested. It finally suggests the extent to which a limited political hegemony was constructed by the interactions between officials, chiefs and ordinary people in colonial Darfur, within the context of existing discussions of colonial hegemony.

Darfur: Geography, ecology, populations

Darfur is a huge territory, lying in the Sahelian zone, that ‘vast transitional belt that runs across Africa south of the Sahara’.19 Before 1916 (except between 1874 and 1898) it had been ruled by an independent Sultanate, which built a variety of institutions to enable centralised rule, but which also co-existed with a number of autonomous groups who inhabited the geographical and political margins of the Sultanate. Darfur encompasses a wide range of ecological zones and an equally wide range of ethnic groups. The edge of the desert, in Northern Darfur, was primarily inhabited by camel pastoralists in the colonial period, although as early as the 1930s quite large-scale migration southwards occurred due to environmental pressures. The main groups in this particular zone were the Zaghawa, the Meidob (both non-Arab camel pastoralists), the Zayyadia, the Beni Hussein (Arab pastoralists and semi-pastoralists) and various smaller groups of Arab camel pastoralists, collectively labelled ‘the Northern Rizeigat’ by the colonial administration, due to their alleged links to the Rizeigat of Southern Darfur. The district of Northern Darfur encompassed all of these groups, as well as the Berti, another major group of non-Arab agriculturalists, and various other smaller ethnic groups. Most of the groups mentioned had their own dars (defined territory in which the ethnic group has presumptive primary rights) within the single administrative unit of Northern Darfur District.

Further south, and east of the Jebel Marra (the north-south mountain range in Darfur), lies the goz, an area of stabilized dunes which sees greater rainfall than the northern semi-desert, and where a range of agriculturalist and pastoralist peoples lived: it covers the colonial districts of Central, Eastern and Southern Darfur. The provincial capital, El Fasher (the old capital of the Sultans since the late eighteenth century) is within this region, as were the various settlements of people in Eastern Darfur pursuing gum arabic production. The goz also encompasses the southern Baggara belt, where the various (mainly Arab) cattle nomad groups were located: Rizeigat, Habbania, Taaisha, Beni Halba and Fellata.

The most fertile land in Darfur lies to the west of Jebel Marra and indeed also in the Jebel Marra itself. Here a very broad range of agricultural crops were grown. O’Fahey terms the area the Fur heartland, although this ecological zone also encompasses the Masalit, on Darfur’s western frontier with Chad, which was part of French Equatorial Africa in the colonial era. However, Dar Masalit was a separate administrative district during colonial rule (and afterwards), under the ‘Indirect Rule’ of its Sultan. Other ethnic groups also inhabited this western part of Sudan, including the Gimr, Daju and others.

As this summary of Darfur’s ethnic and ecological geography suggests, the region is hugely complex and heterogeneous, and attempts to describe (as here) a correspondence between territory and ethnicity stumble on the same flaws as colonial attempts at ethnic naming.20 The description given here of key livelihood strategies is also a simplification of a more complex reality: as Johnson and Anderson suggest, production systems in Darfur, as in much of the north-east African region, might be best understood as a ‘continuum, along which individuals and groups may move through time – back and forth from herding to cultivating… when opportunity or need dictates. This flexibility is… an important part of the strategy of security against ecological adversity.’21 In practice, the Baggara grow crops and keep cattle, the Berti herd and cultivate: the difference is (very importantly) one of extent. Moreover, in the fragile environment which Darfur’s populations inhabited, interaction across ecological zones was critical to livelihood and survival strategies. Notably the numerous markets on the edges of the Jebel Marra mountains and the Wadi Azum in western Darfur, a key dry season watering point for Beni Halba Baggara and (since at least the 1930s) Zaghawa, have long been points of economic exchange between pastoralists and cultivators.22 Violence between the pre-colonial state and pastoralists on the margins of its authority was sometimes intense, reflecting both the state’s frustrated demands for tribute from these groups and, more significantly, tensions over access to the slave raiding zones which lay south of the Baggara belt. Yet the Sultanate was also a key destination for the sale of slaves captured by Rizeigat raids.23 Alongside rivalry and tension, there was also a significant degree of economic complementarity between pastoralists and the Fur heartland.

To some extent, the drawing of more rigid territorial boundaries between these peoples during the colonial period ‘threatened rural societies by fracturing linkages and networks, preventing mobility, and thereby increasing vulnerability’.24 This was perhaps particularly obvious in attempts to restrict Beni Halba movement to the Wadi Azum and other areas of Western Darfur and Dar Masalit.25 But colonial reports and post-colonial anthropological accounts demonstrated the continued vitality of economic exchange and complementarity across the ecological niches described above (and indeed an attendant flexibility in ethnic identity).26 This in itself suggests the resilience of local livelihood strategies even against the backdrop of state-led attempts to draw lines and fix boundaries between peoples and territories.

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