Thursday, January 5, 2012

94. Sudanese Slit Drum (Sudan, AD 1850-1900)

The Scramble for Africa.
And...the scramble continues. 2011 was a momentous year for Sudan, which we saw earlier in this history in its tensions with Egypt, making sphinxes of the Kushite pharaoh or burying Caesar Augustus’s head in the sand. In the last few centuries, though, the tension has been between the Islamic north and the African south—the two groups that split apart and made separate countries last summer. This drum, which was carved three times, tells of three different overlapping worlds trying to control this area.

It was carved first for some central African king, presumably in the nineteenth century. It’s a kind of drum that’s sometimes found in villages in central Africa—in the shape of a calf (about that size, too), with four different thicknesses, so it can produce four different tones, and enormous so the drumming can be heard miles away. As we saw when the west Africans were shipping all their slaves to the Americas, drums are hugely important to these people. This one may have started life in an African village, but in a conflict with the Islamic north, it was re-etched, this time with Arabic-inspired decoration, the swirls you see on the side. Now, the Islamic leaders of Khartoum hated the Khedive in Egypt, who was technically administering Sudan during the nineteenth century, on behalf of the Ottoman Empire; they were fairly hardcore Moslems, in Khartoum, who despised the corruption and lax ways of the Egyptians and Turks. Tensions there threatened to mess up the balance of power, which brought in the British—they needed a puppet Khedive in Egypt in order to protect their rights to the Suez Canal, otherwise how would they get all that cheap tea back to England from India? Also, lots of British abolitionists despised that fact that, although England had abolished slavery early in the century, and America toward the end of the century, Khartoum was the biggest slave trade city in the world, most of the slaves going to the Middle East. (I had no idea!) So in went General Gordon against the Mahdi—as portrayed by Charleton Heston and Laurence Olivier in the watchable-if-not-great film, Khartoum—and he got chopped up into bits. About 15 years later, Kitchener came back in with more British troops, slaughtered untold thousands at the Battle of Omdurman, and etched a big “Victoria Regina” crown on this calf drum before bringing it to England as a souvenir.

The Mahdi’s revolt was the first time in modern history a group of fundamentalist Moslems have gotten organized to fight a big imperial power. It wouldn’t be the last. And as Japan learned in yesterday’s podcast, if another country/group/religion is causing trouble, you can’t just ignore them any more. What to do?

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