During 2010, two important centenaries in the history of Sudanese nationalism occur — dates when armies from Darfur resisted colonial occupation. But, these anniversaries have never been commemorated before, and the historical significance of the dates may pass without mention.
The dates in question are two battles in which Darfurian armies fought against colonial invaders. In one battle, they scored a decisive victory and, in the second, narrowly lost. Both were commanded by Masalit generals, at the head of forces that included Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Both were against the French, invading Darfur from the west.
Unlike the Mahdi’s campaigns against the Egyptians and British in the 1880s, and the valiant defeat of the Mahdist armies at Omdurman in 1898, these exploits of resistance are rarely mentioned in histories or known to Sudanese schoolchildren. A rare account of the two battles is contained in Lidwien Kapteijns, Mahdist Faith and Sudanic Tradition: The history of the Masalit Sultanate, 1870-1930 (London, KPI, 1985) (and sadly out of print).
On 4 January 1910, a Masalit army headed by the Masalit Sultan Taj el Din ambushed a French force at Kirinding, near today’s el Geneina. The French were routed, leaving 280 dead — nearly half the force — including five Europeans, among them the commander. It was a famous victory which kept the French out of Darfur and was celebrated in Abeche as well as Dar Masalit.
The French played divide-and-rule politics on the borders of Darfur, especially with the Gimir and Tama, creating bitter divisions that last until this day. Later in the year, they regrouped for a second military offensive, entering Dar Masalit with two columns. The southerly force encountered the Masalit armies at Daroti, also close to el Geneina, on 9 November 1910. It was a bloody battle, with eight of the twenty Frenchmen, including the commander, losing their lives, along with 28 Senegalese and Wadaian troops. But the Masalit lost more heavily, including Sultan Taj el Din himself and forty of his relatives killed on the battlefield. The French army busied itself burning what it could of Dar Masalit, while the Masalit and others mounted guerrilla raids and helped instigate rebellions in Wadai the following year.
These episodes of anti-colonial resistance are almost completely neglected in the versions of Sudanese history taught today. If Darfur is to be a valued and equal part of Sudan, this neglect should be reversed. It would be an appropriate gesture if the Sudan government were to recognize the centenaries of these two battles in 2010, elevating the Darfurian resistance to its proper place in the annals of the nation.
Alex de Waal is the director of Justice Africa. This article was first published as a blog entry in Making Sense of Darfur on 21 September 2009; it is reproduced her for educational purposes.