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Steaming Through Africa

In 1898 a French expedition struggled from the mouth of the Congo to southern Sudan, only to have their plans thwarted by the British. Sarah Searight revisits the Fashoda incident.

Contemporary illustration of Major Marchand's trek across Africa.
Contemporary illustration of Major Marchand's trek across Africa.

On the evening of July 10th, 1898 a small flotilla paddled to rest on the shore of the left bank of the White Nile, about latitude 10 degrees N. From the boats stepped five white men, haggard beneath their beards, and a group of black soldiery. They looked around wearily; after two years’ travel from the Atlantic to the Upper Nile they had reached their goal – a few palms and the collapsed walls of an Egyptian fort. This desolate spot was Fashoda. Pride at reaching their destination was helped that evening by champagne drunk from chipped goblets. Next morning they began rebuilding the fort and planting a vegetable plot. Clearly the party was there to stay. But no one actually knew they were there.

Communications were a vital aspect of the story of the French claim to the Upper Nile basin and the determination of the British to oust them from the focus at Fashoda, both governments being motivated by the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 in which the French had refused to participate. In the undignified ‘scramble’ for Africa in the last two decades of the nineteenth century he who had the better communications often had the upper hand. And British communications in this instance were superior to those of the French.

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