The Fashoda Incident of 1898

The Fashoda Incident of 1898
by Darrell Bates. 194 pp. (Oxford University Press, £15).

For all the fuss and public clamour that attended the so-called 'Scramble for Africa' of the last two decades of the nineteenth century, none of the European imperial rivals actually went to war over the spoils. In fact, there was no 'scramble' worth speaking of; rather, a leisurely and (mostly) gentlemanly partition of the 'dark continent' so central to the Victorian imagination and to the Victorian imperatives of mission and exploitation – 'philanthropy plus 5 per cent', as Cecil Rhodes aptly described them.

Only over the Fashoda confrontation of 1898 did it seem possible that Britain and France, the chief protagonists, would fight. The Fashoda incident had all the qualities of high drama, with the forces of Britain and France, led by two equally charismatic commanders, eyeball to eyeball on the Upper Nile and claiming the same territory. As it turned out, the confrontation was one between a latter-day David and Goliath, with Kitchener's victorious and well-equipped Anglo-Egyptian army ensuring the right result for Goliath.

But it was Captain Marchand's puny force of a few French officers and a little over one hundred Senegalese soldiers that caught the world's attention. Marchand's long transcontinental march was an intensely Gallic episode. His secret expeditionary force carried lavish supplies of claret and champagne, a mechanical piano, seeds of haricot verts and a portable steam launch. Its progress was doubtless enlivened by the various African girls presented to Marchand and his officers as temporary concubines by placatory local chieftains. By contrast, Kitchener's well-heeled army of conquest, led by a wooden titan with no interest in girls and very little in champagne, seems positively dull. In the end, despite the bellicose talk in London and Paris, there was no fighting at Fashoda. Kitchener held all the trump cards, although not playing them with equal skill, and the French were in no position to resist. Within six years, despite France's resentment over Marchand's humiliation, the Anglo-French entente was concluded. Darrell Bates has written an excellent short account of Fashoda, based on a careful reading of documents in English and French. The book is bright, accurate, ironic, and easy to read, though for 194 pages £15 is a stiff price.

Denis Judd


Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week