Volume 9, Issue 3
Spring 2007

Images of Empire: Photographic Sources for the British in the Sudan. W. Daly and Jane R. Hogan. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2005. 391pp.

Everything about the Sudan seems anomalous: A peculiar name (country of the Blacks), an exceptionally vast and oddly located country with little human and natural resources and a complex identity torn between black Africa and the Moslem Arab world. Stereotypes about the Sudan, its language, its people, its African backwardness and Arab culture of racism and violence, which still endure, add to the bleak picture of the Sudan. What is happening in Darfur today unfortunately reinforces these not new and negative perceptions of the Sudan.

This scholarly work, which deals with the socio - political history of the Sudan during the Anglo-Egyptian rule, a period also labelled the Condominium period, is a major contribution to the imperial history of the region. This book, however, is much more about the British experience in the Sudan than the life of the Sudanese.

This pictorial history of the period offers us live images of the empire thanks to an impressive collection of photographic sources on the British Sudan from 1896 to 1956. The Durham Collection of photographs (together with the Sudan Archives Photographic Collection) is unique since it was never intended for publication. Yet, the authors’ adequate choice of the photos and the way they illustrate the themes under cover, cast no doubt about their value as reliable historical sources of the period. Hogan and Daly’s photographs tell us a great deal of the history of the British Empire in the Sudan, but in a different way. Very much like written sources, photographic sources settle controversies; illustrate key events; depict people and places; describe the famous and the powerful. Two significant criteria seem to have dictated the choice of the 303 photos of the book: their recording something of interest and their sense of time and place and what would represent it; including the interplay of change and continuity.

This copious photographic record is all the more important since it raises questions about the intellectual curiosity not only of the photographer but also of those who were photographed. Very few among these seem to have bothered writing about the country they ruled, the society around them, and the local culture and daily life of the Sudanese. Not one single photograph tells something about the Sudanese culture and society:  a local wedding, a funeral, a meal, a mosque or a local tribe. These imperial images which clearly support racial and cultural biases towards the Sudan and Africa by extension, nevertheless, should not be seen in isolation and can in fact be instrumental in analysing and criticizing these imperial stereotypes.

Eleven short but highly documented and thoroughly discussed chapters (with the exception of the lengthy and historically loaded introduction) followed by an appropriate selection of photographs to illustrate the chapter’s theme structure the book. The themes include the British departure to the Sudan and its mixed emotions, the North-South wide divide and their radically different fortunes, the development of the railways, the colonial architectural heritage left to the Sudanese, British leisure pursuits in the Sudan, and British women and their roles. All revolves around British rule, its grandeur; its ceremonial aspect and its achievements as well as around what the British used to do even when those activities were idle. The Egyptians, who co-ruled the Sudan with the British during the Condominium and who financed most of the infrastructures in the Sudan are belittled and almost excluded from this illustrated history.

This book is, of course, about a colonial encounter, which, in reality, did not take place and when it did, it was then largely fraught with dangers of misunderstanding, misinterpretations and misimpressions. The photographic sources tell us in fact more about the coloniser than about the colonised, partly because it is the coloniser who took the photos. It is also because the colonised was absent, irrelevant, subsidiary, passive and subordinate. He was almost everything the coloniser was not or did not embody. The backward local values could not match the enlightened and civilized colonial ones. In the encounter, the colonised is nothing but an alien.

The nature of relationships between the British and the Sudanese was crystal clear, one of superiors and subordinates. The British command, control, act, teach and guide, while the Sudanese learn, imitate and obey. This is reflected not only in the public photography of the Condominium era, the official source, but even in the more personal photos taken by British officials, the administrative staff, missionaries, engineers, teachers and other British residents. Both kinds of photos emphasize those values which seemed most useful in justifying the British presence in the Sudan and maintaining British control such as military strength, order, ritual, the love of adventure and danger, the sense of sacrifice and achievement. The photos include the identity of the British but not the Sudanese. Many of these photos need no comment indeed. They relate all the story of the civilizing mission undertaken by the British in what was regarded as an out-of-the-norm continent.

This collection of imperial images of the Sudan has shown that the strong barrier of colonial mentality prevented positive interactions across races and cultures. Even in the Northern Sudan, where most of the British and Sudanese reside, work and therefore interact, opportunities for friendship even among the elites after more than half a century of colonial encounter were superficial and easier in theory than in reality.

This is an extra good reference for the historian and student of Africa and African colonialism.  It highlights the richness of photographic sources for the understanding and analysis of British colonial rule in the Sudan. The photographic record can also be of great interest to those with a fancy for historical photos.

Adel Manai
Université Tunis El Manar