Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Redemption of Egypt

"Heart of England, faltering never in the good time or the ill,

But thy great day's task of duty strong and patient to fulfil."

— Trench

T HE abandonment of the Sudan had a disastrous effect on the situation in Egypt, where one of England's greatest statesmen, Lord Cromer, strove patiently with the apparently hopeless position. Through the storm and stress of those dark days, he emerged triumphantly at last—the redeemer of a new Egypt. By his thorough and far-reaching reforms, he raised the whole country, from a state bordering on ruin, to that of prosperity, peace, and happiness. If one great need cried out above the rest, it was the want of proper irrigation or artificial watering of the land.

The story of the annual overflow of the Nile, from the days of Joseph, has already been told. A system of irrigation had existed through long ages, but owing to the extravagance of Ismail, the canals and dams had fallen into neglect and disuse, while the delta of the Nile, the old land of Goshen—the granary of the ancient world—was a hopeless swamp.

With the courage of a far-seeing administrator, Lord Cromer set to work on the skilful irrigation of Egypt without delay. Notwithstanding the huge debt on the country, he boldly borrowed an extra million pounds, to reclaim the country. The land was divided into five circles and placed under Anglo-Indian engineers of skill and experience, who worked with a will at a new system of drainage and irrigation. For long years they worked with a single-hearted devotion at their difficult task, with wonderful results. Whole new districts were brought under cultivation, and the wealth of the land increased by leaps and bounds. Here is a story showing how necessary was this work to the Egyptians. The year 1888 was a very low Nile, and a large area of country was threatened with failure of water. The canal feeding the district was too low to spread the water over the thirsty fields.

In their despair the people turned to the Inspector of the district. He saw that a dam must be thrown across the canal, in order to raise the water to the required level. Gladly the Egyptians worked under their English friend, who brought his bed to the canal bank, never leaving the scene of action till the work was finished. It was completely successful: the fields were flooded, the district was saved, and the Egyptians could not be grateful enough to their deliverer.

Meanwhile the famous dam or Barrage in the Nile delta was being restored by Sir Colin Scott Moncrieff. It had been built by a French engineer: at vast trouble and expense he had thrown sixty-one arches over the Rosetta branch of the Nile mouth and sixty-one over the Damietta branch. Now the timbers were rotten, the iron rusty, and it took years of work by night and day, to set it going again.

"It is like mending a watch and never stopping the works," said Sir Colin. But he carried through the work, and soon the produce of the fertile delta land was doubled.

Perhaps the reform that added most to the progress of the world was the reform of the army. It was the same old story over again—"Egyptian hands and English heads." The Egyptians were officered and drilled by Englishmen, until they became efficient soldiers, who can now do and dare what in former days was the impossible. It was partly with these men that Lord Kitchener won the battle of Omdurman, with these men he conquered the Sudan and destroyed the Khalifa's power. Let us tell the story of his expedition.

The Mandi died soon after the fall of Khartum, leaving his great territories to the Khalifa, or Commander-in-Chief. The Khalifa at once built an immense tomb over the Mandi's body at Omdurman—a village opposite the ruins of Khartum, at the junction of the Blue and White Niles. He had compelled every man in his vast dominion to serve in his armies, so that no crops were sown: food was scarce, and famine and disease spread through the length and depth of the Sudan.

There was no doubt that Egypt and England, side by side, must reclaim and reconquer this unhappy land of the blacks. This difficult task was entrusted to Lord Kitchener, Sirdar or Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian army. For four years preparations had been going quietly forward between Cairo and Wady Haifa, till in March 1896, the world was startled by the news that he had started on an expedition to Dongola. All was in readiness. Here, at Wady Haifa, had been forged the deadliest weapon that was ever waged against Mahdism—the Sudan railway, which even now extended some way beyond the frontier.

"The battle of Omdurman was won in the work-shops of Wady Haifa," said an eyewitness of the whole campaign.

Be this as it may, the launching of rails and sleepers into the vast desert, when the far end of the line was yet in the hands of the enemy, was one of the bravest acts in history, and it was due to the dauntless courage and fierce determination of the Sirdar and his clever engineer.

The telegraph followed the railway: the wires, in lengths of a mile, being coiled on revolving wheels and carried on camels. Thus, accompanied by rail and telegraph, the great expedition pressed forward into the burning desert. It would take too long to tell, of how the army toiled onward by rail and river, now carrying their transport round the great cataracts on the backs of camels, now navigating the shallow reaches of the river in light sailing craft, now marching across desert tracts with the scorching sun shining pitilessly down upon them, now impeded by terrific sand-storms, till fever broke out in their midst.

At last they reached Dongola, which was captured from the Khalifa after severe fighting, and the Khedive's flag floated once more over a long-lost province. By the end of the year, the railway had reached Dongola. The Sirdar now busied himself over a new line, which should cut right across the waterless Nubian desert, encircled by the wide western sweep of the Nile from Wady Haifa to Abu Hamed, where the river bends again southwards to Khartum. By July 1897, such progress had been made, that an Egyptian force advanced rapidly by the Nile to Abu Hamed, and wrested that post from the Khalifa's garrison. The blow was so sudden and unexpected, that the dervishes now abandoned Berber, 150 miles to the south, near the junction of the Atbara and Nile.

The time was now ripe for the general advance: the end was already in sight. On Good Friday, April 8, 1898, a brilliant and crushing victory was won by Egyptian and English troops at the Atbara, where some 16,000 dervishes lay entrenched in a zariba.

The Khalifa now rallied his fanatical host for the last time, for the defence of his capital, on the plains of Omdurman. The Sirdar led 22,000 men against him. As the great army advanced, nothing was visible, but the big white dome of the Mahdi's tomb gleaming through the desert haze. Early in the morning of September 2, shouts of the advancing host were heard, and in a vast mass, the Khalifa's black army with waving flags moved forward across the desert, to attack the Sirdar's host of Anglo-Egyptians. Fearlessly the fanatics moved forward, spears in hand, but they could not withstand the firearms of civilisation. For four hours the battle raged, which was to decide the fate of the Sudan. Then the dervishes fled from the slaughter. The Khalifa's body-guard had fallen to a man around the black flag, but their master had fled.

The Sirdar then pushed on to Omdurman. Riding coolly into the town, still held by some 5000 dervishes, he offered to spare their lives, if they would surrender. This piece of cool daring overawed them. His life was in their hands for the moment, but they knew the army was behind, their cause was lost, and they laid down their arms. So Omdurman, the Khalifa's last stronghold, was captured.

A touching incident followed. The following Sunday, the troops formed up in the open space facing the ruined palace of Khartum, where Gordon, thirteen years before, had laid down his life. On the very roof, from which he had watched so long and anxiously, the flags of Egypt and England flew side by side in the blazing sunshine. Gordon's work had been finished at last. The restless Sudan belonged to Egypt, and the Khedive, with England's help, had restored peace and freedom to one of the most oppressed nations of the earth.

A new Khartum soon arose amid the ruins of the old town. In the midst of it arises the Gordon College, built in memory of its brave defender, for the education of the Sudanese. Here, too, is the capital of the Sudan administration, carried on by a Governor-General, with telegraphic communication to every province, and a good railway service to Cairo.

Thus every year does Egypt become more civilised, and more prosperous, and better fitted to take her place among the great nations of the world.

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