When Queen Victoria came to the throne, Egypt, though nominally part of the empire of Turkey, was practically in the hands of a self-made Albanian soldier, Mehemet Ali by name.
To realize how Britain came to play such a large part in the government of Egypt during the Victorian era, it is necessary to understand something about this Mehemet Ali and his successors.
By means of his military genius; intrigue, and personal ambition, Mehemet Ali, though still a vassal of the Sultan, had risen step by step till he became the independent ruler of the land of Egypt. He conquered the Sudan, and Khartum was founded under his rule. He formed a regular army for the better security of his people, he introduced European civilization, and improved the water-supply. He revived the prosperity of Alexandria by digging a canal to reconnect it with the Nile, and he more than doubled the revenue of the country. During his rule the overland route from Europe to India was first used, and Europeans were thus brought into the country. A new line of English steamers—the Peninsular and Oriental (P. & O.) landed passengers and mails at Alexandria, from which port they were conveyed overland on camels and donkeys to Suez, whence steamers took them on to India.
In 1842 it was agreed by the Western Powers that Mehemet Ali should, under the Sultan, become hereditary ruler of Egypt. Seven years later he died, and was succeeded by his grandson Abbas.
This Abbas refused to have any dealings with Europe, though he permitted a railway to be undertaken from Alexandria to Cairo, and encouraged the overland route. It was not till 1839 that, under his successor, Said Pasha, the cutting of the Suez Canal was begun by a Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps. It was opened in 1869 by Said's successor, Ismail, whose title had been changed from Pasha to Khedive—a Persian word for "Prince ".
Meanwhile great progress had been made. Telegraph wires had been carried through the land, reaching as far as Khartum, capital of the Sudan. Ismail had extended the authority of Egypt right away to the great lakes in Central Africa.
But the new Khedive was reckless and extravagant, and the "money of Egypt ran between his fingers like the desert sand", till at last financial difficulties obliged him to raise money by selling his shares in the Suez Canal—shares which were bought by Lord Beaconsfield on behalf of the British Government.
Meanwhile, a few isolated Englishmen were exploring Egypt to the south, to discover the sources of the great life-giving Nile, on which the whole prosperity of Egypt depended.
In the spring of 1861, Sir Samuel Baker and his enterprising Hungarian wife left Cairo on an expedition into the Sudan. Leaving Cairo, the Bakers sailed up the Nile for nearly a month to Korosko, whence they struck across the desert: a week on camels, under scorching desert sun, brought them to Abu Harried, another week to Khartum, a miserable, unhealthy village, composed of huts built of unburnt bricks, at the junction of the White and Blue Niles. Khartum was full of merchants and slave-traders; dishonesty, deceit, cruelty, and fraud raged, and justice was almost unknown.
Sir Samuel Baker.
Through opposition and discouragement the Bakers made their way on to Gondokoro, the first English to enter this country of the ivory trade from the north. What was their astonish when, one day, two Englishmen staggered into the straggling village, thin, wasted, fever-stricken; their knees showed through their trousers, their hair and beards were long and ragged.
Speke and Grant had made their way from the East Coast of Africa, and discovered an immense lake, which they had named Victoria Nyanza, after the Queen. They had heard there was another lake beyond, but fierce tribes had made it impossible for them to reach it.
The Bakers now started off with renewed zest to complete the discoveries of Speke and Grant, who returned to England by the Nile and Egypt. This was the end of March 1863. After a year of tremendous toil, they were rewarded one day by seeing from the summit of a hill the great new lake "like a sea of quicksilver", far beneath them. They at once named it Lake Albert Nyanza, after the Prince Consort who had died in England but two years before. After five years' exploring, they carried home their glad news.
But Baker had seen too much of the miseries of the black population of the Sudan to rest at home. The year 1869 found him back in the equatorial provinces, with supreme authority over all the countries around Gondokoro. He was the first Englishman to fill a high post in the Egyptian service, with orders to suppress the slave-trade and open up the country for commerce.
J. A. Grant.
In 1873 Charles Gordon took up the work. The name of Gordon will ever call up a vision of the Sudan—not, indeed, the more prosperous Sudan of to-day, but a land of oppression and injustice, of cruelty and slavery and suffering, a land for which he finally laid down his life.
For three years Gordon contended manfully and almost single-handed with fearful difficulties. He never spared himself; he rode about on his camel vast distances under scorching sun, over wastes of burning desert, meeting and dispersing in the Khedive's name savage bands of slave-holders. Sometimes he would go up the Nile, to find slaves smuggled down in innocent-looking boats with cargoes of wood and ivory. On being stopped, a hundred black, woolly heads would appear, and the slave-owner would tremble at finding himself face to face with the angry Governor of the Equatorial Provinces. Having established a chain of armed posts along the Nile and extended the Khedive's dominions to the Albert Nyanza, having laboured amid loneliness and solitude for three years, Gordon resigned his task, and returned to England for a much-needed rest.
Nile Trading Boats.
Simply enough he summed up his work in the far Sudan: "I have cut off the slave-traders in their strongholds, and made the people love me." But no competent successor was appointed, and with Gordon's departure, all hope of suppressing the slave-trade in those vast regions to the south perished for the present.