The small sun baked village of Kodok receives little attention these days. Lying on the west bank of the Upper Nile River in the world’s newest state, South Sudan, its population has swelled within the last few years due to an increase in refugees fleeing genocide and poverty in Sudan. Save for a few dusty roads and thatched huts, Kodok has little to offer the wayward tourist, while its more frequent visitors are aid workers and doctors delivering food and medical supplies to its largely displaced population, or the occasional guerrilla avenging some slight. It may be hard to believe but just over 120 years ago international events revolved around tiny Kodok, then known as Fashoda, and almost started a war between the world’s two pre-eminent imperial powers, Great Britain and France.
Our story begins in 1881, with France being miffed by Great Britain’s military occupation of Egypt. Egypt, as everyone knew, had been invaded by Napoleon in the late eighteenth century, and French scientists and scholars had made an industry out of Egyptology. Furthermore, a French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, designed and constructed one of the great wonders of the modern world, the Suez Canal, of which the British had stolen full control in 1882. The French, fearing a permanent British move into Sudan, devised a plan to extend their African empire eastwards into the valley of the Nile, in the process cutting off British expansion across the Sahara and thus into their protectorate of Uganda. Mischief also may have propelled the scheme, for another French engineer had pointed out the advantage of damming the Upper Nile to disrupt the Egyptian water system.
Thus, in mid-1896, a small French expedition under the leadership of Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand set out from Loango in the French Congo with a retinue of 120 Senegalese infantry, officers, an army of impressed porters, and much useless baggage. Their route took them across the heart of Africa towards the Sudanese region of Bahr el Ghazal. After nearly two years of steaming up 1,200 miles of navigable rivers and trekking across roughly 1,000 miles of jungle and desert – with the dissected steamer! –, the malaria-ridden party finally reached Fashoda on July 10, 1898. There they drank wine, planted vegetables, fought off Dervishes, and awaited a larger British force then moving towards them.
With the affair having been riled for many months on both sides of the English Channel, it comes as no surprise that French impertinence was met with stiff British resolve. An army of 1,500 British and Egyptian soldiers and five gunboats under the command of Field Marshall Horatio Herbert Kitchener, fresh off of a victory over the Dervishes of the Sudanese Khalifa near Omdurman, was dispatched, and arrived at Fashoda on September 18. A standoff was ignited; newspapers in both France and Britain fanned the flames; war orders were drafted and troops mobilized; and diplomats scurried to prevent a colonial war.
In spite of Captain Marchand’s protests to continue the fight, the French foreign office was well aware of the inferiority of his situation. Equally important, the reopening of the Dreyfus Affair in France strained the French army, softening public opinion for conflict in the African hinterlands. On November 3, with war imminent, Marchand was ordered to evacuate his forces, with whom he retreated across Abyssinia to French Somalia.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Great Britain and France resolved to settle their differences in northeastern Africa; France accepted the western frontier of Sudan as final; and the two parties signed condominium agreements establishing joint rule over Sudan but ensuring British authority.
As we conclude our story this author would like to be able to say that the compromise led to a formal agreement between the two antagonists, in which they overcome a thousand years of animosity and re-situated themselves favorably vis-à-vis a mutual threat in Europe and abroad, and would fix the course of world history for the next half-century.
And, yet, that is exactly what happened! For on April 8, 1904, French and British diplomats signed the Entente Cordiale, which, among other arrangements, recognized British sovereignty over Egypt and Sudan, as well as French influence in Morocco, and also shifted the balance of power in Europe to the consternation of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, the real enemy of both Britain and France. Cooperation between the two remained fixed until the Great War concluded in their favor.
In the end, little Fashoda had a big day, while the two great imperial powers managed to assuage their wounded pride.