By the late 19th century, the presence of Europeans in Africa had become familiar – as merchants, missionaries, explorers, colonizers, planters, or conquerors. Yet they were rare enough that the meeting of two groups was still a special event. And one of the most special of those happened 120 years ago at the Nile in what is now South Sudan. The French Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand and the British Major-General Herbert Kitchener had met in the village of Fashoda – each with a small army under their command. While the two officers personally got along well, the rivalry between their governments placed the threat of war over their heads. But why would two major powers squabble over a small Sudanese village? The one-word answer is colonialism, but let’s be more specific. In the end, the Fashoda crisis did not lead to a war and instead paved the way for one of the more unlikely alliances of history. As usual, expect board games on the way!
Colonialism and Imperialism
Colonies were all the rage for great powers in the late 19th century. A plethora of reasons for that have been brought forward – domestic, strategic, economic. All great powers faced internal conflicts between their rich and powerful few and their underprivileged masses. Often, these elites thought that the acquisition of colonies could be a great project to unite the nation. In addition to this quick fix to the social question, colonies also promised glory to the power taking them – and an entry ticket to the exclusive club of Great Powers.
Colonies, however, could also serve strategic purposes to protect commercial and maritime interests (for example, with ports acting as coaling stations for the nation’s warships). But what were these commercial interests? First of all, colonies could be markets for the products of the colonizing country (although the results usually disappointed the European industrialists and traders). Secondary to a colony’s use for exports was its potential to provide for imports for the home market – usually of one or two specific goods (such as the ores Britain imported from Rhodesia). This asymmetrical economic relationship whose terms were unilaterally defined was not limited to colonies and their European metropolises, however. It worked the same way with the white settler dominions of the British Empire (as Canada mostly became a supplier of wheat for the British market or New Zealand one of wool) and even independent countries at the periphery (Uruguay’s economy, for example, was based on exporting meat to Britain, Portugal supplied wines and cork to Britain). This, however, was mostly limited to Britain – other countries barely had the commercial clout for it and often relied on British shipping for their imports and the markets of London as their intermediaries.
But if economic domination worked in independent countries as well, why did the great powers shift from their traditional form of colonialism based on coastal trade posts? Why did they feel the need to formally claim political suzerainty over the lands they already economically dominated? – This kind of imperialism was a sign of weakness, not of strength. The countries who felt they could not compete in a world open to free-trade based informal imperialism resorted to carving out small pieces of the world in which they would operate exclusively (or, at least, with a strong advantage).
Colonialism is a frequently used theme for board games. It’s also one of the most extensively (and controversially) discussed themes. However, these colonial board games usually focus on the early commercial colonialism of the 16th to 18th century, not on the era of imperialist land-grabbing of which the Fashoda crisis is so typical. The reason for that is that these colonial games almost exclusively are economic euro-style games which are famously loath to show direct conflict (which in the Age of Imperialism with its constant colonial wars and near-wars between great powers is hard to do). These colorful European family games are a preferred alternative to the more combat- and war-oriented American-style games in many a pacifist household. The irony that their light tone is due to leaving out the more gruesome aspects of colonialism has not been lost on (some) players – the most famous example being the “colonists” in eurogame classic Puerto Rico (Andreas Seyfarth, Ravensburger) having an awful lot in common with slaves, just not the name. The general tendency of these games to present a sanitized history of colonialism as a violence-free practice of economic efficiency is troubling.
High imperialism is a rarer board game theme, and the games that cover it have a darker or at least more sober outlook on their topic. An interesting example is Colonialism (Scott W. Leibbrandt, Spielworxx), essentially a grim satire on the Age of Imperialism. Players represent a non-specific greedy imperial power whose goal it is to wipe out native influence in Asia and Africa so they can take the local resources. Curiously enough, the game thereby makes a case for one of the least convincing reasons for imperialism – imports of goods for the home market, which was mostly a British specialty (and even for them was less important than finding export markets). Non-economic reasons like the pursuit of national glory or the pacification of domestic unrest play no role whatsoever in the game.
The “Scramble for Africa” and the Fashoda Crisis
But which parts of the world could still be claimed as colonies? Europe, of course, was off limits. Europeans might look down on other Europeans, but they would not deny them their right to (at least) formal independence, even if they economically dominated them (therefore, Britain never claimed the economically entirely dependent Portugal as a colony). The Americas were out as well for similar reasons, as they were ruled by their European post-colonial elites (and also because the USA had grown strong enough by the late 19th century to actually make the Monroe Doctrine a policy instead of a mere claim). That left parts of Asia, the Pacific islands – and the entirety of Africa. The wild race to carve the biggest piece possible of the African cake became known as the “Scramble for Africa”. In the 1880s, a multitude of claims were laid to any African territory some European had explored, traded with, or founded a mission in.
This rush for African colonies is the theme of Africa 1880 (Francis Pacherie, Tilsit). Players represent colonial powers who advance from the African coasts inwards to acquire and develop colonies. Clashes between colonial powers can happen, but negotiation (to not get into each other’s way) plays a major role as well.
In history, these rivalling claims were settled by negotiation at the 1884/85 Congo Conference – the zenith of European rule over the world. Japan was not present, and the United States did nothing but utter a few bold statements without any consequences. France’s claim on the biggest part of North and West Africa and to a small part of the East (Djibouti) was approved, as was Britain’s on most of the South and East (up to Egypt). Both powers wanted to link their respective possessions in order to more easily defend and economically integrate them. Of course, a French East-West connection and a British South-North (Cape to Cairo) connection were not possible at the same time. The two lines would cross in the Upper Nile region – close to Fashoda.
Sudan was within the British sphere of influence, but it contained barely a British presence. The French believed they could claim the area by taking bold action while Britain was still busy with putting down the Mahdist uprising in Egypt and Sudan which had started in the 1880s. So in spring 1897, Major Marchand was tasked to make his way from the west coast of Africa to Fashoda. The trek through the heart of Africa and the Sahara Desert took him and the 120 men under his command fourteen months. A second expedition from Djibouti which was meant to rendezvous with Marchand at Fashoda never made it. Marchand, however, planted the French flag in Fashoda on July 10, 1898, and declared the Upper Nile to be French.
Unbeknownst to Marchand, things had been in flux during his long trip. The British under Major-General Kitchener had made headway against the Mahdists. They forced a decisive battle at Omdurman on September 2, 1898, and won one of the most lopsided military victories in history. British field artillery, machine guns, and modern rifles mowed down more than 10,000 of the Mahdist soldiers while only losing 48 men themselves. Now the British-Egyptian army was free to deal with the French. Kitchener took a small flotilla of steamships and a sizeable part of his army up the Nile and confronted Marchand.
The ensuing standoff over a colonial possession is one of the central elements of the classic board game on imperialism, Pax Britannica (Greg Costikyan, Victory Games). Players (once more in the role of European colonial powers) divide the world up between themselves and often get into conflict over a particular stretch of land – which they can settle peacefully or go to war, but often it’s a staring contest in which you hope the other fellow will finally blink. The game also includes a neat little rule for bonus points if you can make an East-West or North-South connection through Africa – just like the French and British wanted. Moreover, it does capture the spirit of colonial rivalry, and especially what it feels like to be a global power like the British Empire. In the words of designer Greg Costikyan: To win as the British, you must play as if you already owned the world.
The Resolution and Ramifications of the Crisis
When news of the standoff at Fashoda reached Europe, nationalist emotions ran wild in Great Britain and France. The press demanded strong action to defend their countries’ national honor. However, both governments and the men on the spot remained. Still, the risk of a war was there. In October, Britain mobilized the Royal Navy. That pushed the already wary French back. A diplomatic solution (which confirmed Britain’s claim to Sudan and the Upper Nile) was found, and France ordered Marchand to retreat.
The French move had been based on daring, not on strength. Kitchener had many more troops at his disposal than Marchand, and could easily resupply via the Nile, whereas the only way for France to get more men and material to Fashoda was to send another expedition like Marchand’s. Furthermore, Marchand was even cut off from communication with his government – the British were in possession of the only telegraph station in the region, so they even relayed the retreat order Paris sent to Marchand to him.
In the bigger picture, things didn’t look any better for France. The inferiority of the French navy to its British counterpart put France at a disadvantage for any colonial war. France’s ally Russia made it very clear that they were not inclined to go to war over some extra-European casus belli. Finally, France feared Germany might try to take advantage of an Anglo-French war. When Britain met the challenge with a strong response, France could but back down.
The episode therefore showed at how much of a disadvantage France was in a colonial conflict against Britain, but it also made clear that Britain’s colonial empire was more vulnerable to French advances than to those of any other country. Both countries took this as an indication that it was better not to have the other as an enemy. In that sense, the Fashoda crisis was a prelude to the last big Anglo-French crisis before World War I: In 1904, their respective allies Japan and Russia went to war with each other. Both Britain and France were required to help their respective ally when they faced more than one other power – so if either of them would have intervened, the other would have been forced to enter the war as well. Britain and France once more decided that it was better not to fight each other. The two countries therefore entered an alliance, the Entente Cordiale (French for “cordial agreement”) which settled their disputes over colonial spheres of interest. To remove a reminder of their earlier conflicts, Britain renamed the small Sudanese village in which Kitchener and Marchand had met to Kodok. Fashoda had ceased to exist.
You’ll find a good introduction to the politics of imperialism in Hobsbawm, Eric J.: The Age of Empire, 1875—1914, Vintage/Random House, New York City, NY 1989, p. 57—83.
On Fashoda as an international crisis that might have led to a big war, see Dülffer, Jost/Kröger, Martin/Wippich, Rolf-Harald: Vermiedene Kriege. Deeskalation von Konflikten der Großmächte zwischen Krimkrieg und Erstem Weltkrieg 1865-1914, Oldenbourg, Munich 1997 (in German).
1. The newcomers on the European stage, Germany and especially Italy, laid claim to the most unattractive wastes in Africa lest they be left out of the colonial game the great powers were playing.
2. This was an all the more important matter for a country with strong interests in such matters as Britain, which set up most of its colonies around the Indian Ocean to protect another colony – India itself.
3. This explains why an economically not very dynamic country like France was so active in expanding its colonial holdings, whereas booming economies like the USA or Germany came rather late to the colonial game – when colonies had become somewhat of a trademark for great powers already
4. You’ll find an interesting discussion on how to handle slavery in board games both historically and respectfully here.
5. For a detailed analysis of two prototypical games on that matter, see this article.