The area that now comprises the modern nation of Sudan (Figure 18) has been dominated in part and in whole by other powers for millennia. The area was known as Nubia until the late 19th century. In part, this name was used to distinguish it from French holdings in West Africa (Figure 3), but Nubia had been the term for the area for centuries before the Common Era. The modern state is not a natural entity and contains the legacies of its past domination by many groups. Outsiders determined economic and political priorities as well as reinforced a hierarchy within the native population. Sudan's current elite reflects centuries of foreign influence that are evident in the multi-ethnic mosaic that constitutes the Sudanese people. Its colonial experiences also created the reality that each individual identifies as part of larger racial, religious and tribal groupings, and is comfortable with these multiple affiliations in daily life. Only on a national scale did political and economic integration result in divisions and marginalization.


The area that now comprises Sudan has been populated for 60,000 years. By the eighth millennium BCE, a Neolithic culture with some contact with Egypt developed. Most records of this early period come from Egyptian sources, a dominant force in the ancient world. Both the Nile and the Red Sea served as natural connections between this area and the other key states along the Mediterranean, particularly Greece. By the first century BCE, there are records of a Nubian language and trade throughout the area (Figure 11).

For centuries before the Common Era, Egyptian influence was profound in Nubia although cultural interchange was dialectic rather than linear. During those eras when the Egyptians formally controlled Nubia, they used a mix of Egyptian and native administrators, expecting the country to generate revenue and wealth. A fort system developed along the Nile and cities grew from these garrison towns. As Christianity spread through the Mediterranean world, traders and missionaries brought the religion to Nubia. By the 630s CE, Arab traders brought Islam and Nubian Christians were separated from those in the Mediterranean (Figure 12). There had long been contact between Nubians and Arabs, but Islam solidified the North/South division within Nubia while simultaneously providing political unity, economic growth and educational development. These advancements were largely restricted to urban and cultural areas in the North, making those in other regions increasingly marginalized. In many ways, Nubia developed into a feudal society, whose inhabitants assimilated a wide range of traditions. Nubians also balanced the contradiction of foreign rulers and local power. Concentric administrative entities tended to coincide with tribal jurisdiction and Khartoum served as the seat of the foreign influence. As tribal leaders and sheikhs ran local affairs, Islamic judges dealt with personal matters. Areas outside of the Nile region were largely left alone during this period. A comfort with the duality of administration extended to association with both the Arab and African worlds. Islam in Africa mutated to reflect and uphold local customs that were continually being shaped by exposure to foreign influences.


The Ottomans first came to Nubia via their conquest of Egypt in the 1500s and incorporated the area into its empire (Figure 4), relying still on the local administrators with ultimate loyalty to the Sultan. The Ottomans were largely interested in the coastal and Nile regions, and ignored the interior. As they conquered the North, the Funj took over the South and both groups participated in the now extensive slave trade. It was during this period that farming and herding were parceled out into DAR, discrete land units. Tribal distinctions in modern Sudan can be traced to this period, with a chieftain ruling over each DAR. Attention from foreign powers depended on the intrinsic wealth of the area. In the west, the Fur Tribe was given the area we now know as DARFUR. The Fur's economic contribution consisted of slaves and ivory. This system was efficient, and allowed the Ottomans to gain influence over a wider area that they did not have to administer directly. Things remained relatively calm and stable for the next few hundred years, until Europeans became interested in the area.


European involvement in Africa was based on several factors. Although West Africa had long been important because of the slave trade in North America, East Africa became central to European interest by the mid-19th Century as a source of raw materials, markets for finished goods, and access to other colonial holdings in the Middle East and Asia. The British had crossed from the Mediterranean to gain access to its possessions in India and the Far East. Control over the area had been informal, but as Germany and other Western powers began to compete for influence (Figure 4), the British solidified its control. The Suez Canal, a testimony to improved transportation and the need for speedier access to the East, opened in 1869 (Figure 7). The Conference of Berlin, held in 1884, parceled African lands into discrete political entities under European ownership. European diplomats drew boundaries with little regard for linguistic, tribal and ethnic groupings (Figure 10) and (Figure 17). The result was the separation of some peoples and unfortunate combination of others. Sudan was a construction of non-naturally connected groups and these boundaries and borders were still in place when independence came in 1956 (Figure 16) .

The British were mostly interested in the port cities of Sudan and preferred to have as little direct involvement as possible. It was clearly an area that the British colonized and did not settle. For those who lived in the area, little changed in terms of daily life. Throughout Sudan, the British did as little as they possibly could to develop communication or transportation or an indigenous ruling class except in the northern cities and ports. The British divided its administration of Sudan. The North was run by the Arab experts from the consular and diplomatic core while the Western region was run by those with military experience in Africa. The South was always treated as a minority within the country.

In 1899, the British and Egyptians formed the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, which allowed for their joint supervision of Sudan. Although Egypt gained independence in 1922, the condominium arrangement continued in Sudan until January 1, 1956. The northern part of the country had a civilian administration with Western law and separation of Church and state. Britain provided sufficient resources in the North to facilitate its rule and brought modern transportation and communication. Sudanese in the North benefited from this relationship and gained power and wealth. This educated local elite enjoyed the privileges that decentralized indirect rule afforded them.


Darfur was technically independent during much of this time. It was ruled by a Sultanate for centuries. Darfur illustrated the geographic influence of both the Arab and African worlds of which it was a part. Islam likewise coexisted with animist traditions in the religious life of its inhabitants. The people of Darfur had a subsistence agricultural economy and was a source of slaves for foreign traders. Contact with traders throughout the centuries resulted in cultural interchange but most mixing was done by local tribes. Darfur was not covered by the original condominium arrangement in 1899. Independence was not a sign of strength but disinterest on the part of Europeans. The area had nothing Westerners wanted in terms of raw materials or geographic position.

But independence did not mean that Darfur was self-contained or even autonomous. It had certainly come under the influence of the Egyptians, Arab traders and the Ottomans, so claims that it was an independent state until 1916 are somewhat misleading. Religiously, its Muslim orientation connected it to Sudan where a religious revival occurred in the middle of the 19th century. As long as tribute was paid to successive foreign rulers, Darfur was able to maintain its technically autonomous status.

During World War One, Darfur sided with the Ottomans and at that point, the British declared a protectorate over the area, annexed Darfur to Sudan, and terminated the Darfur sultanate (Figure 15). Daily life changed little over the next few decades and again, as long as taxes were collected, tribal leaders were able to administer the area on a local level. Once part of Sudan, particularly after Sudan's independence in 1956, Darfur suffered the same fate as other marginalized regions and had no influence on national policies or development of economic infrastructure during this period. The only integration into the national economy was as a provider of migrant workers. Powerful when independent, the tribal leaders of Darfur had little influence within wider Sudan.


1.What is common to each era of colonial rule in Sudan?

2. How was local authority a constant despite a succession of foreign rulers?

3. What generated foreign interest in Sudan?

4. Why is it inaccurate to claim that Darfur was independent until 1916?

5. Did the Sudanese benefit from foreign rulers?

6. Colonial rule implies cultural interchange rather than cultural imposition. How did this distinction manifest itself for the people of Sudan?

  • Prunier, Gerard. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.
Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (