Osman Digna (c.1836–1926)
Born Osman Ali at a date and place unknown (claims of Rouen, France are fanciful, but Suakin in about 1836 is likely), he was a man of the Hadendoa tribe, a sub-grouping of the African Beja people who inhabit regions of the Sudan and Eritrea. His adult name of Osman Digna (‘bearded man’) is how he was known by the Egyptian and British troops. He was well known to the British authorities before the Mahdiyya War as a successful and enterprising Arab slave dealer. The attempted suppression of his trade by the Egyptian government under duress from Britain drove him naturally into opposition. First he supported Urabi and after that revolt’s failure he turned to the cause of the Mahdi. His people, the Hadendoa, infuriated by ‘Turkish’ oppression and misgovernment, joined the rebellion under his leadership – as Winston Churchill wrote in The River War: ‘the celebrated, and perhaps immortal, Osman Digna’.
The reference to his immortality was wryly meant – Osman Digna got himself out of innumerable scrapes with his enemies, usually with wily cunning and a heathy regard for the safety of his own skin.
He maintained himself at the head of a powerful army around Suakin, inflicting a severe defeat on Baker Pasha at El Teb on 4 February 1884. Before the month was out he was defeated at the same spot by General Graham and again on 13 March at Tamai. This was supposed to be the battle that broke his power, but British reluctance to maintain troops in the Suakin region meant that Osman Digna was soon back. His almost complete occupation of the Red Sea
Coast and the region stretching west towards the Nile at Berber was instrumental in trapping General Gordon in Khartoum and the eventual triumph of Mahdist forces over the beleaguered
city, which resulted in Gordon’s death on 26 January 1885.
Winston Churchill: ‘Year after year, at a horrid sacrifice of men and money, the Imperial government and the old slaver fought like wolves over the dry bone of Suakin. Baker’s El Teb,
[Graham’s] El Teb, Tamai, Tofrek, Hashin, Handub, Gemaiza, Afafit – such were the fights of Osman Digna, and through all he passed unscathed. Often defeated, but never crushed, the
wily Arab might justly boast to have run further and fought more than any emir in the Dervish armies.’
When Kitchener began the campaign which resulted in the destruction of the Madhiyya (1896–98), Osman Digna was encamped by the Atbara river at Adarama, where he remained
a constant thorn in the side of the advancing Anglo-Egyptian army (as featured in Avenging Khartoum). However, after the British occupied the vital staging post of Berber, severing Osman Digna’s communications with his Suakin-Tokar heartland, he retreated south to join forces with the Khalifa, the Mahdi’s successor. He was attached to Mahmud, the Khalifa’s son (they detested each other) and coerced the younger man into attacking the advancing Anglo-Egyptians on the Atbara. The resulting, hard-fought battle was an unmitigated disaster for the Mahdists… but Osman Digna survived. Churchill again: ‘The Baqqara horse had ridden off during the action, headed by the prudent Osman Digna – whose position in the zareba was conveniently suited to such a manoeuvre – and under that careful leadership suffered little loss.’
At the climactic battle of Omdurman (2 September 1898), Osman Digna commanded about 1,700 Hadendoa, guarding the extreme right and the flank nearest the town. After the Arab collapse, as the British, Sudanese and Egyptian troops closed in on the city’s walls, the wily slave trader slipped away yet again. On the 22nd a considerable part of his army, which had not been present at the battle of Omdurman, was found encamped on the Ghezira, a few miles north of Rufaa by a British force commanded by General Hunter. The sheikhs and emirs surrendered, and a force of about 2,000 men laid down their arms. Musa Digna, Osman’s nephew, was put in irons and held prisoner. The rest, who were mostly from the Suakin district, were given a safe-conduct, and told to return to their homes.
Osman Digna finally met a situation from which he couldn’t escape. On 19 January 1900 he was captured near Tokar and sent as a prisoner to Rosetta (el-Rashid). Wikipedia tells us that was imprisoned for eight years and after his release remained in Egypt until his death in 1926. As a result, almost every entry on the web says the same, yet a Hansard report (the British Parliament’s written record of everything done or said in the Houses of Commons and Lords) has a question asked on 23 April 1923:
Mr. T. JOHNSTON asked the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if Osman Digna has been a close prisoner for over 22 years; if he is now over 100 years old; and, if so, will he advise the cancellation of sentence and his release so that the old man may be taken care of by his tribe and end his days in peace?
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A tribesman sporting the distinctive hairstyle that led British soldiers to call the Dervish Hadendoa 'Fuzzy Wuzzies'. A newspaper graphic of Osman Digna depicts him with a similar hair-do.
A newspaper photograph of the elderly Osman Digna in the last days of his imprisonment.