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Review of The Darfur Sultanate: A History


By Christopher Prior

The Darfur Sultanate: A History. Rex S. O’Fahey. Hurst, London, 2008. Pp. 357. ISBN. 978 1 85065 853 5 (hb). £35.

Rex Sean O’Fahey is the world authority on Darfur’s complicated past. His unparalleled knowledge of the region and his tenacious intelligence consequently set the bar for expectations of The Darfur Sultanate rather high. As one would expect from a man frequently faced with a struggle not only against a lack of sources, but also against those who would seek to destroy evidence to serve present-day aims, dogged perseverance and academic diligence have long marked his work. Unfortunately, The Darfur Sultanate is a deeply unsatisfying book that lacks the breadth of analysis that both the definitive-sounding title and O’Fahey’s pursuit of a particularly adventurous brand of academic study would have one would expect.

The work is divided into three main sections. The first part takes a predominantly political and economic look at the Keira state’s interactions with the wider world until the middle of the nineteenth century, centring on the processes that led to its attaining regional pre-eminence by around 1800. The last section returns to this style of narrative, picking up the story in 1873-4 with the sultanate’s conquest by al-Zubayr Pasha, a capable and ruthless slave and ivory trader who built up a powerbase in Bahr el Ghazal in the 1850s and 1860s. This section also touches briefly upon the Mahdiyya and the restoration of the Sultanate under Ali Dinar until Dinar’s death at the hands of the British in 1916.

The middle portion of the work, which tackles the Sultanate’s systems of governance, court culture, and social organisation is by far the largest, and is clearly where O’Fahey’s own research interests lie. As a result of its length – it comprises nearly two thirds of the work – this part makes the other two sections feel a little like bookends. And it is this part wherein the major issue with the work lies, for this is a retread of Fahey’s earlier monograph, 1980’s State and Society in Dar Fur. The odd word has been deleted here, the occasional line has been re-written there, but virtually everything about this, from the prose and the paragraph structure, to the tables and charts, is identical. Similarly, chunks of text from his work with Jay Spaulding, Kingdoms of the Sudan (1974) have been inserted into the first section.

Nevertheless, what is written here is excellent. Even though it is thirty years old, it is still notable for its imaginative use of sources and its adeptness at conveying a sense of complex social and political shifts. The work is particularly strong when it comes to discussing the ‘look’ and operations of the Sultanate state; O’Fahey’s extended analysis of the presence of both Fur and Islamic influences within the Sultanate’s culture presents a nuanced and convincing analysis of institutional hybridity.

O’Fahey rejects the idea that the work should extend beyond 1916 for two reasons: firstly, that there is a lack of material on the Condominium and post-Condomimium eras and, secondly, that the date marks the point at which Darfur ceased to be an independent state. The first reason is an inaccurate one; Martin Daly’s recent work Darfur’s Sorrow demonstrates that, with a bit of patience, there is plenty of material that can reveal much about the Condominium Era, for instance. The second reason is a curious one, given that extending the timeline would have been the best means by which O’Fahey could have tested one of his central hypotheses, that under the Sultanate Darfur developed a vital and distinct core identity that accounts in part for Khartoum’s lack of legitimacy in the region and, hence, for the present troubles.

So, where does this leave us? O’Fahey’s work lies at a point somewhere between textbook and academic monograph, usually closer to the latter than the former. What implications does this have for its suitability for different audiences? Undergraduates get an easily digestible narrative accompanied by useful geographical and ethnographic details and a good glossary. Plus, let us not forget, they get an eventful tale, with treachery and warfare on an epic scale rubbing shoulders with details of elite public life (such as the kundanga feast where, in a demonstration of loyalty to their sultan, princes and princesses of the Keira clan would eat the putrefied remains of a wether, comforted only by the knowledge that it was seasoned with butter and pepper, and that they would avert their own demise by forcing the stuff down). Academics, on the other hand, get a book that, if they have already studied Darfur, they will have for the most part read before.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 83-85]

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