After defeating the Mahdist army of Dervishes at Omdurman outside Khartoum in the Sudan in September 1898 (thereby avenging the death of General Gordon 14 years earlier), General Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian forces pushed up the Nile. At Fashoda (modern Kodok), nearly 400 miles south of the capital, they encountered a fort defended by French troops who refused to withdraw. The ensuing so-called ‘Fashoda Incident’ led to heated diplomatic exchanges between Britain and France– even the threat of war – and this in turn prompted a flurry of cartoon journalism.
Fashoda was a ruined mud-brick fort set amongst mosquito- and crocodile-infested swampland which had originally been set up by the Egyptian government in the 1860s to patrol slave-traffic in the area. Destroyed and abandoned by Mahdist forces, it was nonetheless of considerable strategic importance, as it lay on the west bank of the White Nile at a point where, if dammed during the dry season, water would be prevented from reaching British-controlled Egypt.
France and Britain were the two key players in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ at this time, and Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand set off in 1897 from the main French military base at Brazzaville in the French Congo with a view to capturing Fashoda before the British could get there. After an epic journey by foot and boat across 3,000 miles of inhospitable country, Marchand’s expedition of ten French officers and NCOs, an interpreter, a doctor, and 150 Senegalese riflemen – accompanied by an artist from L’Illustration – arrived at Fashoda in July 1898.
They quickly rebuilt the fort (renamed Fort St Louis) and in August repulsed two attacks by Mahdist forces, survivors from which then alerted General Herbert Kitchener, Sirdar (Commander-in-Chief) of the Anglo-Egyptian Army at Omdurman. So, in September 1898, fresh from his victory, Kitchener headed south with a force of 1,500 soldiers, together with artillery, machine-guns, and five large gunboats, to confront Marchand.
Though relations between the two opponents remained cordial, when Kitchener demanded that Marchand withdraw, the Frenchman refused – despite the superior force massed against him. Inflamed by jingoistic sabre-rattling by politicians and journalists in Britain and France, the situation escalated to fever pitch. ‘France’s honour is at stake; there can be no surrender,’ proclaimed Le Figaro.
The deadlock was finally resolved in December when the French Foreign Minister Theophile Delcassé backed down and Marchand’s force was escorted out of Sudan.
A full-page cartoon by John Tenniel (1820-1914) for Punch (‘Marchez! Marchand!’, 8 October 1898) sums up the British view, with General John Bull saying to Major Marchand (seated on a rock labelled ‘Fashoda’): ‘Come, Professor. You’ve had a nice little scientific trip! I’ve smashed the dervishes – luckily for you – and now I recommend you to pack up your flags and go home!!’
Two weeks later he returned to the theme (‘Quit! – Pro Quo?’, 22 October 1898), with John Bull as a householder trying to get rid of an itinerant French organ-grinder whose monkey (standing on the ‘Fashoda’ organ) is dressed in French military uniform. ‘What you give me if I go?’ asks the Frenchman. ‘I’ll give you something if you don’t!’ replies John Bull.
Other Punch drawings on the affair include two by E T Reed (1860-1933) – ‘How Some People Invade the Soudan’ (24 September 1898) and ‘Prehistoric Fashoda’ (15 October 1898) – both of which imply that the French had slyly crept in unobserved and squatted on land that was not theirs.
This idea is repeated in two cartoons in Fun by John Proctor (1836-1914). In the first (‘Poaching on His Preserve’, September 1898), John Bull is a gamekeeper and France an illegal angler, while the second (‘Dignity and Impudence’, 18 October 1898) has the British bulldog (outside his kennel marked ‘Egypt’) in a stand-off with a French poodle (labelled ‘Marchand’) over the ‘Fashoda’ bone.
A similar view is expressed in a cartoon published in Moonshine (24 September 1898) which shows Kitchener riding a camel towards a tiny French poodle (‘Sirdar: “Now then, little dog, out of the way – or I shall be over you!” ‘).
Even children’s comics featured the conflict – the six-panel cover feature of The Big Budget for 15 October 1898 was ‘Airy Alf and Bouncing Billy take Fashoda’.
The French version of events was, not surprisingly, somewhat different. The colour cover illustration for Le Petit Journal (20 November 1898) depicts Britannia as the Wolf pretending to be the kindly Grandmother in the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood. As France (dressed as the girl) approaches, carrying a cake labelled ‘Fashoda’, she says: ‘Grandmother, what large teeth you have!’ The Britannia Wolf replies: ‘That is to eat your cake, my child!’
La Silhouette takes a different approach and in ‘Major Marchand’s Mission’ (2 October 1898) has Marchand seated on the fortress of Fashoda as Kitchener and his camel run away in terror.
In direct contrast to La Silhouette, the German magazine Ulk (11 November 1898) has a French tiger running away from Fashoda as John Bull shakes a rattle marked ‘Press Threats’ with the caption: ‘How timid this tiger is! He runs from a rattle!’
A four-part drawing by Gustav Brandt (1861-1919) in the Berlin-based Kladderadatsch (‘The War Barometer’, 30 October 1898) has John Bull and Major Marchand shouting ‘Fashoda!’ at each on other either side of a sword which acts as a barometer. At their loudest, the sword is nearly withdrawn from its scabbard, revealing the worst weather predictions, but as their voices calm, so does the writing on the sword’s blade, from Earthquake, Storm, Heavy Rain, Rain, and Changeable to Settled and Good Weather.
Finally, a cartoon in the Swiss magazine Nebelspalter (‘The Quarrelsome Graces’, 5 November 1898) has Britain and France as two fat old women arguing over a small black boy (labelled ‘Fashoda’) held by France (the original three classical Graces personified beauty, charm, and grace). The British woman, who already has Sudan in her bag and demands the boy’s release while threatening France with a furled umbrella, is shown as Queen Victoria.