The Upper Nile Province Handbook - A Report on People and Government in the Southern Sudan, 1991
by C.A. Willis
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This account of what used to be one of Sudan’s remotest provinces provides the historical context for the early classics of British social anthropology. It contains descriptions of local life by some of the first British officials to become conversant in the languages of the Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk and Anuak – at a time when the anthropologist, E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s fieldwork in the province had only just begun.
It also includes documentation on the origins of the Jonglei Canal, one of the most controversial environmental engineering projects in modern Africa. With many of the region’s previous governmental structures now obliterated by war, this record of the beginnings of civil administration will be of immense value to South Sudanese and the new nation of South Sudan.
“While some of the detail of the Handbook…will appeal only to very dedicated Sudan experts, the text as a whole has a much wider colonial significance. It replicates, on a grand scale, many of the features of the (unpublished) District Books and handing-over notes of other colonial territories. Reading the Handbook reminds one of just how much British administration depended on the collection, collation and even the manufacture of information about the peoples over which it ruled….The key documents which contain the ethnography of administrators and on which historians rely for their analyses are too rarely available outside the archives. We all owe a debt to Johnson and the British Academy for making the handbook available, not merely as a source but also as a memorial to a world whose contradictions remain even while its substance is fast being overlaid or destroyed by forces more ruthless than amateur ethnographers and ex-military administrators.”
The Upper Nile Province Handbook was first published in 1995 by the British Academy as the third volume in their Oriental and African Archives series. At that time Sudan’s second civil war was being fought out very largely in ‘Greater Upper Nile’, whose territory is described in this book, and the early administrative record of Upper Nile and the Southern Sudan was largely inaccessible to scholars and South Sudanese alike. The publication of the Handbook was intended mainly for use by researchers, and as such had a limited circulation before being put out of print. Since the end of that war in 2005 there has been a growing demand for the book from a new readership inside South Sudan and in the South Sudanese diaspora around the world, especially those from Upper Nile itself. Scholarly editions of primary sources rarely reach a popular readership; therefore, it is with great satisfaction that a paperback edition of this book is now available for the audience who will appreciate it most.
It replicates, on a grand scale, many of the features of the (unpublished) District Books and handing-over notes of other colonial territories. We all owe a debt to Johnson and the British Academy for making the handbook available, not merely as a source but also as a memorial to a world whose contradictions remain even while its substance is fast being overlaid or destroyed by forces more ruthless than amateur ethnographers and ex-military administrators.’ Richard Waller, Bucknell University, Lewisburg PA, Journal of African History, Vol. 38 – 1997
The Upper Nile Province: An Historical Overview
From Military to Civil Administration 1898 – 1926
The region which later became Upper Nile Province confronted the incoming Anglo-Egyptian army with a series of international problems when, on 19 September 1898, General Kitchener arrived at Fashoda by riverboat after his decisive victory over the Mahdist army of the Khalifa Abdallahi at Ondurman. Not only was a small French force under the command of Captain Marchand entrenched at the old Turco-Egyptian headquarters of Fushoda, but further up the Nile the Belgians at Rejaf and Lado claimed yet another chunk of what had been the Egyptian Equatoria Province; and to the east the emperor of Abyssinia, Menilek II, not only claimed all the lands from the Abyssinian foothills to the White Nile, he had sent an expeditionary force along the Baro and the Sobat to plant his flag and so strengthen his claim with ‘effective occupation’. It was this competition of various imperial powers which established the administrative limits to the new Fashoda administrative and military district. The old Egyptian outposts of Nasir and Bor were hurriedly re-occupied by Sudanese troops of the Egyptian Army to secure these places against the Ethiopians and Belgians. Marchand was withdrawn and the Belgians contained by European diplomacy, and Menilek, too, settled his borders by negotiation—though it took some years of further filling in the map before anyone was certain just where these borders lay. Once these limits had been agreed Upper Nile Province (as it was renamed) ceased to be of any great concern to the government centred at Khartoum. It became little more than a place to get through on the way to the Bahr el-Ghazal, the Congo and Uganda, where the main river channels had to be kept clear of vegetation blockage, but where little money could be spent because very little revenue was expected.
Upper Nile Province’s reputation as a backwater was gained early, but this belied a history of constant activity, a complicated balancing of relations between many different peoples, and the persistent influence of Ethiopia just across the invisible borderline.