CAIRO: Apart from a 1933 Arabic manuscript by Prince Omar Tosson “The Heroic Acts of the Sudanese-Egyptian Orta [Battalion] in the Mexico War and a novel published in 2004 by Egyptian author Salwa Bakr titled “Kuku Sudan Kabashi, very little is known about the Egyptian battalion that was deployed in the Mexican war from 1863-1867.
Bakr’s novel is a fictionalization of this forgotten slice of Egyptian military history.
When Khalda, a lawyer who takes a special interest in human rights cases, runs into the Mexican Rudolfo on an EgyptAir flight, she never expects that the yellowed stack of papers he gives her are the memoirs of Sheikh Othman Hufni, the Upper-Egyptian Imam who accompanied the battalion on that distant expedition but stayed behind and married a Mexican Red Indian.
As it turns out, Sheikh Hufni, from Hufn, the native town of Maria the Copt who was married to Prophet Mohamed (PBUH), is Rudolfo’s great grandfather. Rudolfo had returned to Egypt in search of his roots.
But the story is not completely fictional because some of the grandchildren of the troops who stayed behind currently live in the Mexican city Guadalajara, Wadi El Hegara or Valley of the Rocks.
History books point to the subject briefly. An entire Egyptian-Sudanese ‘orta’ (battalion) consisting of 463 troops sailed from Alexandria to Toulon on La Seine and then braved the Atlantic in 47 days to join the French army that was fighting the native Mexican population to lay the foundations of a French empire overseas.
It was an ambitious colonial enterprise started by France, Great Britain and Spain at the time the American Civil War raged to presage a worldwide movement against slavery and colonization. France felt it should establish colonies in Mexico to balance the new emergent power that threatened colonial values.
As Spain and Britain pulled out leaving the French forces to muddy in the wilderness of Mexico’s equatorial jungles and mountainous terrains, several troops perished due to the Mexicans’ tough resistance as well as the land’s rough nature and the spread of dysentery, yellow fever and other indigenous diseases.
The Egyptian orta set out to France just a few days before the demise of Khedive Said Pasha, then ruler of Egypt and Sudan, who dispatched it in response to an urgent request by his friend Emperor Napoleon III. The dark-skinned soldiers were thought to have been less prone to the equatorial diseases and better adapted to the wild terrain that resembled the environment of their homeland.
Following four years of armed conflict with Mexican guerilla fighters, the French forces were defeated, Emperor Maximilian assassinated and of the 463 troops some 313 returned to Egypt in 1867 to be awarded honors and promotions.
Having fought 48 battles in Mexico in such deplorable conditions, the dark soldiers were praised for their bravery, skill and stamina, so much so that prince Tosson included the word “heroic in their titles.
Indeed the orta comprised daredevil, intrepid heroic fighters, but from a political perspective neither the war in Mexico nor the dispatch of the orta was heroic in any sense of the word.
“Reading Tosson’s manuscript, you will immediately question the facts and figures, Bakr told Daily News Egypt.
“The nature of the terrain, the ferocity of the Mexican street and guerilla fighters and the type of tasks assigned to those troops negates the idea that the number of troops were under than 500. The actual figure could be put at no less than 5,000, argues Bakr.
Tosson recounts that the orta comprised the resistance and defense-lines on fronts that couldn’t be protected by the French troops. They were also tasked with safeguarding the railways that were sabotaged by Mexican highwaymen and guarding thousands of Mexican captives who were employed in rebuilding them.
But the theory that the “black soldiers were better fitted for that kind of environment proved to be wrong. On a permanent basis 42 fell ill from each division, 32 of whom were taken to hospitals when the others had to be attended to in their own barracks.
Could all that have involved less than 500 fighters?
“When I started writing “Kuku Sudan Kabashi, which is named after a Sudanese soldier, originally a slave that was trained to become a fighter in the Egyptian army, I was disturbed by the total lack of information on the subject as well as the contradiction between the man and the description of the battle scene. I went to meet the French consul in Cairo, officials from the Mexican embassy and other concerned parties, but I couldn’t be properly guided.
Thus Bakr was forced to base most of her research on Tosson’s manuscript and and another book titled “Egyptian-American Relations.
“The latter revealed stunning facts, says Bakr. “Besides the question relating to the size of the battalion, the orta was purely Sudanese, not Sudanese-Egyptian as claimed. And those Sudanese soldiers and officers, like Kabashi, were slaves that were kidnapped in South Sudan and sold at the court of Mohamed Ali and his successors.
In the novel, Bakr writes: “Brought to Egypt from Sudan during the rule of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the black slaves were sent to man the army and make up the awort [plural of orta]. They were also employed in the military factories set up by the Pasha in the citadel.. The female slaves were trained to become midwives, the eunuchs sent to be in the service of the Pasha’s harem.
According to Bakr, the orta was associated with Egypt as Sudan was ruled by it and because all those Sudanese slaves-turned-militaries hailed from the Nubian Mountains that are mistakenly thought to be located in Egyptian Nubia rather than in the south west of Sudan.
Politically as well as historically, however, there is every reason why each concerned party should try not to discuss the subject openly or reveal related documents.
The war was synonymous with France’s defeat, its stark deviation from the principles of the French Revolution overseas. It is one history page where the Mexicans were depicted as street fighters rather than citizens of an organized state. It was a time when American-Egyptian relations were strained. All set to abolish the slave trade, America accused Egypt of bolstering slavery and sending slaves to fight in a foreign land. With a history replete with anti-imperialist movements and the fiery recollections of Arab nationalism, this military venture is certainly a stigma for Egypt.
“But interestingly the question of the orta coupled by the injustices suffered by the peasants who were shepherded to dig the Suez Canal between 1859 and 1869, were two major events that sparked the first nationalist movement in Egypt’s modern history, which was led by the Egyptian army officer Ahmed Orabi in the 1880s, said Bakr.
But what happened to some of the members of this orta after they returned safely to their homeland?
A few that made up an entire Sudanese unit led by Egyptian officer Abdel Aal Helmy Bey participated in Orabi’s nationalist movement known as the Orabi Revolution.
Others took part in the battle fought by the Egyptian-British armies against the Mahdi forces in Sudan. But most importantly many rose to support Sir Samuel Baker Pasha, the British officer, explorer and abolitionist in his effort to abolish slavery in Sudan.
In his accounts based on information received from some of the orta members or their families, Tosson related that Sudanese officer Farag Ahmed Hashem, who originally hailed from the Sudanese coastal cities located on the Red Sea, became part of Baker’s anti-slavery unit known as The Forty Thieves and traveled along with him to Sudan’s equatorial zones in 1869 to hunt down slave traders.
It was due to Hashem’s intrepidity that Abu El Seoud, one of the partners of the Akad Brothers who led a gang that abducted black people, was arrested.
Officers Abdulla El Fiqi and Morgan Sherif who belonged to the Mexico orta, also became members of The Forty Thieves. The latter was the first to penetrate the fortifications of El Bari tribe in Su
dan, one of the bastions of slave traders.
But all those who once belonged to the orta and later joined Baker were liquidated at the hands of Al Bari tribesmen.
But what are the repercussions of that struggle on today’s world? Through her novel, Bakr tries to answer that question.
One character, a refugee named Alaa from South Sudan, refuses to seek asylum in the US.
He tells his lawyer Khalda: “I don’t want to go there. If I do they will take me in the army and send me to fight in Iraq.