A few years ago I picked up unusual and almost unique set of volumes. It was a more-or-less full run of “Sudan Church Notes” from 1907-1914. It was a monthly publication designed to inform people about the activities of the Anglican Church in Sudan. Needless to say this was a specialist interest journal and not many copies exist. In fact these are the only ones I have ever seen and they come from the Clergy House Library in Khartoum itself.
The book even comes with its own Sudanese insect, mummified in between the pages.
As a periodical, its contents are rather eccentric. It is a perfect example of the British colonial desire to pretend that wherever they were in the world was a small parish town in Surrey. There are notices about subscriptions to the building of the new cathedral, social events and even the scorecards to cricket matches.
It is written to make service in the Sudan appear more like a Miss Marple novel than a colonial mission. Without the place names (Bor, Atbara, Wad Madani, Khartoum etc.), it could be anywhere.
No more is this attempt to establish a kind of normality clearer than in the Um Nabardi mines. The North of Sudan had been mined for gold since the time of the Pharaohs, and it still is today. In the early 20th century, the British moved in.
It was three hours on a light rail from the nearest train station but they tried to maintain all the comforts of home.
Notices on Um Nabardi throughout the bulletin are sparse but in almost all of them they stress the hospitality and spirits of the people in the mine. They particularly stress how many of the things an Englishman might expect were present in the mines. There was a billiards room and a clubroom (with books and bagatelle). In 1907 a rifle range was constructed. The tennis court was repaired the next year in the 1910s a second tennis court was added. They wanted to “make do”.
Most of all it was music that was emphasised. Early in 1907 a Harmonium was delivered to the mines, though it was not until later in the year that they found someone who could play it, Mr Jenkins. The miners came in two year cycles and after Jenkins’ allotted time was over they were left with the harmonium but no-one to play it. Apparently Mrs Smith stepped in to play it, despite the burning hot weather, which was routinely over 120 F in the summer. Most of the people who visited the mines commented on the hearty singing voices of the west-country parishioners.
Probably the oddest attempt to recreate rural Britain in the Sudanese desert, was the recording of church bells that was put on the gramaphone for services.
Of course, none of this seems remotely believable. “One almost felt back in England as the familiar sounds [of bells] re-echoed among the valleys,” the correspondent wrote “and though they proceed actually from a Gramaphone Record, its realistic event may be judged from the fact that it has deceived a good many people already.”
I don’t believe that many people can have been tricked by a Gramaphone Record of church bells. Just as I do not believe that Um Nabardi mines were really much like an English country town. It is, however, very important for them to try to stress that it was. It is one of the more important myths of colonial life.
The more I read the notices from Um Nabardi, the more suspicious I got. It was boiling hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. The tennis court constantly need repair, the rifle range ran out of bullets, and only one person could even play the organ that was hauled out to the mine. The rhetoric must be partly putting a brave face on hardship.
However, it also hides something more unsettling. The first article on the mines mentions that the British were there to “superintend the Berbery workers above and below the mines”. After then there is no other reference to what must be the local Sudanese workers, who were doing most of the hard work. They do not fit into the construction of the idyll in the desert that “Sudan Church Notes” wants Um Nabardi to be.
This fantasy construction serves not only to give morale to the British stuck out in harsh condition but also to obscure the exploitative colonial nature of this enterprise. By retreating into a jolly-hockey-sticks, colonial derring-do view of the enterprise, any more brutal realities can be written out of our mental image of a desert mine.