The ‘Immortal’ Osman Digna

The ‘Immortal’ Osman Digna

Osman Digna c.1899
Osman Digna c.1899

Demonised by some but highly respected by others, Osman Digna (sometimes spelt ‘Uthman Diqna) was a Mahdist leader who remained a thorn in the side of the British in Sudan for almost two decades during the late Victorian period. He was, perhaps, the ablest commander of the Ansar – the Mahdist army – who, despite numerous defeats, refused to give up the jihad against the Anglo-Egyptian authorities. Although largely forgotten in the West today, he is remembered as a hero by many in Sudan. But just who was Osman Digna and what makes him ‘immortal’?

It is uncertain when and where Digna was born, although some believe it was around 1840 at or near Suakin in Sudan, probably originally hailing from the Hadendoa tribe of the Beja people. However, it is known that he resided at Alexandria in Egypt for a period of time, working as a dealer in slaves under the name of Osman Ali. Digna would be forced out of business by the Egyptian authorities around 1877, and so he later joined Ahmed Arabi’s Egyptian nationalist uprising in 1882. When Arabi was defeated by the British at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir in September of the same year, Digna left to join the ongoing rebellion led by Muhammad Ahmad, the popular self-proclaimed Mahdi of Sudan, in 1883.

Osman Digna's House at Suakin
Osman Digna’s House at Suakin

Shortly after joining the Mahdist jihad, he changed his name from Osman Ali to Osman Digna, by which he is referred to by most historians today. The name ‘Digna’ roughly translates into ‘the bearded one’ or ‘the beard’, a title he gained in recognition of the full beard he always wore. Digna would command a strong army of Hadendoa tribesmen, which based itself near Suakin. It would not be long before he conducted his first battle in the service of the Mahdi, attacking Sinkat in 1883. A brutal siege ensued, but eventually the Ottoman defenders were defeated.

On 4 February 1884, Digna confronted Baker Pasha at the First Battle of El Teb, inflicting a heavy defeat on the much larger Egyptian force. His victory, however, was short-lived for he in turn suffered defeat at the Second Battle of El Teb, on the 29th, when a more powerful Anglo-Egyptian force was sent against him under the command of Sir Gerald Graham. Escaping to fight another day, Digna and Graham would clash again at the Battle of Tamai on 13 March. During the battle, Digna’s warriors were able to break one of Graham’s infantry squares, but the British force eventually got the upper hand and inflicted another heavy defeat on the Mahdists.

Second Battle of El Teb
Second Battle of El Teb

Although defeated, Digna earned the grudging respect of many who fought against him. Winston Churchill, in his book The River War, wrote of the Hadendoa tribe and their leader: ‘The Hadendoa tribe, infuriated by oppression and misgovernment, had joined the rebellion under the leadership of the celebrated, and perhaps immortal, Osman Digna’.

Digna would also feature in William McGonagall’s poem The Battle of El-Teb:

‘Thus slowly and cautiously brave General Graham proceeded
And to save his men from slaughter, great caution was needed,
Because Osman Digna’s force was about ten thousand strong;
But he said, Come on, my brave lads, we’ll conquer them ere long!’

Even the celebrated writer Rudyard Kipling gave praise to Digna’s men for breaking an infantry square in his well-known poem Fuzzy-Wuzzy:

‘Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.’

Although decisively defeated in battle several times, Digna would quickly rebuild his army and again become a lingering danger to the British. Following the killing of Charles Gordon at Khartoum, it has been said that Digna was given the British general’s watch and sword to take with him to Suakin, where he would show them to his warriors as proof of the Mahdi’s great victory.

The Death of General Gordon at Khartoum
The Death of General Gordon at Khartoum

When Muhammad Ahmad died in 1885 he was succeeded as leader of the Mahdists by the rather less charismatic and less able Abdallahi al-Taisha, who became known as the Khalifa. Digna would go on to serve the new Khalifa, taking command of a Mahdist army which invaded Abyssinia, although he was defeated at the Battle of Kufit on 23 September 1885 by Ethiopian General Ras Alula Engida.

Digna again did battle with British forces at the Battle of Suakin, on 20 December 1888, although he would be dealt a bloody nose by Francis Grenfell, receiving a wound to his arm. However, he simply showed his resilience and sheer determination to continue the fight against the British and Egyptians, remaining a persistent danger to them in eastern Sudan for several years. Eventually, following the British capture of Tokar in February 1891, Digna was forced to withdraw from the region.

Battle of Atbara
Battle of Atbara

Nevertheless, Digna continued to serve under the Khalifa, facing the British yet again at the Battle of Atbara on 8 April 1898. The Mahdists would be defeated at Atbara by Herbert Kitchener, as they would at the climactic Battle of Omdurman on 2 September. Although the Mahdists were now utterly broken, the Khalifa evaded capture and it would not be until 25 November 1899 that the British finally caught up with him at the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat and killed him.

The plucky Digna again survived his latest battle, but while attempting to escape to the Hejaz he was arrested by the British on 19 January 1900 in the Red Sea Hills near Tokar. The British imprisoned Digna at Rosetta in Egypt, where he remained their enforced guest for the next eight years.

Osman Digna in Old Age
Osman Digna in Old Age

Following his release from prison in 1908, Digna lived out his life in peace in Egypt. He died in 1926.

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