Connecting the Two Sudans: Mobile Histories of Faith, Cotton, and Colonialism

Madina Thiam, New York University


Le Temps and La Politique Coloniale report that, according to a report on Northern Nigeria written by High Commissioner Sir W. Wallace and published by the Colonial Office, thousands of Fulani from the Middle Niger might be migrating from the French territory and heading towards the Nile valley. I would be grateful for any further information you might provide me with on this topic.[1]

This note from the French colonial archives, “a.s. d’une prétendue migration des Peuhls” (regarding an alleged Fulani migration), reveals French and British anxieties in the early decades of their rule in Africa about their inability to grasp a population movement that trumped the logic of colonial borders.[2] The eastward travels of West African Muslims towards the Nile valley long predated the arrival of European empires in the region. The phenomenon was rooted in the old tradition of West African Muslims undertaking the pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which started during the era of medieval West African states, first the Mali Empire, and then its successor, the Songhai Empire. These pilgrims would reach the Hejaz by traveling along the Ṭarīq al-Sūdān (Sudan Road), a West-East trans-Sahelian axis starting in today’s Mali and extending all the way to the Red Sea.

From the 1880s onwards, and intensifying towards the turn of the twentieth century, the flow of pilgrims traveling eastwards on this route grew to include people fleeing European colonization, in accordance with Islamic doctrines of hijrah (migration) and eschatological prophecies announcing the rise of a mahdī(redeemer) in the east.[3] Pilgrims and migrants from the Western Sahel continued to migrate east on the Sudan Road well into the twentieth century. Many of them knew that labor opportunities in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan would allow them to sustain themselves should they run out of financial resources while performing the hajj. For example, the Gezira Scheme, the largest irrigation project in the world, initiated in 1925 in Sudan under British rule, attracted labor from West Africans migrating and settling along the Sudan Road. The Gezira’s success reverberated back westwards across the Sahel, inspiring the creation of a similar project, the Office du Niger, in the French Soudan (the French colony that became today’s Republic of Mali, located on lands that were part of the historic Mali Empire). In sum, what started as West African Muslim pilgrimage and religious travel in the fourteenth century, increasingly turned into refugee and labor migration by the twentieth century colonial era.

This paper explores some of the connected histories of migration, colonialism, and cotton that link today’s Mali and Sudan—the colonial French Soudan and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. First, shifting away from a focus on post-colonial Francophone Africa and imperial French Africa as units of study, the paper draws on literature highlighting the deeper histories of African connections that have been fragmented by colonialism and its legacies.[4] Second, it connects cotton production during the French colonization in Mali to broader dynamics in the Atlantic world and the British empire. 

A Pilgrimage Route across the Sahara

People, ideas, and words have traveled between the banks of the Niger and Nile rivers since the medieval era. One of the earliest accounts of such travels is that of the pilgrimage to Mecca of Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali, in 1324–26. He stopped in several cities along the way, including Cairo, where his delegation carried so much gold that the metal’s value dropped in Egypt for several years.[5] Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage is a well-known episode of West African history that marked the Mali empire’s pinnacle and signaled to the world the aspirations and capabilities of a powerful West African state. A lesser-known episode within that story, however, illustrates the fact that Mansa Musa’s journey occurred through what was already a well-traveled road.

The historian Al-Umari, who visited Cairo shortly after Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage, recounts that Mansa Musa was upset by the appellation “Malik Takrūr,” King of Takrūr, which people in Egypt used to designate him. Mansa Musa stressed that Takrūr was only one of many provinces he ruled over, rendering the label reductive. As it happened, the name “Takrūr” had reached Cairo long before Mansa Musa had, most likely spread by earlier pilgrims from West Africa.[6] Pilgrimage routes had already cemented active connections between West and Northeast Africa, facilitating the circulation of words, ideas, and people. Over the following centuries, pilgrimage and West-East trans-Saharan trade activities continued to flourish.

The 1591 Moroccan conquest of the Songhai empire, the Mali empire’s successor state, triggered instability in West Africa, and resulted in a gradual re-routing of pilgrimage itineraries.[7] Previously, West Africans had mainly traveled via a route going northwards from Timbuktu towards the North African coast, then eastwards towards Cairo. After the Moroccan conquest, an increasing number of West African pilgrims traveled through the hinterland via the trans-Sahelian Sudan Road, which historian Chanfi Ahmed describes as such:

This route started in Mali (and present-day Mauritania) then led to Hausaland, Chad, and Darfur. From there, pilgrims continued either along the darb al-arbaʿīn (the “forty-day path,” well-known in the oriental slave trade) to Cairo, or continued eastward to Jinayna, al-Obaid, Omdurman, and then Sawākīn, Port Sudan, or Masāwa. From there they took a ship or a dhow to Jedda and Yanbu.[8]

Hijrah and Mahdi: Seeking Refuge from the French Colonial Invasion

The European colonial invasion of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coupled with popular ideas about the Islamic concept of hijrah, prompted an increasing number of West African Muslims to migrate eastwards along the Sudan Road. The term hijrah, “mentioned several times in the Qurʾān with the meaning of to ‘reject’ (23:69), to ‘avoid’ (74:5), to ‘leave’ (19:46), and to ‘ban’ (4:34),” broadly refers to the notion that Muslims, should they find themselves in an environment hostile to their faith, should leave.[9]

As David Robinson noted, scholars have largely classified African responses to colonization as falling under one of three broad categories: resistance, collaboration, or accommodation. Few have discussed a fourth type of response, which is emigration.[10] Yet, in the context of nineteenth century West Africa, hijrah became one form of response to colonial invasion, prompting some Muslims to migrate to escape the rule of Christian, European nations. This hijrah often happened eastwards, along the same trans-Sahelian route that pilgrims used. Two famous instances of colonization-triggered hijrah took place around the turn of the twentieth century, when the leaders of two major West African Muslim polities, Fuutanke leader Shehu Aḥmadu (Mali) and Sokoto leader Muḥammadu Attāhiru (northern Nigeria) undertook hijrah in the face of French and British colonization.[11]

A 1906 note from a French colonial official in Fort-Lamy (present-day N’Djaména, Chad), recounted events that happened after the early 1890s French conquest of Segu, Jenne, and Bandiagara, three previously Fuutanke-ruled cities in the Soudan:

Aḥmadu’s Fuutanke [followers]—the last remnants of these hardliners who never accepted to submit to our domination—the former Sultan of Sokoto’s supporters, and the malcontents from Northern Nigeria, are going away towards the East, with no hope of ever returning … It will be up to the Anglo-Egyptian authorities to watch these newcomers, should they settle on the White Nile.[12]

Prophecies about the appearance of a mahdī, known both in West Africa and in the Middle East, further fueled late nineteenth century West African migrations to Sudan. According to one strand of early Islamic eschatology, the end of the world would arrive in the thirteenth century of the Islamic calendar, 1786–1883, and be heralded by the appearance of a mahdī. The 1881 uprising of Muḥammad Aḥmad in Sudan against Turco-Egyptian and British rule, his self-proclamation as the mahdī, and the subsequent rise of the Sudanese Mahdiyya (1881–1898), thus further fueled West African hijrah doctrines and eastward migrations along the Sudan Road.[13]

According to ʿUmar al-Naqar, “when the mahdī did appear and the world was to draw to a close, it was better for Muslims either to meet him, or to await his appearance in the East.”[14] The Sudanese Mahdiyya did succeed in attracting some West Africans to its ranks. As Mark R. Duffield argues, West African migrants largely sustained the Mahdiyya and its aftermath.[15] In fact, one of the mahdī’s most trusted lieutenants, Muḥammad al-Dadāri, who played a crucial role in organizing the mahdī’s succession in the moments following his death, was himself a Fulani from the Sokoto Caliphate.[16] Eventually, British forces went on to defeat the Mahdiyya in 1898 and consolidated their rule over the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. 

Pilgrims to Workers: The Gezira Scheme in Sudan

Paradoxically, while the late nineteenth century European colonial penetration in Muslim West Africa catalyzed eastward flight and migrations to Sudan, the consolidation of British rule in Sudan in the first decades of the twentieth century sustained and increased these migrations. Large-scale agricultural and infrastructure projects in Sudan under British rule relied heavily on West African labor and provided an opportunity for migrants and pilgrims to earn wages as they were on their way to, or coming back from, the hajj. In 1925, British authorities in Sudan started operating the Gezira scheme, a massive network of man-made canals and ditches “conceived primarily as a project to produce long-staple cotton for export through the irrigation of nearly two million acres between the White and Blue Niles.”[17] The scheme still stands today as the largest irrigation project in the world.

Upon opening, the scheme provided West African pilgrims and migrants in Sudan with a reliable source of agricultural labor. As they were on their way to—or coming back from—the Hejaz, many West Africans chose to settle in Sudan, becoming, as per Christian Bawa Yamba, permanent pilgrims. By the first quarter of the twentieth century, enough West Africans had traveled and settled along the Sudan Road that “it was possible to distinguish between people who had already settled in the Sudan and pilgrims who intended to make the pilgrimage and return to their homelands.”[18] To illustrate this point, ‘Umar Al-Naqar mentions the anecdote of the Sudanese village of Mai Wurnu, which was “deliberately avoided by pilgrims who intended to return westward, for fear they might never do so.”[19] Conducting field research in West African areas of Sudan in the 1990s, Bawa Yamba described their villages and settlements as “liminal stations strung between home and Mecca, along a route emotionally charted with the graves of the beloved ones they have lost on their way.” Bawa Yamba noted that most villagers were “third-, fourth-, even fifth-generation immigrants, who have lived all their lives in Sudan, yet still regard themselves as being in transit,” further adding that “although they reside permanently in these villages, they still find it necessary, when asked, to include explanations in rational terms of why they have not yet reached Mecca.”[20]

France’s Cotton Dreams: From Louisiana to the Soudan, via Sudan

If eastwards West African migration sustained the Gezira irrigation project, the scheme’s influence reverberated back westwards: colonial ideas of race, labor, cash crop production, and environmental manipulation also moved, albeit figuratively, along the Sudan Road. Unlike the British empire—which produced cotton in Egypt, Sudan, and India—France in the early twentieth century largely relied on US-grown cotton.

Cotton had been an early preoccupation in France’s colonial encroachment in West Africa. It is one of the key links between France’s slaving and imperial past in the Caribbean and its colonization of West Africa. Indeed, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, following the 1803 sale of the Louisiana territory, the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), and costly Napoleonic wars (1803–1815), France was bankrupt and started showing interest in the potential that the Senegambia’s alluvial plains, including in the Fuuta Toro, held for cash crop production. In 1817, Julien-Désiré Schmaltz, familiar with the Dutch East Indies where he had previously worked, was appointed governor of France’s Senegal colony—then mainly consisting of forts and trading posts in Gorée and Saint-Louis. Schmaltz’s main task was to revive gum arabic and gold exports in the region. As soon as he took office, he also started designing plans for cotton, coffee, and sugar production in the Senegal River valley, with the support of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs. The minister himself, Pierre-Victor Malouet, was a former Saint-Domingue planter. Schmaltz’s plans ultimately failed, due to environmental unsuitability and political resistance from several Fuuta leaders.[21] Still, France kept intensifying its territorial expansion eastward towards the Niger river valley, through military conquest and the extension of treaties, eventually leading up to the creation of the French West Africa federation.

As the colonial system in the French Soudan was consolidated, cotton remained one of the administration’s central concerns. In the early twentieth century, the French-installed king of the Sansanding estates, Mademba Sy, gained relative notoriety for his claims that he would grow long-staple American cotton in his territories. The experiment was ultimately a failure. Still, Sy’s self-portrayal as a cotton innovator played a role in ensuring the administration would turn a blind eye to massive accusations of abuse and despotic rule lodged against him by the population of Sansanding.[22] By the 1930s, France’s cotton ambitions had not waned. Inspired by the Gezira scheme’s success, and drawing environmental parallels between the Nile and Niger river valleys, French engineer Émile Bélime successfully lobbied his government for the creation of a similar project in one of France’s West African colonies, the French Soudan.[23] Established on January 5, 1932, the Segu-headquartered Office du Niger, dedicated to rice and cotton production, would never quite yield economic profits on par with its eastern Sahelian inspiration.[24] Moreover, the project resulted in land grabs, mass displacements, forced labor, and high death rates, in particular during the building of one of its landmarks, the Sansanding/Markala dam. By 1944, Bélime himself wound up being evicted from the Office du Niger.

Race, Cotton, and “Indigenous Colonization”

Through colonisation indigène (indigenous colonization) a policy whereby the French colonial authorities relocated farmers from throughout French West Africa to areas they considered propitious for cash crop production, thousands of people were displaced and forced to work on the dam.[25] Indigenous colonization rested on racialized ideas of peasantry developed by French colonial ethnographers, whereby native African peasants were situated “on a ladder of human development next to the peasants of Europe’s past.”[26] As such, these peasants supposedly needed European direction and supervision in order to achieve optimal exploitation of agricultural lands.[27]

This logic mirrors colonial concerns in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In his discussion of West Africans and the Gezira scheme, Bawa Yamba argues that the Anglo-Egyptian authorities strove to attract immigrants and facilitated their transit and settlement in Sudan, especially as years of war had ravaged Sudan’s population and caused a shortage in the labor supply.[28] Citing G. Ayoub Balamoan’s demographic study of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Bawa Yamba claims that the colonial authorities sought, at one stage, to “keep Sudan black,” by specifically encouraging immigration from West and Equatorial Africa, while expelling from the country “Egyptians, some whites, as well as residents regarded as ‘tainted’ immigrants.”[29] Bawa Yamba does not elaborate on the rationale for these racial policies, or the extent to which they fit within existing racial dynamics in Sudan. Regardless, it appears that in the first part of the twentieth century, on both ends of the Sudan Road connecting the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan to the French Soudan, massive cash crop production projects, coupled with colonial ideas about race, triggered the mobilities and labor of thousands of Western Sahelians.


When it comes to trans-Saharan mobilities, historical scholarship has devoted much more attention to those West Africans crossing the Sahel-Sahara area northwards towards North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Europe, than to those moving eastwards towards Sudan, the Red Sea, and Arabia. Yet, this imbalance in scholarship partially masks historical and contemporary migration trends. For instance, Gregory Mann noted that in a 2001 census, the Malian government counted the number of Malian migrants living in Sudan and Egypt to be 200,000, twice as many as the 100,000 Malians estimated to live in France in the same census.[30] These numbers may seem surprising, as media attention and historical scholarship alike have devoted much more attention to those West Africans crossing the Sahara northwards towards the Mediterranean and Europe, to the detriment of those doing so eastwards towards the Nile and Red Sea. Yet underneath these numbers lie a historical moment when pilgrimage traditions, the French colonial conquest, eschatological beliefs on hijrah and the mahdī, large scale colonial irrigation and cotton projects, and colonial ideas of race, all coalesced to shape West African mobilities and foster connections between both ends of the Sahel.



[1] From the Governor General of French West Africa to the Dahomey Lieutenant-Governor, February 17, 1907. Archives Nationales du Senegal (ANS) 17G:39. I thank Samuel Anderson for sharing this file. Afrique Occidentale Française (French West Africa, AOF) was a federation of eight colonies: Mauritania, Senegal, Soudan Français, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Haute-Volta (today’s Burkina-Faso), and Dahomey (today’s Benin). The Fulani are a nomadic, pastoral and largely Muslim people of West Africa and the Sahel.

[2] A portion of this article was first published in Africa Is a Country. This is a reworked and expanded version.

[3] The hijrah initially referred to the migration that the Prophet Muḥammad and his followers undertook in 622 A.D. from Mecca—where they were faced with a hostile environment—to Medina. The term eventually came to be used more broadly to encourage Muslims to migrate, should they find themselves in an environment hostile to their faith. In Islamic eschatology, as Chanfi Ahmed explains, “the mahdī is a figure who will appear at the end of the time to fill the world with justice, after it has been filled with injustice. This injustice is embodied by al-Masīḥ al-Dajjāl, or the false messiah, the Antichrist. The Dajjāl was, in the eyes of the West African migrants, embodied by European colonizers.” See Chanfi Ahmed, West African ʿUlamāʾ and Salafism in Mecca and Medina: Jawab al-Ifrīqī—The Response of the African (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 18.

[4] This approach echoes calls for more integrated studies of Africa and the Middle East. See Hisham Aidi, Marc Lynch, and Zachariah Mampilly (eds.), “Racial Formations in Africa and the Middle East: A Transregional Approach,” POMEPS Studies 44 (2021). Recent literature has highlighted the connections between Mali and Sudan (and beyond, the Hejaz), including Chanfi Ahmed, West African ʿUlamāʾ and Salafism in Mecca and Medina, and Gregory Mann, From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 93–119.

[5] Michael Gomez, African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 59–166.

[6] Umar al-Naqar, “Takrur: The History of a Name,” Journal of African History 10, no. 3 (1969): 370–1.

[7] Umar al-Naqar, The Pilgrimage Tradition in West Africa: A Historical Study with Special Reference to the Nineteenth Century (Khartoum: Khartoum University Press, 1972), 95.

[8] Chanfi Ahmed, West African ʿUlamāʾ and Salafism in Mecca and Medina, 14.

[9] Ibid, 16.

[10] David Robinson, “The Umarian Emigration of the Late Nineteenth Century,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 20, no. 2 (1987): 245–270.

[11] Al-Naqar, Pilgrimage Tradition in West Africa, 86–89.

[12] “Note sur les Toucouleurs récemment arrivés à Fort-Lamy” from Chef de Bataillon Signé-Caden, Fort-Lamy, August 10, 1906, 17G, Archives Nationales du Sénégal (ANS), Dakar, Sénégal.

[13] The Mahdiyya was a political and religious movement in Sudan, led by Muḥammad Aḥmad b. ʿAbd Allah who in 1881 proclaimed himself mahdī, and successfully put an end to Ottoman and British rule in Sudan through armed rebellion, famously killing British Governor-General Charles George Gordon. In 1885, Muḥammad Aḥmad died. In 1898, the Mahdiyya was defeated, and Sudan fell under Anglo-Egyptian rule, which lasted until 1956.

[14] Al-Naqar, Pilgrimage Tradition in West Africa, 83.

[15] Mark R. Duffield, “Fulani Mahdism and Revisionism in Sudan: ‘Hijra’ or Compromise with Colonialism?” in The Central Bilad al-Sudan, Tradition and Adaptation: Essays on the Geography and Economic and Political History of the Sudanic Belt, edited by Yusuf Fadl Hasan and Paul Doornbos. Proceedings of the Third International Conference of the Institute of African and Asian Studies, University of Khartoum, November 8–13, 1977 (Khartoum: El Tamaddon P. Press Ltd., 1979).

[16] John O. Hunwick, Sydney Kanya-Forstner, Paul Lovejoy, R.S. O’Fahey, and Al-Amin Abu-Manga, “Between Niger and Nile: New Light on the Fulani Mahdist Muhammad al-Dadari,” Sudanic Africa 8 (1997): 85–108.

[17] Bawa Yamba, Permanent Pilgrims, 68.

[18] Al-Naqar, Pilgrimage Tradition in West Africa, 91.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bawa Yamba, Permanent Pilgrims, 1–2.

[21] Madina Ly-Tall, Un islam militant en Afrique de l’Ouest au XIXe siècle: la Tijaniyya de Saïku Umar Futiyu contre les pouvoirs traditionnels et la puissance coloniale (Paris: ACCT IFAN / Cheikh Anta Diop and L’Harmattan, 1991), 49–50.

[22] Richard Roberts, Conflicts of Colonialism: The Rule of Law, French Soudan, and Faama Mademba Sèye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).

[23] Vittorio Morabito, “L’Office du Niger au Mali, d’hier à aujourd’hui,” Journal des africanistes 47, no. 1 (1977): 53–82.

[24] On the broader history of the Office du Niger, see Monica M. van Beusekom, Negotiating Development: African Farmers and Colonial Experts the Office du Niger, 1920-1960 (Westport: Heinemann, 2002); Myron Echenberg and Jean Filipovich, “African Military Labour and the Building of the Office du Niger Installations, 1925–1950,” Journal of African History 27, no. 3 (1986): 533–551; Jean Filipovich, “The Office du Niger Under Colonial Rule: Its Origin, Evolution, and Character, 1920–1960” (PhD diss., McGill University, 1985); Allen Isaacman and Richard L. Roberts, eds., Colonial Cotton: Cotton, Colonialism, and Social History in Sub-Saharan Africa, (London: James Currey, 1995); Richard L. Roberts, Two Worlds of Cotton: Colonialism and the Regional Economy in the French Soudan, 1800–1946, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

[25]  On the colonisation indigène, forced labor, and displacements, see Monica M. van Beusekom, “Colonisation Indigène: French Rural Development Ideology at the Office du Niger, 1920–1940,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 30, no. 2 (1997): 299–323; Babacar Fall, Le travail forcé en Afrique Occidentale Française, (Paris: Karthala, 1993); Jean Filipovich, “Destined to Fail: Forced Settlement at the Office du Niger, 1926–45,” Journal of African History 42, no. 2 (2001): 239–260.

[26] Van Beusekom, “Colonisation Indigène,” 306.

[27] The rhetoric of mise en valeur of African lands, which I translate here as “optimal exploitation,” very much permeated colonial discourses in French West Africa.

[28] Bawa Yamba, Permanent Pilgrims, 63.

[29] Ibid, 68. Bawa Yamba only briefly mentions this phenomenon, without further expanding upon it. In doing so, he cites G. Ayoub Balamoan, Migration Policies in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1884 to 1956 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for Population Studies, 1976).

[30] Mann, From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel, 90.