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The Birth of an African Private Epistolography, Echo Island 1862–1901

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

Jay Spaulding
Kean College, Union, New Jersey


This study examines the surviving private correspondence from Echo Island (Jazīrat Abū Ranāt, formerly Abranarti), a small nineteenth-century agricultural community in the Shāīquiyya country of the northern Sudan. The central question addressed is a discordance between the preoccupations of the letters and the concerns manifested in the considerably larger literature of contemporary legal records surviving from the same community, a clash that finds resonance in the familiar historiographical rivalry between advocates of culturally autonomous consciousness and partisans of material or socioeconomic determinisms. It is suggested that the private correspondence from Echo Island may best be interpreted as a new technique of bond management in the microsociological sense that arose and flourished in an age when the community found itself compelled to respond to a colonial setting vastly larger in scale than what had previously prevailed. The world of subjective ideas evidenced in the correspondence ignored, probably deliberately, most of the pressing immediate concerns of the community revealed in the contemporary legal documents; however, it opened a new ‘mode of communication,’ a conceptual terrain across which members of the elite exercised their virtuosity in mutual manipulations of status.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1993

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1 ‘In the beginning, we are taught, was the word’; Goody, Jack, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (Cambridge, 1968), 1.Google Scholar See also Ong, Walter J., Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, 1982), p. 179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Work completed to date includes Spaulding, Jay, ‘The old Shaiqi language in historical perspective’, History in Africa, XVII (1990), 283–92;CrossRefGoogle Scholar‘The value of virginity on Echo Island, 1860–1866’, Int. J. Afr. Hist. Studies, XXV (1992), 6783;Google Scholar'Muḥammad, Uthmān al-Mīrghanī in Dongola: a documentary footnote’, Islam et Sociétés au Sud du Sahara, V (1991), 6972Google Scholar, and the unpublished papers, ‘The institution of Halāl: A nineteenth-century episode in Sudanese family history’, ‘Bridewealth and Donatio inter vivos documents as a source for the social history of the Ottoman Sudan’, and ‘The Khatmiyya confraternity and the Echo Island community’, delivered respectively at successive meetings of the African Studies Association in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

3 Various forms of the older Nubian name of the island were recorded by Cailliaud, Frédéric, Voyage à Méroé (3 vols.) (Paris, 18261827), III 353Google Scholar (‘Abramnat’) and Atlas, ii, Planche XLVIII (‘Abram-Narti’ or ‘Abramnat’); Rüppell, Eduard, Reisen in Nubien (Frankfurt am Main, 1829)Google Scholar, appended ‘Karte des Nilstroms zwischen Wadi-Halfa und Barkal nach sechsfachiger eigener Marschroute und vielen astronomischen Ortsbestim-mungen entworfen von Eduard Rüppell 1825’ (‘Abramardi’); Lepsius, Richard, Letters from Egypt, Ethiopia and the Peninsula of Sinai, trans, by Leonora, and Horner, Johanna B. (London, 1853), 228Google Scholar (‘Abranarti’). The author is most grateful to Professor Peter M. Shinnie of the University of Calgary for advice concerning the reading and interpretation of this name.

4 The author is deeply grateful to Dr Muḥammad Ibrāhīm Abū Salīm, Director of the Sudanese National Records Office (NRO) in Khartoum for permission to examine, copy and cite this material. The Echo Island archive comprises the files NRO Miscellaneous 1/27/361–468.

5 The private letters found in the Echo Island archive are NRO Misc. 1/27/371, 1/27/390, 1/27/429b, 1/27/435, 1/27/459 and 1/27/467–8 (one document). A government letter may be found in 1/27/452, and the role of a letter in a legal case is mentioned in 1/27/387.

6 ‘The evolution of consciousness through human history’, as Ong puts it (Orality and Literacy, 178); see also Luria, Aleksandr Romanovich, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations, ed. Cole, Michael, trans. Martin Lopez-Morillas and Lynn Solotaroff (Harvard, 1976), 163.Google Scholar This consciousness-centred, psychological reductionism often bears an overt political agenda. Thus the Soviet reformer Luria anticipated that the introduction of literacy would suffice to transform Central Asian Muslims into scientific socialists, while the Protestant Ong hoped that the new illiteracy occasioned by the ‘secondary orality’ of modern electronic media would precipitate the onset of a new ‘Age of Faith’.

7 Goody, Jack and Watt, Ian, ‘The consequences of literacy’, in Goody, Jack (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge, 1968), 67Google Scholar, and Goody, Jack, The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge, 1987), 290–1.Google Scholar

8 Goody, Jack, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, 1977).Google Scholar

9 Ewald, Janet, ‘Speaking, writing, and authority: explorations in and from the Kingdom of Taqali’, Comp. Studies Soc. Hist, XXX (1988), 199.Google Scholar

10 Goody, Interface, xv.

11 Ibid. 59.

12 Ibid. 293.

13 For example, the prominent Echo Island holy man Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ walad Juqaydī married the blueblooded ‘Aysha bint Walad ‘Awnī, granddaughter of the malik (literally ‘king’, but in this context ‘nobleman’) al-‘Awnī walad Maḥmūd; see NRO Misc. 1/27/415, NRO Misc. 1/27/421 and NRO Misc. 1/27/456.

14 Spaulding, Jay, ‘The misfortunes of some – the advantages of others: land sales by women in Sinnar’, in Hay, Margaret Jean and Wright, Marcia (eds.), African Women and the Law: Historical Perspectives (Boston, 1982), pp. 318Google Scholar; ‘Slavery, land tenure and social class in the northern Turkish Sudan’, Int. J. Afr. Hist. Studies, xv (1982), 120;Google Scholar and The Heroic Age in Sinnār (East Lansing, 1985).Google Scholar

15 Salih, Tayeb, The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories (Portsmouth, NH, 1969)Google Scholar; also relevant, though one step farther removed from mundane experience through imaginative operations, is his Season of Migration to the North (Portsmouth, NH, 1969).Google Scholar

16 The highly favorable critical response to these works of Tayyib Salih, in the Sudan as elsewhere, would seem to confirm the accuracy and value of his vision. The present author, who lived in a Shāīqiyya community during 1969 and 1970, would certainly agree.

17 Scheff, Thomas J., Microsociology: Discourse, Emotion and Social Structure (Chicago, 1990), 185–6.Google Scholar

18 Scheff, , Microsociology, 181–2.Google Scholar

19 Ibid. 7–8.

20 Goody, , Interface, 204.Google Scholar

21 For a striking example see Spaulding, Jay and Salīm, Muḥammad Ibrāhīm Abū, Public Documents from Sinnār (East Lansing, 1989), 71–5.Google Scholar

22 Spaulding, and Salīm, Abū, Public Documents, 190–1, 203–4, 239–41. 318–20.Google Scholar

23 Spaulding, , Heroic Age, 319.Google Scholar

24 Krump, Theodoro, Hoher und Fruchtbarer Palm-Baum des Heiligen Evangelij (Augsburg, 1710), 299.Google Scholar For a late seventeenth-century example of the practice at the sultan's court see Donzel, E. van, Foreign Relations of Ethiopia, 1642–1700 (Istanbul, 1979), 182.Google Scholar Where, in this institutional setting, is the cognitive chasm alleged to separate ‘orality’ from ‘civilization’ ? As R. S. Schofield has observed, ‘it only needs one or two members of normally illiterate groups, who have acquired an ability to read, to read aloud to their friends and neighbours, for a bridge to be thrown across any supposed divide between exclusively literate and illiterate groups within society … Historians have avoided making any dichotomy between literate and illiterate sections of society and have been very properly tentative in their discussion of literacy in general cultural terms’. ‘The measure of literacy in pre-industrial England’, in Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, 312–13.Google Scholar The point was lost on the editor.

25 Spaulding, , Heroic Age, 211–12.Google Scholar

26 For a discussion of chronology see Spaulding, , ‘Old Shaiqi language’, 285.Google Scholar

27 NRO Misc. 1/27/460b.

28 NRO Misc. 1/27/413.

29 Goody, (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, 2.Google Scholar

30 See the sources cited in note 14 above, and Bjørkelo, Anders, Prelude to the Mahdiyya: Peasants and Traders in the Shendi Region, 1821–1885 (Cambridge, 1989), 71, 74, 84, 91, 94–6, 101, 103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

31 Bjørkelo, , Prelude, 139.Google Scholar

32 [John], Mr and Petherick, Mrs [Kate], Travels in Central Africa (2 vols.) (London, 1869), I, 108.Google Scholar

33 The real name of the ancestor was probably Muḥammad; since this name was chosen very frequently by pious Echo Islanders for their male children, many individuals so named would be better known – even to posterity – by a nickname. In this case the nickname indicates that the ancestor may have had a small but visible abnormal growth of some kind.

34 No recorded family members bore any of the common titles of religious distinction – faqīh, shaykh, ḥājj, akh, or khalīfa; see NRO Misc. 1/27/364, NRO Misc. 1/27/387 and NRO Misc. 1/27/454.

35 Ashmāna was the daughter of Ṣāliḥ, the son of Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ, and Muḥammad Ṣaliḥ was the brother of the groom's father al-Tōm Muḥammad; see NRO Misc. 1/27/364, NRO Misc. 1/27/387 and NRO Misc. 1/27/454. For an extended discussion of cousin marriage on Echo Island and in the modern Shāīqiyya country see Spaulding, ‘The value of virginity’ and ‘Bridewealth and Donatio inter vivos documents’.

36 NRO Misc. 1/27/429.

37 For the marriage of Fāṭima bint Maḥmūd Abū Durayna to ‘Alī b. Jundī, see NRO Misc. 1/27/364; for the ownership of a sāqiyya by ‘Alī b. Jundī, see NRO Misc. 1/27/429a [2 Jumāda I 1277/16 Nov. 1860] and NRO Misc. 1/27/426 [24 Rabīʾ 1282/25 Nov. 1865]. For the power and property relationships implicit in wife-giving among the new middle class, see Spaulding, , Heroic Age, 167–8.Google Scholar

38 NRO Misc. 1/27/387 [7 Rabīʾ I 1279/2 Sept. 1862].

39 The Echo Islanders seem to have paid their taxes at Kortī (NRO Misc. 1/27/445) but were judicially responsible to the district magistrate (qāḍī al-jiha) at Marawī (NRO Misc. 1/27/406b and NRO Misc. 1/27/436).

40 NRO Misc. 1/27/447 of Group II (for the chronology of early documents see Spaulding, , ‘Old Shaiqi Language’, p. 285)Google Scholar introduces the sāqiyya holding of al-Hājj b. ‘Abd Allāh, the grandfather of the author of the letter considered here. By 1256/1840–1 the sāqiyya holding belonged to ‘the sons of the faqīh [al-Ḥājj], the son of ‘Abd Allāh’ (NRO Misc. 127/384). One of these sons, Ḥammad b. al-Ḥājj, was cited as owner on 27 Muḥarram 1281/2 July 1864 (NRO Misc. 1/27/426); Muḥammad, a second son of al-Ḥājj and the father of the letter writer, owned the sāqiyya holding on 28 Dhu'l-Ḥijja 1285/11 April 1869 (NRO Misc. 1/27/411).

41 NRO Misc. 1/27/390 (18 Rajab 1280/29 Dec. 1863).

42 For the landholdings contiguous to those of the Niḍayfāb see NRO Misc. 1/27/411 and NRO Misc. 1/27/426. The donation by Muḥammad b. al-Ḥājj Abd Allāh and his sister Fāṭima is mentioned in a settlement record (NRO Misc. 1/27/413) of 14 Shawwāl 1289/15 Dec. 1872).

43 NRO Misc. 1/27/418 (16 Muḥarram 1319/5 May 1901).

44 For the invalidation of sales under community pressure, see NRO Misc. 1/27/418 (16 Muḥarram 1319/5 May 1901) and NRO Misc. 1/27/438b (25 Ṣafar 1319/13 June 1901). A consciously illegal claim to the real estate of an absent community member was asserted in NRO Misc. 1/27/415–1 (27 Rajab 1302/12 May 1885). By his document NRO Misc. 1/27/413 (14 Shawwāl 1289/15 Dec. 1872) Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ al-Niḍayf allocated his property among his children shortly before his death; this settlement was overturned a few years later under protest by NRO Misc. 1/27/417 (6 Shawwāl 1293/25 Oct. 1876). ‘It is far more important’, as one keen observer put it, ‘to know the procedure … than the actual law, for the procedure can be subtly warped so as to do grave injustice, whereas it is a difficult thing to overrule a custom known to all concerned’; Reid, J. A. and Maclaren, J. F. P., ‘Arab court procedure and customary law’, Sudan Notes and Records, XIX (1936), 160.Google Scholar To this one should add that the content of ‘custom’ was defined politically, at the moment of controversy, by the participants.

45 Jay Spaulding, ‘Muḥammad ‘Uthmān’. For the career of the Mīrghanī see O'Fahey, R. S., Enigmatic Saint: Ahmad Ibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition (London, 1990), 130–53Google Scholar, and Spaulding, Jay, ‘The fall of a wayward saint’, Northeast African Studies, V (19831984), 4350.Google Scholar

46 For an extended discussion see Voll, John O., ‘A history of the Khatmiyyah Tariqah in the Sudan’, (PhD thesis Harvard University, 1969).Google Scholar

47 For the role of the Khatmiyya brotherhood in recent Shāīqiyya politics see al-Shahi, Ahmed, Themes from Northern Sudan (London, 1986)Google Scholar, particularly ‘A Noah's Ark: the continuity of the Khatmiyya Order in Northern Sudan’, 36–50.

48 NRO Misc. 1/27/371.

49 For Khatmiyya formulas see Spaulding, ‘Muḥammad ‘Uthmān’.

50 The body of the letter reads: ‘The charge to you is to fear God the Most Great, an to observe your dhikrs and wirds, for they are highly […] in the visitation. As you know, the family of the Teacher is in the Ḥijāz, so exert yourselves in visitation, visitation according to previous circumstances. Your gift has arrived with the khalīfa of khalīfas, the khalīfa ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd. May God make you to obtain His greatest acceptance and [become] His most glorious witnesses! Do not cease to care; may your prayer come to pass, and may you remain in strong and solid protection’.

51 For a discussion using recent American examples see Klapp, Orrin E., Inflation of Symbols (New Brunswick, 1991).Google Scholar

52 In the political context the claim to caliphal status was often advanced through the use of the reserved title ‘Commander of the Faithful’ (amīr al-mu'minīn). The caliphal title had not been claimed by the pre-colonial sultans of Sinnār but was adopted by a number of the independent western Sudanese sultans of the nineteenth century. See Spaulding, and Salīm, Abū, Public Documents, 14Google Scholar; O'Fahey, R. S. and Salīm, M. I. Abū, Land in Dār Fūr (Cambridge, 1983), 151CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Kapteijns, Lidwien and Spaulding, Jay, After the Millennium: Diplomatic Correspondence from Wadai and Dār Fūr on the Eve of Colonial Conquest, 1885–1916 (East Lansing, 1988), 10.Google Scholar

53 NRO Misc. 1/27/460b (4 Muḥarram 1265/30 Nov. 1848).

54 al-Shahi, Ahmed, Themes, 27.Google Scholar

55 Muḥammad Khayr b. Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Niḍayf.

56 Ṣāliḥ Ḥamdān, al-Ḥājj al-Madanī, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān walad Jābir, Muḥammad Khayr ‘Abd al-Raḥmān, Idrīs and Ibrāhīm Arqāwī.

57 Before 1863 ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd received only one passing reference in the Echo Island archive (NRO Misc. 1/27/453 [Group III]). For the subsequent rise of his family see NRO Misc. 1/27/426(7) & (10), 1/27/457(4), 1/27/370, 1/27/455(6) & (9), 1/27/423, 1/27/429b.

58 Aḥmad Fadūs, Muḥammad b. ‘Abd al-Raḥīm, Muḥammad ṢāliṢ b. ‘Abd al-Raḥīm, Muḥammad Nūr, ‘Alī Muḥammad, Aḥmad walad al-Ḥājj, Ḥamdān, and Muḥammad Nūr ‘Atīl.

59 Muḥammad Nūr Ḍiyāb, Aḥmad Muḥammad Ḍiyāb, Ṭaha walad Muḥammad Diyāb, ‘Alī walad al-Tōm Qism Allāh, Muḥammadān, al-Ṣāliḥ al-Tuhāmī, Ḥammad, Ḥusayn ‘Alī b. Ḥammad, Muḥammad Khayr b. Ḥammad, ‘Alī walad Faḍl Allāh, Ṣāliḥ, Muḥammad walad ‘Alī Rayyah, Raḥma walad Faḍīl, al-Jābir, al-Ḥājj Aḥmad walad ‘Alī, al-Ḥājj Ṣāliḥ walad al-Amīn, Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ walad Ibrāhīm, and Fāṭima bint al-Ḥājj ‘Abd Allāh. In two additional cases groups of unnamed individuals are addressed by the name of their forefather; one is ‘the children of Walad Maḥārī, while in the other case the name of the ancestor is blurred. The division of addressees proposed here may err in detail in regard to the ‘Ṣāliḥ Ḥamdān’ of note 57, who may be the ‘Ṣāliḥ’ of note 60 and the ‘Muḥammad Nūr’ of note 59, who may be identical to one of the ‘Muḥammad Nūrs’ of note 60; the force of the argument, however, should stand.

60 Voll, , ‘Khatmiyyah’, 200.Google Scholar

61 For example see NRO Misc. 1/27/458 (Group I). For the Duwayḥiyya see O'Fahey, , Enigmatic Saint, 155Google Scholar and Spaulding, ‘Muḥammad ‘Uthmān’.

62 NRO Misc. 1/27/458, NRO Misc. 1/27/450 and NRO Misc. 1/27/451 (all Group I).

63 Lepsius, , Letters, 230.Google Scholar

64 ‘The learned men’, wrote Richard Hill of this period in Sudanese history, ‘were of all classes the most amenable to Egyptian rule, for these owed their influence and pay to the conquerors. Sudanese members of the legal hierarchy early took their seats … and formed a class invariably friendly to the established order’. Egypt in the Sudan, 1820–1881 (London, 1959), 43.Google Scholar

65 NRO Misc. 1/27/435.

66 NRO Misc. 1/27/458 (Group I).

67 Schacht, Joseph, An Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford, 1964), 188.Google Scholar

68 Spaulding, , Heroic Age, 160Google Scholar, and note 37.

69 Hill, , Egypt in the Sudan, 42–6.Google Scholar

70 For the office of ‘umda see Bjørkelo, Prelude, 49–52.

71 Spaulding, Jay, ‘Two Muslims on the eve of British colonialism in the Sudan, 1908: a letter of submission’, in Said Samatar, S. (ed.), In the Shadow of Conquest: Islam in Colonial Northeast Africa (Trenton, 1992), 147–52.Google Scholar

72 NRO Misc. 1/27/452 (28 Sept. 1901).

73 An unusually lucid and insightful introduction to the Neoplatonic paradigm is Couliano, Ioan P., Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (Chicago, 1987)Google Scholar; emphasis is given to the secular vision of al-Kindī, which appealed to non-Muslim Europeans. For the comparable construction of an Islamic reality by the devout Ibn al-‘Arabī, very influential among later Islamic Neoplatonists such as the Mīrghanī, see Chittick, William C. and Wilson, Peter Lamborn, ‘The mystical philosophy of the Divine Flashes’, in Fakhruddin ‘Iraqi: Divine Flashes (New York, 1982), 332.Google Scholar For specific but fragmentary information about Khatmiyya esoterica, see Voll, , ‘Khatmiyyah’, 117–22Google Scholar, and Trimingham, J. S., Islam in the Sudan (Oxford, 1949), 215–17, 231–5.Google Scholar

74 NRO Misc. 1/27/459. The surviving fragment of the letter is not dated, but it was probably written after the death of Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ al-Niḍayf (who is not mentioned) on 22 Dec. 1872 and before the death of his son Muḥammad (who is addressed) on 2 Nov. 1878; see the Niḍayfāb necrology written into the margin of NRO Misc. 1/27/413. Addressed is one Ziyād, otherwise unknown, six sons and one daughter of Muḥammad ḥāliḥ al-Niḍayf (al-Shaykh, Aḥmad, al-Ḥasan, Muḥammad, Ja'far, Muḥammad ‘Alī, Amina) and the latter's daughter Jamāl.

75 Amina bint Ḥalīma and her daughter Jamāl were the daughter and granddaughter of Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ al-Niḍayf; Muḥammad walad Ḥalīma was Amina's full brother.

76 al-Shahi, Ahmed, Themes, 47.Google Scholar

77 Pioneering efforts include O'Fahey, , Enigmatic Saint, and ‘Ali Salih Karrar, ‘The Sufi brotherhoods in the Sudan until 1900’ (PhD thesis, University of Bergen, 1985).Google Scholar

78 Bloch, Maurice, ‘Astrology and writing in Madagascar’, in Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, 295.Google Scholar

79 For a keen analysis in another cultural context see Fine, Gary Alen, Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds (Chicago, 1983).Google Scholar

80 Holt, P. M., The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 1881–1898 (Oxford, 2nd ed., 1970), 140.Google Scholar

81 Holt, , Mahdist State, 142, 172.Google Scholar

82 Ibid. 166.

83 Voll, , ‘Khatmiyyah’, 281–3, 308.Google Scholar

84 Jackson, H. C., Osman Digna (London, 1926) 114.Google Scholar

85 NRO Misc. 1/27/429b (1302/1884–5).

86 Muḥammad Aḥmad Ṣāliḥ, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jābir, al-Ḥājj Aḥmad Abū Shamma, al-Shaykh walad Muḥammad ‘Alī Jundī and al-Shaykh walad Raḥma.

87 Aḥmad and al-Shaykh, sons of Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ al-Niḍayf, Ṭaha Maḥārī, Muḥammad Maḥmūd Abū Zayd, Aḥmad al-Manṣūr, Shaykh walad Maḥmūd Shamma, al-Amīn Kamītrī and his sons Muḥammad and ‘Uthmān, and Muḥammad b. Abū Shamma.

88 Voll, , ‘Khatmiyyah’, 309.Google Scholar

89 Burckhardt, John Lewis, Travels in Nubia (London, 2nd ed., 1822), 65, 209.Google Scholar

90 NRO Misc. 1/27/413 (14 Shawwāl 1289/15 Dec. 1872).

91 NRO Misc. 1/27/452 (28 Sept. 1901).

92 Contrary to the image projected by Voll, , however, (‘Khatmiyyah’, 187)Google Scholar there is little reason to identify men such as Aḥmad al-Niḍayf as ‘village schoolteachers’ rather than ‘major landowners and locally prominent political figures’.

93 Wilks, Ivor, ‘The transmission of Islamic learning in the western Sudan’, in Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, 171.Google Scholar

94 Spaulding, , Heroic Age, 521, n. 126.Google Scholar

95 Voll, , ‘Khatmiyyah’, 256–7.Google Scholar

96 NRO Misc. 1/27/467 and 468; this is one letter, with the address broken off and filed separately by mistake (13 Rajab 1313/30 Dec. 1895).

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