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Fashoda Incident: 1898

In an attempt to establish a French presence on the Upper Nile, Jean-Baptiste Marchand leads an extraordinary expedition through the 250 miles of high grasses which separate the headwaters of the Congo from those of the Nile. He has with him 150 soldiers (all but ten of them Africans) and a great many local porters to carry and haul a flotilla of small boats and the separate parts an 80-foot steam launch, the Faidherbe.

Unlike Stanley's steamboats for the Congo, the Faidherbe is not designed to be dismantled. She is cut into portable pieces by an engineer, but the larger parts - such as the boiler - have to be dragged the entire distance.

In July 1898 Marchand and most of his soldiers, embarked in the smaller boats, reach the ruined Egyptian fort of Fashoda on the Nile some 400 miles south of Khartoum. The tricolor is raised and the mood of exhilaration is increased when the Faidherbe steams into sight at the end of August, bringing the remainder of Marchand's tiny army.

They have beaten the British in the race to this remote place, but a confrontation cannot be far away. Marchand knows that Kitchener is in the Sudan, moving south to avenge the death of Gordon, but he does not know the more recent news - that the British army is at this moment approaching Khartoum.

After his victory at Omdurman, Kitchener enters Khartoum on September 4. According to his orders from London he is now to continue up the Nile in order to reclaim the whole of the Sudan for Egypt and Britain. He duly steams on south, with 1500 troops on board five gunships. On September 18 the flotilla reaches Fashoda.

In an initially frosty encounter between the two commanders, Marchand refuses to lower the tricolor or surrender the fort. He is heavily outnumbered. But both men are well aware that a battle between French and British forces, even in this remote spot, could have disastrous wider consequences.

They come to a sensible compromise. The tricolour will remain above the fort; the Egyptian flag will fly from a nearby tree; and they will leave the wider issue to the politicians. By the end of the year the French government, much distracted by the Dreyfus affair and unwilling to risk war with Britain, has climbed down. Marchand and his men withdraw from Fashoda in December.

In March 1899 the two governments agree that the watershed between the Nile and the Congo shall be the dividing line between their colonies. In French public opinion the affair has been a humiliation. Yet the agreement is something of a watershed also for these two historically hostile nations. In their new mood the Entente Cordiale is only five years away.

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