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Zubair Pasha Remembered

A birds eye view of Sultanahmet Camii ve Meydani in Istanbul, Turkey [Photo by Authenticated News/Archive Photos/Getty Images]
A birds eye view of Sultanahmet Camii ve Meydani in Istanbul, Turkey [Photo by Authenticated News/Archive Photos/Getty Images]

I first came across Zubair Pasha while researching the life of AbdulRasul Kashmiri, a devoted supporter of Ottoman causes,  born in Srinagar as his name implies, who spent the 1870s to the 1890s in various cities, including Cairo, Istanbul and London. Much like his better-known contemporary, Jamaluddin Afghani, he was a cosmopolitan individual committed to the mobilisation of the Muslim world to defend itself from British Empire hegemony.  I was intrigued by AbdulRasul’s contact with the Sudanese Zubair Pasha. What could have brought these two individuals together, so different in social and cultural background and coming from disparate parts of the world? When I asked Sudanese friends, it seemed Zubair Pasha had not been the subject of recent historical research. In this blog I present some of my own findings because he is not someone who should be forgotten, or misrepresented.

Zubair Pasha was born in 1830, north of Khartoum; AbdulRasul in 1843. This was a significant age gap, yet their bond was a strong one.  However, before delving into their lives and interactions, some historical context might be helpful.

Firstly, from the beginning of the 1800s, Egypt and Sudan (particularly northern Sudan) was ruled by a dynasty founded by Muhammad Ali Pasha, an Albanian officer in the Ottoman army. The ruler was later known as the khedive, who owed legitimacy by pledging loyalty to the Sultan. The khedive Ismail Pasha was installed in 1869. History has a mixed view of him: on the one hand he sold Egypt and Sudan’s shareholding in the Suez Canal to the British in 1875 – a strategic blunder; but he is also credited with initiating many infrastructure projects in Egypt. These left the treasury in dire financial straits and indebted to the British and French.  In 1879, the European powers initiated a ‘regime change’, replacing Ismail Pasha with his son, Tawfiq Pasha, considered more amenable to their demands, such as the mortgaging of Egypt’s agricultural lands and placing a tax burden on the Sudan.

Secondly, in the 1880s, both Egypt and Sudan were experiencing internal upheavals. In Egypt, it was the movement led by Colonel ‘Urabi, that aimed to limit the khedive’s powers and establish an elected parliament. The ‘Urabists opposed external interferences in Egypt’s affairs and the dominance of a Turco-Circassian elite. Alarmed by such developments, Britain launched a military invasion, bombarding Alexandria in 1882, marching to Cairo, and arresting ‘Urabi.  In Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi and began an uprising against British-Ottoman control, which reached a high point when the Mahdists displaced the Egyptian troops in Khartoum in 1885.

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Zubair’s early life is well documented, thanks to two sources: R.S. O’Fahy’s ‘Al- Zubayr’s Early Career’  [Sudanic Africa, Vol. 16, 2005] and the interviews conducted by journalist Flora Shaw [later wife of Frederick Luggard], published as ‘Story of Zebehr Pasha’ in 1887. These indicate that Zubair, after education at a Khartoum maktab, embarked on a career as a trader with reluctance. At first, he worked for the Egyptian merchant Ali Amuri, and was sent on trading expeditions along the White Nile. To Ali Amuri’s annoyance, Zubair would spend his time reading the Qur’an and making notes on the passing countryside. In spite of this hesitant start, Zubair’s trading acumen led to him set up his own enterprise in the late 1860s, sending men “through the lands of the Dinka, Jur and Bongo, the company reached the Golo, then living between the Kuru and Kpongo rivers”.  They purchased ostrich feathers and ivory for trade in Khartoum, Cairo and beyond. Other valued commodities included tamarind and gum.

By the 1870s Zubair had eclipsed his patron. He also stepped up from becoming a trading mogul to a formidable commander in an area known today as ‘Daim Zubair’ in South Sudan, and the Bahr al-Ghazal, populated by the Azande, Rezagat, and Fur tribes. He offered them security while also seeking food and porters in return. According to O’Fahy, he “forcibly and recruited young men into his forces. Armed with rifles imported from Egypt [. . .] they came to number over 12,000”, stationed at garrisons to protect the trade routes. Zubair was explicit in his account to Flora Shaw,

When the caravans passed through Mandugha on their return to Egypt I examined the slaves they brought, and I took all the best and healthiest to make soldiers. I trained them in the use of arms, dressed them well, fed them, and kept them always in my service [. . .] My soldiers never left me till they died, and the service was so popular that the report of it spread into the distant corners of Nyam-Nyam, and young men came from far to offer themselves to me [. . .] I was a trader [. . .] but that I never was a slave-trader.  I might have been, but I was not.

Reference has been made earlier to the tax burden which Ismail Pasha had placed on Sudan. Details are provided in an unsigned article published in London’s Morning Star in April 1893 in defense of Zubair Pasha:

Though absolute king of his own territory, in 1873 he [Zubair Pasha] thought it best, in the interests of his own people and of civilization generally, that his kingdom should be annexed to Egypt, and he offered the whole of the provinces he had conquered to Ismail Pasha. The latter most willingly accepted the offer, and all due formalities were gone through by which the provinces were incorporated with Egypt, and Zubair was appointed Governor for life under the Egyptian Government. This generous and well-meant act of his was the cause of his ruin. In 1875 the Egyptian exchequer was empty. The pinch was caused by the extravagance of former years was making itself felt. The officials of the Finance Department were at their wits’ end to know how to raise money to meet pressing engagements. The fellaheen of Egypt Proper were taxed up to their teeth, and no more could be got out of them, so eyes were turned to the Sudan, and a poll tax of £T.50 was levied on all the inhabitants of the newly annexed Darfur country. Zubair at once took the part of his people and protested strongly against the imposition of the tax.

An angry correspondence was the consequence, and Zubair was eventually ordered to take no further part in the administration of the country which he had given as a present to Egypt only two years before. Zubair’s faith in his own rectitude and in the goodness of the cause he was advocating was such that he at once asked that he might come to Cairo for the purpose of having an interview with Khedive Ismail. His request was granted, and in 1876 he arrived in Cairo in great state with an escort of 1,000 Sudanese and loaded with valuable presents for the Khedive. Never has the spider and the fly fable been better illustrated.  From that day to this he has never been allowed to set foot on the land he conquered and presented to Egypt. He was received by the Khedive Ismail with every mark of honour and respect, and he was assigned a palace in Cairo for his residence pending instructions for the future. These instructions never came.

Zubair Pasha was held in detention, albeit in a gilded cage. He was not inactive, either politically or commercially, and directed his businesses through followers in Sudan and agents despatched from Cairo. One letter, to his son Sulaiman sent in 1877 and intercepted by the British authorities, gives some idea of the size of the trading transactions.

[. . . ] then again we admonished thee,  O my child, that thou shouldst show thy affection towards us by sending to us thirty hundred weight of ostrich feathers of the best quality, purely killed and not damaged, together with any cash thou might have. And should there be any delay in sending this let it be not later than the first of Shawwal.

This is perhaps the period when Zubair and AbdulRasul came in contact and developed a trusting friendship. AbdulRasul’s family were merchants in Cairo, trading in silk and carpets. The Cairene merchant class had close links with Istanbul, and from his wife’s name – Amina Hannem – he may have married into the city’s Turko-Circassian community. In later correspondence he would sometimes refer to himself as ‘Shaikh AbdulRasul’, suggesting a religious education.  It seems that AbdulRasul was employed by Zubair Pasha from the mid-1870s as an agent to travel to the Sudan on his behalf and bring goods to Cairo for onward sale. One of General Gordon’s early biographers, Alfred Egromont Hake, in his The Story of Chinese Gordon published in London in 1884 states that “Gordon learned that Sulaiman was receiving letters from Rahma [Zubair Pasha], whose correspondence always included the cryptic phrase, ‘Take care of Abdul Rasul’.”

Zubair in the Balkans

The Russo-Ottoman war of 1876-78 was a defining moment for the Muslim word. Russia, supported by Bulgarian, Serbian and Rumanian allies, swept through the European provinces of the Ottoman al-daulat al-‘aliyah ‘Osmaniya  [the Egyptian historian Mahmoud Sabit has pointed out that the Ottomans did not refer to themselves as an ‘Empire’ but rather the High Ottoman State].  News from the war front was closely followed across the Muslim world, thanks to the telegraphic communications now in place. From afar as Bengal, funds were raised for the Ottoman wounded and widows. The colonial authorities did not mind this support because Britain was ostensibly neutral.

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During the conflict, AbdulRasul was in Istanbul, teaching Persian and involved in publishing a journal in support of Sultan AbdulHamid.  Zubair Pasha was more directly involved in the Russo-Ottoman war, as a member of a military contingent sent from Egypt to fight for the Ottomans. It seems the soldiers were ill-equipped for the harsh winter of the Balkans. Zubair has provided an account of his own experience,

Then came a season of the year when the sun ceased, and the rain came down as the feathers fall from an egret’s nest when the Khameseen  blow: the rivers froze, and ice formed upon them, so that they became as the firm ground, and cannons were dragged across their surface, and we would walk upon the face of the waters as it were upon the land. And I became weak and infirm in my body by reason of the severity of the cold, and the skin wasted on my bones, so that I was in the extreme of anguish [. . .] My hands indeed refused their service, and I had to hold the reins between my teeth, by reason of the intensity of the cold. I continued in this state for a length of time, meditating on the wondrous ways of God, and on the vicissitudes that befall and happen unto men, until destiny brought me—with the permission of God, whose name be exalted—between the hands of two Turks, whose breasts were bared to the icy winds of the Balkans. And, when they saw in what sad plight I was, they were moved with merriment, and broke into a roar of laughter, so that their sides were like to burst. They knew but little Arabic, but by means of a few flowery words, which they had learned from the Koran, they questioned me as to my state. I answered them in all that they required of me, and when they understood that I was an Arab from the land of the sun they had compassion on me, and brought my hard case to the notice of the authorities.

[cited by Zachary S Berman, Owing and Owning: Zubayr Pasha, Slavery, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Sudan, PhD thesis, 2017, CUNY]

Professor Sadiq Amin Khalil, writing in the Sudan Journal of Medical Sciences [Vol.7, No. 3, September 2012] noted that “ Zubair was forced to join the Turkish army in the fight against Russia in what was known as the Turkish-Russian war”. A reference is not cited, but in my opinion it is more he volunteered to lead the Egyptian brigade out of loyalty to the Ottoman cause. At the time he would have been in his late forties, and most likely fit and healthy enough to venture to a battlefield.

Zubair’s ‘rendition’

Zubair returned to Cairo from the Balkans in 1878.  He was still not allowed back to Sudan, where the khedive had appointed General Charles Gordon as Governor General. The following year Zubair’s son and deputy Sulaiman was killed by one of Gordon’s officers in Bahr al-Ghazal – an act that would naturally embitter Zubair for life.

As noted earlier, by the early 1880s the ‘Urabi movement in Egypt was gaining support.  The Suez was the lifeline to the ‘crown jewel’ of the British Empire, India. It had to be secured in the Empire’s interests. General Wolseley, with troops that included soldiers from India, disembarked and marched towards Cairo ‘to clear the rebels’,

‘Urabi was surprised and defeated by Wolseley on 13 September [1882] at Tel El-Kebir, in forty minutes. The Egyptians suffered 10,000 casualties, the British 80 [. . .] the Egyptian fellah leader surrendered his sword to General Drury Lowe a Cairo on 14 September. He thus became a prisoner of the British.

The British faced a tougher time in the Sudan when confronting the Mahdists. Whether explicitly commanded by him or not, and perhaps in response to Sulaiman’s killing, some of Zubair’s men joined the Mahdist forces. In 1884, General Gordon was sent to Khartoum and abandoned to his fate by the ruthless and pragmatic policy makers in London!

Zubair Pasha was now a security risk and threat. On the one hand the  new Khedive Tawfiq Pasha feared he might return to Sudan and  seek its independence, while in British Intelligence circles, Zubair was incriminated in all manner of plots: “intrigues”  with the French in Sudan; “intriguing with the Central Africans to put obstacles in the way of Mr. Stanley”; plotting unrest against the British in Egypt; communications with Mukhtar Pasha, the Ottoman diplomat charged with negotiating matters relating to Egypt with the British representative Sir Henry Drummond Wolff. It was also noted that Zuber had a book written in Cairo, “in which he traced back his descent to the Abbasya dynasty”.

Much of this Intelligence information is in a ‘Secret’ file on AbdulRasul compiled by the Foreign Department, Government of India, in 1888 and held at the India Office Records. Zubair was of interest because “he [Zubair] has great confidence in him [AbdulRasul]”.

This ‘Secret’ file has an interesting history.   Much of the Intelligence content was provided by an undercover agent, Munshi Azizuddin, who worked for police commissioner John Lambert based in Calcutta.  His code name was ‘LM’, Lamberts’ Man, and had apparently succeeded in gaining AbdulRasul’s confidence in Cairo in 1888 and obtained information of his background and contacts.  Lambert’s boss, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, was smart: “Azizuddin, though a clever detective and well-meaning, is apt to jump to conclusions.” Lambert therefore sent another of his staff, Amrik Singh, to Cairo to corroborate the information. Using a password provided by Azizuddin, he too was able to gain AbdulRasul’s confidence.  The two together even went to visit Zubair in Cairo!

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Fortunately, there is an alternative ‘non-Intelligence’ source available in the the three bound volumes, ‘Zubehr Pasha, Imprisonment and proposed employment’ for the period 1883-1888, held in the British National Archives (TNA). These include the correspondence between AbdulRasul and Zubair and provide many insights into their personality and religious commitment. Their exchanges were in Arabic and intercepted and translated to English by the ‘official translator’, M. Redhouse.  It seems that there was no redaction of material.

From the ‘Secret’ file and the TNA records it is possible to piece together the shared adventures of both AbdulRasul and Zubair in the mid to late 1880s. It should be noted that according to the ‘Secret’ file, when AbdulRasul was in Istanbul during the Russo-Ottoman war of 1876-78, he was not just an innocuous teacher of Persian, but “he joined the service of the Turkish Government”. The implication is that he was an Ottoman spy.

When General Wolseley’s troops entered Egypt in 1882, AbdulRasul was in London, but he left for Cairo. He had managed to get an assignment serving as an interpreter to a retired British army general and now war correspondent, Sir Henry Havelock- Allan, who wished to observe Wolseley’s campaign.  However, according to the ‘Secret’ file on Abdul Rasul, the employer was General Wolseley.  The assignment came to an end when “he was found carrying on his intrigues with the rebels and sent back to England”.  It seems likely that Abdul Rasul’s deportation had to do with contacts with Zubair, who was feared by Wolseley.    In a note to Drummond Wolff, the High Commissioner of Egypt, General Wolseley noted,

In 1883 when a black battalion was hurriedly formed to take part in the expedition under Baker Pasha for the relief of Sinkut and Tokar [North East Sudan] , Zubair endeavoured and almost succeeded in raising a mutiny among those troops.

In 1885, Zubair was arrested under military orders in Alexandria while on his way to visit the house of his friend Said Ibrahim El Senoussi.   A TNA record, also marked ‘Secret’, is a letter from Evelyn Baring, the British Consul-General in Egypt, to Foreign Secretary Earl Granville in March that year acknowledging the rule of law has been violated,

Lord Wolseley has, as far as I know, no evidence against any of the suspected persons which afford valid proof of their guilt. His opinions [Wolseley’s] are I presume based on the reports he receives from his Intelligence Department. These reports are as far as some of the persons concerned and especially as regards to Zubair, confirmed by the reports of the Police here. My own opinion is that under the present circumstances it is too great a risk to allow Zubair to remain at large. Belief in Mahdi and hostility to English is undoubtedly spreading here amongst those in influence. He is in great want of money and is much dissatisfied by the way he has been treated. Personally, I believe the reports about his being in communication with the Mahdi are true although I cannot prove their truth. If he escaped and joined the Mahdi, which he could easily do, he might from his knowledge and ability and from the fact he has numerous friends, and local considerable local influence in London, do a great deal of harm. There is always a great deal to be said in favour of employing Zubair on our side. But as this was not done, I think he should be prevented from doing us harm. I do not believe he will remain quiet [. . .]

On these grounds, and in spite of the arbitrary nature of the proceeding, I think he should be at once arrested, and sent to Cyprus, leaving the arrest of the others for subsequent consideration. I also think that when the Commander of an army in the exceeding difficult position in which Lord Wolseley is placed, says that certain measures are essential to the success of his operations, these measures must be taken whatever maybe the objections to them.

If you are not with us, you are against us!

Zubair, with some close relatives and attendants was not ‘rendered’ to Cyprus, but rather desolate Gibraltar. Flora Shaw described the cottage where he was placed: “a grim little place with a cliff rising sheerly behind it and the sea far below it. In the garden wild plants grew, for only they could survive the East wind which in winter drenched house and garden with salt spray.” Abdul Rasul was to stand by him and sent letters and petitions, also preserved in the TNA records, to the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, arguing his former patron’s innocence, and pressing for his release.  As the months passed by with no indication of Zubair’s release, Abdul Rasul’s position hardened. His anger is apparent in a subsequent letter to Lord Salisbury, now Foreign Secretary, sent in August 1885,

[. . .] England, who [sic] is now in danger by the  invade [sic] of her own religious enemies, and is most desirous to gain foreign assistance  from His Majesty the Khalifas [sic] of all us Mussulmans, Sultan Abdul Hamid Khan;  whose well known Governor General is in prison in Gibraltar;  She should extinguish [?] the malignity and the treacherousness, which are thrown upon Zubair Pasha and bring him here for judgement in the public court of London, if Government is wishing for the success of the mission of Sir H. d. Wolff in Constantinople.

However,   I am eagerly expecting and hoping a favourable reply to the note of 1 July 1885, for the permission to visit my valuable friend Zubair Pasha, as solely for condoling [sic] with him in his misfortunes;  therefore, most respectfully, I beg your Lordship’s pardon towards me that; if the favourable reply does not come to me till eight days then it will force me to leave London for Constantinople.

Any visit to Gibraltar was ruled out.  Zubair Pasha, in a letter sent to AbdulRasul in December 1885 urged “the Maulana” to make his case known in England so that injustices could be undone. Redhouse’s translation was a literal one,

From Zubair Rehmet Pasha the Abbaside, at Gibraltar, to the presence of the issue of glory and honour, the mine of excellence and noblesse  by inheritances from the past, my brother and my dear one, fruit of my heart, the Maulana Abdul Rasul the Indian, now resident in London, may his success increase. Amen.

And then, afterwards. Verily I present to your illustrious self many great benedictions and I bring unto you the salutation of Islam and I inform you that I am up to date of the writing hereof in possession of health  [. . .  ]  a meeting with them [British officials in London] may take place, and that we may be requited for all in which we have been oppressed and wronged, in a manner conformable to justice and equity. This is sufficiently  trouble [?] to you. And from me many salutations, with the extreme of all modesty and respect to his honour Jerjis Bars Badger and all friends of yours.

. . . My heart has rejoiced at what has taken place as to a perfect accord and the preservation of bonds of amity between our lord and master the Sultan and the Statesman of Great Britain. I congratulate you and all friends of the Supreme (Ottoman) Empire and the apostolic Caliphate and I beg you to communicate my greeting to His Excellency its Ambassador, agents for its affairs in London. And herewith we conclude.

AbdulRasul was resourceful enough to urge a law firm, Gadsen and Treherne, to obtain information from the Government on the grounds for detention: “whether he is at present in the custody of the Military or the Civil Authorities and what if any facilities could be afforded for communicating with him either verbally or by letter.”  The response was that the firm would not be allowed to communicate with Zubair, who was in custody under a special Ordinance. AbdulRasul also raised the stakes with a veiled threat of taking up Zubair’s case with the Ottomans.  The British authorities tried to silence AbdulRasul by offering him employment at the India Office library in London, but this stratagem was not successful.

In the course of 1887, British policy makers felt Zubair could be returned to Cairo. He was made to sign a pledge written by Baring: “ I, the undersigned, pledge to the government of His Highness the Khedive to resident [sic] on my return to Egypt in the town or city that I will be assigned by the government, to allow myself to be put under its surveillance, and to never get involved with political issues related to Sudan or any other matter relating to the army.”

This paved the way for coming back to Cairo in August 1887.

A new entanglement

Neither AbdulRasul nor Zubair were men to be easily subdued.  There were now more dangerous developments confronting the Empire-builders, notably the possibility of an alliance of Irish Nationalists, Sikhs, Russians, and Muslims seeking entry through Afghanistan to liberate India. The negotiations with the Ottomans over control of Egypt were proving inconclusive, while the French resented British expansion.

Among the dangers facing the British Empire was the struggle of Maharaja Duleep Singh, with whom Abdul Rasul had taken up employment around the mid-1880s. The Sikh prince was the son of the last King of the Punjab, Ranjeet Singh, and had been brought to England at an early age and provided the lifestyle of the landed gentry. However, with the passage of years he tired of an aimless life.  He was inspired when a guru predicted his comeback to the throne and began to sound out possible supporters. He also sought the return of the Koh-I Noor diamond that had been taken from the Punjab’s royal treasury and presented to Queen Victoria. In 1886, Maharajah Duleep Singh left London for Paris covertly, where he was in touch with Irish nationalists. He then proceeded to Moscow the following year and called Abdul Rasul to join him.

During these travels, Abdul Rasul lodged at the at the Hotel Rue D’ Alexandria in Cairo, and established contact with Zubair Pasha, who had by then been released from Gibraltar. AbdulRasul was under surveillance – and it seems – tricked by the undercover detective Munshi Azzizuddin in March 1888 to disclose his activities. However, AbdulRasul may also have spotted the danger and added some false leads. The spy’s memorandum reveals the fears within the British establishment – perhaps exaggerated and unduly alarmist – but also the remarkable collaborations of Muslim activists ready to challenge the Empire

As regards his [Abdul Rasul’s] intrigues with Duleep you know well enough, but besides this he is carrying on many other intrigues [. . .] Last year when Sir Henry Drummond Wolff was engaged in negotiations with Mukhtar Pasha, this man through Asad Pasha, the Turkish Ambassador at Paris, was employed by the French Government in bribing the Turkish Court and thus winning them towards France. In one instance in last April he was sent by an express train to Constantinople from Paris with money and letters to Muhammad Pasha, Circassian, the Chief Aide-de-Camp to the Sultan.

Besides this he has been intriguing with the Sudanese through Zubair for a long time. During Zubair’s detention at Gibraltar he saw him several times at that place, and was the medium of carrying on his correspondence between Gibraltar and Egypt. Asad Pasha [the Turkish Ambassador in Paris] is like a puppet in the hands of the French, and he is doing everything whatever they ask him to do. In the French intrigues with Sudan he has been very instrumental too. Zubair has got a great confidence in him and is carrying out all his instructions. The French Government has been sending a large amount of money to the Sudanese through the firm of Shaikh Samusi [Senoussi?] of Alexandria who is related by marriage to Zubair, and it was the French money which supported the Sudanese for a long time. The French Consul at Alexandria is fully aware of this, and by order of his Government affords him, Shaikh Samusi, every protection and encouragement [ . . .]

In my letter to Sir Evelyn [Baring] I gave him a timely warning about a rising hatched in Egypt. Zubair, Riaz Pasha, the former Prime Minister, and one Mehmud Bey are at the head of it. To give it the aspect of a religious and national undertaking they have won the Ulemas on their side. They have completed all their arrangements and are now only waiting for the breaking of war in Europe. The presence of British troops and the British officers being at the head of every department in Egypt is very distasteful to the Egyptians, and they have undermined the loyalty of everyone in Egypt.

Zuber Pasha is also intriguing with the Central Africans to put obstacles in the way of Mr. Stanley, and thus to avoid his relieving Emin Pasha. He is under the impression that if Stanley fails, he (Zubair) is the only one who will be sent out to carry out his work, and thus he will be able to go back to Sudan, and that when once back among his countrymen he will then revenge for the bad treatments he has received at the hands of the Egyptians and the English.

Zubair is on very friendly terms with Mukhtar Pasha, and he too is encouraging him in everything which is against the British Government.

The detective’s superiors would have been aware of some errors in the memorandum – for example AbdulRasul was denied permission to visit Zubair in Gibraltar. Another undercover agent, Amrik Singh, was despatched to check and get further information. He reported back to superiors in India in May 1888, providing the basis of a memorandum prepared by Colonel Henderson, General Superintendent of the Thuggery and Dacoit Department, later the Special Branch.  The possibility of a Russian troop movement from Panjdeh into Afghanistan, and a Sikh uprising to reinstate Duleep Singh to his position in Punjab would have been like a bombshell for the Empire-builders

A.R. [Abdul Rasul] is now the only person who influences Duleep Singh. A.R.’s plans are to intrigue against the British Government in Constantinople and Egypt, and to close the Suez Canal which he says will be done shortly. He declares that the French with Turkey and the Sudanese will cause some trouble shortly. What he wants to do now about Duleep Singh is to send him some money, and for this purpose is working with Ahmed Mukhtar Pasha and Zubair Pasha; he calls himself the Private Secretary of Duleep Singh. A.R. said that when he returns to Moscow he will go with Daleep to [General] Alihanoff, and that then the action as regards the Suez Canal will be taken. A great idea of his is to cause some trouble in Kashmir and get Duleep Singh there [. . .]

I saw Zubair Pasha today, and A.R. explained in Arabic that I am a fellow countryman of the Maharajah. When I took leave Zubair said (in Arabic translated by A.R.) that being of the same complexion, he had a high regard for the people of Hindustan, and was ready to assist the Maharajah with person, wealth and men:  he could not publish his plans but would do everything: he regretted that of the 50 crores of people in India nothing could be done against the English. He said that he always understood the Sikhs are brave but the Maharaja had no hopes from them: his own people though few in number are ready to fight. I represented that the Sikhs are unarmed, but he replied this was the case of the Sudanese, but they possessed themselves the arms of the English. He told me to give salam to the Raja of Faridkot and Bawa Khem Singh and bid them to raise a revolt in the Punjab when he gave the signal by a hostile attack on the English. A.R. told me afterwards that Zubair’s plan is to close the Suez Canal, and until that is done the English power in India cannot be shaken. The Sultan’s Ministers, who are favourable to the English, are not concerned in this plan, but only some of them who are favourable to Russia and also to Duleep Singh. The plan will be carried out soon, and the canal will be entirely closed.

As a result of this Intelligence, Abdul Rasul was arrested in 1889, imprisoned in India for a short while and then deported to England. The Maharaja’s plans ambitions came to nothing because of an undercover agent in his entourage who posed as an Irish nationalist. Zubair remained in detention in Cairo. Notwithstanding agents’ embellishments, these reports convey Zubair Pasha’s involvement in the geopolitical developments of the day. He was far-sighted in recognising the anti-colonialist struggle could transcend differences in religion.  There are so many lines of enquiry here for researchers to delve further in the archives!

Zubair Pasha continued to manage his business interests in Sudan from Cairo, and only allowed back to his homeland in 1904.  He lived for some years in Omdurman, and later at El Geili. AbdulRasul, remained in London till around the mid-1890s, then settled back in Cairo in the mid-1890s. Did the two life-long friends meet up?   Zubair passed away on 6 January 1913; Abdul Rasul on 11 September 1915.

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This article first appeared in Salaam on July 23 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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