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Darfur – By Robert Fay

15 April 2005 No Comment

By Robert Fay (excerpted from Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah. (Oxford University Press, April 2005)Former Independent Sultanate in Western Sudan

In prehistoric times, the peoples of what is now Darfur were related to those of the Nile Valley (including EGYPT), whose caravans probably reached the region by 2500 B.C.E. According to tradition, the region’s first rulers were the Daju. By around 900 C.E., Christianity had spread to the area; by the thirteenth century, however, the region had fallen under the domination of the powerful Islamic empire of Kanem-Bornu to the west, and the TUNJUR replaced the Daju as the ruling elite of the region.

The sultanate of Darfur first entered the historical record during the seventeenth century, under Sulayman. Sulayman belonged to the Keira Dynasty, which claimed Arab descent and which removed the Tunjur from power. Except for an interval during the nineteenth century, this dynasty ruled Darfur until 1916. Gradually the Keira merged with the Fur, the agricultural people over whom they ruled. (The state’s name, Dar Fur, means “house of the Fur” in Arabic.)

The slave trade figured prominently in both the formation and the expansion of the Darfur Sultanate. Parties from Darfur obtained slaves and ivory by either raiding or trading with the stateless societies that lay to its south and southwest. Not only did Darfur’s rulers export slaves to North Africa and along the “forty days’ road,” which crossed the desert from Darfur to Egypt, but slaves also served the sultan as soldiers, laborers, and bureaucrats. Sulayman’s successors expanded the state. In 1786 Sultan Muhammad Tayrab conquered the province of Kordofan from the Funj Sultanate of Sennar to the east.

In 1821, however, Egyptian forces conquered the Funj Sultanate and wrested Kordofan from Darfur. Traders from KHARTOUM then began to compete in the slave trade with those in Darfur. Turkish-Egyptian forces under Rahma al-Zubayr conquered Darfur in 1874 and overthrew the Keira sultan. In 1885 a Sudanese rebellion under a religious leader called the Mahdi overthrew the Egyptian state, which had come under increasing British influence. In 1898 British forces defeated the MAHDIST STATE and placed it under Anglo-Egyptian administration. Under their policy of indirect rule, the British restored the Darfur Sultanate under Ali Dinar Zakariyya. Ali Dinar played a significant role in an Islamic, anti-Western alliance that formed during World War I. The Anglo-Egyptian government subsequently invaded Darfur, killed Ali Dinar, ended the sultanate, and incorporated Darfur into Sudan. After Sudan attained independence in 1956, Darfur remained under Sudanese rule.

The central Darfur region of Sudan is inhabited largely by Fur farmers; the northernmost section by nomadic camel herders; and the eastern and southern zones by Arab cattle herders. Periods of severe drought since the late 1960s forced the cattle and camel herders to encroach on the rich agricultural land in the central section of Darfur. As competition for access to water and pasture intensified, small-scale raids turned into persistent battles among the different groups. Attempts by successive governments to achieve peace in the region have failed and the fighting continues.

In February 2003 two rebel groups — the Sudan Liberation Army Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement (with members drawn from the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups) — demanded that the Arab-ruled Sudanese government begin to share power and end the economic marginalization of Darfur. The government responded by targeting the civilian populations from which the rebels were drawn.

With support from the Sudanese government, Arab Janjaweed militias forced one million people — mostly farmers — to flee to refugee camps. Thousands have died or been killed; tens of thousands of homes have been destroyed.


Kapteijns, Lidwien, and Jay Spaulding. An Islamic Alliance: Ali Dinar and the Sanusiyya, 1906–1916. Northwestern University Press, 1994.

O’Fahey, R. S. State and Society in Dar Fur. Hurst & Co., 1980.

Copyright (c) 2005 Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission from AFRICANA: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AFRICAN AND AFRICAN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, SECOND EDITION. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah. (Oxford University Press; April 2005; 5 Volumes; 4,500 pp.; 0-19-517055-5; Special introductory price until April 30th, 2005 of US $425.00. After April 30th, 2005, the price will be US $500.00).

Ninety years after W.E.B. Du Bois first articulated the need for “the equivalent of a black Encyclopedia Britannica,” Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr., realized his vision by publishing Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience in 1999. This new multi-volume edition of the original work expands on the foundation provided by Africana. More than 4,000 articles cover prominent individuals, events, trends, places, political movements, art forms, business and trade, religion, ethnic groups, organizations and countries on both sides of the Atlantic.

About the Editors:
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Humanities, Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies, and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University. Professor Gates is well known as an innovator in the field of African American studies and as the author of numerous works.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is the Lawrence S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. The groundbreaking Africana—now expanded to a five-volume set, unparalleled in scope, scholarship and accessibility

Available at your local libraries and bookstores. Please visit the Oxford University Press Web site for ordering information: Africana

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