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Sudanese jibbah

Natasha Bennett, Curator of Oriental Collections, uncovers a 19th-century jibbah (quilted coat) from Sudan, reputed to have been taken by a British officer in the aftermath of the Battle of Omdurman.

…After making the necessary reports I continued to watch the strange and impressive spectacle. As it became broad daylight … I suddenly realised that all the masses were in motion and advancing swiftly. Their Emirs galloped about and before their ranks. Scouts and patrols scattered themselves all over the front. Then they began to cheer… to us, watching on the hill, a tremendous roar came up in waves of intense sound, like the tumult of the rising wind and sea before a storm. In spite of the confidence which I felt in the weapons of civilisation…the formidable aspect of this great host…hurrying eagerly to the attack of the zeriba, provoked a feeling of loneliness…

Winston Churchill describing the advance of the Mahdist forces at the start of the Battle of Omdurman, 2 September 1898. Churchill was an officer with the 21st Lancers and acted as a war correspondent during Major-General Kitchener’s campaign in Sudan. He subsequently published The River War in 1899 as an account of his experiences.

The Battle of Omdurman

On 2 September 1898, fierce fighting took place between the Mahdist army and Anglo-Egyptian forces at Omdurman in Sudan. This battle was the last major clash of a prolonged struggle. In the early 1880s, Muhammad Ahmad, a Sufi religious leader, had proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi, meaning ‘guided one’, the prophesied saviour of the Islamic faith. He built a sizeable and dedicated body of followers in Sudan and inspired rebellion against the ruling regime.

Under the Mahdi and his successor the Khalifa ‘Abdallahi (who assumed the leadership after the Mahdi’s death in 1885), the Mahdist state became sufficiently successful and powerful to pose a threat to the security of British-garrisoned Egypt. This led to the Nile Campaign of 1884 to 1885, where the attempt to rescue General Charles Gordon and relieve the besieged city of Khartoum before it was captured by the Mahdi ended in abject failure.

A decade later, between 1896 and 1899, Major-General Kitchener led the Anglo-Egyptian expedition to subjugate Sudan. At Omdurman, despite the determined, ferocious onslaught of successive waves of Mahdist forces, they were decimated by the Anglo-Egyptian army. Kitchener’s force was smaller but had far greater firepower at its disposal, including recent developments like Maxim guns.

The jibbah

red and gold long fabric coat, with spilt sides and a helmet with a mail aventail

A set of Sudanese armour comprising a padded coat (jibbah) with split skirts for riding, and a helmet with a mail aventail. It probably arrived in Sudan towards the end of the 19th century.

This is a set of Sudanese armour (XXVIA.137) comprising a padded coat (jibbah) with split skirts for riding, and a helmet with a mail aventail which entered the Royal Armouries’ collection as part of the same donation from Lady Hungerford in 1953. The helmet appears to be of European manufacture; it is of a type which was commissioned for and used by the bodyguards of the Egyptian Khedive in the 19th century. It probably arrived in Sudan towards the end of the 19th century.

This September then, it will be 120 years since this padded coat or jibbah was reputedly taken from the battlefield at Omdurman in Sudan. A label sewn into the hem of the lining described the coat as having been removed from the tent of the Mahdi after the battle by a Major George Rae. Of course, such an assertion could be entirely without grounds, and we have no direct evidence to suggest that this provenance story is accurate. Yet research in army archives has indicated that the soldier mentioned by name could well have been George Lake Sidney Ray, who was a Captain in the 1st battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers when he fought at Omdurman. He was promoted to Brevet-Major in November 1898, but was killed in action in South Africa in December 1899. (It is unknown if George Ray had any connection with Lady Hungerford, or how the armour may have passed into her possession before she presented it to the Royal Armouries in 1953.)

How did it come to be here?

Significant quantities of Sudanese arms and armour were brought back to Britain after these late 19th-century campaigns, so George Ray would not have been unusual if he did pick up this quilted armour as a trophy. However, if this coat was looted from Omdurman, and Captain Ray was indeed responsible for acquiring it, there was clearly some element of confusion in the note as to how it actually came into his hands, due to the fact that the Mahdi had died in 1885. It may have been that whoever wrote the note had mixed up the identities of the Mahdist leaders and meant the Khalifa, who had a residence at Omdurman where arms and armour were presumably stored in abundance. Another possible scenario was that the coat may have been seized as booty from the area around the Mahdi’s tomb at Omdurman. (The tomb was infamously desecrated by the victors after the battle, partly as retribution and revenge for the brutal death of General Gordon at the hands of Mahdist troops in 1885.)

Mahdist fighters were often referred to as ‘Dervishes’ because they were encouraged to hold true to ascetic virtues as part of their faith. They became well-known for their jibbahs, garments made of tough, plain white cotton, with patches of another colour sewn on top. This is another example in the Royal Armouries’ collection (XXVIA.170).

Beige fabric shirt with blue squares and red edging

Attached is a label inscribed ‘Dervish Jibbah from Omdurman (Russell)’.

This clothing was intended to represent poverty and humility and became the uniform of the Mahdist army. Unlike the light garments worn by the majority of the Mahdist troops though, which shielded their wearers primarily through shared ideals and associated mental fortitude, the padded jibbah that is the focus here is a high quality, quilted armour which had much to recommend it as a piece of practical protective equipment.

Full-length coats like this were worn for centuries by heavy cavalry across the Saharan region, including in Sudan. Multiple layers of wadded textile provided a resilient defence against slashes and thrusts from edged weapons. The fabric coats and neck defences could also be reinforced with elements of metal armour, in the form of mail shirts and neck guards, and plate helmets. Horses could also be protected with padded body armours on occasion, supplemented with shaffrons (head defences) made from metal plates.

red and gold long fabric coat, with spilt sides and a helmet with a mail aventail

Jibbah like this continued to be worn well into the 20th century in Sudan and the surrounding areas; they were suited to martial activity in that environment and climate and were part of long-maintained traditions and heritage. However, as the carnage at Omdurman demonstrated, warriors skilled in wielding swords, spears and rifles in close-quarters combat could do little against the assault of modern guns, whether they were equipped with armour or not.

To find out more about this object and others in our collection, visit Collections Online.

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