The Secret Of Kodok

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Pablo Edronkin

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Kodok is a rather obscure town located in central Sudan, in the province of the Upper Nile, where nothing seems to happen, but in reality it is a place that hides a tale of colonialism that its actors wanted to forget.

Today very little is remembered about that incident; if you look upon a library or the Internet, you will find rather scarce material, first hand descriptions or chronicles. You can indeed find a little about the province of the Upper Nile or Aala en Nili, as it is known to the Sudanese. You can also find some demographics and facts such as the name of its capital - Makal - and something about some floods that took place there recently. But about Kodok or what happened took place around the end of the nineteenth century there is very scarce information. So, if we could travel backwards in time to 1898, there would be even less information about that almost-unknown spot that nevertheless, was juicy and tempting for European powers trying to grab the whole of Africa for themselves.

Now imagine that you are an explorer representing one of those powers, complete with moustache, khaki fatigues, portable toilette with some Delft porcelain in it, handmade soap, personal hygiene appliances of the kind that no one would take today on a trek and a salacot, desperately trekking to reach some place to conquer it; you walk for almost a year crossing the most unimaginable uncharted landscape with a full scale and very expensive expeditionary force, then reach that desired spot, plant your flag, and then someone comes and says that you have to leave the premises ASAP because it belongs to your competitor.

Now suppose that the place where you are neither belongs to you nor your competitor, but actually some natives that don't look at you with especially friendly eyes. You are away from home, you don't want to trek your way back because it wasn't nice at all there, on those trails, and your adversaries have a far larger force and firepower than you have. You are in a mess, right?

That is exactly what happened to the expedition led by Jean Baptiste Marchand in 1898, and it almost led to the last war between France and the United Kingdom. It was what then was known as "The Fashoda Crisis;" soon afterwards, both countries entered a new era of diplomatic and military collaboration, and the whole incident as well as the place had to be forgotten, so the English had the name changed from Fashoda to Kodok, with the hope that nobody would remember the place and the event after some time.

For the British and despite that there was plenty of uncharted space in Africa to grab, the presence of the French in the centre and south of Sudan meant that their plans for the continent would be endangered: The British government wanted at the time to seize all the space of eastern Africa in order to form a massive, continuous colonial territory from Egypt to South Africa. So, the presence of Marchand in Fashoda could not be allowed, and they were very clear about that: Lord Kitchener was in charge of dealing with the French in this instance but despite having a far greater firepower at his disposal, he did not use it because the "entente cordiale" was a geopolitical concept already on its way and for the British - as well as the French - a return to the constant wars that ravaged both nations since medieval times was not a wise option.

The enthusiasm of Marchand for his newly found place-to-seize was great, as the acceptance of the idea back in France, but for the French government, still a little bit unstable after nearly a century of revolutions and wars, including a rather recent and disastrous one against the Prussians, as well as political issues such as the Dreyfuss affair turned the whole thing into a headache. It wasn't that French politicians were less eager or belligerent than the people of their country, but on one hand they had a big opportunity to settle things at last with the people across the channel, and on the other hand, a bellicose, equally enthusiastic and expansionist Germany was becoming a bigger strategic issue every day. So, they let Fashoda go.

So, what would have happened if Marchand hadn't obeyed the instructions sent to him by the French government? To start with, he and his expeditionary force would have been defeated by the British, and considering the mentality that existed at that time in Europe - which made many people see the start of WWI as some sort of jolly hunting season until they discovered what war was about - not only it would have been very difficult to reach the level of understanding that the "entente cordiale" meant, but even if a full scale war would not have followed a battle for Fashoda, alliances for the incoming world war would have been different. Then, the outcome of that war could have been different, and not only that, but a second world war would have been of a very different nature because its origins were very related to the outcome of the first one.

This is, of course, just some intellectual tinkering, but the odds of something like this happening and determining a much larger outcome are not unlikely, and we can see that by remembering a few stories: WWI started with just a political assassination, but the system of alliances and interests of the time turned that, something serious indeed but not vital for the world order, into a major disaster. Then, almost at the same time that things were unfolding in Fashoda, in Cuba a U.S. Navy ship exploded due to an accident that was interpreted as an attack that led to a war between the United States and Spain. The whole story of Cuba, to say the least, would have been very different. Perhaps the Castro regime would have never existed because while the Spaniards were a colonialist power indeed, they were by far not as intrusive in Cuba as the U.S. occupation and influence proved to be in later years, something that gave much support for Castro's revolution.

In this regard, the attitude of Marchand should be commended because it is a fact that he wasn't especially fond of leaving his recently-conquered position at a moment in which popular support for his accomplishment was growing in the homeland. So, he could well have disobeyed or ignored his orders for personal political gain, even at the price of conflagration; independently of its results, he would have become a hero of France. Someone guided by ambition would have acted like that; in fact, there are several cases in history of such people, but this explorer had too much self-discipline to let himself fall to the temptation of irresponsibility.

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