This article originally appeared on the 31st of October on the website of Silah Report written by yours truly.
‘If walls could talk’ is a popular idiom to express the desire of wanting to know more about what happened in a certain place. But what if weapons could talk? What could tell us their experiences on the field of battle? There’s at least one rifle whose story would be downright horrific, a sinister engraved symbol on its receiver a faint witness of long gone atrocities.
In early 2013, a user called ‘trenchwarfare’ on the Viking Sword Ethnographic Arms & Armour forums purchased a worn and cut-down musketoon-style Remington Rolling Block single-shot rifle with no importation or national markings at all. The rifle looks like it has been repaired several times. The wrist is reinforced with rawhide and there’s a bullet embedded in the right side of the buttstock. As is well known among enthusiasts and acknowledged by the brand new owner himself, the British Empire purchased the American-made Remington rifles to arm the Egyptian army during the 1870’s.
Indeed, very large quantities of these Rolling Blocks were imported by Ismā‘īl Pāshā of Egypt (who reigned from 1863 – 1879) they were widely used during his conquest of the Sudan. As mentioned by John P. Dunn in his book, Khedive Ismail’s Army (2005), a total of 200,000 rifles were stored in Egyptian arsenals. Considering the use by first-line infantry and attrition of defect rifles, he estimates a total of no less than 250,000 rifles and carbines were sent by the British to Egypt in the period between 1869 and 1880.
However, an Arabic inscription on the rifle’s receiver reads the name N. ʿAlī Zakariyyā and the year 1316 of the Islamic calendar, which equals 1898 AD. By that time, Egypt was already ruled sixteen years as a British protectorate, at which point the Remington Rolling Block would have been largely obsolete. The British army officially had switched largely to the Martini-Henry and Lee-Metford rifles several years before. This would indicate that the rifle we’re discussing was no longer being used in any official military context by 1898, but rather by a non-professional individual. The date 1898 is a regionally significant one.
Battle of Omdurman
The famous Battle of Omdurman was the last major battle of the bloody Mahdist War that had raged in Sudan between 1881 and 1899. In the context of the scramble for Africa, the British decided to reassert Egypt’s claim on Sudan during the final years of the war. An expedition commanded by General H.H. Kitchener was organised and was composed of 8,200 British soldiers and 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers commanded by British officers. By September 1898, the Anglo-Egyptians reached Omdurman, the Mahdist capital, where the bulk of the Mahdist army perished due to their outdated weapons as opposed to the modern British .303 bolt action repeating rifles and Maxim machine guns. An old photograph of members of the British Lincolnshire Regiment during the battle shows the soldiers wielding Lee-Metford rifles. The Rolling Block rifle may have been used by their Mahdist opponents. Indeed, Bennet Burleigh, in his Khartoum Campaign 1898, notes that “the great majority of the dervishes (Mahdist warriors) carried Remingtons, and these, as a rule, were in passably good condition.”
If indeed used by Madhist forces, the rifle may have been captured during the catastrophic events of 7 June, 1882, when the Mahdi took Egyptian troops, led by Yūsuf Pāsha, by surprise completely destroying an Egyptian column, capturing large quantities of arms, ammunition, military clothing and other supplies. Among these captured supplies were no doubt a large number of the Egyptian troops’ Rolling Block rifles. This was just one of a number of actions where the rifle may have been captured from Egyptian forces, including the destruction of Colonel William Hicks’ force in at the Battle of Shaykan in 1883 or the fall of Khartoum in January 1885. It is possible that the rifle was captured during one of these actions and eventually acquired by a Sudanese Mahdist rebel, possibly in 1889 when the rifle was date marked.
Set of gallows
Let’s take a look at the strange symbol on the rifle’s receiver I mentioned at the start of this piece. It looks a little like a stylized bird, but it’s actually much more sinister. This rare symbol represents a set of gallows. Some 17th century Central European executioner swords might give us the decisive information needed.
User “Mauro” posted his recently purchased German executioners sword on the aforementioned Viking Sword Ethnographic Arms & Armour forums in 2010. Made in the 17th century, the sword features lots of symbols and markings all over its 113 cm blade. The sword has a flat point, in which three holes were made. These three holes at the tip were used to attach weight for a more powerful swing to aid in decapitating the condemned. It would help build up momentum during the swing for a more powerful blow on the victim’s neck. One symbol on the sword’s blade stands out, it is a gallows in a similar style to that seen on the Madhist rifle.
Another 16th century executioner sword, a so-called richtschwert, has been observed to bear the very same marking. In an article on Swiss executioner swords, Richtschwerter und Scharfrichter in Schwyz (2007), author Kaspar Michel analyses the Richtshwert I, an amazing example of several Swiss executioner swords documented in the state archives of Herbst. This type of sword was used for execution up to the 19th century, usually hacking off the head between the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebra. In conclusion, we may state with certainty that this image was a rather popular symbol on European executioner’s tools. The gallows are in this case a metaphor for death by execution in general, be it by decapitation, firing squad or a shot at pointblank range.
How would this relate to Omdurman and the Mahdist War? There are several possible explanations. The city of Omdurman has been described by escaped prisoners as having several rows of gallows in front of the marketplace. At the time, Rudolph Slatin, a prisoner who escaped the Mahdist regime in 1895, wrote an eyewitness account about the execution of members of the Batakin tribe, who had refused to carry out the Caliph’s orders. These punishments were carried out by hanging, decapitation and probably by shooting as well. The above-mentioned Bennet Burleigh describes a similar experience, imitated by a local Sudanese man who “gave ghastly imitations of trials, mutilations and executions by hanging in the Mahdist camps.” This Rolling Block may be one of the tools used in the executions so vividly described by contemporary British accounts.
In the end the symbol found on the Remington remains somewhat of a mystery. The similarity between the rifle’s symbol and those seen on European executioner’s swords is clear but not conclusive. It is possible that this rifle functioned as executioner’s weapon. The inscribed 1898 date adds tangential context which may suggest a link with the events at Omdurman during the final days of the war. A key question that remains unanswered is if it is indeed a Sudanese Mahdist warrior’s weapon of execution how did it come to be marked by a symbol which had been popular in Western and Central-Europe two centuries earlier? Perhaps the similarity is mere coincidence and the symbol has a different regional meaning. Was the symbol already present when the weapon was captured? Or was it added later by Madhist or even British troops, perhaps to denote its role in the Omdurman executions? Perhaps the markings were added in an attempt to increase its value by providing it with a sinister provenance. While the sinister mystery of this obscure symbol is intriguing we may never have a definitive answer to these questions.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.