It was 1898, and Fashoda was nowhere and nothing. It lay, a small, unimposing fishing village, along the White Nile, somewhere in the transition land between the Nubian Desert and the vast Savanna of southern Sudan. Sudan, at that time, was a whole lot of nowhere itself, the wild and sparsely inhabited Mahdia, slowly falling to British rule. And Fashoda, little Fashoda, was the carefully measured center of nowhere, the nowhere town that almost sparked a premature World War I.
The problem was this: The colonial powers that be were in the process of devouring Africa, partitioning off the beautiful continent piece by piece, squabbling over who would rape what land and who would repress which peoples. The colonial powers that be were a proud and ambitious lot, and two of the major players, England and France, would stubbornly butt heads at Fashoda.
England was clearly expanding in a north-south direction, building a contiguous empire that would stretch from Cairo to Cape town. It wanted this nice neat line of possession to put on its map, a vast and beautifully tinted territory labeled 'English Colony.' It would look pretty, and pretty imposing, and furthermore, they could build a railway stretching down the very spine of Africa, for ease of control over their very own crippled continent. It would give them the alluring competitive edge in Africa.
France, however, was clearly expanding in an east-west direction, building its own contiguous empire that would stretch from Dakar to Djibouti. This line would encompass French West Africa and French Somaliland, and give France its very own vast and lovely territory, striping the middle of Africa on their maps with the label of 'French Colony.' They, too, wanted the competitive edge of continuous African band, from sea to shining sea.
When you draw a line from north to south along the British ruled territories on a map of Africa, and then draw an east to west line encompassing France's domains, the lines must meet somewhere.. That somewhere is Fashoda. France wanted Fashoda, very badly. Trouble was, England did, too.
France deployed Captain J. B. Marchand from Brazzaville, headed towards Fashoda with some 150 devoted Senegalese men, on July 10, 1898. They would be the first to reach Fashoda, raising France's flag above the village. Back home, the people of France swelled with pride. Africa was theirs.
England, however, did not take this sitting down. They sent a much bigger force headed towards Fashoda, Lord Kitchener and his Anglo-Egyptian army fresh from a victory over the Mahdists in south Sudan. Arriving two months after the Marchand expedition, Lord Kitchener met with Captain Marchand, and the two discussed the situation, quite civilly, over an afternoon meal.
"I protested in the strongest terms against their occupation of Fashoda and their hoisting of the French flag," Kitchener would write to the Marquess of Salisbury. "In reply, Captain Marchand stated that he had precise orders to occupy the country and to hoist the French flag... in Fashoda, and that it was impossible for him to retire without receiving orders from his Government to that effect, but he did not expect that these orders would be delayed. On my pressing him to say whether, seeing that I had a preponderating force, he was prepared to resist the hoisting of the English flag at Fashoda, he hesitated and said that he would not."
Kitchener raised the English flag about 500 yards south from the French flag, and awaited news from France that Marchand would retreat. The dealings between France and England back home, however, were not nearly as courteous as those between the two generals who had met for tea in Fashoda. The Fashoda issue was the climax of the British-French territorial disputes in Africa, and as negotiations proceeded hesitantly, the potential for war became evident.
France wanted to talk spheres of influence in Africa, work out the future of conquest, but Britain staunchly refused to negotiate until Marchand and his troops had abandoned their post. Both governments began to build up strengths in strategic places, and the world held its breath. It would be the last time in the history of French-English relations that war would be so nearly averted.
Perhaps France recognized the absurdity of the situation, and perhaps they simply realized that they would be outnumbered in the event of a battle in the English-dominated Sudan, but whatever their reasons, on December 4, 1889, France ordered the evacuation of the little fishing village of Fashoda, that had never caught the attention of the world before, and never would again. France would negotiate a chunk of the Sahara out from under Britain as compensation, thousands of square miles of land in return for taking down a tattered flag over a cluster of huts in the strategic middle of nowhere.
The formation of the Anglo-French entente in 1904 would prompt Britain to change the town's name to Kodok, which it remains known as to this day, in hopes of wiping away the bitter residue of the Fashoda incident in the French consciousness. Some speculate that the French never quite forgot the humiliation of the Fashoda incident. I personally speculate that the colonial powers that duked it out over Africa, despite being wholly insidious forces of conquest, were, in the end, a rather silly and asinine lot.