Earlier this month, it was announced that Deim Zubeir, a historic slave and ivory trading centre in South Sudan, has reached the ‘tentative’ list of World Heritage sites. There is still some way to go before full ‘World Heritage’ status, but this is the first ‘cultural’ site South Sudan have put forward.  El-Fatih Atem, Director for Culture at the Ministry of Culture and a member of the South Sudan Museum Network, was involved in preparing the  submission.

This blog post considers some of the ‘transnational’ heritage of Deim Zubeir, housed in museums across Europe. Deim Zubeir highlights the potential for research on museum collections to be put into a productive dialogue with heritage initiatives in South Sudan. Photographs and objects in museum collections could help to build a more detailed picture of the site in the nineteenth century. At the same time, understanding the heritage of slavery in South Sudan could contribute to a fuller appreciation of the provenance and history of museum collections in Europe.

Deim Zubeir was a trading centre (or ‘zariba’) founded by a northern Sudanese merchant called Al-Zubeir Rahman Mansur in the 1860s. It was part of a network of commercial stations in Southern Sudan that were established after Sudan’s incorporation into Ottoman Egypt in 1821. The trade was originally founded on ivory, but became increasingly based around slaves (for reasons that are clearly explained in Richard Gray’s ‘A History of the Southern Sudan‘). This system of trade was incredibly extractive. Companies relied on raiding the areas surrounding ‘zaribas’ and enslaving local people to make business commercially viable.

For people living in the vicinity of Deim Zubeir today, the site is associated with a history of slavery. As South Sudan’s submission explains, Deim Zubeir could be the first site associated with nineteenth century the slave trade in Sudan to be inscribed on the World Heritage List.

Hundreds of trading stations were established in South Sudan in the nineteenth century. Deim Zubeir was one of the largest and most significant, located at a major intersection  of the commercial network in Bahr-el-Ghazal: on the caravan route between the southern Zande territories and Darfur – and on the route to the Nile via Wau and Rumbek (which has already been the subject of some research).  By the 1870s, Zubeir had become so powerful that his trading concession, with its headquarters in Deim Zubeir, was practically a mini-state. The Egyptian Government (through General Charles Gordon) began a campaign to reassert their control. In 1878-9, an Italian soldier called Romolo Gessi (who was serving at the Governor of Bahr-el-Ghazal) was sent to reclaim the area for the government. Gessi succeeded in doing this. He killed Suleiman, the son of Zubeir, in the process. This is all described (at length) by Gessi in a collection of letters.

There are many potential documentary sources on Deim Zubeir. For example, research in the archives of the Anti-Slavery Society would reveal how the trading centre was represented in the international media. Or for a different perspective, a book presenting the life of Zubeir Pasha, as told to Nauom Bey Shoucair in Omdurman in 1900 was published in English – with some annotations – by H.C. Jackson of the Sudan Civil Service in 1913. This book includes Zubeir’s own account of his activities in South[ern] Sudan.

What about the  visual resources and material objects in museums? A large traunch of this material is associated with Romolo Gessi, the Italian soldier/Governor of Bahr-el-Ghazal who reclaimed Deim Zubeir for the Ottoman-Egyptian Government of Sudan.

Gessi had engaged a photographer called Richard Buchta to work in Sudan (for more details on this photographic tour see Chris Morton’s article). Buchta took several photographs at Deim Zubair after Gessi’s victory in 1879. Only a few original sets of these photographs still exist. One is in the Welt Museum in Vienna, another in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. This is a photograph of Deim Zubeir.

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A photograph of Deim Zubeir in 1879

This photograph of enslaved soldiers (bazingers) is very likely to be taken in Deim Zubeir.

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It is not only photographs that can be traced  back to Deim Zubeir. Many Europeans who travelled to Sudan in the nineteenth century made vast collections of objects that were subsequently given (or sold) to European museums. Gessi was no exception. His collection of objects was posthumously sold (by his widow) to the Museum of Ethnography and Prehistory in Rome. The collection contains artefacts taken as a trophy after his campaign at Deim Zubeir. A photograph of this trophy at Deim Zubeir was taken by Richard Buchta. If you look closely, in the first photograph you can see the building which serves as a backdrop to Gessi’s ‘loot’.

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Nine swords and several flags acquired by Gessi (pictured above) were sold to the Ethnographic Museum in Rome, including one which documents in the museum’s archive describe as having belonged to Suleiman, the son of Zubeir Pasha, himself.  Four of these swords are still in Rome. Four were transferred to different museums in Italy. Suleiman Zubeir’s sword is now in a museum Reggio nell’Emelia in northern Italy. The flags have been lost – they were sent to be exhibited at a Fascist-colonial exhibition in Naples in 1940 which was destroyed in World War Two.

It is likely that many of the other objects acquired by Gessi were obtained at Deim Zubeir – in his letters he mentions exchanging many objects with Zande chiefs following the defeat of Suleiman Zubeir. These objects are now stored in Rome.

There are other objects in museum collections that illustrate South Sudan’s violent incorporation into global commercial networks in the nineteenth century. One famous object in the British Museum, ‘Sudanese Slit Drum’ (on display in the Africa gallery) was chosen by the former director Neil MacGregor, to represent the history of the world in 100 objects because of the story it tells about empires in the nineteenth century.

Sudanese slit drum, British Museum

We can’t know if this drum passed through Deim Zubeir, but it certainly made its way to Khartoum (and then London), through the network of commercial and military stations of which Deim Zubeir was a major node. Connecting these collections to their sites of origins opens up new possibilities for thinking about the objects and the histories they tell.


(Research on the Gessi collection in Italy was conducted during a fellowship at the British School at Rome, a longer academic article on this material is in preparation).

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