The transnational heritage of Deim Zubeir

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).

‘An Infinity of Curious Things’: unpacking collections in Italy

The British School at Rome have uploaded a podcast of Zoe Cormack’s recent lecture in Rome. This marked the end of a seven month residential fellowship, during which Zoe was investigating the histories of collections from South Sudan in Italian museums.

The lecture provides an overview of some of the different ways African objects have entered Italian public and private collection from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. One part discusses the history and provenance of two collections that were made in South[ern] Sudan in the nineteenth century.

The first was made by Romolo Gessi – an Italian who served in the Ottoman-Egyptian Government of Sudan (or Turkiyya) as the Governor of Bahr el Ghazal between 1874 and 1881. The objects Gessi acquired, mainly at Egyptian Government stations and through chiefs and other intermediaries, are now housed at the Pigorini Museum of Ethnography and Prehistory in Rome. The title of the lecture comes from Gessi’s own description of his collection, which he said was made up of ‘an infinity of curious things’. Gessi is best known for his campaign against the Sudanese slave and ivory trader Suleiman Zubier, who he killed at Deim Zubeir (in western Bahr-el-Ghazal). Many of the objects were acquired in the context of this campaign. Suleiman’s own sword (taken as a trophy by Gessi) is now housed at the Civic Museum of Reggio Emelia.

The second collection from South Sudan under consideration was made by Giovanni Miani – a venetian explorer – during an expedition on the White Nile and around the area of modern day Juba in 1859-1860. This is one of the largest and most important historic collections of South Sudanese material culture in Europe. The lecture focusses on the objects in the Ma’di case (Ma’di speaking people live on both sides of the border of South Sudan and Uganda). Analysis of Miani’s published accounts and diaries has revealed  that the Ma’di objects were acquired in the aftermath of a brutal attack (by the soldiers of an ivory trading company) on a village near the government station Labore. The Miani collection is currently on display at the Museum of Natural History in Venice.

The histories of both of these collections show how acquiring objects was deeply entangled with the violent expansion of the state and commercial networks in southern Sudan from the mid-nineteenth century.  Zoe then raises the question of what these objects can also tell us about creative responses by South Sudanese people to new forms of military and political power. In the last part of the lecture, she talks about how these nineteenth century collections and their protagonists were given new significance during the period of fascist-colonial expansion in Eastern Africa.

Have a listen!

The pipes of Gwado Ayoker

There is a document held in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections called ‘Reflections of Cultural Artifacts and History: the case of the Shilluk pipe’ written by Kunijwok Gwado Ayoker, while he was at Wolfson College, Oxford in the 1980s.

It is a short essay about the cultural significance of pipes and smoking in Shilluk culture – touching on and Shilluk history more broadly. It contains several of Kunijok’s recollections from conversations with his father, Gwado Ayoker.

A shilluk smoking pip in the Pitt Rivers Museum. 1965,

In one of part of the essay which pricked my ears, Kunijok writes that Gwado once recalled going to Bussere, a small town near Wau, where there was a school run by Italian missionaries – the Verona (Comboni) Fathers. Gwado lived in Tonga, Upper Nile, so this was a long journey to a different province – Bussere is near Wau, which was the capital of Bahr-el-Ghazal Province. This was around 1930.

One of the things that Gwado told Kunijok about Bussere was how he had been amazed by the elaborate pipes that he saw. They looked, in structure and basic design, to be identical to that of his own father’s, but their bowls were carved into beautiful figurative designs. Gwado even saw one pipe with what looked like a traditional Shilluk hairstyle (this got Gwado and Kunijok wondering about the interconnected histories of different South Sudanese communities)

When Gwado returned to Tonga in the early 1930s, still inspired by what he had seen in Bussere, he began carving small statues  out of soft wood and creating decorative pipe bowls. He sold a number of these pipes to the Verona Fathers and later the Mill Hill Fathers in Tonga and Malakal. Kunijok also says that one of his father’s pipes (in the shape of a lion) is now in the British Museum. There are several in their online catalogue, but only one – below – has a picture available.

A Shilluk smoking pipe in the British Museum Af1985, 11,86

I was fascinated reading this, partly because I have recently seen pipes fitting the description of Gwado’s work, in the Africa Museum of the Verona Fathers (in Verona, Italy) . Could these be the products of Gwado Ayoker’s hand?

Shilluk smoking pipes at the Africa Museum in Verona (Photograph, Zoe Cormack)

I was even more fascinated on a recent visit to the Museum of Archaeology in Perugia (which houses the collection of Italian explorers Orazio Antinori and Carlo Piaggia, made in the early 1860s.)  The museum holds two pipes with a provenance of ‘Bongo’ in  the Antinori collection and one pipe with a provenance of ‘Zande’ in the Piagga collection. We don’t know for sure where these pipes were made, but they were acquired in Bahr-el-Ghazal, and likely not too far from Bussere.  Could these be examples of the tradition of pipe making that inspired Gwado Ayoker in the 1930s? (apologies for the quick and rather dark, research picture)

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Smoking pipes from the Antinori and Piaggia collections at the Archaeological Museum of Umbria. (Photograph, Zoe Cormack)

Its hard to say much with certainty from these brief observations, and I fear the story may be rather more complicated than implied in Kunijok’s essay! But it is an fascinating account of how art could travel – both through missionary structures in South Sudan and back to European museums.

Zoe Cormack

Website Launched

Welcome to the website for a new international research network connecting collections from South Sudan in European museums. Over the next 16 months, with funding from the AHRC, we will be running a series of workshops investigating the history and future of South Sudanese arts and heritage in museum collections.

We will post updates and resources here. If you are interesting in learning more, have a look at the documents in our ‘Resources’ page. For more information see the ‘About’ pages.

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