Said to be the inspiration for one of Karl May’s characters, von Slatin is one of those characters who make us feel utterly inadequate.
Born the son of a Jewish convert to Catholicism near Vienna, he was in the commercial academy when his father died rather suddenly. By chance he heard of an opening at a German bookstore in Cairo. The sheer unlikelihood appealed to him, and he was off to Egypt.
All thoughts of bookselling left him as he joined Theodore von Heuglin, explorer and ornithologist into the mountains of Dar Nuba in Sudan. Rough times and much rebellion in the area at the time, and Europeans were few. Before he was through, von Slatin met such luminaries as botanist Dr Eduard Schnitzer (aka, Emin Pasha on his conversion to Islam, later to relieve Henry Morgan Stanley) and General Charles George Gordon.
Enough adventure for any other man to hang it up and return to a quiet life in Austria. Not von Slatin. He left only because he had been called up to fulfill his military obligation in the Austro-Hungarian army, mostly in Bosnia. Out of the blue, he got a letter from Gordon inviting him to join the English general in the Sudan. His superiors thought it a reasonable request and gave him leave to go. At age twenty four, he was appointed governor of Dara in south west Darfur, and two years later governor general of Darfur, just after Gordon had left Khartoum.
Sudan at the time was a dependency of Egypt, then ruled by a Khedive, Ismail Pasha, with certain well regarded foreigners taking on administrative roles – thus the presence of people like Gordon.
Slatin’s was not a desk job. He went into the field, helping putting down the slave trade, executing the traders, and performing other good works.
It didn’t go down well in all areas. Locals grew annoyed at Egyptian rule and its moderating aims and relativley softer brand of Islam. In 1881 there arose Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, the self declare Mahdi, messianic redeemer of the Muslims, much influenced by Wahabbism. He raised soldiers and took them to the field.
Fighting went on for the next three years, with growing numbers favoring the Mahdi. Von Slatin was able enough to hold his own, for a while at least. In 1883 his forces were pushed back at the battle of Om Waragat. The native troops blamed his failure on his Christian faith. Dara was apparantly worth a change of vows – he publicly converted to Islam then and there, taking the name Abd al Qadir.
It didn’t help. The Mahdi’s troops surrounded his, and the relief force of Hicks Pasha was defeated at the 1883 Battle of Shaykan. Slatin in chains when Gordon returned to the Sudan and commander of Kartoum the next year. Slatin was dragged to the gates of the city, where he was supposed to convince general Gordon to surrender.
It didn’t happen.
The fall of Khartoum is one of the great blots on the British army’s copybook. (Unfairly, it can be said. More sensible heads at the time had tried to tell him to get out while the getting was good as there was no particular British interest in this area, and Gordon was not an official of the British government. But Gordon had a sense of honor that would not permit backing down.) Gordon was killed (against orders by the Mahdi), beheaded, and all England mourned. The Sudan was now the province of Islam, the Mahdi in charge. He had little enough time to enjoy it. He died within the year, to be replaced by Khalifa Abdullahi, who found Slatin useful as an adviser and interpreter.
For ten years von Slatin acted in this capacity. He was highly enough thought of that the Khalifa summoned him one day and said:
“I have often presented you with wives, and they have never complained to me of domestic quarrels. It is true, however, that I have heard you have either made presents of them to your servants, or have given them their liberty. It seems to me that although you pretend to be one of us, you really wish to adhere to the manners and customs of your tribe. I mean that you wish to have only one wife.”
The wife the Kahlifa had in mind was his cousin. Slatin demurred, but he realized that this was a serious slap in his master’s face, and so now, eleven years after his capture, he sent word to Cairo to get help in escaping.
By good fortune, the request landed on the desk of Sir Reginald Wingate of Egyptian military intelligence, who helped manage to effect his escape and the one thousand kilometer trek across the desert in 1895. In von Slatin’s words: “After afternoon prayers, I once more returned to my house, again impressed on all my servants the immense importance of keeping the secret, and with repeated promises of reward, I stepped across the threshold, praying fervently to God that I might never set foot within my hut again.”
Which gets us back to books. His account of his time in captivity was published simultaneously in English (Wingate translation) and German and was a great best seller. It was one of the few Queen Victoria made him a Campanion of the Order of the Bath. (She enjoyed his company and had him around often.) The Khedive of Egypt made him a Pasha.
He could have left it at that, safe, sound, covered in honors and doing quite well financially, but no, a year later he joined the staff of the Egyptian army and served in the Khedive’s fight to get back the Sudan. This time the British army under Lord Kitchener was on board, and the whole thing was wrapped up at the 1898 battle of Omdurman (where served a young Winston Churchill).
Victoria came through again, making him a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George campaign; Frans Joseph I of Austria made him a knight. The British Army made him a Brigadier General. He became Inspector General of the Sudan working closely with Wingate, now Governor General. In 1907 he was promoted to Major General.
The First World War were a bit awkward for this cosmopolitan man. He had to resign his position in the Sudan, of course. Tactfully, and despite his military abilities, he headed the Prisoners of War for the Austrian Red Cross, and helped Charles I of Austria in his failed plans to get a separate peace. (He also instituted an Austrian edition of Robert Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts – what boy wouldn’t want to join something headed by such a man?)
He also chose this moment, at age 57, to marry the Baroness Alice von Ramberg, having gotten papal dispensation to erase his conversion of convenience to Islam. One daughter, Anna Maria Helene, resulted from the union.
After the war he moved to Switzerland, making an annual visit to England to see the men he served with in Africa. He died of cancer in 1932. All Vienna mourned, and even some in England.