Sudanese slit drum

Khartoum, Sudan, late 19th century

In 1881 a Sufi holy man, Muhammad Ahmad, proclaimed himself Mahdi – “The Rightly Guided One” – and declared Holy War against the Turco-Egyptian government in Khartoum, Sudan.

By 1885 he had established the Mahdist State, and although he died shortly after wards, he was succeeded by the Khalifa Abdullahi who governed the fledgling state for the next thirteen years.

This drum was amongst many artefacts taken from the forces of the Khalifa by the British following the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 which signalled the end of the Mahdist State. It is of a type which at that time was commonly used by Central African peoples living many hundreds of miles to the southwest of Omdurman in regions such as the Bahr al-Ghazal where they would have been used to signify the authority of local chiefs. However, the Mahdist armies were drawn from peoples living across a vast area of the Sudan and adjacent territories, many of them slave-soldiers who were no more than nominally Muslim. The drum was probably taken north during a slave-raiding expedition.

The incised and relief patterns on the flanks of the drum are of Islamic inspiration and were presumably applied to assimilate this apparently pagan artefact into the ideology of the Mahdist State. A similar legitimation was administered by the Mahdists to weapons such as the metal ‘throwing knives’ of Central African peoples which were covered with acid–etched Arabic script.

However, one further mark of assimilation was to be added to the slit drum after its capture in 1898, this time in the form of a crown stamped into the tail of the Bush-Cow to signal its new ownership as the property of HM Queen Victoria whose grandson, King George VI, donated it to the British Museum.

Africa: arts and cultures


Humans first evolved in Africa, walking upright about five million years ago, and making the first tools about two and a half million years ago.

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Height: 80 cm
Width: 271 cm
Depth: 60 cm


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