There were no known state formations in today’s South Sudan in pre-colonial times, and the country’s history before 1500 is almost unknown. From the 19th century, both North and South Sudan were occupied by Egypt, and from 1899 South Sudan was part of the condominium established by Egypt and the United Kingdom over Sudan.
Like most African states, South Sudan is shaped by the war on autonomy in the decades after modern Sudan became independent in 1956. South Sudan became an independent republic only in 2011.
There are a large number of different peoples in South Sudan, each with its culture and history, often closely related to people of other states in this part of Africa. Many of the peoples that exist today in South Sudan immigrated in the 15th to 19th centuries, and the country’s oldest history is thus also linked to peoples and territories that today are partly found in other states of modern Africa, such as Uganda and Kenya, as well as Ethiopia. The history of these is partly in short documented, and the knowledge of the area’s older history is based mainly on linguistics.
In the area that is today’s South Sudan there were no known state formations in pre-colonial times. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of South Sudan. The area was populated by peoples in organized communities, with no clear states. South Sudan was culturally and politically influenced both from the south and from the north. Little is known about the influence of ancient Egypt. It is mostly in recent times that we see the influence of Islam through political events in Sudan. Such influence followed above all the Nile, but left its strongest mark on the northern parts of later Sudan, less so far south than in present-day South Sudan. The large swamp area Sudd, formed by White Nile south of Sudan’s capital Khartoum, was one of several geographical barriers that restricted contact between the north and the south in what became one state, Sudan.
It is characteristic that the Roman emperor Nero sent an expedition that never failed to get through Sudd. The area south of Sudd remained unaffected from the north until much later in history. The southern parts of Sudan therefore never came strongly under Nubian or Egyptian influence. Even in recent times, the area was rather influenced by Christian mission, from the southeast – and this became a cultural dividing line against the Islamic north, which in modern times helped Sudan eventually disintegrate as one state formation.
Migration from the north brought several peoples to southern Sudan, including the Bahr al-Ghazal people and several Nilotic peoples, of which the largest group today are the Dinkas (Jieng). The ethnic group that is best documented historically is the Shillu. They established a kingdom on the west bank of the White Nile in today’s South Sudan. The first king was Nyikang or Nyikango, who ruled in the 16th century. He is now a historical hero for the Shilluks. The Shilluks got their heyday from about 1500, after driving Funj away from their area. In the war against Funj, Shilluk entered into alliances with Fur, and with the defeat of the Funj dynasty, a period of stability and peace occurred. This was broken when the Jieng people invaded southern parts of Funj from around 1630 and changed the balance of power, with the result that Shilluk and Fur once again gathered in war, against the expansive Dinkas, which were driven east towards Ethiopia.
Despite military resistance to the Egyptian invasion, Shilluk’s borders from 1821 were pushed south, and the state weakened. The Shilluks revolted in the 1870s against the introduction of forced labor on the new cotton plantations. The people are still the third largest ethnic group in South Sudan, with a traditional king. South of Shilluk, among others, were the Azande people. A strong political system helped Azande to withstand the extensive slave trade.
The Turkish-Egyptian occupation period
Northern Sudan was conquered by Ottoman Egypt from 1820, and the Nilotic Sudan was incorporated into the Egyptian kingdom under Muhammad Ali. For South Sudan, this meant above all that the area was looted, including for slaves. With British support, Egyptian hegemony was gradually established also over South Sudan, and the Egyptian conquest meant that Sudan, by the end of the 19th century, was for the first time assembled into a modern state unit.
Khedive Ismail ruled Sudan for Egypt from 1863 to 1879. During his reign, Egypt expanded southward into areas that today make up South Sudan. Already in 1863, he restored White Nile Province with Fashoda as its headquarters. The following year, Ismail established a river police to overcome the slave trade, but without success since the slave traders mainly operated in areas south of Egyptian control. In 1869, therefore, Ismail hired the famous British explorer, Samuel Baker, to annex the entire Nile River tract with associated lands, stop the slave trade and establish military posts throughout the conquered territory. Baker only partially met the goals by creating the Equatorial Province that stretched into today’s Uganda. In this area he was also barred from the slave traders, and he established the Tawfiqiyah military post at Sobat’s outlet in the White Nile.
While Baker fought against the slave traders along Bahr al-Jabal, the largest supply elephant of the White Nile, trade continued with people on the great plains of Bahr al-Ghazal in the west. One of the slave traders there, Zobeir Rahma Mansur, had become so powerful that Khedive Ismail could not challenge him. Ismail rather appointed Zobeir as governor of the area in 1873, and his territory was called Bahr al-Ghazal province.
In 1874 Charles Gordon took over as Governor of the Equatorial Province. Gordon was no more successful than Baker. Gordon therefore pressured Khedive Ismail to appoint him governor-general of Sudan to end the slave trade, and Ismail succumbed in 1877. To defame European creditors, Ismail signed an agreement with the United Kingdom that year to stop the slave trade by 1880, but the European powers convinced the Ottoman sultan to appoint Ismail as viceroy (khedive) of Egypt in 1879.
Meanwhile, Gordon had heard of the German-Jewish physician Eduard Schnitzer, who had come to Khartoum in December 1875 under the name Mehemet Emin. Gordon invited Emin to Equatoria to become the top military doctor in the province. He became very popular, and in 1878 Khedive Ismail appointed him successor to Gordon and gave him the title bey. As governor, Mehemet Emin received the title of Emin pasja and ruled the Equatorial Province of Mahdia State isolated him in 1883-1884. He moved to Wadelai in present-day Uganda until he was evacuated by Henry Morton Stanley in 1889.