Britain and France Face Off in the Fashoda Incident

After a months-long hostile standoff over territorial influence in Africa, France, and Britain were brought to the brink of an imperial war, and eventually, an entente that lasts to this day, during the Fashoda Incident, on this day in history in 1898.

The 19th century saw European colonial powers, especially France and Britain, struggle for imperial dominance in Africa, a period known as the Scramble for Africa. Each country wanted to link its far-flung African colonies with a system of railroads. France wanted to extend its empire east-to-west, from the Niger River in West Africa to the Nile in East Africa, in order to control all trade to and from the Sahel region. Britain wanted to link its territory north-to-south, from present-day Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt, in order to establish a railroad over the entire length of the African continent.

These two imperial powers’ ambitions intersected, literally, in the town of Fashoda, in present day Kodok, Sudan. Both countries understood that whoever controlled Fashoda, the intersection point of the east-west and north-south axes of France and Britain’s plans, respectively, controlled Africa.

In an attempt to exert French dominance, France sent an expedition of 150 men under Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand, on an epic, 14-month trek across central Africa to secure Fashoda. Marchand and his men arrived 10 July 1898. At the same time, British forces moved to secure the strategic town under Sir Herbert Kitchener who, after reconquering Sudan in the Battle of Omdurman, arrived in Fashoda with a flotilla of British gunboats on 18 September 1898.

There, the two military leaders insisted on their respective country’s right to Fashoda, and neither power backed down. Back in Europe, outrage grew in both countries, the crisis grew, and both sides prepared for war.

But the French fleet was out-powered by superior British naval prowess and France was eager to have Britain’s support in future conflicts against Germany. The reopening of the Dreyfus Affair also distracted the French from the Fashoda dispute. Seeing no advantage in a colonial war with Britain, the French ultimately decided to withdraw its soldiers from Fashoda on 3 November 1898. France and Britain agreed that the watershed of the Nile and the Congo, respectively, should mark the boundaries between their spheres of influence.

The Fashoda Incident marked the last serious colonial dispute between France and Britain. And the classic diplomatic solution the two imperial powers pursued is widely considered the precursor of the Entente Cordiale, an agreement that ended almost a millennium of conflict between Britain and France.