Osman Digna's Tunic

Tunic of the Mahdi follower, Osman Digna, Sudan, late 19th century. Tunic of the Mahdi follower, Osman Digna, Sudan, late 19th century. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum, acc. no. Af1980,01.1.

This tunic in the collection of the British Museum is part of an outfit associated with Osman Digna (c. 1840-1926), who was a follower of Muhammad Ahmad (the Mahdi), in Sudan. Osman Digna was regarded as one of the ablest generals in the Mahdi army. In 1899 he fought in the last campaign of the Mahdist forces. In 1900 he was captured near Tokar and was to serve eight years in prison in Egypt. He died there in 1926.

The tunic (jibba; BM Af1980,1.1) is in the typical form of a Mahdi leader’s tunic, with appliqué blue and red woollen patches. It is, however, decorated in a more luxurious manner than other, surviving examples of Mahdi tunics. It is made of cotton with applied patches of coloured woollen cloth. This woollen cloth may well have been part of the spoils following the fall of Khartoum in 1885.

Alfred Berry Brewster in 1886The tunic came with a pair of cotton trousers (BM Af1980,01.2) with appliqué trouser cuffs, as well as an appliqué and quilted cap (BM Af1980,01.3). Osman Digna’s outfit was acquired either in Sudan or Egypt by Alfred Berry Brewster (1856-1928; also known as Brewster Bey). Brewster was a British official based in Egypt, who was appointed as an intelligence officer to General Valentine Baker in his campaigns against the Mahdi forces.

According to the British Museum, the outfit was acquired by Brewster shortly after the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898. The Mahdi army was led by Abdullah al-Taashi, supported by Osman Digna. The British army was commanded by General Kitchener, who became much later even more famous during the First World War ("Kitchener wants you!"). Brewster Bey later became the private secretary to Khedive (governor) Muhammad Tawfiq (Egypt). His army duties in both Egypt and Sudan meant that he was in a position to have met Osman Digna and in this manner acquire the tunic. The garment was given to the British Museum in 1980 by Mrs. E. Pendlebury (Elizabeth Digby-Smith).

See also: the Mahdi and decorative needlework

British Museum online catalogue (retrieved 15 January 2017).


Photograph: Alfred Berry Brewster (1856-1928), in 1886.

Last modified on Sunday, 15 January 2017 12:15