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Rabih Az-zubayr, the African Slave Trader Who Was Beheaded for Daring to Fight Against the French Colonialist

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Rabih az-Zubayr usually known as Rabah in French, was a Sudanese warlord and slave trader who established a powerful empire east of Lake Chad, in today’s Chad.

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Statue of Rabah at the National Museum in Maiduguri, Borno, Nigeria.

Born around 1842 to an Arabic tribe in Halfaya Al-Muluk, a suburb of Khartoum, he first served with the irregular Egyptian cavalry in the Ethiopian campaign, during which he was wounded. When Rabih left the army in 1860s, he became the principal lieutenant of the Sudanese slaveholder Sebehr Rahma.

As a leutenant, Rabih launched a regular series of military expeditions in Borno, Darfur, to plunder and capture slaves; It is estimated that over 2,000 slaves were exported every year by his subordinate Mahdi as-Senoussi, excluding the deaths, casualties, and other losses he inflicted. The totals for Rabih must have been much higher.

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Rabih’s fort in Dikwa, northeastern Nigeria

Around 1890, the growing powers and ruthlessness of Rabih worried the colonial powers, especially France that was considering taking control of central Africa.

Rabih also knew of the plans of the french to annex his region and he deemed it to prevent them from taking control.

In the south-east of Lake Chad, he attacked the Baguirmi Kingdom in 1892, blaming the Mbang (king) Abd ar Rahman Gwaranga for having signed a protectorate with the French. Gwaranga was besieged for three to five months in Manjaffa, and was later forced to leave his capital, which was completely destroyed in March 1893.

In 1899 Rabah had at his disposal 10,000 men among infantry and cavalry, all provided with rifles, plus a great number of auxiliaries equipped with spears and bows. He also kept garrisons at Baggara and Karnak Logone.

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In 1899, Rabih received in Dekoa the French explorer Ferdinand de Béhagle. The discussions between them degenerated, and Béhagle was arrested. On July 17, Lieutenant Bretonnet, who had been sent by France against Rabih, was killed with most of his men at the battle of Togbao, at the edge of the Chari River, in present-day Sarh. Rabih gained three cannons from this victory (which the French recaptured at Kousséri) and ordered his son Fadlallah, whom he had left in Dikoa, to hang French explorer Béhagle.

In response, a French Army column, proceeding from Gabon and led by Émile Gentil, supported by the steamboat Leon Blot, confronted Rabih at Kouno at the end of the year. The French were repulsed with losses, this did not prevent them from continuing and taking Kousséri. Here, they combined with the Lamy column, which had arrived from Algeria, and the Joalland-Meynier column, which had marched from Niger. Lamy assumed command of the combined forces.

The final showdown between Rabih and the French took place on April 22, 1900. The French forces consisted of 700 men, plus the 600 riflemen and 200 cavalry provided by the allied Baguirmi people. Leaving Kousséri in three columns, the French attacked Rabih’s camp. Although the commander Lamy was killed in the ensuing battle, Rabih’s forces were overwhelmed and, while fleeing across the Chari River, Rabih was killed by a skirmisher from the Central Africa mission. Hearing there was a bonus for Rabih’s corpse, the skirmisher returned to the field and brought back Rabih’s head and right hand.

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Severed Head of Rabih Az-Zubayr (c1842-1900) Sudanese Warlord & Slave Trader, Spiked Head or Head Hunter Trophy After Battle of Kousséri during the Rabih War (1899-1901)

The casualties amounted to 28 dead and 75 wounded on the French side; 1,000 to 1,500 dead and more than 3,000 wounded on Rabih’s side, including women and children accompanying the army.

With Rabih’s defeat, his empire rapidly disintegrated. A year later his son Fadlallah was defeated and killed. All Rabih’s territories fell into French hands, except for Borno which went to Britain.

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