Maps of the Sudan border: the endless conversation

Maybe it’s working with Douglas Johnson, or for the Rift Valley Institute, or being a PhD student at Durham with the Sudan Archives, but I am fed up with the endless preoccupation with maps of the Sudan-South Sudan border.

The desperate search for the colonial maps of the 1956 boundary, which was then an internal administrative border, has flared up again today, as Vice President Riek Machar asked the British officials he met over Christmas in England to look for ‘missing’ maps of key border hotspots, apparently secreted away by the British in a fit of pique.


Apparently the message hasn’t been received.  There are no maps of the 1956 border from 1956.  The administrative borders were laid out on maps by the survey department from the 1930s through to the early 1950s; there’s no one map that shows, in sufficient detail, where the border exactly is in 1956.  A full collection of maps – I’m pretty certain there aren’t any missing ones?  I’ve seen the existing ones from the Nuba Mountains and Bahr al Ghazal in the Sudan Archive already – can be found in the Royal Geographical Society in London and the Sudan Archive in Durham.  These were consulted in early rounds of border demarcation exercises.

John Ashworth, in his Google Group circular today, asked:

It has always baffled me why Britain has not been able to assist more with the border demarcation. My British colonial forebears were usually obsessed with recording things and then keeping those records in comprehensive archives. With computer and GPS technologies surely it ought to be possible to take even old maps and superimpose them on modern maps and on the ground?

I’ll address this point by point.  Britain has helped, insofar as it is possible, because the maps are open access at Durham.  The British administrators were obsessed with recording things, but at the same time, there were only a few dozen of them in the entirety of South Sudan, and their records were dependent on local oral evidence and pencil lines on small-scale maps – I know this because, in the South Sudan National Archives here in Juba, there are lots of these tiny maps, with great big crayon lines drawn by British administrators to demarcate local admin areas.  It is totally pointless to try to superimpose these on GPS large-scale maps – the pencil lines themselves would be tens of miles wide, and when we’re dealing with disputed territories of tens of miles, that’s not particularly helpful.  The “comprehensive archives” John wants are in bits in a tent, and in boxes in my office; and we don’t have the non-existent 1956 map either, sorry.  Because it doesn’t exist.

Finally, I can only echo Douglas Johnson’s point.  The strength of the British administrators was, as John Ashworth rightly points out, their obsession with recording things.  This obsession however was bureaucratic (and they were hardly preoccupied with recording in mile-by-mile detail what was, to them, an internal border).  But this means that the entirety of the South Sudan National Archives collection from the 1950s – and its counterpoints in the Durham Sudan Archives and in the Khartoum Sudan National Archives – are the border proofs.  What is needed is a careful examination of who administered which areas, and which villages; that is the proof of the real border.  The detail is there; there are files here in Juba that trace disputes over single cows in the border regions, let alone administrative and taxation rights.  You’re not going to find a simple, easy, 1:10,000 scale map that will solve this (and who said even finding the map would resolve anything anyway?).  The map is in the notes.


Filed under Archives, Current affairs, Politics

7 responses to “Maps of the Sudan border: the endless conversation

  1. Irene

    Just one quick extra point: probably one other reason why there is no map of the 1956 border updated to the last inch of territorial detail is that in 1956, or in the last months of 1955 for that matter, (most of) the British were no longer there. Some of them had left when the self-government was granted in 1953, many others left in the following months and years. So – why and how should the British have done a detailed mapping of an internal administrative border when they were no longer in charge of the administration of those areas?

  2. saadgulzar

    Reblogged this on Saad Gulzar.

  3. Lino Garang Wanj

    no matter since there is no clear map of 1956 in British musoum, but in the History of the Sudan there is what is called closed districts or region this indicate that there was map at that time, other wise our border with North Sudan will be Red sea on the future.

    • You’re right that the closed Southern region was administered separately, and the records for this are in Durham and Juba; however, this doesn’t mean that the British made a map in 1956 (just when they were leaving!). Instead, the proof of where the 1956 border is can be found in the administrative records, showing if the Southern colonial officials were in charge of the disputed areas. It is well documented that the British didn’t make a 1956 map – instead though, we can tell that the southern regional government controlled which border areas from the records of this administration.

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