“The Seligmans’ Snapshot: Funerary Rites, a History of Violence, and Cultural Resilience in Sudan, 1865-1909”

By Katie Hickerson
Submitted to Session P4993 (Melancholia, Race, and Enslavement, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
During the first formal anthropological survey of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1909, Charles and Brenda Seligman photographed a Shilluk funeral – a significant event in the experience of the two pioneering ethnologists who saw death rites as central to understanding the “politico-religious outlook of a subject race” . But this funeral, for an unnamed individual, did not happen in Shilluk territory in what is now South Sudan; it took place in urban Omdurman, the former capital of the Mahdist state (1884-1898), across the river from the new colonial capital of Khartoum, hundreds of miles to the north.

Using this photograph from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, this paper analyzes two different historical narratives emanating from the image and the centrality of slavery to each. First, it investigates the materiality and intellectual history of the photograph and the funeral it depicts, informing the Seligmans’ foundational ethnographic writings on death in Shilluk culture and the ways in which anthropologists and scholars of comparative religion – including J.D. Frazer, E.E. Evans Pritchard and David Graeber – draw from this event. Second, the photograph reveals crucial information about Shilluk culture and politics in Omdurman, such as flying a political flag at the center of the funerary ritual, and demonstrates how this photo can be an optic for understanding both the legacy of slavery and contemporary politics in the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural tapestry of urban Omdurman.