Carl Neufeld – The Khalifa’s Prisoner

In 1988, I was told by a relative that 100 years previously a member of our family, Carl Neufeld, had been kept in chains for 12 years in the Sudan.  Since then, I have been collecting information about this interesting man.

Carl Neufeld was born in Prussia in 1856, the son of a doctor.  He initially embarked on a medical career like his father, studying physiology and medicine at Königsberg and Leipzig universities.  To avoid conscription, he emigrated to Egypt, where he initially worked as a doctor.  There he met an English lady, Charlotte Emma Netherton, my great-grandmother’s sister.  She was working as a governess in Cairo.  They married in 1880.

Neufeld appears to have been a man of many parts, as there is evidence that he ran civil engineering projects in Egypt, and also acted as an interpreter for the British forces.  In 1887 he set up a business in Assouan, with the aim of trading with the Sudan.

The start of his difficulties was an expedition to Kordofan, when he jointly organised a caravan, and set out in April 1887 from Wadi Halfa.  But the enterprise was not only a commercial one – the intention was to contact friendly sheikhs, and bring military intelligence back to Egypt.  Before long, his party was ambushed at Selima Oasis by Dervishes, and all were killed except Neufeld and his female servant.  He was taken to Omdurman, and threatened with beheading.  His defiant attitude was evident, and was partly instrumental in his life being spared.  This led to his long imprisonment at the Great Saier Prison.

Over the years, there were conflicting stories in Britain about his true situation.  Why had he not escaped, as other prisoners had, especially as help is said to have been offered?  What of his “marriage” while imprisoned, and had he converted to Islam?  Was he helping the Khalifa in the manufacture of armaments, to be used against the British?  These stories relied heavily on speculation, and Neufeld could not, of course, defend himself against them at the time.

During his imprisonment, Neufeld was kept in chains for periods of years.  He was eventually freed in September 1898, on the fall of Khartoum after the battle of Omdurman.  His chains were struck off, and his long ordeal was over.  His wife, who had earlier returned to England, came out to join him in Cairo.  However, he found himself to be an unpopular figure, as many implicitly believed the negative reporting of his imprisonment.  In order to set the record straight, he embarked on a series of lecture tours in Britain and Germany.  He also wrote a detailed account of his imprisonment in his book “A Prisoner of the Khaleefa: Twelve Years’ Captivity at Omdurman”, which he dedicated to “Public Opinion”.  His story was also serialised in Wide World Magazine at the time.  Interestingly, he later wrote a novel entitled “Under the Rebel’s Reign” - the parallels between fact and fiction are clear even to the casual reader.

Neufeld subsequently returned to Egypt, and in the early 1900s was running (or living at) a guest house in Assouan called “Pension Neufeld”.  He also owned and operated a mill there, but for what purpose is unclear.  I am indebted to Max Karkégi for providing me with copies of pictures relating to Neufeld during this period.

With the start of the First World War in 1914, Neufeld was forced to return to Germany, abandoning his commercial interests in Egypt.  He worked for the German forces, and was awarded the Iron Cross.  In 1916 he was involved in the Stotzingen Mission to Arabia.  He was taken ill in 1918, when living in Belgium, and sent to Heilstätten Beelitz, near Berlin, to recover.  However, he caught pneumonia and died on 2nd July 1918.  He was buried at Beelitz by the local authorities, there being at the time no known connection to his family.  These latter details have been kindly provided by Stephan Rudloff.

In summary, Carl Neufeld was a complex character, who fell into hostile hands, suffered for many years, and who had to struggle to clear his name when free again.  His clarity of thought, and his fortitude, will be apparent to anyone who reads his published account of his experience.

I would be very interested, and grateful, to hear from anyone who has information about Carl Neufeld or his family.  Please note that his first name is sometimes given as Charles or Karl, and that his middle name (which he seldom used) was Otto.

Phil Lloyd

April 2008