January 26




1885 The death of General Gordon 

Charles George Gordon, aka “Chinese” Gordon, aka “Gordon of Khartoum” (1833-1885) was a charismatic and controversial military leader during the explosion of European imperialism in the last half of the 19th century.

Gordon was born into an English military family and joined the British army as an engineering officer. He saw action in the Crimean War at the siege of Sebastopol and then was sent to China which was then in the midst of the worst civil war in history, the Taiping Rebellion. He won lasting fame serving with the Chinese army against the rebels, building a reputation for incorruptibility, charismatic leadership and bravery. He led a mercenary force called the “Ever Victorious Army” to a number of victories, winning honours from the Chinese emperor, promotion from the British army, and a world-wide reputation.

In 1874 he entered the service of the Khedive of Egypt, on paper an official of the Turkish government, in his own mind the ruler of an independent Egypt, and to the British, a puppet ruler through whom they could control the Suez canal. The Egyptians wished to expand their control down the Nile, through Sudan toward equatorial Africa which was rife with the Arab slave trade in black natives. Gordon as Governor-General on the upper Nile, worked to suppress the slave trade and keep the corruption of the Egyptian army and officials to a minimum. In 1880 he returned to England.

About that time a remarkable rebel leader arose in the Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad (1844-85), who declared himself the Mahdi, a figure in Muslim eschatology who was expected to usher in the End Times.  Using messianic expectations he raised an army that scoured the countryside and threatened to cut off the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. He proclaimed: “I  am the Mahdi, the Successor of the Prophet of God. Cease to pay taxes to the infidel Turks and let everyone who finds a Turk kill him, for the Turks are infidels.”

Gordon was sent by the British government with instructions from Prime Minister Gladstone to evacuate British and Egyptian troops and civilians from Khartoum. However, after successfully extracting the majority of evacuees Gordon announced he would stay and defend Khartoum. The Mahdi’s army laid siege to the city and greatly outnumbering their enemies they took Khartoum, killed Gordon and beheaded him. His head was stuck on a tree “where all who passed it could look in disdain, children could throw stones at it and the hawks of the desert could sweep and circle above.” A relief army sent to his rescue arrived two days too late and finding only a massacred garrison in a destroyed city withdrew. The news was received with enormous anger in Britain and Queen Victoria publicly chastised Gladstone.

The Mahdi died a few months after his conquest of Khartoum and the harsh rule of his fundamentalist regime led to the sending another British army in 1898 under General Kitchener. The Mahdist caliphate was destroyed and the Mahdi’s body dug up and thrown into the Nile.

6 thoughts on “January 26”

  1. Though Gordon was unquestionably … odd, he has always been a personal hero of mine. There is a picture of him over my desk.

    1. Have you ever seen the dreadful epic “Khartoum” with Charlton Heston as Gordon and Laurence Olivier in blackface as the Mahdi? Unforgettable.

      On my desk is a picture of Captain William Sleeman of the British East India Company who eliminated the Thuggee cult in 19th-century India.

  2. Sleeman was a great man.

    I have rather a fond spot for “Khartoum.” While Gordon and the Mahdi never met, the dialog in the film is taken from their letters to one another. And the whole idea of Gladstone behind the idea to send Gordon down the Nile makes real political sense. And while Heston was a full head taller than the historical Gordon, he actually rather looks like him in the makeup.

    What is it that draws you to Sleeman? For me and Gordon, it’s the mystic who is also the man of action; the military man who follows his own orders; and that wonderful sense of self-possession.

    1. I had no idea that the “Khartoum” dialog was based on reality. Thanks for that.

      My attraction to Sleeman is an admiration for a certain type of British imperialist. He was multilingual in native dialects, a man of science, and curious and respectful about local customs that didn’t involve evil. Just the sort of Briton who busied about the globe in the 19th century putting down slavery, head-hunting, widow-burning, foot-binding, piracy, and cannibalism.

        1. Last night in the collected works of GK Chesterton I stumbled across his biography of Lord Kitchener. In it he has this to say about Gordon: “that romantic and even eccentric figure of whom so much might be said. Perhaps the most essential thing to say of him here is that fortune once again played the artist in sending such a man, at once as the leader and the herald of a man like Kitchener; to show the way and to make the occasion; to be a sacrifice and a signal for vengeance. Whatever else there was about Gordon, there was about him the air not only of a hero, but of the hero of a tragedy. Something Oriental in his own mysticism, something most of his countrymen would have called moonshine, something perverse in his courage, something childish and beautiful in that perversity, marked him out as the man who walks to doom — the man who in a hundred poems or fables goes up to a city to be crucified.”

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