Chinese Gordon – Part II

(Continued from last week)

In March 1880, a worn out and frustrated Colonel Gordon realized that his efforts had come to naught.  He resigned his position and returned to England.  He returned home a broken man and if not suffering from a nervous breakdown, he was close to it.  During his return trip to England, one fellow traveler remarked of Gordon, “The man is off his head.”

In May 1880, Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General of Customs in China invited Gordon to return to China, as his services were urgently needed.  China and Russia were on the verge of open warfare and someone was needed who could help sort this problem out.  The British War Office learned that Gordon was contemplating a return to China and ordered him, instead, to return to England immediately.  Gordon ignored the War Office and sailed on the first ship to China.  The Duke of Cambridge was not at all pleased, but the fact of Gordon’s insubordination increased his prestige in China.

By this time, it was clear to his inner circle that Chinese Gordon had become a bit unhinged.  Sir Robert Hart noted that at best, Gordon was “very eccentric,” and wrote, “ … as much as I like and respect him, I must say that he is ‘not all there’.  Whether it is religion or vanity, or the softening of the brain—I don’t know, but he seems to be alternatively arrogant and slavish, vain and humble, in his senses, and out of them.  It is a great pity.”

The British Foreign Office soon ordered Gordon to return home.  London was not comfortable with a serving officer leading a Chinese Army against Russia (noting that the Czar of Russia and Queen Victoria were blood relatives).  In any case, the United Kingdom did not want an Anglo-Russian War.  In October 1880, Gordon returned to London and spent the winter of 1880-81 socializing with his family and close friends.

In April 1881, Brigadier Gordon assumed command of the Royal Engineers in Mauritius, remaining there until March 1882.  Gordon was bored and irritated with British policy he regarded as idiotic.  In his view, building forts to protect Mauritius from a Russian naval attack was pointless.  He was also opposed to the over-reliance on the Suez Canal.  The Russians, he argued, need only sink one ship in the canal to make it irrelevant.  Instead, he proposed that the British government devise a series of coaling stations in Africa and the Indian Ocean, which would improve the Cape route to India.

Gordon was promoted to Major General on 23 March 1882 and dispatched to resolve the Civil War in Basutoland, in South Africa.  The issues were satisfactorily resolved (in the long-term interests of the people —allowing them to avoid apartheid in the twentieth century), Gordon returned to England and was once more unemployed.  From 1882-83, General Gordon traveled to Palestine.  The deeply religious Gordon wrote a book titled Reflections in Palestine.  In it, he proposed that the site of Golgotha (the site of Christ’s crucifixion) was incorrect.  Today this area is known as the Garden Tomb and alternatively, Gordon’s Garden.

In Egypt, popular dissatisfaction with Ismai’il Pasha and Europe’s intrusion into Egyptian affairs led to the rise of a nationalist movement in 1879, with Ahmad Urabi a prominent figure [Note 1].  In 1882, Urabi became the leader of a nationalist-dominated ministry committed to democratic reforms, including parliamentary control of the budget.  With concerns about their loss of control over the affairs of Egypt, the United Kingdom and France intervened, bombarding Alexandria, and crushing the Egyptian Army at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir.  The British and French re-installed Ismai’il’s son Twefik as a figurehead of a de facto British protectorate, which lasted until 1953.

In late 1883, Gordon was contemplating the acceptance of an administrative post in the Congo Free State, working for King Leopold II of Belgium.  Aware of Leopold’s offer, the British War Office requested that Gordon accept a commission to Egypt instead; they needed him to resolve a rebellion in Sudan.

The revolt was led by a self-proclaimed Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed.  According to Islamic tradition, the Mahdi is a messianic figure who appears at the dawn of every new (Islamic) century to strike down the enemies of Islam.  1881 was Islamic year 1298, and Ahmed announced that he was the Mahdi and promptly proclaimed jihad against the Egyptian State.  Ismai’il’s long exploitation of the Sudanese people led many to rally to the Mahdi’s black banner.  Ahmed promised to expel the Egyptians, whom he proclaimed apostate, and establish a fundamentalist Islamic State as practiced in the days of the Prophet Mohammed [Note 2].  

William Hicks PashaIn September 1883, an Egyptian army force under Colonel William Hicks [Note 3] set out to destroy the Mahdi.  Hicks’ command was mostly composed of conscripts who had no interest in serving as soldiers much less in the Sudanese desert.  Morale was poor, training was nil, and the only way that Hicks could keep these men from deserting was to chain them together.  Hicks was well aware that his force was inadequate to its stated purpose, and made that argument to his superiors.  However, the Egyptian ministry did not believe that the Mahdi was a force strong enough to defeat Hicks and sent him on his way on 9 September.  Hicks commanded 7,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 2,000 camp followers—including 13 European mercenaries.  On 5 November, the ragtag army, thirsting to death in the oppressive desert, was ambushed by forces loyal to the Mahdi.  All but 300 of the expedition were killed, including Hicks.  According to Hicks’ cook, who was spared, Colonel Hicks went down fighting with a pistol in one hand, and a sword in the other.  Hicks was decapitated and his head taken to the Mahdi.

In the United Kingdom, particularly in London, there were three political forces: the liberal party, the conservative party (imperialists), and public opinion.  Liberals had won the general election on a platform of imperial retrenchment, or withdrawal from overseas locations.  Prime Minister William Gladstone withdrew the British Army from the Transvaal and Afghanistan in 1881.  But the British War Office contained a few “ultra-imperialists” who continually argued against withdrawing from long-held British territories.  One of these was Field Marshal Garnet J. Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley, who was a close friend and ally of Major General Gordon.

Initially following the massacre of the Hicks expedition, Gladstone opined that the Sudan was not worth the trouble of retaining it under Egyptian (British) control and he made the decision to abandon Sudan.  This decision was promptly communicated to Egypt, but the order failed to take into account that thousands of soldiers, civilians, and families would have to be evacuated.

At the beginning of 1884, General Gordon had no interest in the Sudan.  While staying with his sister in Southampton, Gordon received William Stead, the editor of Pall Mall Gazette, with whom Gordon reluctantly agreed to do an interview.  Gordon wanted to talk about the Congo, but Stead pressed him to discuss the situation in the Sudan.  Gordon finally unleashed his opinions, which attacked Gladstone’s policies, and instead advocated a military response designed to crush the Mahdi.  The prescient Gordon also cautioned that in allowing this Mahdi to succeed in rebellion, Gladstone would open the entire British Empire to religious or nationalist rebellion.  Stead published his interview with the heading CHINESE GORDON FOR THE SUDAN.  The interview caused a media sensation and led to popular demands that Gladstone send Gordon to crush the Mahdi. 

Garnet Wolseley
Lord Wolseley

The man behind the curtain was Lord Wolseley, whom history remembers as a skilled media manipulator.  In the face of public demands, Gladstone relented and ordered Gordon to the Sudan —albeit with a limited mandate.  He was to observe and report on the situation, and provide advice on the best means of evacuating military and civilian personnel.  Gladstone, who at the time was ill, retired to his estate for recuperation, leaving the matter of Gordon’s instructions the cabinet.  Gladstone believed that his plan was clever: public opinion would be satisfied by sending Gordon to the Sudan, and Gordon’s limited (hand-typing) mandate would allow Gladstone to achieve British withdrawal from Khartoum.  Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, disagreed.  He believed that Gladstone had just opened the door to a folly of far-reaching consequences.

With Lieutenant Colonel J. D. H. Steward as his aide, Gordon started for Cairo in January 1884.  Upon Gordon’s arrival, he received additional instructions from Sir Evelyn Baring, which essentially reinforced the mandate issued to him in London —but he also received the Viceroy’s appointment as Governor-General (with executive powers), and an official edict ordering him to establish a provincial government in the Sudan.  The appointment as Governor-General caused Gordon to disregard everything Gladstone and Baring had told him [Note 4].

Although a very religious man, General Gordon was an intellectual.  Still, as a man, he was not immune to errors in judgment.  One of these was in revealing his secret instructions to tribal leaders.  He told them that his mission was to arrange for the withdrawal of British/Egyptian military and civilian administrators from Khartoum.  The effect of this revelation, realizing that the British/Egyptians intended to wash their hands of Khartoum, was that nearly every Arab tribe of Northern Sudan abandoned Egypt and declared their loyalty to the Mahdi.  Whether intentional or a mistake, Gordon had thus sealed his own fate.

The siege of Khartoum began on 18 March 1884.  The British had made up their mind to abandon the Sudan, but Gordon had other plans [Note 5].  Back home in England, the British public demanded that Gladstone send an expedition to rescue Gordon.  Gladstone resisted.

For his part, Gordon could have safely withdrawn at any time between March and May 1884 —had he the inclination.  Some writers of the day, the armchair psychologists, suggested that Gordon wanted martyrdom more than life.  In any case, on 24 July, the British cabinet, over the objections of Gladstone, voted to send a relief expedition to Khartoum.  The House of Commons approved the force on 5 August.  The relief force commander was Field Marshal Wolseley, but the expedition would not be formed until November.  By this time, the garrison and population of Khartoum were starving to death; there were no horses, mules, donkeys, cats, or dogs inside the city —the people had eaten them all.  Gordon himself was in a state of mental exhaustion and incoherence.

Wolseley’s reconnaissance units arrived at Khartoum on 28 January 1885.  They found the city had been captured two days earlier and Gordon killed and decapitated.  With him, 10,000 civilians and members of the garrison had also been killed.  In London, William Gladstone was politically destroyed; Queen Victoria sent him a personal rebuke via telegram, the contents of which found its way into the press.  Gladstone’s liberal government was voted out of office in the elections of 1885.  Despite popular calls to avenge Gordon, no such undertaking was even considered by the new conservative government. 

Post Script

  1. Muhammad AhmadMuhammed Ahmad bin Abd Allah (1844-1885) was a Nubian religious leader of the Samaniyya order who combined orthodox Islam with mysticism.  His popularity came as the result of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Turco-Egyptian rulers.  While the “Mahdi” succeeded in capturing Khartoum and killing Gordon, he himself died within six months from typhus, a bacteriological disease caused by body lice, chiggers, and fleas.  Today, 40% of individuals contracting typhus will die from it.
  2. Despite the relatively recent pronouncements of American and British governments, there is no American or British “national interest” in the Middle East (or Africa) that in any way justifies squandering national resources (money, men, material) trying to sort out Islamic nations or societies.  We only need to look to history to see that western involvement in Islamic affairs has always been a lost cause, save one: defense.  If Islamic leaders understand that there will be horrific consequences to attacking or destroying Anglo-American personnel or property, and if these two nations will act on this principle, there will be no more assaults on Western civilizations from the Middle East.  The latest invasion of European countries by Islamic “refugees” and issues with homegrown extremists are a completely different issue.  

Sources:

  1. Cleveland, W. And Martin Bunton.  A History of the Middle East.  Boulder: Westview Press, 2009
  2. Karsh, E.  Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  3. Marlowe, J.  Mission to Khartoum: Apotheosis of General Gordon.  Littlehampton Press, 1968

Endnotes:

  1. Brigadier General Stone (1824-1887) was a career army officer, engineer, and a surveyor.  He fought with distinction in the Mexican-American War.  After the war, he resigned and surveyed for the Mexican government, but returned to the US Army to fight in the Civil War.  At the conclusion of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, a Union defeat, Stone was placed under arrest and imprisoned for six months.  He never received a trial, which causes one to conclude that his arrest was for political reasons.  After the war, Stone served as a general officer in the Egyptian army.  He is also noted for his role in constructing the foundation upon which the Statue of Liberty now stands.
  2. Reinforcing the fact that proponents of Islam are stuck on stupid.
  3. Hicks (1830-1883) was an experienced British officer with years of experience in India, retiring in 1880 as a Colonel.  In 1880, Hicks accepted the position of Pasha (generally equivalent to general) within the Egyptian Army.  In 1883, Hicks served in Khartoum as chief of staff of the army there, serving Suliman Niazi Pasha.  Hicks duty was to recruit an army from the disbanded troops of Arabi, who were sent to him in chains.  After a month of training, Hicks led 5,000 of these men against an equal force of Dervishes, whom he defeated, and then undertook to clear the country of rebels.  Aware that Suliman Niazi Pasha was intriguing against him, Hick resigned in July 1883.  Alarmed, Twefik fired Suliman and appointed Hicks as commander-in-chief of an expeditionary force with orders to crush the Mahdi.
  4. In Baring’s report to London, he emphasized that it was a mistake sending Gordon to the Sudan: “A man who habitually consults with the Prophet Isaiah when he is in difficulty is not apt to obey the orders of anyone.”  Gordon confirmed Baring’s fears when he almost immediately began issuing press statements attacking the rebels, referring to them as “stinking Dervishes,” and demanding that he be allowed to “smash the Mahdi.”
  5. By his obstinance, Charles Gordon consigned to death ten-thousand men, women, and children who did not share his vision of the afterlife.