Ever Victorious Army
Years of service
Ever Victorious Army
Governor-General of the Sudan
Siege of Sevastopol
Battle of Kinburn
Second Opium War
Battle of Cixi
Battle of Changzhou
Siege of Khartoum
Companion of the Order of the Bath
Order of the Osmanieh, Fourth Class (Ottoman Empire)
Order of the Medjidie, Fourth Class (Ottoman Empire)
Chevalier of the
Legion of Honour
Legion of Honour (France)
Order of the Double Dragon
Order of the Double Dragon (China)
Imperial yellow jacket (China)
Charles George Gordon
Charles George Gordon CB (28 January 1833 – 26 January
1885), also known as Chinese Gordon, Gordon Pasha, and Gordon of
Khartoum, was a
British Army officer and administrator. He saw action
Crimean War as an officer in the British Army. However, he made
his military reputation in China, where he was placed in command of
the "Ever Victorious Army," a force of Chinese soldiers led by
European officers. In the early 1860s, Gordon and his men were
instrumental in putting down the Taiping Rebellion, regularly
defeating much larger forces. For these accomplishments, he was given
the nickname "Chinese Gordon" and honours from both the Emperor of
China and the British.
He entered the service of the
Egypt in 1873 (with British
government approval) and later became the Governor-General of the
Sudan, where he did much to suppress revolts and the local slave
trade. Exhausted, he resigned and returned to Europe in 1880.
A serious revolt then broke out in the Sudan, led by a Muslim
religious leader and self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. In early
1884 Gordon had been sent to
Khartoum with instructions to secure the
evacuation of loyal soldiers and civilians and to depart with them. In
defiance of those instructions, after evacuating about 2,500 British
civilians he retained a smaller group of soldiers and non-military
men. In the buildup to battle, the two leaders corresponded, each
attempting to convert the other to his faith, but neither would
Besieged by the Mahdi's forces, Gordon organised a citywide defence
lasting almost a year that gained him the admiration of the British
public, but not of the government, which had wished him not to become
entrenched. Only when public pressure to act had become irresistible
did the government, with reluctance, send a relief force. It arrived
two days after the city had fallen and Gordon had been killed.
1 Early life
2 From the Crimea to the Danube
4.1 A charitable man
5 Service with the Khedive
5.1 From the
Danube to the Nile
5.2 Equatoria: Building Egypt's empire in the Great Lakes region
6 Governor-General of the Sudan
7 Other offers
8 Mahdist uprising
8.1 Mission to Khartoum
8.2 Preparing the defence of Khartoum
8.3 The siege of Khartoum
8.4 On the brink
8.5 The capture of Khartoum
11 Media portrayals and legacy
11.1 In China and Sudan
12 See also
15 Further reading
16 External links
Gordon was born in Woolwich, London, a son of Major General Henry
William Gordon (1786–1865) and Elizabeth (Enderby) Gordon
(1792–1873). The men of the Gordon family had served as officers in
British Army for four generations, and as a son of a general,
Gordon was brought up to be the fifth generation; the possibility that
Gordon would pursue anything other than a military career seems never
to have been considered by his parents. All of Gordon's brothers
also became Army officers.
Gordon grew up in England, Ireland,
Scotland and the Ionian Islands
(which were under British rule until 1864) as his father was moved
from post to post. He was educated at Fullands School in Taunton,
Taunton School, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.
In 1843, Gordon was devastated when his favourite sibling, his sister
Emily died of tuberculosis, writing years later "humanly speaking it
changed my life, it was never the same since." After her death, her
place as Gordon's favourite sibling was taken by his very religious
older sister Augusta, who nudged her brother toward religion.
As a teenager and an army cadet, Gordon was known for his high
spirits, a combative streak and tendency to disregard authority and
the rules if he felt them to be stupid or unjust, a personality trait
that held back his graduation by two years when teachers decided to
punish him for flouting the rules.
As a cadet, Gordon showed exceptional talents at map-making and in
designing fortifications, which led to his choosing to become a Royal
Engineer or a "sapper". He was commissioned a second lieutenant in
Royal Engineers on 23 June 1852, completing his training at
Chatham, and he was promoted to full lieutenant on 17 February
1854. The sappers were an elite who performed the "reconnaissance
work, led storming parties, demolished obstacles in assaults, carried
out rear-guard actions in retreats and other hazardous tasks."
As an officer, Gordon showed strong charisma and leadership, but his
superiors distrusted him on account of his tendency to disobey orders
if he felt them to be wrong or unjust. A man medium of stature,
with striking blue eyes, the charismatic Gordon had the ability to
inspire men to follow him anywhere.
Gordon was first assigned to construct fortifications at Milford
Haven, Pembrokeshire, Wales. During his time in Milford Haven, Gordon
was befriended by a young couple, Francis and Anne Drew, who
introduced him to evangelical Protestantism. Gordon was especially
impressed with Philippians 1:21 where
St. Paul wrote: "For to me to
live is Christ, and to die is gain", a passage he underlined in his
Bible and often quoted. He attended diverse congregations,
including Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist.
Gordon, who once said to a
Roman Catholic priest that "the church is
like the British Army, one army but many regiments", never allied
himself to any church nor became a member of one.
From the Crimea to the Danube
Crimean War began, Gordon was assigned to his boyhood home of
Corfu, but after several letters to the War Office, he was sent to the
Crimea instead. He was sent to the Russian Empire, arriving at
Balaklava in January 1855. He first displayed his death wish as he
wrote at the time that he had gone "to the Crimea, hoping, without
having a hand in it, to be killed".
In the 19th century Russia was Britain's archenemy, with many people
in both nations seeing an ideological conflict between Russian
autocracy vs. British democracy, and Gordon was anxious to fight in
the Crimea. He was put to work in the Siege of
Sevastopol and took
part in the assault of the
Redan from 18 June to 8 September. As a
sapper, Gordon had to map out the Russian fortifications at the
Sevastopol designed by the famous Russian military
engineer Eduard Totleben, a highly dangerous job that frequently put
him under enemy fire, and led him to being wounded for the first time
when a Russian sniper put a bullet into him. Gordon spent much
time in "the Quarries", as the British called their section of the
trenches facing Sevastopol.
During his time in the Crimea, Gordon made a number of friendships
that were to last for the rest of his life, most notably with Romolo
Garnet Wolseley and Gerald Graham, all of whom would cross
paths with Gordon several times in the future.
On 18 June 1855, the besieging British and French armies began what
was intended to be the final assault that would take Sevastopol, which
began with a huge bombardment. As a sapper, Gordon was in a front line
trench where he was under intense fire, men fell all around him and he
was forced to take cover so often that he was covered literally from
head to toe with mud and blood. Despite the best efforts of the
Allies, the French failed to take the Malakhov fortress while the
British failed to take the
Redan fortress on 18 June. The
casualties on the Allied side were quite high that day.
Gordon spent thirty-four consecutive days in the trenches around
Sevastopol, and earned a reputation as an able and brave young
officer. It was said at the British HQ that "If you want to know
what the Russians are up to, send for Charlie Gordon."
Gordon took part in the expedition to Kinburn, and returned to
Sevastopol at the war's end. During the Crimean war, Gordon picked up
an addiction to Turkish cigarettes which was to last for his rest of
his life, and many commented that smoking was Gordon's most
conspicuous vice as he always seemed to have a cigarette at his
For his services in the Crimea, he received the Crimean war medal and
clasp. For the same services he was appointed a Chevalier of the
Legion of Honour
Legion of Honour by the Government of France on 16 July 1856.
Following the peace, he was attached to an international commission to
mark the new border between the
Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire
in Bessarabia. When Gordon first arrived at the city of Galatz (modern
Galați, Romania) in the Ottoman protectorate of Moldavia, he called
the city "very dusty and not desirable at all as a place of
residence". As he travelled to Bessarabia, he commented in his
letters home about the richness and fertility of the Romanian
countryside, which produced delicious fruits and vegetables in great
abundance, and the poverty of the Romanian peasants.
After a visit to Jassy (modern Iași), Gordon wrote: "The boyers live
most of their lives in Paris and society is quite French... The prince
keeps a great state and I was introduced to him with much ceremony.
The English uniform produces an immediate sensation". Gordon did
not speak Romanian, but his fluency in French allowed him to socialise
Francophile Romanian elite, who were all fluent in
French. As the maps that delineated the Russian-Ottoman frontier
were all old and inaccurate, Gordon spent much time clashing with his
Russian counterparts about where precisely the frontier was and soon
discovered that Russians were very keen to have the frontier on the
Danube, which Gordon had orders from
London to prevent. Gordon
called the Romanians the "most fickle and intriguing people on the
earth. They ape the French in everything and are full of ceremony,
dress, etc... The employees sent by the Moldovan government to take
over the ceded territory have been receiving bribes and trafficking in
the most disgraceful manner."
Afterwards, Gordon was sent to delineate the frontier between Ottoman
Armenia and Russian Armenia, the highlight of which was tobogganing
down Mount Ararat. Gordon continued surveying, marking off the
boundary into Asia Minor. During his time in Armenia, Gordon embraced
the new technology of the camera to take what the Canadian historian
C. Brad Faught called a series of "evocative photographs" of the
people and landscape of Armenia. Throughout his life, Gordon was
always a keen amateur photographer and was elected a fellow of the
Royal Geographical Society to honour him for his Armenian
photographs. Gordon returned to Britain in late 1858, and was
appointed as an instructor at Chatham. He was promoted to captain on 1
Charles Gordon as a tidu (Captain General).
Gordon was intensely bored with garrison duty in Chatham and often
wrote to the War Office, begging them to send him anywhere in the
world where British arms were seeing action. In 1860 Gordon
volunteered to serve in China. When Gordon arrived at Hong Kong,
he was disappointed to learn he was "just too late for the
fighting". Gordon had heard of the
Taiping Rebellion long before
he had set sail for China, and he was at first sympathetic towards the
Taipings, led by the charismatic madman
Hong Xiuquan who proclaimed
himself to be the younger brother of
Jesus Christ, viewing them as
somewhat eccentric Christians.
After stopping in Shanghai, Gordon visited the Chinese countryside and
was appalled at the atrocities committed by the Taipings against the
local peasants, writing to his family he would love to smash this
"cruel" army with its "desolating presence" that killed without
mercy. He arrived at
Tianjin in September 1860. He was present at
the occupation of
Beijing and at the destruction of the Summer Palace.
Gordon agreed with Lord Elgin that after the Chinese had killed a
group of British and French officers travelling under a white flag to
parley that a reprisal was in order, but called the burning of the
beautiful Summer Palace "vandal-like" and told his sister in a letter
"it made one's heart sore" to incinerate it. The British forces
occupied northern China until April 1862, then under General Charles
William Dunbar Staveley, withdrew to
Shanghai to protect the European
settlement from the rebel Taiping army.
Following the successes in the 1850s in the provinces of Guangxi,
Hunan and Hubei, and the capture of
Nanjing in 1853 the rebel advance
had slowed. For some years, the Taipings gradually advanced eastwards,
but eventually they came close enough to
Shanghai to alarm the
European inhabitants. A militia of Europeans and Asians was raised for
the defence of the city and placed under the command of an American,
Frederick Townsend Ward, and occupied the country to the west of
Shanghai. The British arrived at a crucial time. Staveley decided
to clear the rebels within 30 miles (48 km) of
co-operation with Ward and a small French force. Gordon was
attached to his staff as engineer officer. Jiading, northwest suburb
of present Shanghai, Qingpu and other towns were occupied, and the
area was fairly cleared of rebels by the end of 1862.
The extent of Taiping control in 1854 (in red). Estimates of the war
dead from the
Taiping Rebellion range from 20–70 million to as high
as 100 million.
Ward was killed in the
Battle of Cixi and his successor H. A.
Burgevine, an American was disliked by the Imperial Chinese
authorities. Burgevine was an unsavory character known for his
greed and alcoholism. Moreover, Burgevine made little effort to
hide his racism, and his relations with the Chinese were very
difficult at the best of times. Li Hongzhang, the governor of the
Jiangsu province, requested Staveley to appoint a British officer to
command the contingent. Staveley selected Gordon, who had been made a
brevet major in December 1862 and the nomination was approved by the
British government. Given Burgevine's alcoholism, open corruption,
and tendency to engage in acts of mindless violence when drunk, the
Chinese wanted "a man of good temper, of clean hands and a steady
economist" as his replacement. These requirements led Staveley to
choose Gordon. Li was impressed with Gordon, writing:
It is a direct blessing from Heaven, the coming of this British
Gordon. ... He is superior in manner and bearing to any of the
foreigners whom I have come into contact with, and does not show
outwardly that conceit which makes most of them repugnant in my
sight...What an elixir for a heavy heart-to see this splendid
Englishman fight! ... If there is anything that I admire nearly as
much as the superb scholarship of Zeng Guofan, it is the military
qualities of this fine officer. He is a glorious fellow!...With his
many faults, his pride, his temper, and his never-ending demand for
money – but he is a noble man, and in spite of all I have said to
him or about him, I will ever think most highly of him. ... He is an
honest man, but difficult to get on with.
Gordon was honest and incorruptible, and unlike many Chinese officers,
did not steal the money that was meant to pay his men, but rather
insisted on paying the
Ever Victorious Army on time and in full.
Gordon's insistence on paying his men meant that he was always
pressing the Imperial government for money, something which often
irritated the mandarins who did not understand why Gordon did not just
let his men loot and plunder as a compensation for wages. Gordon
designed the uniform for the Ever Victorious Army, which consisted of
black boots together with turbans, jackets and trousers that were all
green while his personal bodyguard of 300 men wore blue uniforms.
In March 1863 Gordon took command of the force at Songjiang, which had
received the name of "Ever Victorious Army." Without waiting to
reorganise his troops, Gordon led them at once to the relief of
Chansu, a town 40 miles northwest of Shanghai. The relief was
successfully accomplished and Gordon quickly won the respect of his
troops. Gordon made a point of treating POWs well to encourage the
Taipings to surrender and many of his men were former Taipings who
chose to enlist in the Ever Victorious Army. Unlike Ward and
Burgevine, Gordon realised that the network of canals and rivers that
divided the Chinese countryside were not obstacles blocking an
advance, but were rather "arteries" for allowing an advance as Gordon
decided to move his men and supplies via the waterways.
Gordon's task was made easier by innovative military ideas Ward had
implemented in the Ever Victorious Army. Gordon was quite critical of
the way Chinese generals fought the war, observing that the Chinese
were willing to inflict and accept gargantuan losses in battle, an
approach Gordon disapproved of. Gordon wrote: "The great
thing...is to cut off their retreat, and the chances are they will go
without trouble; but attack them in the front, and leave their rear
open, and they fight most desperately". Gordon always preferred to
outflank the Taiping lines rather to take them on frontally, an
approach that caused much tension with his counterparts in the Chinese
Imperial Army who did not share Gordon's horror at the huge numbers of
dead caused by frontal assaults.
On the morning of 30 May 1863, the Taiping forces guarding the town of
Quinsan were astonished to see an armoured paddle streamer the Hyson
armed with a 32-pounder cannon on the bow, sailing up a canal, at
whose prow stood Gordon; following the Hyson was a fleet of 80 junks
converted to gunboats. Aboard the Hyson were 350 men from the
elite 4th Regiment of the Ever Victorious Army. Under fire from
the Taiping forces, Gordon's men chopped up the wooden stakes the
Taipings had placed in the canal, thereby allowing Gordon to outflank
the main Taiping defence line and to enter the main canal connecting
Quinsan to Suzhou.
Gordon's breakthrough caught the rebel army off guard and caused
thousands of the enemy to panic and flee. Gordon disembarked the
4th Regiment with orders to take Quinsan while he sailed up and down
the main canal in the Hyson, using the 32-pounder gun to blast apart
the Taiping positions on the canal. At times, Gordon feared that
assaults by the Taiping would take the Hyson, but all the attacks were
repulsed. The next day, Quinsan fell to the 4th Regiment, which
led a proud Gordon to write: "The rebels did not know its importance
until they lost it".
In its last years, the Taiping movement had oppressed the Chinese
peasantry and as the Taipings retreated in the face of fire from the
Hyson, Chinese peasants emerged from their homes to cut down and hack
to death the fleeing Taipings. After the battle, Gordon was hailed
as a liberator from the Taipings by the ordinary Chinese people.
One British officer serving with the
Ever Victorious Army described
Gordon at this time as: "a light-built, wiry, middle-sized man, of
about thirty two years of age, in the undress uniform of the Royal
Engineers. The countenance bore a pleasant frank appearance, eyes
light blue with a fearless look in them, hair crisp and inclined to
curl, conversation short and decided".
Ever Victorious Army was entirely a mercenary force whose only
loyalty was to money and whose men were interested in fighting only in
order to gain the chance to plunder. Gordon felt very
uncomfortable commanding this force and at one point had to order the
summary execution one of his officers when the latter tried to take
the Ever-Victorious Army over to the Taipings, who had offered a
generous bribe for switching sides. Gordon had to impose strict
discipline on the
Ever Victorious Army and worked hard to prevent the
Army from engaging in its tendency to loot and mistreat civilians.
The mercenaries of the Ever Victorious Army, comprising some of the
worst social elements of China, Britain and the United States, were
notorious for their practice, whenever they marched into a new
district, of stealing everything while raping all of the women,
leading Gordon to impose harsh discipline, with those soldiers accused
of looting and/or rape being summarily shot. Gordon also had the
pleasure of defeating Burgevine (whom Gordon detested), who had raised
a mercenary force and joined the Taipings. After Gordon had
surrounded Burgevine's force outside of Suzhou, the latter had
abandoned his own men and attempted to rejoin the Imperial side,
leading Gordon to arrest him and send him to the American consul in
Shanghai together with a letter asking that Burgevine be expelled from
As Gordon travelled up and down the
Yangtze River valley, he was
appalled by the scenes of poverty and suffering he saw, writing in a
letter to his sister: "The horrible furtive looks of the wretched
inhabitants hovering around one's boats haunts me, and the knowledge
of their want of nourishment would sicken anyone; they are like
wolves. The dead lie where they fall, and are, in some cases, trodden
quite flat by passers by". The suffering of the Chinese people
strengthened Gordon's faith, as he argued that there had to be a just,
loving God who would one day redeem humanity from all this
wretchedness and misery.
During his time in China, Gordon was well known and respected by
friend and foe alike for leading from the front and going into combat
armed only with his rattan cane (Gordon always refused to carry a gun
or a sword), a choice of weapon that almost cost him his life several
times. Gordon's bravery in battle, his string of victories,
apparent immunity to bullets and his intense, blazing blue eyes led
many Chinese to believe that Gordon had supernatural powers and had
harnessed the Qi (the mystical life-force traditionally believed in
China to govern everything) in some extraordinary way.
Gordon then reorganised his force and advanced against Kunshan, which
was captured at considerable loss. Gordon then took his force through
the country, seizing towns until, with the aid of Imperial troops,
capturing the city of
Suzhou in November. After its surrender,
Gordon personally guaranteed that any Taiping rebel who laid down his
arms would be humanely treated. The Ever-Victorious Army — which
was inclined to looting — had been ordered not to enter Suzhou, and
only Imperial forces entered the city. Gordon was thus powerless
when the Imperial forces executed all of the Taiping POWs, an act that
A furious Gordon wrote that executing POWs was "stupid", writing "if
faith had been kept, there would have been no more fighting as every
town would have given in". In China, the penalty for rebellion was
death. Under the Chinese system of familial responsibility, all family
members of a rebel were equally guilty even if they had nothing to do
with the rebellious individual's acts. The mandarins were thus much
inclined to execute not only Taipings, but also their spouses,
children, parents and siblings as being all equally guilty of
Gordon believed this approach was militarily counterproductive, as it
encouraged the Taipings to fight to the death, which Gordon felt to be
very unwise as the Taiping leader
Hong Xiuquan had become murderously
paranoid, conducting bloody purges of his followers. Many Taipings
were willing to surrender only if the Imperial government would spare
the lives of themselves and their families. Even more importantly,
Gordon had given his word of honour that all of the Taipings who
surrendered would be well treated, and regarded the massacre as a
stain on his honour.
On 1 January 1864, Gordon was informed that a messenger from the
Tongzhi Emperor was coming to see him and that he should put on his
finest uniform. When the Emperor's messenger arrived, he had with
him servants carrying boxes of silver taels (coins) numbering 10,000
in total, together with banners written in the most eloquent
calligraphy celebrating Gordon as a great general and a letter from
the Emperor himself written in the best calligraphy on yellow silk
thanking Gordon for taking
Suzhou and offering all these presents as
Gordon refused all these gifts and wrote on the Emperor's silk
message: "Major Gordon receives the approbation of His Majesty the
Emperor with every gratification, but regrets most sincerely that
owing to the circumstances which occurred since the capture of
Soochow, he is unable to receive any mark of His Majesty the Emperor's
recognition". The Emperor was much offended when he received
Gordon's message at the Forbidden City, and Gordon's military career
in China was effectively over for a time. A Scotsman who knew
Gordon in China wrote: "he shows the Chinese that if even an able and
reliable man, such as he is, is unmanageable". Following a dispute
with Li over the execution of rebel leaders, Gordon withdrew his force
Suzhou and remained inactive at
Kunshan until February 1864.
Gordon then made a rapprochement with Li and visited him in order to
arrange for further operations. The "Ever-Victorious Army" resumed its
high tempo advance, leading to the Battle of Changzhou, and
culminating in the capture of
Changzhou Fu, the principal military
base of the Taipings in the region. Gordon wrote in his diary: "The
HOUR GLASS BROKEN" and predicted that the war would soon be won.
Ever Victorious Army did not take part in the final offensive that
ended the war with the Sack of Nanking as the "Imps", as Gordon called
the Imperial Army, wanted the honour of taking Nanking, the Taiping
capital, for themselves.
Ever Victorious Army was given the task of taking the
secondary cities of Yesing, Liyang and Kitang. At Kitang, Gordon
was wounded for a second time on March 21, 1864 when a Taiping soldier
shot him in the thigh. The wound was only slight and Gordon was soon
back in action, fighting his last battle at Chang-chou in May
1864. Gordon then returned to
Kunshan and disbanded his army in
June 1864. During his time with the Ever Victorious Army, Gordon
had won thirty-three battles in succession. Gordon wrote a letter
home that his losses were "no joke" as 48 of his 100 officers and
about 1,000 of 3,500 soldiers had been killed or wounded in
The Emperor promoted Gordon to the rank of tidu (提督: "Chief
Jiangsu province" – a title equal to field marshal),
decorated him with the imperial yellow jacket, and raised him to
Viscount first class, but Gordon declined an additional gift of
10,000 taels of silver from the imperial treasury. Only forty
men were allowed to wear the Yellow Jacket, which was the Emperor's
ceremonial bodyguard, and it was thus a signal honour for Gordon to be
allowed to wear it. The
British Army promoted Gordon to
lieutenant-colonel on 16 February 1864 and he was appointed a
Companion of the Order of the Bath
Companion of the Order of the Bath on 9 December 1864.
The traders of
Shanghai offered Gordon huge sums of money to thank him
for his work commanding the Ever Victorious Army. Gordon declined all
honours of financial gain, writing: "I know I shall leave China as
poor as I entered it, but with the knowledge that, through my weak
instrumentality, upwards of eighty to one hundred thousand lives have
been spared. I want no further satisfaction than this". The
Mark Urban wrote: "To those looking at Gordon's
actions now, the thanks of companies trading in opium or of a
government that killed millions in its suppression of rebellion might
seem like the most poisonous endorsements. But at the time people saw
a brave man who acted with humanity in an otherwise ghastly conflict,
standing out from the other mercenaries, adventurers and cut-throats
in wanting almost nothing for himself".
In a leader (editorial) in August 1864, The Times wrote about Gordon:
"the part of the soldier of fortune is in these days very difficult to
play with honour...but if ever the actions of a soldier fighting in
foreign service ought to be viewed with indulgence, and even with
admiration, this exceptional tribute is due to
Taiping Rebellion – which was the bloodiest war of the
entire 19th century taking somewhere between 20 and 30 million lives
– is largely forgotten in the West today, but at the time the civil
war in China attracted much media attention in the West, and Gordon's
command of the
Ever Victorious Army received much coverage from
British newspapers. Gordon also gained the popular nickname
A charitable man
Gordon Gardens, Gravesend.
Gordon returned to Britain and commanded the Royal Engineers' efforts
Gravesend, Kent to erect forts for the defence of the River
Thames. After he arrived in Britain, Gordon announced to the press
that he "did not want to board the tram of the world" and asked to be
left alone. Following the death of his father he undertook
extensive social work in the town including teaching at the local
Ragged school. Before 1870, there was no universal school system
in Britain, and the
Ragged Schools were a network of privately funded
schools that gave a free education to children whose parents were too
poor to afford the school fees.
The council subsequently acquired the gardens of his official
residence, Fort House (now a museum), for the town. Gordon's
father was against his son working in Chinese service, an estrangement
that had not been settled at the time of his death, and Gordon felt
immense guilt that his father had died before they were
reconciled. Gordon disapproved of the forts he was building at the
mouth of Thames to guard against a possible French invasion, regarding
them as expensive and useless.
When the Duke of Cambridge, the Army's commander, visited one of the
forts under construction and praised Gordon for his work, he received
the reply: "I had nothing to do with it, sir; it was built regardless
of my opinion, and, in fact, I entirely disapprove of its arrangement
and position". Besides building forts, Gordon was engulfed in
charity and religious fervour during this time. His favourite books
The Imitation of Christ
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, Christ Mystical by
Joseph Hall and the poem The Dream of Gerontius by John Henry
Newman. Gordon's closest friends were a couple, Frederick and
Octavia Freese, whose son Edward become Gordon's surrogate son.
During his time at Gravesend, Gordon was much involved in charity
work, trying to ensure that homeless boys he found begging on the
street did not go hungry while attempting to find them homes and
jobs. Many of the "scuttlers" as Gordon fondly called the homeless
boys were taken in by him to live at his home, the Fort House.
Outside of the Fort House were graffito written on the wall by one of
the evidently less educated boys that read: "God Bless the
Kernel". Another "scuttler" later recalled: "He made me feel,
first of all, the meaning of the phrase, the Goodness of God. Goodness
become to me, through Gordon, the most desirable of ideas...We were
under the spell of Gordon's personality. We lived in the magic of his
Every year, Gordon gave away about 90% of his annual income of £3,000
to charity. "Chinese Gordon" did not enjoy his celebrity status
and though Gordon was extremely charismatic, he only kept a limited
circle of friends and found dealing with strangers difficult. A
colleague recalled that Gordon's time at
Gravesend was the "most
peaceful and happy of his life", but Gordon was often bored, and
constantly asked the
War Office for an assignment to somewhere
dangerous. Gordon often spoke nostalgically of his service in
China, and wished he could return to that country.
Gordon's charitable work for the boys of
Gravesend led to later
accusations in the 20th century that he was a homosexual. The
Dictionary of National Biography in what is clearly meant to be pun
described Gordon as a great "boy lover". Urban wrote:
It is possible that he had sexual feelings for these urchins, but
there is no evidence that he ever acted upon them. We can only
speculate that his increasing religious devotion may have been an
outward manifestation of an internal struggle against sexual
Gordon never married and is not known to have had a relationship with
anyone of the opposite sex (or of the same sex), claiming that his
Army service and frequent travels to dangerous places made it
impossible for him to marry as he was a "dead man walking" who could
only hurt a potential wife as it was inevitable that he would die in
battle. Gordon's parents expected him to marry and were
disappointed in his lifelong bachelorhood. Urban wrote that the
best evidence suggests Gordon was a latent homosexual whose sexual
repression led him to funnelling his aggression into a military career
with a special energy. The British historian Denis Judd wrote
about Gordon's sexuality:
Like two other great Imperial heroes of his time, Kitchener and Cecil
Rhodes, Gordon was a celibate. What this almost certainly meant was
that Gordon had unresolved homosexual inclinations which, like
Kitchener, but unlike Rhodes, he kept savagely repressed. The
repression of Gordon's sexual instincts helped to release a flood of
celibate energy which drove him into weird beliefs, eccentric
activities, and a sometimes misplaced confidence in his own
The American historian
Byron Farwell in his 1985 book Eminent
Victorian Soldiers strongly implied that Gordon was gay, for instance
writing of Gordon's "unwholesome" interest in the boys he took in to
live with him at the Fort House and his fondness for the company of
"handsome" young men.
Gordon often said that he wished he had been born a eunuch, which
would suggest that he wanted to annihilate all of his sexual desires,
indeed his sexuality altogether. Together with his sister Augusta,
Gordon often prayed to be released from their "vile bodies" which
their spirits were "imprisoned" in so that their souls might be joined
with God. Faught argued that no-one at the time suspected Gordon
of having sexual relations with the legions of teenage boys living
with him at the Fort House, and the claim he was secretly having sex
with the boys of the Fort House was first made by
Lytton Strachey in
his book Eminent Victorians, which Faught commented may have said more
about Strachey than it did about Gordon.
Faught maintained that Gordon was a heterosexual whose Christian
beliefs led him to maintain his virginity right up to his death as he
believed that sexual intercourse was incompatible with his faith.
About the frequent references in Gordon's letters about his need to
resist "temptation" and "subdue the flesh", Faught argued that it was
women rather than men who were "tempting" him. The South African
minister Dr. Peter Hammond denied that Gordon was a homosexual, citing
the numerous statements made by Gordon condemning homosexuality as an
abomination, charging that the claim that Gordon was gay was a theory
with no foundations in fact. The British historian Paul Mersh
suggested that Gordon was not gay, but rather his awkwardness with
women was due to Asperger syndrome, which made it extremely difficult
for him to express his feelings for women properly.
Service with the Khedive
Danube to the Nile
In October 1871, he was appointed British representative on the
international commission to maintain the navigation of the mouth of
the River Danube, with headquarters at Galatz. Gordon was bored with
the work of the
Danube commission, and spent as much time as possible
exploring the Romanian countryside whose beauty enchanted Gordon when
he was not making visits to
Bucharest to meet up with his old friend
Romolo Gessi who was living there at the time. During his second
trip to Romania, Gordon insisted on living with ordinary people as he
travelled over the countryside, commenting that Romanian peasants
"live like animals with no fuel, but reeds", and spent one night at
the home of a poor Jewish craftsman whom Gordon praised for his
kindness sharing the single bedroom with his host, his wife and their
seven children. Gordon seemed pleased by his simple lifestyle,
writing in a letter that: "One night, I slept better than I have for a
long time, by a fire in a fisherman's hut".
During a visit to Bulgaria, Gordon and Gessi become involved in an
incident when a Bulgarian couple told them that their 17-year-old
daughter had been abducted into the harem of an Ottoman pasha, and
asked them to free their daughter. Popular legend has it that
Gordon and Gessi broke into the pasha's palace at night to rescue the
girl, but the truth is less dramatic. Gordon and Gessi demanded
Pasha allow them to meet the girl alone, had their request
granted after much arm-twisting and then met the girl who ultimately
revealed she wanted to go home. Gordon and Gessi threatened to go
to the British and Italian press if she was not released at once, a
threat that proved sufficient to win the girl her freedom.
Gordon was promoted to colonel on 16 February 1872. In 1872,
Gordon was sent to inspect the British military cemeteries in the
Crimea, and when passing through
Constantinople he made the
acquaintance of the Prime Minister of Egypt, Raghib Pasha. The
Egyptian Prime Minister opened negotiations for Gordon to serve under
the Ottoman Khedive, Isma'il Pasha, who was popularly called "Isma'il
the Magnificent" on the account of his lavish spending. In 1869,
Isma'il spent 2 million Egyptian pounds (the equivalent to $300
million U.S dollars in today's money) just on the party to celebrate
the opening of the Suez Canal, in what was described as the party of
the century. In 1873, Gordon received a definite offer from the
Khedive, which he accepted with the consent of the British government,
and proceeded to
Egypt early in 1874. After meeting Gordon in 1874,
Khedive Isma'il had said: "What an extraordinary Englishman! He
doesn't want money!".
Isma'il Pasha greatly admired Europe as the model
for excellence in everything, being an especially passionate
Italophile and Francophile, saying at the beginning of his reign: "My
country is no longer in Africa, it is now in Europe". Isma'il was
a Muslim who loved Italian wine and French champagne, and many of his
more conservative subjects in
Egypt and the
Sudan felt alienated by a
regime that was determined to Westernise the country with little
regard for tradition. The languages of Khedive's court were
Turkish and French, not Arabic. The Khedive's great dream was to make
Egypt culturally a part of Europe, and he spent huge sums of money
attempting to modernise and Westernise Egypt, in the process going
very deeply into debt.
At the beginning of his reign in 1863, Egypt's debt had been 3 million
Egyptian pounds. When Isma'il's reign ended in 1879, Egypt's debt had
risen to 93 million pounds. During the American Civil War, when
the Union blockade had cut off the American South from the world
economy, the price of Egyptian cotton, known as "white gold" had
skyrocketed as British textile mills turned to
Egypt as an alternative
source of cotton, causing an economic blossoming of
Egypt that ended
abruptly in 1865. As the attempts of his grandfather, Muhammad Ali
the Great to depose the ruling Ottoman family in favour of his own
family had failed due to the opposition of Russia and Britain, the
imperialistic Ismai'il had turned his attention southwards and was
determined to build an Egyptian empire in Africa, planning on
subjecting the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa. As part
of his Westernisation programme, Isma'il often hired Westerners to
work in his government both in
Egypt and in the Sudan. Ismai'il's
Chief of General Staff was the American general Charles Pomeroy Stone,
and a number of other veterans of the American Civil War were
commanding Egyptian troops. Urban wrote that most of the
Westerners in Egyptian pay were "misfits" who took up Egyptian service
because they were unable to get ahead in their own nations.
Typical of the men that
Isma'il Pasha hired was Valentine
British Army officer dishonorably discharged after being
convicted of raping a young woman he been asked to chaperon. After he
was released from prison, Isma'il hired Baker to work for him in the
Sudan. John Russell, the son of the famous war correspondent
William Howard Russell, was another European recruited to serve on
Gordon's staff. The younger Russell was described by his own
father as an alcoholic and spendthrift who "was beyond help" as it was
always the "same story-idleness, self-indulgence, gambling and
constant promises" broken time after time, leading his father to get
him a job in the Sudan, where his laziness infuriated Gordon to no
Equatoria: Building Egypt's empire in the Great Lakes region
General Gordon in Egyptian uniform.
The Egyptian authorities had been extending their control southwards
since the 1820s. Right up to 1914,
Egypt was officially a vilayet
(province) of the Ottoman Empire, but after Mohammed Ali become the
vali (governor) of
Egypt in 1805,
Egypt was a de facto independent
state where the authority of the
Ottoman Sultan was more nominal than
real. An expedition was sent up the White Nile, under Sir Samuel
Baker, which reached
Khartoum in February 1870 and
Gondokoro in June
1871. Baker met with great difficulties and managed little beyond
establishing a few posts along the Nile.
Khedive asked for Gordon to succeed Baker as the governor of
Equatoria province that comprised much of what is today South Sudan
and northern Uganda.
Isma'il Pasha told Gordon that he wished to
Equatoria into the rest of Uganda, with the ultimate aim of
absorbing the entire Great Lakes region of East Africa into the empire
that Isma'il wanted to build in Africa. Baker's annual salary as
Equatoria had been £10,000 Egyptian pounds (which was
about US$1 million in today's money) and Ismail was astonished when
Gordon refused that salary, saying that £2, 000/year was more than
enough for him.
After a short stay in Cairo, Gordon proceeded to
Khartoum via Suakin
and Berber. In
Khartoum Gordon attended a dinner with the
Governor-General, Ismail Aiyub Pasha, entertained with barely dressed
belly dancers whom one of Gordon's officers drunkenly attempted to
have sex with, leading to a disgusted Gordon walking out, saying he
was shocked that Aiyub allowed these things to happen in his
palace. Joining Gordon on the journey to
Equatoria was his old
Romolo Gessi and a former US Army officer Charles Chaillé-Long
who did not get along well with Gordon.
From Khartoum, he proceeded up the
White Nile to Gondokoro. During his
time in Sudan, Gordon was much involved in attempting to suppress the
slave trade while struggling against a corrupt and inefficient
Egyptian bureaucracy that had no interest in suppressing the slave
trade. Gordon soon learned that his superior, the Governor-General
of the Sudan, Ismail Aiyub
Pasha was deeply involved in the slave
trade and doing everything within his power to sabotage Gordon's
anti-slavery work by denying him supplies and leaking information to
the slavers. Gordon also clashed with Chaillé-Long, whom he
accused of working as an informant for Aiyub
Pasha and called him to
his face a "regular failure". Chaillé-Long in return painted a
very unflattering picture of Gordon in his 1884 book The Three
Prophets, whom he portrayed as a bully, a raging alcoholic, an
incompetent leader and a rank coward. Faught argued that since no
one else who knew Gordon in
Equatoria described him in these terms and
given that Gordon's accusation that Chaillé-Long was a spy for Aiyub
Pasha seems to be justified, that Chaillé-Long was engaging in
character assassination as an act of revenge.
Gordon, despite his position as an official in the Ottoman Empire,
found the Ottoman-Egyptian system of rule inherently oppressive and
cruel, coming into increasing conflict with the very system he was
supposed to uphold, later stating about his time in the Sudan: "I
taught the natives they had a right to exist". In the Ottoman
Empire, power was exercised via a system of institutionalised
corruption where officials looted their provinces via heavy taxes and
by demanding kickbacks known as baksheesh; some of the money went to
Constantinople with the rest pocketed by the officials.
Gordon established a close rapport with the African peoples of
Equatoria such as the Nuer and Dinka, who had long suffered from the
activity of Arab slave traders, and who naturally supported Gordon's
efforts to stamp out the slave trade. The peoples of
traditionally worshipped spirits present in nature, but were steadily
being converted to Christianity by missionaries from Europe and the
United States, which further encouraged Gordon in his efforts as
governor of Equatoria, who notwithstanding his position working for
the Egyptian government saw himself as doing God's work in
Equatoria. Gordon was not impressed with the forces of the
Egyptian state. The soldiers of the Egyptian Army were fallāḥīn
(peasant) conscripts who were both ill-paid and ill-trained. The
other force for law-and-order were the much feared bashi-bazouks,
irregulars who were not paid a salary, but were expected to support
themselves by looting. The bashi-bazouks were extremely susceptible to
corruption and were notorious for their brutality, especially to
Gordon remained in the
Equatoria province until October 1876. Gordon
quickly learned that before he could establish stations to crush the
slave trade that he would have to first explore the area to find out
where the best places for building stations. A major problem for
Gordon was malaria, which decimated his men, and led him to issue the
following order: "Never let the mosquito curtain out of your sight, it
is more valuable than your revolver". The heat greatly affected
Gordon as he wrote to his sister Augusta: "This is a horrid climate, I
seldom if ever get a good sleep".
Gordon had succeeded in establishing a line of way stations from the
Sobat confluence on the
White Nile to the frontier of Uganda, where he
proposed to open a route from Mombasa. In 1874 he built the station at
Dufile on the Albert
Nile to reassemble steamers carried there past
rapids for the exploration of Lake Albert. Gordon personally explored
Lake Albert and the Victorian Nile, pushing on through the thick,
humid jungle and steep ravines of
Uganda amid heavy rains and vast
hordes of insects in the summer of 1876 with an average daily
temperature of 95 °F (35 °C), down to Lake Kyoga.
Gordon wrote in his diary: "It is terrible walking...it is simply
killing...I am nearly dead".
Besides acting as an administrator and explorer, Gordon had to act as
a diplomat, dealing carefully with Muteesa I, the kabaka (king) of the
Buganda who ruled most of what is today southern Uganda, a man who did
not welcome the Egyptian expansionism into the Great Lakes
region. Gordon's attempts to establish an Egyptian garrison in
Buganda had been stymied by the cunning Mueteesa, who forced the
Egyptians to build their fort at his capital of Lubaga, making the 140
or so Egyptian soldiers into his virtual hostages. Gordon chose
not to meet Mueteesa himself, instead sending his chief medical
officer, a German convert to Islam Dr. Emin
Pasha to negotiate a
treaty whereas in exchange for allowing the Egyptians to leave the
Buganda, the independence of the kingdom was recognised.
Moreover, considerable progress was made in the suppression of the
slave trade. Gordon wrote in a letter to his sister about the
Africans living a "life of fear and misery", but in spite of the
"utter misery" of
Equatoria that "I like this work". Gordon often
personally intercepted slave convoys to arrest the slavers and break
the chains of the slaves, but he found that the corrupt Egyptian
bureaucrats usually sold the freed Africans back into slavery, and the
expense of caring for thousands of freed slaves who were a long away
from home burdensome.
During this period Gordon grew close to the Anti-Slavery Society, an
evangelical Christian group based in
London dedicated to ending
slavery all over the world, and who regularly celebrated Gordon's
efforts to end slavery in the Sudan. Urban wrote that: "Newspaper
readers in Bolton or Beaminister had become enraged by stories about
chained black children, cruelly abducted, being sold into slave
markets...", and Gordon's anti-slavery efforts contributed to his
image as a saintly man.
Gordon had come into conflict with the Egyptian governor of Khartoum
Sudan over his efforts to ban slavery. The clash led to Gordon
Khedive that he did not wish to return to the Sudan, and
he left for London. During his time in London, Gordon was approached
by Sir William Mackinnon, an enterprising Scots ship owner who had
gone into partnership with King
Leopold II of the Belgians
Leopold II of the Belgians with the
aim of creating a chartered company that would conquer central Africa,
and wished to employ Gordon as their agent in Africa.
Gordon accepted their offer, believing rather naively in Leopold's and
Mackinnon's assurances their plans were purely philanthropic and they
had no interest in exploiting Africans for profit. But the
Isma'il Pasha wrote to him saying that he had promised to
return, and that he expected him to keep his word. Gordon agreed
to return to Cairo, and was asked to take the position of
Governor-General of the entire Sudan, which he accepted. He thereafter
received the honorific rank and title of a pasha in the Ottoman
Governor-General of the Sudan
As governor, Gordon faced a variety of challenges. Besides working to
end slavery, Gordon carried out a series of reforms such as abolishing
torture and public floggings where those opposed to the Egyptian state
were flogged with a whip known as the kourbash made of buffalo
hide. Gordon was well known for being utterly obstinate, joking
that: "The Gordons and the camels are of the same race. Let them take
an idea into their heads and nothing will take it out. I have a
splendid camel-none like it; it flies along and quite astonishes the
Arabs". The reforms that Gordon wanted would have changed the
basic nature of Ottoman-Egyptian rule, by replacing a system based on
exploitation of the people by the state with one where the state would
work for the betterment of the people. These aims eluded him.
Gordon himself was honest and incorruptible, but he was almost alone
in possessing these qualities, and the venal and corrupt Egyptian
bureaucrats usually ignored his orders when they conflicted with the
chance to make money. The Europeans whom the Egyptians had hired
to work as civil servants in the
Sudan were no better and proved to be
just as corrupt as the Egyptians. The bribes that the slave
traders offered for bureaucrats to turn a blind eye to the slave trade
had far more effect on the bureaucrats than did any of Gordon's orders
to suppress the slave trade, which were simply ignored. Licurgo
Santoni, an Italian hired by the Egyptian state to run the Sudanese
post office wrote about Gordon's time as Governor-General that:
as his exertions were not supported by his subordinates his efforts
remained fruitless. This man's activity with the scientific knowledge
which he possesses is doubtless able to achieve much, but
unfortunately no one backs him up and his orders are badly carried out
or altered in such a way as to render them without effect. All the
Europeans, with some rare exceptions, whom he has honoured with his
confidence have cheated him.
Reflecting these realities, Gordon had to undertake much of the
administrative work himself, travelling ceaselessly and constantly all
Sudan via camel in attempts to make the bureaucracy actually
obey his orders. Something that occurred when he was present, but
stopped as soon as he left. Gordon's reforming zeal made him
popular with the ordinary people of the Sudan. As one observer noted
that whenever he left and entered the Governor's Palace in Khartoum:
"Government officials, consular agents and native people awaited him
in large numbers. They celebrated H.E's [His Excellency] arrival with
an indescribable uproar".
During the 1870s, European initiatives against the Arab slave trade
caused an economic crisis in northern Sudan, precipitating increasing
unrest. Relations between
Egypt and Abyssinia (later renamed Ethiopia)
had become strained due to a dispute over the district of Bogos, and
war broke out in 1875. An Egyptian expedition was completely defeated
near Gundet. A second and larger expedition under Prince Hassan was
sent the following year and was routed at Gura. Matters then remained
quiet until March 1877, when Gordon proceeded to Massawa, hoping to
make peace with the Abyssinians. He went up to Bogos and wrote to the
king proposing terms. He received no reply as the king had gone
southwards to fight with the Shoa. Gordon, seeing that the Abyssinian
difficulty could wait, proceeded to Khartoum.
Egypt went bankrupt. A group of European financial
commissioners led by Evelyn Baring took charge of the Egyptian
finances in an attempt to pay off the European banks who had lent so
much money to Egypt. With
Egypt bankrupt, the money to carry out the
reforms Gordon wanted was not there. With over half of Egypt's
income going to pay the 7% interest on the debt worth 81 million
Egyptian pounds that Isma'il had run up, the khedive was supportive of
Gordon's plans for reform, but unable to do very much as he lacked the
money to pay his civil servants and soldiers in Egypt, much less in
Gordon travelled north to
Cairo to meet with Baring and suggest the
Egypt suspend its interest payments for several years to
allow Isma'il to pay the arrears owned to his soldiers and civil
servants, arguing that once the Egyptian government was stabilised,
Egypt could start paying its debts without fear of causing a
revolution. Faught wrote Gordon's plans were "farsighted and
humane", but Baring had no interest in Gordon's plans to suspend the
interest payments. Gordon disliked Baring, writing he had "a
pretentious, grand, patronizing way around him. We had a few words
together...When oil mixes with water, we will mix together".
Slavery was the basis of the Sudanese economy, and Gordon's attempts
to end the slave trade meant taking on very powerful vested interests,
most notably Rahama Zobeir, known as the "King of the Slavers" as he
was the richest and most powerful of all the slave traders in the
entire Sudan. An insurrection had broken out in
Darfur province led by
associates of Zobeir and Gordon went to deal with it. The insurgents
were numerous, and he saw that diplomacy had a better chance of
success. On 2 September 1877, Gordon clad in the full gold-braided
ceremonial blue uniform of the Governor-General of the
wearing the tarboush (the type of fez reserved for a pasha),
accompanied by an interpreter and a few bashi-bazouks, rode
unannounced into the enemy camp to discuss the situation.
Gordon carried no weapons except for his rattan cane (through the
bashi-bazouks were armed with rifles and swords), but Gordon showed
utterly no fear while his interpreter and the bashi-bazouks were
visibly nervous as the rebels numbered about 3,000. Gordon was
met by Suleiman Zobeir, the son of Rahama Zobeir and demanded in the
name of the
Egypt that the rebels end their rebellion and
accept the authority of their lord and master, telling Zobeir that he
would "disarm and break them" if the rebellion did not end at
once. Gordon also promised that those rebels who laid down their
arms would not be punished and would all be given jobs in the
A tense stand-off ensued, and though the rebels could have easily
killed Gordon and his party, as Gordon wrote in a letter to his sister
that the rebels were all "...dumbfounded at my coming among them".
This bold move proved successful, as one chief then another pledged
his loyalty to the
Khedive including Suleiman Zobeir himself, though
the remainder retreated to the south. Gordon visited the provinces
of Berber and Dongola, and then returned to the Abyssinian frontier,
before ending up back in
Khartoum in January 1878. Gordon was summoned
to Cairo, and arrived in March to be appointed president of a
Khedive Isma'il was deposed in 1879 in favour of his
son Tewfik by the
Abdul-Hamid II following heavy
diplomatic pressure from the British, French and Italian governments
after Isma'il had quarrelled with Baring.
Gordon returned south and proceeded to Harrar, south of Abyssinia,
and, finding the administration in poor standing, dismissed the
governor. In 1878, Gordon fired the governor of
corruption and replaced him with his former chief medical officer from
his time in Equatoria, Dr. Emin Pasha, who had earned Gordon's
respect. Gordon then returned to Khartoum, and went again into
Darfur to suppress the slave traders. His subordinate, Gessi Pasha,
fought with great success in the Bahr-el-Ghazal district in putting an
end to the revolt there. In July 1878, Suleiman Zobeir had rebelled
again, leading Gordon and his close friend Gessi to take to the
In March 1879, Gessi had inflicted a sharp defeat on Zobeir even
before Gordon had joined him to pursue their old enemy. After
several months of chasing Zobeir, Gessi and Gordon met at the village
of Shaka in June 1879 when it was agreed that Gessi would continue the
hunt while Gordon would return to Khartoum. On 15 July 1879,
Gessi finally captured Zobeir together with 250 of his men. As
Zobeir had broken his oath to the khedive by rebelling, Gordon had
given Gessi orders to execute Zobeir, and so later that day Gessi had
Zobeir and his men publicity beheaded as an example of what happened
to those who broke their oaths.
Gordon then tried another peace mission to Abyssinia. The matter ended
with Gordon's imprisonment and transfer to Massawa. Thence he returned
Cairo and resigned his
Sudan appointment. He was exhausted by years
of incessant work. Gordon had gone to the
Sudan with high hopes that
via his iron will and Christian faith he would defeat the
Ottoman-Egyptian system of rule, that he would act as a reformer who
would change the system from within to make what was unjust, just, and
that he would make things better for the ordinary people of the
Instead, the Ottoman-Egyptian system had defeated him with almost all
of Gordon's reforms having failed owing to the venality of the
bureaucracy who shared absolutely none of Gordon's moral outrage at
slavery and injustice, and Gordon's dreams of making things better for
the ordinary people were dissolved in the face of greed and
self-interest of others; the system remained the same creaking slow,
utterly corrupt and oppressive apparatus trampling down ordinary
people that it always been.
At the end of his Governor-Generalship of the Sudan, Gordon had to
admit that he been a failure, an experience of defeat that so
shattered him that he had a nervous breakdown. As Gordon travelled
Egypt to take the streamer back to Britain, a man who met him in
Cairo described Gordon as a broken man who was "rather off his
head". Before Gordon boarded the ship at Alexandria that was to
take him home, he sent off a series of long telegrams to various
London full of Biblical verse and quotations that he
claimed offered the solution to all of the problems of modern
In March 1880, he recovered for a couple of weeks in the Hotel du
Faucon in Lausanne, 3 Rue St Pierre, famous for its views on Lake
Geneva and because several celebrities had stayed there, such as
Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of Gordon's heroes, and possibly one of
the reasons Gordon had chosen this hotel. In the hotel's restaurant,
now a pub called Happy Days, he met another guest from Britain, the
reverend R.H. Barnes, vicar of
Heavitree near Exeter, who became a
good friend. After Gordon's death Barnes co-authored Charles George
Gordon: A Sketch (1885), which begins with the meeting at the hotel in
Lausanne. The Reverend Reginald Barnes, who knew him well, describes
him as "of the middle height, very strongly built."
The intensely religious Gordon had been born into the Church of
England, but he never quite trusted the Anglian Church, instead
preferring his own personal brand of Protestantism. In his worn
out state, Gordon had some sort of religious rebirth, leading him to
write to his sister Augusta: "Through the workings of Christ in my
body by His Body and Blood, the medicine worked. Ever since the
realisation of the sacrament, I have been turned upside down".
The eccentric Gordon was very religious, but he departed from
Christian orthodoxy on a number of points. Gordon believed in
reincarnation. In 1877, he wrote in a letter: "This life is only one
of a series of lives which our incarnated part has lived. I have
little doubt of our having pre-existed; and that also in the time of
our pre-existence we were actively employed. So, therefore, I believe
in our active employment in a future life, and I like the
thought." Gordon was an ardent Christian cosmologist, who also
believed that the
Garden of Eden
Garden of Eden was on the island of
Praslin in the
Seychelles. Gordon believed that God's throne from which He
governed the universe rested upon the earth, which was further
surrounded by the firmament.
Gordon believed in both predestination - writing that "I believe that
not a worm is picked up by a bird without the direct intervention of
God" - and free will with humans choosing their own fate, writing "I
cannot and do not pretend to reconcile the two". These religious
beliefs mirrored differing aspects of Gordon's personality as he
believed that he could choose his own fate through the force of his
personality and a fatalistic streak often ending his letters with D.V
(Deo volente-Latin for "God willing" i.e. whatever God wants will
be). Gordon's very strong religious feelings led him to devote
much time and money to charity both at home and abroad and he was well
known for sticking Christian tracts onto city walls and to throw them
out of a train window. The Romanian historian Eric Tappe described
Gordon as a man who developed his own "very personal peculiar variety
On 2 March 1880, on his way from
London to Switzerland, Gordon had
visited King Leopold II of Belgium in
Brussels and was invited to take
charge of the Congo Free State. Leopold tried very hard to convince
Gordon to enter his service, not least because Gordon was known to be
modest in his salary demands, unlike Leopold's current agent in the
Congo, Henry Morton Stanley, who received a monthly salary of 300,000
Belgian francs. Gordon rejected Leopold's offers, partly because
he was still emotionally attached to the
Sudan and partly because he
disliked the idea of working for Leopold's Congo Association, which
was a private company owned by the King. In April, the government
Cape Colony offered him the position of commandant of the Cape
local forces, which Gordon declined. A deeply depressed Gordon
wrote in his letter declining the offer that he knew, for reasons that
he refused to explain, that he had only ten years left to live, and he
wanted to do something great and grand in his last ten years.
In May, the Marquess of Ripon, who had been given the post of
Governor-General of India, asked Gordon to go with him as private
secretary. Gordon accepted the offer, but shortly after arriving in
India, he resigned. In the words of the American historian Immanuel C.
Y. Hsu, Gordon was a "man of action" unsuitable for a bureaucratic
job. Gordon found the life of a private secretary to be in his
words a "living crucifixion" that was unbearably boring, leading him
to resign with intention of going to East Africa centred on Zanzibar
to suppress slave trade.
Hardly had Gordon resigned when he was invited to
Beijing by Sir
Robert Hart, inspector-general of customs in China, saying his
services were urgently needed in China as Russia and China were on the
verge of war. Gordon was nostalgic for China, and knowing of the
Sino-Russian crisis, he saw a chance to do something significant.
The British diplomat
Thomas Francis Wade
Thomas Francis Wade reported "The Chinese
government still holds Gordon
Pasha in high regard", and were anxious
to have him back to fight against Russia if war should break out.
An exchange of telegrams ensued between the
War Office in
Gordon in Bombay about just what exactly he was planning on doing in
China, and when Gordon replied that he would find out when he got
there, Gordon was ordered to stay. Gordon disobeyed orders and
left on the first ship to China, an action that very much angered the
Army's commander, the Duke of Cambridge. Gordon arrived in
Shanghai in July and met Li Hongzhang, and learned that there was risk
of war with Russia. After meeting his old friend, Gordon assured Li
that if Russia should attack he would resign his commission in the
British Army to take up a commission in the Chinese Army, an action
that if taken risked prosecution under the Foreign Enlistments
Act. Gordon informed the Foreign Office that he was willing to
renounce his British citizenship and take Chinese citizenship as he
would not abandon Li and his other Chinese friends should a
Sino-Russian war begin. Gordon's willingness to renounce his
British citizenship in order to fight with China in the event of war
did much to raise his prestige in China.
Gordon proceeded to
Beijing and used all his influence to ensure
peace. Gordon clashed repeatedly with Prince Chun, the leader of the
war party in
Beijing who rejected Gordon's advice to seek a compromise
solution as Gordon warned that the powerful Russian naval squadron in
the Yellow Sea would allow the Russians to land at
Tianjin and advance
on Beijing. At one point during a meeting with the Council of
Ministers, an enraged Gordon picked up a Chinese-English dictionary,
looked up the word idiocy, and then pointed at the equivalent Chinese
word 白痴 with one hand while pointing at the ministers with the
Gordon further advised the Qing court that it was unwise for the
Manchu elite to live apart from and treat the
Han Chinese majority as
something less than human, warning that this not only weakened China
in the present, but would cause a revolution in the future. After
speaking so bluntly, Gordon was ordered out of the court and Beijing,
but was allowed to stay at Tianjin. After meeting with him in
Tianjin, Hart described Gordon as "very eccentric" and "spending hours
in prayer", writing that: "As much I like and respect him, I must say
he is 'not all there'. Whether 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's a great
pity!". Wade echoed Hart, writing that Gordon had changed since
his last time in China, and was now "unbalanced", being utterly
convinced that all of his ideas came from God, making him dangerously
unreasonable since Gordon now believed that everything he did was the
will of God.
Gordon was ordered home by
London as the Foreign Office was not
comfortable with the idea of him commanding the Chinese Army against
Russia if war should break out, believing that this would cause an
Anglo-Russian war and Gordon was told that he would be dishonorably
discharged if he remained in China. Though the Qing court
rejected Gordon's advice to seek a compromise with Russia in the
summer of 1880, Gordon's assessment of China's military backwardness
and his stark warnings that the Russians would win if a war did break
out played an important role in ultimately strengthening the peace
party at the court and preventing war.
Gordon returned to Britain and rented a flat on 8 Victoria Grove in
London. In October 1880 Gordon paid a two-week visit to Ireland,
landing at Cork and travelling over much of the island. Gordon
was sickened by the poverty of the Irish farmers, which led him to
write a six-page memo to the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, urging
land reforms in Ireland. Gordon wrote: "The peasantry of the
Northwest and Southwest of
Ireland are much worse off than any of the
inhabitants of Bulgaria, Asia Minor, China, India or the Sudan".
Having been to all of those places and thus speaking with some
authority, Gordon announced the "scandal" of poverty in
only be ended if the government were to buy the land of the Ascendency
families as the Anglo-Irish elite was known and give it to their poor
Irish tenant farmers.
Gordon compared his plans for rural reform in
Ireland to ending
slavery in the British Empire in 1833, and ended his letter with the
claim that if this was done, the unity of the United Kingdom would be
preserved as the Irish would appreciate this great act of justice and
the Irish independence movement would cease to exist as "they would
have nothing more to seek from agitation". Somewhat tactlessly,
Gordon reminded Gladstone that his father had owned a slave plantation
in Jamaica and had been one of those slave-owners compensated by the
Crown in 1833 for the freeing of his slaves, a bit of Gladstone family
history that the Prime Minister did not like to have discussed.
Besides championing land reform in Ireland, Gordon spent the winter of
London socialising with his family and his few friends
Florence Nightingale and Alfred Tennyson.
Gordon caricatured by Ape in Vanity Fair in 1881.
In April 1881 Gordon left for
Mauritius as Commander, Royal Engineers.
He remained in
Mauritius until March 1882. The American historian John
Semple Galbraith described Gordon as suffering from "utter boredom"
during his time in the Mauritius. Gordon saw his work in building
forts to protect the
Mauritius from a possible Russian naval attack as
pointless, and his main achievement during his time there was to
advise the Crown to turn the
Seychelles islands, whose beauty had
greatly moved Gordon, into a new crown colony as Gordon argued it was
impossible to govern the
Seychelles from Port Louis.
In a memo to London, Gordon warned against over-reliance on the Suez
Canal, where the Russians could easily sink one ship to block the
entire canal, thus leading Gordon to advise upon improving the Cape
route to India with Britain developing a series of bases in Africa and
in the Indian Ocean. Gordon visited the
Seychelles in the summer
of 1881 and decided the islands were location of the Garden of
Eden. On the island of Valle de Mai, Gordon believed that he
found the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the form of a coco
de mer tree that bore a close resemblance to a woman's body.
Promoted to major-general on 23 March 1882, Gordon was sent to
the Cape to aid in settling affairs in Basutoland, but he returned to
the United Kingdom after only a few months. The principle problem
faced by Gordon in South Africa was
Basutoland (modern Lesotho), a
small kingdom whose ruler, King Moshoeshoe had decided to have his
nation become a British protectorate rather be annexed by the Orange
Free State. One of Moshoeshoe's sons, Prince Masupha had rebelled
in protest against his father's plans. Before settling out on a
trip to mediate the end of the civil war in Basutoland, Gordon met
Cecil Rhodes in
Cape Town to seek his advice. Rhodes later
recalled he and Gordon got along "capitally together".
After arriving in Basutoland, Gordon met with Prince Masupha to
persuade him to lay down his arms and to accept his father's
protectorate plan rather than have his kingdom annexed to the Orange
Free State. Faught wrote that Gordon was only in South Africa for
a short time, but one of his enduring legacies is the existence of
Lesotho, which otherwise would have been annexed to the Orange Free
State and whose people would have thus suffered from apartheid in the
20th century. After his return from South Africa, Galbraith
remarked that Gordon had a "strange combination of melancholia,
resignation and mysticism" that he was destined by God both to do
something great and to die soon. During this time, Leopold who
was most anxious to fire Stanley with his ever-increasing demands for
more money, constantly wrote to Gordon asking him to be his agent in
the Congo. Gordon had come to distrust Leopold, but he came to
believe that perhaps he could do some good in the Congo.
Being unemployed, Gordon decided to go to Palestine which at the time
was part of the Ottoman vilayet of Syria, a region he had long
desired to visit, where he would remain for a year (1882–83). During
his "career break" in the Holy Land, the very religious Gordon sought
to explore his faith and biblical sites. In Jerusalem, Gordon
lived with an American lawyer
Horatio Spafford and his wife Anna
Spafford, who were the leaders of the American Colony in the Holy
City. The Spaffords had lost their home and much of their fortune
Great Chicago Fire
Great Chicago Fire and then had seen one of their sons die of
scarlet fever, four of their daughters drowned in a shipwreck followed
by the death of another son from scarlet fever, causing them to turn
to religion as consolation for unbearable tragedy, making them very
congenial company for Gordon during his stay in Jerusalem. After
his visit, Gordon suggested in his book Reflections in Palestine a
different location for Golgotha, the site of Christ's crucifixion. The
site lies north of the traditional site at the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre and is now known as "the Garden Tomb," or sometimes as
"Gordon's Calvary." Gordon's interest was prompted by his
religious beliefs, as he had become an evangelical Christian in
King Leopold II then asked Gordon again to take charge of the Congo
Free State. He accepted and returned to
London to make
preparations, but soon after his arrival the British requested that he
proceed immediately to the Sudan, where the situation had deteriorated
badly after his departure—another revolt had arisen, led by the
self-proclaimed Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed. The
Mahdi is a messianic figure
in Islam which tradition holds will appear at the dawn of every new
(Islamic) century to strike down the enemies of Islam.
The year 1881 was the
Islamic year 1299, and to mark the coming of the
new century, Ahmed announced that he was the Mahdi, and proclaimed a
jihad against the Egyptian state. The long exploitation of the Sudan
Egypt led many Sudanese to rally to the Mahdi's black banner as he
promised to expel the Egyptians, whom Ahmed denounced as apostates and
he announced he would establish an Islamic fundamentalist state that
mark a return to the "pure Islam" said to have been practised in the
days of the Prophet Mohamed in Arabia.
Additionally, Baring's policy of raising taxes to pay off the debts
Isma'il had run up sparked much resentment in both
Egypt and the
Sudan. In 1882, nationalist rage in
Egypt against Baring's
economic policies led to the revolt by
Colonel Urabi Pasha, which was
put down by British troops. From September 1882 onwards,
Egypt was a
de facto British protectorate effectively ruled by Baring, through in
Egypt remained an Ottoman province with a very wide degree of
autonomy until 1914. With
Egypt under British rule, the British also
inherited the problems of Egypt's colony, the Sudan, which the
Egyptians were losing control of to the Mahdi.
See also: Mahdist War
Mission to Khartoum
Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi.
The Egyptian forces in the
Sudan were insufficient to cope with the
rebels, and the northern government was occupied in the suppression of
the Urabi Revolt. By September 1882, the Egyptian position in the
Sudan had grown perilous. In September 1883, an Egyptian Army force
Colonel William Hicks set out to destroy the Mahdi. The Egyptian
soldiers were miserable fallāḥīn conscripts who had no interest in
being in the Sudan, much less in fighting the
Mahdi and morale was so
poor that Hicks had to chain his men together to prevent them from
On 3–5 November 1883, the Ansar (whom the British called
"Dervishes"), as the Mahdi's followers were known, had destroyed an
Egyptian Army of 8,000 under
Colonel Hicks at El Obeid, with only
about 250 Egyptians surviving and Hicks being one of the slain.
At El Obeid, the Ansar captured from the Egyptians a huge number of
Remington rifles and ammunition cases together with a large number of
Krupp artillery guns and their shells. After the Battle of El
Obeid, Egyptian morale, never high to begin with simply collapsed, and
the black flag of the
Mahdi soon started to fly over many a town in
the Sudan. By the end of 1883 the Egyptians held only the ports
on the Red Sea and a narrow belt of land around the
Nile in northern
Sudan. In both cases naval power was the key factor as gunboats in the
Red Sea and the
Nile provided a degree of firepower that the Ansar
could not cope with.
The only other place to hold out for a time was mostly Christian
Equatoria under Emin Pasha. Following the destruction of Hicks's army,
the Liberal Prime Minister
William Ewart Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone decided that the
Sudan was not worth the trouble it would take to hang onto, and as
Sudan was to be abandoned to the Mahdi. In December 1883,
the British government ordered
Egypt to abandon the Sudan, but that
was difficult to carry out, as it involved the withdrawal of thousands
of Egyptian soldiers, civilian employees, and their families.
At the beginning of 1884, Gordon had no interest in the
Sudan and had
just been hired to work as an officer with the newly established Congo
Free State. Gordon – despite or rather because of his war hero
status – disliked publicity and tried to avoid the press when he was
in Britain. While staying with his sister in Southampton, Gordon
received an unexpected visitor, namely William Thomas Stead, the
editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, whom Gordon reluctantly agreed to do
an interview with. Gordon wanted to talk about the Congo, but
Stead kept on pressing him to talk about the Sudan; finally after much
prompting on Stead's part Gordon opened up and attacked Gladstone's
Sudan policy, coming out for an intervention to crush the Mahdi.
Gordon offered up a 19th-century version of the domino theory,
The danger arises from the influence which the spectacle of a
conquering Mahometan [Muslim] Power established close to your
frontiers will exercise upon the population which you govern. In all
the cities of
Egypt it will be felt that what the
Mahdi has done they
may do; and, as he has driven out the intruder, they may do the
Stead published his interview on 9 January 1884 on the front page of
the Pall Mall Gazette alongside the leader (editorial) he had written
entitled "Chinese Gordon for the Sudan". Urban wrote: "With this
leader, William Stead's real motive in going to
itself at last. As to who tipped him off that the general would be
staying here for just a couple of nights, we can only speculate".
Stead's interview caused a media sensation and led to a popular
clamour for Gordon to be sent to the Sudan. Urban wrote: "The
Pall Mall Gazette articles, in short, began a new chapter in
international relations; powerful men using media manipulation of
public opinion to trigger war. It is often suggested that that
campaign by William Randolph Hearst's paper that led to the US
invasion of Cuba in 1898 was the world's first episode of this kind,
but the British press deserves these dubious laurels for its actions a
full fourteen years earlier". The man behind the campaign was the
Adjutant General, Sir
Garnet Wolseley – a skilled media manipulator
who often leaked information to the press to effect changes in policy
– and who was strongly opposed to Gladstone's policy of pulling out
of the Sudan.
In 1880, the Liberals had won the general election on a platform of
imperial retrenchment, and Gladstone had put his principles into
practice by withdrawing from the Transvaal and Afghanistan in 1881.
There was an imperialist "ultra" faction in the
War Office led by
Wolseley that felt that the Liberal government were too inclined to
withdraw from various places all over the globe at the first sign of
trouble, and who were determined to sabotage the withdrawal from the
Sudan. Gordon and Wolseley were good friends (Wolseley was one of
the people Gordon prayed for every night), and after a meeting with
Wolseley at the
War Office to discuss the crisis in the Sudan, Gordon
left convinced that he had to go to the
Sudan to "carry out the work
With public opinion demanding that Gordon be sent to the Sudan, on 16
January 1884 the Gladstone government decided to send Gordon to the
Sudan, albeit with the very limited mandate to report on the situation
and advise on the best means of carrying out the evacuation.
Gladstone had gone to his estate at Hawarden to recover from an
illness and thus was not present at the meeting on 18 January where
Gordon was given the
Sudan command, but he was under the impression
that Gordon's mission was advisory whereas the four ministers present
at the meeting had given Gordon the impression that his mission was
executive in nature.
Gladstone felt that this was a deft political move. Public opinion
would be satisfied with "Chinese Gordon" going to the Sudan, but at
the same time, Gordon was given such a limited mandate that the
evacuation would proceed as planned. The Cabinet felt very
uncomfortable with the appointment as they had been pressured by the
press to send a man who was opposed to their
Sudan policy to take
command in the
Sudan with the Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville
wondering if they had just committed a "gigantic folly". Gordon
made a short trip to
Brussels to tell Leopold that he would not be
going to the Congo after all, news that enraged the King.
General Gordon in Khartoum.
The British government asked Gordon to proceed to
Khartoum to report
on the best method of carrying out the evacuation. Gordon started for
Cairo in January 1884, accompanied by Lt. Col. J. D. H. Stewart. At
Cairo, he received further instructions from Sir Evelyn Baring, and
was appointed governor-general with executive powers by the Khedive
Tewfik Pasha, who also gave Gordon a firman (edict) ordering him to
establish a government in the Sudan, which Gordon was later to use as
a reason for staying in Khartoum. Baring disapproved of sending
Gordon to the Sudan, writing in a report to
London that: "A man who
habitually consults the Prophet Isaiah when he is in a difficulty is
not apt to obey the orders of anyone". Gordon immediately
confirmed Baring's fears as he started to issue press statements
attacking the rebels as "a feeble lot of stinking Dervishes" and
demanded he be allowed to "smash up the Mahdi". Gordon sent a
Khartoum reading: "Don't be panic-stricken. Ye are men,
not women. I am coming. Gordon".
Urban wrote that Gordon's "most stupid mistake" occurred when he
revealed his secret orders at a meeting of tribal leaders on 12
February at Berber, explaining that the Egyptians were pulling out,
leading to almost all of the Arab tribes of northern
their loyalty to the Mahdi. Given that Gordon himself in his
interview with Stead had stated: "The moment it is known that we have
given up the game, every man will go over to the Mahdi", his decision
to reveal that the Egyptians were pulling out remains
inexplicable. Shortly afterwards, Gordon wrote what Urban called
a "bizarre" letter to the
Mahdi telling him to accept the authority of
Egypt and offering him the chance to work as one of
Gordon's provincial governors. The
Mahdi contemptuously rejected
Gordon's offer and sent back a letter demanding Gordon convert to
Mahdi ended his letter with the remark: "I am the Expected Mahdi
and I do not boast! I am the successor of God's Prophet and I have no
need of any sultanate of Kordofan or anywhere else!". Even
Wolsely had cause to regret sending Gordon as Gordon revealed himself
to be a "loose cannon" whose press statements attacking the Liberal
government were "obstructing rather than furthering his plans to take
over the Sudan". Travelling through Korosko and Berber, he
Khartoum on 18 February, where he offered his earlier foe,
the slaver-king Rahama Zobeir, release from prison in exchange for
leading troops against Ahmed.
Gordon's abrupt mood swings and contradictory advice confirmed the
Cabinet's view of him as mercurial and unstable. Even an observer
as sympathetic as
Winston Churchill wrote about Gordon: "Mercury
uncontrolled by the force of gravity was not on several occasions more
unstable than Charles Gordon. His moods were capricious and uncertain,
his passions violent, his impulses sudden and inconsistent. The mortal
enemy of the morning had become a trusted ally by night".
John Buchan wrote Gordon was so "unlike other men that he
readily acquired a spiritual ascendency over all who knew him well and
many who did not...", but at the same time Gordon had a "dualism", in
that "the impression of single-heartedness was an illusion, for all
his life his soul was the stage of conflict". Gordon's attempt to
have his former archenemy Zobeir, the "King of the Slavers" whom he
had hunted for years and whose son he had executed installed as the
new Sultan of the
Sudan appalled Gladstone and offended his former
admirers in the Anti-Slavery Society.
Preparing the defence of Khartoum
The maximum extent of the Mahdist State from 1881–1898, with modern
national boundaries displayed.
After arriving in Khartoum, Gordon announced that on the grounds of
honour, he would not evacuate Khartoum, but rather, would hold the
city against the Mahdi. Gordon was well received by a crowd of
about 9,000 during his return to
Khartoum where the crowd continually
chanted, "Father!" and "Sultan!". Gordon assured the people of
Khartoum in a speech delivered in his rough-hewn Arabic that the Mahdi
was coming with his Army of Islam marching under their black banners,
but to have no fear as here he would be stopped. Gordon had a
garrison of about 8,000 soldiers armed with Remington rifles together
with a colossal ammunition dump containing millions of rounds.
Gordon commenced the task of sending the women, children, the sick and
wounded to Egypt. About 2,500 people had been removed before the
Mahdi's forces closed in on Khartoum. Gordon hoped to have the
influential local leader
Sebehr Rahma appointed to take control of
Sudan, but the British government refused to support a former slaver.
During this time in Khartoum, Gordon befriended the Irish journalist
Frank Powers, who was The Times (London) correspondent in the Sudan.
Powers was delighted that the charismatic Gordon had no anti-Catholic
prejudices and treated him as an equal. The hero-worshiping
Powers wrote about Gordon: "He is indeed I believe the greatest man of
this century". Gordon granted Powers privileged access and in
return Powers started to write a series of popular articles for The
Times depicting Gordon as the solitary hero taking on a vast horde of
Gordon made all of his personal dispatches to
London public (there was
no Official Secrets Act at the time) in attempts to win public opinion
over to his policy, writing on one dispatch: "Not secret as far as I
am concerned". At one point, Gordon suggested in a telegram to
Gladstone that the notoriously corrupt
Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid II
could be bribed into sending 3,000 Ottoman troops for the relief of
Khartoum and if the British government was unwilling and/or unable to
pay that amount, he was certain that either
Pope Leo XIII
Pope Leo XIII or a group
of American millionaires would be.
The advance of the rebels against
Khartoum was combined with a revolt
in the eastern Sudan.
Valentine Baker led an Egyptian force
out of Suakin and was badly defeated by 1,000 Haddendowa warriors who
declared their loyalty to the
Osman Digna at Al-Teb with
2,225 Egyptian soldiers and 96 officers killed. Because the
Egyptian troops at Suakin were repeatedly defeated, a British force
was sent to Suakin under General Sir Gerald Graham, which drove the
rebels away in several hard-fought actions. At Tamai on 13 March 1884,
Graham was attacked by the Haddendowa (whom the British disparagingly
called "Fuzzy Wuzzies") whom he defeated, but in the course of the
battle, the Haddendowa broke the
Black Watch square, an action later
celebrated in the Kipling poem "Fuzzy-Wuzzy".
The ferocity of the Haddendowa attacks astonished the British, and
Graham argued that he needed more troops if he were to advance deeper
Sudan while one newspaper correspondent reported that the
average British soldiers did not understand why they were in the Sudan
killing "such brave fellows" for "the sake of the wretched
Egyptians". Gordon urged that the road from Suakin to Berber be
opened, but his request was refused by the government in London, and
in April Graham and his forces were withdrawn and Gordon and the Sudan
were abandoned. The garrison at Berber surrendered in May, and
Khartoum was completely isolated.
Gordon decided to stay and hold
Khartoum despite the orders of the
Gladstone government to merely report about the best means of
supervising the evacuation of the Sudan. Powers who acted as
Gordon's unofficial press attaché wrote in The Times: "We are daily
expecting British troops. We cannot bring ourselves to believe that we
are to be abandoned". In his diary, Gordon wrote: "I own to
having been very insubordinate to Her Majesty's Government and its
officials, but it is my nature, and I cannot help it. I fear I have
not even tried to play battledore and shuttlecock with them. I know if
I was chief I would never employ myself for I am incorrigible".
Because of public opinion, the government dared not sack Gordon, but
the Cabinet was extremely angry about Gordon's insubordination, with
many privately saying Gordon if wanted to defy orders by holding
Khartoum, then he only deserved what he was going to get.
Gladstone himself took Gordon's attacks on his
Sudan policy very
personally. One Cabinet minister wrote: "The
and the Tories clamor for an expedition to Khartoum, the former from
ignorance, the latter because it is the best model of embarrassing
us...Of course it is not an impossible undertaking, but it is
melancholy to think of the waste of lives and the treasure which it
must involve". The Cabinet itself was divided and confused about
just what to do about the
Sudan crisis, leading to a highly
dysfunctional style of decision-making.
10 piastre promissory note issued and hand-signed by Gen. Gordon
during the Siege of
Khartoum (26 April 1884)
Gordon had a strong death wish, and clearly wanted to die fighting at
Khartoum, writing in a letter to his sister: "I feel so very much
inclined to wish it His will might be my release. Earth's joys grow
very dim, its glories have faded". In his biography of Gordon,
Anthony Nutting wrote Gordon was obsessed with "the ever-present,
constantly repeated desire for martyrdom and for that glorious
immortality in union with God and away from the wretchedness of life
on this earth". Because his Turkish, Egyptian and many of his
Sudanese troops were Muslim, Gordon refrained in public from
describing his battle with the
Mahdi as a religious war, but Gordon's
diary showed he viewed himself as a Christian champion fighting
Mahdi just as much for God as for Queen and country. The
Mahdi and his followers had been fighting a jihad since 1881 and
looked forward to taking on the famous General Gordon as a chance to
win glory for Allah.
Gordon energetically organised the defence of
Khartoum right from the
moment he arrived in Khartoum, using his training as a military
engineer to turn the city into a fortress. Additionally, Gordon
had guns and armoured plating attached to the paddle wheel streamers
Khartoum to create his own private riverine navy that
served as an effective force against the Ansar. The Turkish
Khartoum were not part of the Ottoman Army, but rather
bashi-bazouks, irregulars whom Gordon commented were good for raids,
but useless for battle.
The Shaggyeh (one of the few Arab tribes who did not rally to the
Mahdi) drove Gordon to distraction with Gordon writing in his diary
about them: "Dreadful lot! How I look forward to their
disbandment". Gordon had a low opinion of the Egyptian, Turkish
and Arab Sudanese troops under his command-whom he constantly
disparaged as a mutinous, badly disciplined and ill-trained rabble
good only for looting – but had a much higher opinion of his black
Sudanese soldiers, most of them former slaves who would rather die
fighting as free men than live as slaves again; it was well known that
the Mahdi's forces were going to enslave the blacks of
they took the city. The black Sudanese troops, many from what is
now South Sudan, proved to be Gordon's best troops at
numbered about twenty-three hundred.
The siege of Khartoum
A siege of
Khartoum by the Mahdist forces commanded by the Mahdi
himself started on 18 March 1884. Initially, the siege of
more in nature a blockade rather than a true siege as the Mahdi's
forces lacked the strength to wage a proper siege, for example only
cutting the telegraphy lines in April 1884. The British had
decided to abandon the Sudan, but it was clear that Gordon had other
plans, and the public increasingly called for a relief expedition.
Gordon's last telegrams were clearly meant for the British public with
one message addressed to Baring reading: "You state your intention of
not sending any relief force up here to Berber...I shall hold on here
as long as I can, and if I can suppress the rebellion, I shall do so.
If I cannot, I shall retire to the Equator and leave you with the
indelible disgrace of abandoning the garrisons".
Gladstone was opposed to hanging onto the Sudan, saying in a speech in
the House of Commons that sending a relief force to
Khartoum would be
"a war of conquest against a people struggling to be free. Yes, these
are people struggling to be free and rightly struggling to be
Khartoum was surrounded by the Ansar in March 1884, but
was not cut off from the outside world for a considerable time
afterwards. Gordon's armoured steamers continued to sail in and
Khartoum with little difficulty for the first six months of the
siege, and it was not until September 1884 that the armoured steamers
first had trouble reaching the city.
Gordon had a low opinion of his enemy, writing that the Ansar
besieging him were "some 500 determined men and some 2,000 rag-tag
Arabs". Nutting wrote that Gordon "could have withdrawn at almost
any moment between March and May" if only he had been willing.
The American historian James Perry wrote: "But instead of following
instructions, he stayed put, longing for martyrdom. It wasn't exactly
fair to the Egyptian garrisons he had been sent to evacuate; they had
no death wish". On 25 July 1884, the Cabinet over the objections
of the Prime Minister voted to send a relief expedition to
Khartoum. On 5 August 1884, the House of Commons voted to send
the relief force with a budget of £300,000.
During this time, Gordon, when he was not organising the besieged
garrison with incredible energy, spent his time writing a somewhat
rambling diary containing his reflections on the siege, life, fate and
his own intense, idiosyncratic version of Protestantism. Gordon
waged a very vigorous defence, sending out his armoured steamers to
shoot up the Ansar camps along the Blue
Nile while he regularly made
raids on the besiegers that often gave the Madhi's forces a bloody
nose. Elated by these successes, Gordon wrote in his diary: "We
are going to hold out here forever".
To keep up morale, Gordon had a military band perform concerts in the
central plaza every Friday and Sunday evenings for free, and cast his
own decorations for his men. Though the telegraph lines to Cairo
were cut, Gordon used the remaining telegraph lines to build his own
telegraph network within
Khartoum linking the men holding the walls of
Khartoum to Governor-General's palace, thus keeping him well informed
of what was happening. To slow down the Ansar assaults, Gordon
built primitive landmines out of water cans stuffed with dynamite and
to confuse the enemy about his numbers, he put up wooden dummies in
uniform along the walls of
Khartoum facing the Blue Nile.
It was not until August 1884 that the government decided to take steps
to relieve Gordon, with the British relief force, called the Nile
Expedition, or, more popularly, the
Khartoum Relief Expedition or
Gordon Relief Expedition (a title that Gordon strongly deprecated).
The relief force, under the command of Gordon's old friend Field
Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley, was not ready until November 1884.
Wolseley had earlier served in Canada where he had commanded the Red
River expedition of 1870, during which time he gained considerable
respect for the skills of French-Canadian voyageurs, and now insisted
he could not travel up the
Nile without the voyageurs to assist his
men as river pilots and boatmen.
It took considerable time to hire the voyageurs in Canada and bring
them to Egypt, which delayed the expedition. Some of the
"voyageurs" who arrived in
Egypt turned out to be lawyers led by an
alderman from Toronto who wanted to see "the fun" of war and were
useless as boatmen. Wolseley was a bureaucratic general whose
talents lay in administrative work, and as a field commander, Wolseley
was slow, methodical, and cautious, making him in the opinion of Urban
supremely unqualified to lead the relief expedition as he found one
excuse after another to proceed down the
Nile at a sluggish pace.
For example, Wolseley could have hired Egyptian boatmen who knew the
Nile to serve as river pilots instead of bringing over voyageurs from
Canada, who knew nothing of the Nile, and moreover Wolseley only
called for the voyageurs after his arrival in Egypt.
On the brink
On 4 September 1884, Gordon's fortunes took a turn for the worse when
the most able of his subordinates Mohammed Aly together with about 1,
000 of Gordon's best troops were killed in an ambush, while conducting
a raid. Gordon wrote in his diary that Mohammed Aly had captured
"a lad of 12 or 14 years of age, and the little chap spoke out boldly,
and said he believed Mohamed Ahmed was the
Mahdi and that we were
dogs. He was shot! Before I heard of our defeat I heard of this, and I
thought, 'THAT will not pass unavenged'."
On 9 September 1884, an armoured steamer, the Abbas on its way to
Cairo was captured by the Ansar for the first time and all aboard were
killed. Amongst the dead were Gordon's unofficial spokesman, the
passionate wordsmith and Times journalist Frank Powers, Gordon's Chief
Colonel Stewart and the French consul in
Khartoum Herbin, all
of whom Gordon was sending to
Cairo to plead for relief.
Gordon received a letter from the
Mahdi taunting him over the murders
of his friends Powers and Stewart, warning that he would be next if he
did not surrender. Bitterly Gordon wrote in his diary: "It is
impossible to have any more words with Mohammed Achmed, only
Amongst the papers captured on the Abbas was the cipher key Gordon
used to code his messages in and out of Khartoum, which meant he could
no longer read the messages he received, leading him to write in his
diary: "I think cipher-messages are in some countries, like this, a
mistake". During this period, Gordon was lionised by the British
press, which portrayed him as a latter-day Christian "knight", a
"crusader" and a "saint", a man of pure good, heroically battling the
Mahdi, who was depicted as a man of pure evil. The Pall Mall
Gazette in a front page leader wrote that Gordon stood "out in clear
relief against the Eastern sky. Alone in a black continent, dauntless
and unfaltering, he discharges his great trust, holding the capital of
Sudan against the beleaguering hordes". The defences Gordon
had built with lines of earthwork, mines, and barbed wire presented
the Ansar with much difficulty and their attempts to storm Khartoum
failed, but the Ansar made good use of their Krupp artillery to
gradually batter down the defences. To counter Gordon's armoured
Mahdi built a series of forts along the
with Krupp guns that over time proceeded to make it almost impossible
for Gordon's navy to operate.
A cartoon of Charles Gordon greeting reinforcements at
1885. Published before Gordon's death was known.
By the end of 1884, both the garrison and the population of Khartoum
were starving to death; there were no horses, donkeys, cats, or dogs
Khartoum as the people had eaten all of them. Gordon told
the civilians of
Khartoum that anyone who wished to leave, even to
join the Mahdi's army were free to do so. About half of the
population took up his offer to promptly leave the city. A note
written by Gordon and dated December 14 was sent out by a messenger
Khartoum who reached Wolseley's army on 30 December 1884.
The note read "
Khartoum all right. Can hold out for years. C.G.
Gordon", but the messenger (who knew very little English) had
memorised another, darker message from Gordon, namely: "We want you to
come quickly". In the same month, Gordon received a letter
Mahdi offering safe passage out of Khartoum: "We have written
to you to go back to your country...I repeat to you the words of
Allah, Do not destroy yourself. Allah Himself is merciful to
Gordon and the
Mahdi never met, but the two men, both charismatic and
intensely religious soldiers who saw themselves as fighting for God
had developed a grudging mutual respect. However, Faught wrote
that there was a fundamental difference between Gordon and the Mahdi
In that Gordon never tried to convert the Muslims of the
Christianity whereas the
Mahdi was an "Islamic extremist" who believed
he would establish a worldwide caliphate, looking forward to the day
when he would "see the world bow before him".
During November–December 1884, Gordon's diary showed the stressful
effects of the siege, as he was in a state of mental exhaustion, a man
on the brink of madness. In his final months Gordon oscillated
between a longing for martyrdom and death versus an intense horror at
the prospect of his own demise as the hour of his destruction rapidly
approached. Even if the relief force had reached him, it is not
clear if he would have left Khartoum, as Gordon wrote in his diary:
"If any emissary or letter comes up here ordering me to come down I
WILL NOT OBEY IT, BUT WILL STAY HERE, AND FALL WITH THE TOWN!"
At another point, a death-obsessed Gordon wrote in his diary: "Better
a bullet to the brain than to flicker out unheeded". In a letter
Cairo in December, Gordon wrote: "Farewell. You will
never hear from me again. I fear that there will be treachery in the
garrison, and all will be over by Christmas." On 14 December
1884, Gordon wrote the last entry in his diary, which read: "Now MARK
THIS, if the Expeditionary Force and I ask for no more than two
hundred men, does not come in ten days, the town may fall; and I have
done my best for the honour of our country. Goodbye, C. G.
Gordon". A chain-smoking Gordon constantly paced the roof of his
palace during the day, looking vainly for smoke on the
that the steamers were coming, while spending much of the rest of his
time in prayer.
On 5 January 1885, the Ansar took the fort at Omdurman, which allowed
them to use their Krupp artillery to bring down enfilading fire on the
defences of Khartoum. In one of the last letters Gordon had
smuggled out, he wrote: "I expect Her Majesty's Government are in a
precious rage with me for holding out, and so forcing their
hands". In his last weeks, those who knew Gordon described him as
a chain-smoking, rage-filled, desperate man wearing a shabby uniform
who spent hours talking to a mouse that he shared his office with when
he was not attacking his Sudanese servants with his rattan cane during
one of his rages.
A particular aspect of Gordon's personality that stood out was his
death wish as everyone who knew him was convinced that he wanted to
die. When a Lebanese merchant visited Gordon in the evening, the
Ansar began an artillery bombardment, leading the frightened merchant
to suggest that perhaps Gordon ought to dim the lights to avoid
drawing enemy fire down on the palace. The merchant recalled
Gordon's response: "He called up the guard and gave the orders to
shoot me if I moved" and ordered all of the lamps in the palace to be
lit up as brightly as possible. Gordon defiantly told the
merchant: "Go tell all the people of
Khartoum that Gordon fears
nothing, for God has created him without fear!"
The capture of Khartoum
The relief force consisted of two groups, a "flying column" of
camel-borne troops from Wadi Halfa. The troops reached Korti towards
the end of December, and arrived at Metemma on 20 January 1885. There
they found four gunboats which had been sent north by Gordon four
months earlier, and prepared them for the trip back up the Nile. On 18
January 1885, the advance guard of Wolseley's force under Herbert
Stewart defeated the Ansar force sent to stop the relief force at the
Battle of Abu Klea. When the news of the defeat reached Ansar
besieging Khartoum, terrible cries of lamentation aroused from the
besieging force, which led Gordon to guess that the Ansar had been
defeated in battle and that Wolseley must be close.
On 24 January two of the steamers, carrying 20 soldiers of the Sussex
Regiment wearing red tunics to clearly identify them as British, were
sent on a reconnaissance mission to Khartoum, with orders from
Wolseley not to attempt to rescue Gordon or bring him ammunition or
food. On the evening of 24 January 1885, the
Mahdi met with his
generals whose leading spokesman was his uncle Muhammad Abd al-Karim,
who told him that, with the
Nile low and Wolseley close, it was time
to either storm
Khartoum or retreat. As dawn broke on the morning
of 26 January 1885, the Ansar regiments led by their riflemen and
followed by their spearmen marched out of their camps under their
The Ansar began their final attack by storming the city via the gap in
the defence caused by the low
Nile and after an hour's fighting, the
starving defenders had abandoned the fight and the city was
theirs. The Ansar took no prisoners and all of the approximately
7,000 defenders were killed. On arriving at
Khartoum on 28
January, the relief force found that the city had been captured and
Gordon had been killed just two days before, coincidentally, two days
before his 52nd birthday. Under heavy fire from Ansar warriors on the
bank, the two steamers turned back up river.
The British press criticised the relief force for arriving two days
late, but it was later argued that the Mahdi's forces had good
intelligence, and if the camel corps had advanced earlier, the final
Khartoum would also have come earlier. Finally, the boats
sent were not there to relieve Gordon, who was not expected to agree
to abandon the city, and the small force and limited supplies on board
could have offered scant military support for the besieged in any
General Gordon's Last Stand, by George W. Joy.
The manner of Gordon's death is uncertain, but it was romanticised in
a popular painting by
George William Joy
George William Joy – General Gordon's Last
Stand (1893, currently in the Leeds City Art Gallery), and again in
Khartoum (1966) with
Charlton Heston as Gordon. The most
popular account of Gordon's death was that he put on his ceremonial
gold-braided blue uniform of the Governor-General together with the
Pasha's red fez and that he went out unarmed, except with his rattan
cane, to be cut down by the Ansar. This account was very popular
with the British public as it contained much Christian imagery with
Gordon as a Christ-like figure dying passively for the sins of all
Gordon was apparently killed at the Governor-General's palace about an
hour before dawn. The
Mahdi had given strict orders to his three
Khalifas not to kill Gordon. The orders were not obeyed. Gordon's
Sudanese servants later stated that Gordon for once did not go out
armed only with his rattan cane, but also took with him a loaded
revolver and his sword, and died in mortal combat fighting the
Gordon died on the steps of a stairway in the northwestern corner of
the palace, where he and his personal bodyguard, Agha Khalil Orphali,
had been firing at the enemy. Orphali was knocked unconscious and did
not see Gordon die. When he woke up again that afternoon, he found
Gordon's body covered with flies and the head cut off.
A merchant, Bordeini Bey, glimpsed Gordon standing on the palace steps
in a white uniform looking into the darkness. The best evidence
suggests that Gordon went out to confront the enemy, gunned down
several of the Ansar with his revolver and after running out of
bullets, drew his sword only to be shot down.
Reference is made to an 1889 account of the General surrendering his
sword to a senior Mahdist officer, then being struck and subsequently
speared in the side as he rolled down the staircase. Rudolf
Slatin, the Austrian governor of
Darfur who had been taken prisoner by
the Ansar wrote that three soldiers showed him Gordon's head at his
tent before delivering it to the Mahdi. When Gordon's head was
unwrapped at the Mahdi's feet, he ordered the head transfixed between
the branches of 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." His body was desecrated and thrown
down a well.
Gordon's head shown to Slatin.
In the hours following Gordon's death an estimated 10,000 civilians
and members of the garrison were killed in Khartoum. The massacre
was finally halted by orders of the Mahdi. Many of Gordon's papers
were saved and collected by two of his sisters, Helen Clark Gordon,
who married Gordon's medical colleague in China, Dr. Moffit, and Mary,
who married Gerald Henry Blunt. Gordon's papers, as well as some of
his grandfather's (Samuel Enderby III), were accepted by the British
Library around 1937.
The failure to rescue General Gordon's force in
Sudan was a major blow
to Prime Minister Gladstone's popularity. Queen Victoria sent him a
telegram of rebuke which found its way into the press. Victoria's
telegram was not coded as usual which suggests she wanted it to appear
in the press. Critics said Gladstone had neglected military affairs
and had not acted promptly enough to save the besieged Gordon. Critics
inverted his acronym, "G.O.M." (for "Grand Old Man"), to "M.O.G." (for
"Murderer of Gordon"). Gladstone told the Cabinet that the public
cared much about Gordon and nothing about the Sudan, so he ordered
Wolseley home after learning of Gordon's death. Wolseley, who had
been led to believe that his expedition was the initial phase of the
British conquest of the Sudan, was furious, and in a telegram to Queen
Victoria contemptuously called Gladstone "...the tradesman who has
become a politician".
In 1885, Gordon achieved the martyrdom he had been seeking at Khartoum
as the British press portrayed him as a saintly Christian hero and
martyr who had died nobly resisting the Islamic onslaught of the
Mahdi. As late as 1901 on the anniversary of Gordon's death, The
Times wrote in a leader (editorial) that Gordon was "that solitary
figure holding aloft the flag of
England in the face of the dark
hordes of Islam". Gordon's death caused a huge wave of national
grief all over Britain with 13 March 1885 being set aside as a day of
mourning for the "fallen hero of Khartoum". In a sermon, the
Bishop of Chichester
Bishop of Chichester stated: "Nations who envied our greatness
rejoiced now at our weakness and our inability to protect our trusted
servant. Scorn and reproach were cast upon us, and would we plead that
it was undeserved? No; the conscience of the nation felt that a strain
rested upon it".
Baring – who deeply disliked Gordon – wrote that because of the
"national hysteria" caused by Gordon's death, that saying anything
critical about him at present would be equal to questioning
Christianity. Stones were thrown at the windows at 10 Downing
Street as Gladstone was denounced as the "Murderer of Gordon", the
Judas figure who betrayed the Christ figure Gordon. The wave of
mourning was not just confined to Britain. In New York, Paris and
Berlin, pictures of Gordon appeared in shop windows with black lining
as all over the West the fallen general was seen as a Christ-like man
who sacrificed himself resisting the advance of Islam.
Despite the popular demand to "avenge Gordon", the Conservative
government that came into office after the 1885 election did nothing
of the sort. The
Sudan was judged to be not worth the huge financial
costs it would have taken to conquer it, the same conclusion that the
Liberals had reached. After Khartoum, the
Mahdi established his
Islamic state which restored slavery and imposed a very harsh rule
that according to one estimate caused the deaths of 8 million people
between 1885–1898. In 1887, the Emin
Pasha Relief Expedition
Henry Morton Stanley
Henry Morton Stanley sent out to rescue Dr. Emin Pasha, still
holding out in
Equatoria against the Ansar. Many have seen the attempt
to save Emin Pasha, a German doctor-biologist-botanist who had
converted from Judaism first to Lutheranism and then (possibly) to
Islam, and who had not been particularly famous in Europe until then,
as a consolation prize for Gordon.
Egypt had been in the French sphere of influence until 1882 when the
British had occupied Egypt. In March 1896 a French force under the
Jean-Baptiste Marchand left Dakar with the intention of
marching across the Sahara with the aim of destroying the Mahdiyah
state. The French hoped that conquering the
Sudan would allow them to
lever the British out of Egypt, and thus restore
Egypt to the French
sphere of influence.
To block the French, a British force under
Herbert Kitchener was sent
to destroy the Mahdiyah state and annihilated the Ansar at the Battle
of Omdurman in 1898. It was thus imperial rivalry with the French, not
a desire to "avenge Gordon" that led the British to end the Mahdiyah
state in 1898. However the British public and Kitchener himself
saw the expedition as one to "avenge Gordon". As the
Mahdi was long
dead, Kitchener had to content himself with blowing up the Mahdi's
tomb as revenge for Gordon. After the Battle of Omdurman,
Kitchener opened a letter from the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, and
for the first time learned the real purpose of the expedition to keep
the French out of the
Sudan and that "avenging Gordon" was merely a
Gordon Hall near Haihe River in Tianjin, China
Charles George Gordon
Charles George Gordon Statue in Gravesend
Statue in Gordon Reserve, Melbourne, Australia
Statue on the Victoria Embankment, London
News of Gordon's death led to an "unprecedented wave of public grief
across Britain." A memorial service, conducted by the Bishop of
Newcastle, was held at
St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul's Cathedral on 14 March. The Lord
London opened a public subscription to raise funds for a
permanent memorial to Gordon; this eventually materialised as the
Gordon Boys Home, now Gordon's School, in West End, Woking.
Statues were erected in Trafalgar Square, London, in Chatham,
Melbourne (Australia), and Khartoum. Southampton, where
Gordon had stayed with his sister, Augusta, in Rockstone Place before
his departure to the Sudan, erected a memorial in Porter's Mead, now
Queen's Park, near the town's docks. On 16 October 1885, the
"light and elegant structure" was unveiled; it comprises a stone base
on which there are four polished red Aberdeen granite columns, about
twenty feet high. The columns are surmounted by carved capitals
supporting a cross. The pedestal bears the arms of the Gordon clan and
of the borough of Southampton, and also Gordon’s name in Chinese.
Around the base is an inscription referring to Gordon as a soldier,
philanthropist and administrator and mentions those parts of the world
in which he served, closing with a quotation from his last letter to
his sisters: "I am quite happy, thank God! and, like Lawrence, I have
tried to do my duty." The memorial is a Grade II listed
Gordon's memory, as well as his work in supervising the town's
riverside fortifications, is commemorated in Gravesend; the embankment
of the Riverside Leisure Area is known as the Gordon Promenade, while
Khartoum Place lies just to the south. Located in the town centre of
his birthplace of
Woolwich is General Gordon Square, formerly known as
General Gordon Place until a major urban landscaped area was developed
and the road name changed. In addition, one of the first
Ferry vessels was named Gordon in his memory.
In 1888 a statue of Gordon by
Hamo Thornycroft was erected in
Trafalgar Square, London, exactly halfway between the two fountains.
It was removed in 1943. In a House of Commons speech on 5 May 1948,
then opposition leader
Winston Churchill spoke out in favour of the
statue's return to its original location: "Is the right honorable
Gentleman [the Minister of Works] aware that General Gordon was not
only a military commander, who gave his life for his country, but, in
addition, was considered very widely throughout this country as a
model of a Christian hero, and that very many cherished ideals are
associated with his name? Would not the right honorable Gentleman
consider whether this statue [...] might not receive special
consideration [...]? General Gordon was a figure outside and above the
ranks of military and naval commanders." However, in 1953 the statue
minus a large slice of its pedestal was reinstalled on the Victoria
Embankment, in front of the newly built Ministry of Defence main
An identical statue by Thornycroft—but with the pedestal intact—is
located in a small park called Gordon Reserve, near Parliament House
in Melbourne, Australia.
The Corps of Royal Engineers, Gordon's own Corps, commissioned a
statue of Gordon on a camel. It was exhibited at the
Royal Academy in
1890 and then erected in Brompton Barracks, Chatham, the home of the
Royal School of Military Engineering, where it still stands. Much
later a second casting was made. In 1902 it was placed at the junction
of St Martin's Lane and Charing Cross Road in London. In 1904 it was
moved to Khartoum, where it stood at the intersection of Gordon Avenue
and Victoria Avenue, 200 metres south of the new palace that had been
built in 1899. It was removed in 1958, shortly after the
independent. This is the figure which, since April 1959, stands at the
Gordon's School in Woking.
Gordon's Tomb, which was carved by Frederick William Pomeroy, lies in
St Paul's Cathedral, London.
Church Missionary Society
Church Missionary Society (CMS) work in
Sudan was undertaken under
the name of the Gordon Memorial Mission. This was a very evangelical
branch of CMS and was able to start work in
Sudan in 1900 as soon as
Anglo-Egyptian Condominium took control after the fall of Khartoum
in 1899. In 1885 at a meeting in London, £3,000 were allocated to a
Gordon Memorial Mission in Sudan.
In the Presidential Palace in
Khartoum (built in 1899), in the west
wing on the ground floor, there is (or once was) a stone slab against
the wall on the left side of the main corridor when coming from the
main entrance with the text: "
Charles George Gordon
Charles George Gordon died—26 Jan
1885," on the spot where Gordon was killed, at the foot of the stairs
in the old Governor-General's Palace (built around 1850).
Media portrayals and legacy
Charlton Heston played Gordon in the 1966 epic film Khartoum, which
deals with the siege of Khartoum.
Laurence Olivier played Muhammad
Ahmad. The British historian
Alex von Tunzelmann criticised the
film for portraying Gordon and the
Mahdi regularly meeting and as
frères ennemis, though she added it is true Gordon and the
For the six months after the British public learned of Gordon's death,
newspapers and journals published hundreds of articles celebrating
Gordon as a "saint". The American historian Cynthia Behrman wrote
the articles all commented upon "...Gordon's religious faith, his
skill with native peoples, his fearlessness in the face of danger (a
recurrent motif is Gordon's habit of leading his troops into battle
armed with no more than a rattan cane), his honor, his
resourcefulness, his graciousness to subordinates, his impatience with
cant and hypocrisy, his hatred of glory and honors, his dislike of
lionization and social rewards, and on and on. One begins to wonder
whether the man had any faults at all". "The reading public
wanted heroes, it wanted to read about one lone Englishmen sacrificing
himself for glory, honour, God, and the Empire."
Such was the popularity of Gordon that the first critical book by a
British author was not published until 1908, when Baring – by this
time raised to the peerage as
Viscount Cromer – published his
autobiography, which was notable as the first British book to portray
Gordon in an unflattering manner, though Lord Cromer also tried to be
fair and emphasised what he felt were Gordon's positive, as well as
his negative, traits. About the charge that if only Gladstone had
listened to Gordon the disaster would have been avoided, Cromer wrote
that in the course of one month, he received five telegrams from
Gordon offering his advice, each one of which completely contradicted
the previous telegram, leading Cromer to charge that Gordon was too
mercurial a figure to hold command.
As a young man,
Winston Churchill shared in the national consensus
that Gordon was one of Britain's greatest heroes. During a
meeting in 1898 in
Cairo where Churchill interviewed Baring to gather
material for his 1899 book The River War, Baring challenged Churchill
about his belief that Gordon was a hero. After his conversation with
Baring, Churchill wrote: "Of course there is no doubt that Gordon as a
political figure was absolutely hopeless. He was so erratic,
capricious, utterly unreliable, his mood changed so often, his temper
was abominable, he was frequently drunk, and yet with all that he had
a tremendous sense of honour and great abilities".
Many biographies have been written of Gordon, most of them of a highly
hagiographic nature. The British Sinologist Demetrius Charles Boulger
published a biography of Gordon in 1896 which depicted him as a
staunch patriot and a Christian of immense virtue who displayed
superhuman courage in the face of danger. By contrast, Gordon is
one of the four subjects discussed critically in
Eminent Victorians by
Lytton Strachey, one of the first texts about Gordon that portrays
some of his characteristics which Strachey regards as weaknesses.
Notably, Strachey emphasises the claims of
Charles Chaillé-Long that
Gordon was an alcoholic, an accusation dismissed by later writers like
Alan Moorehead and Charles Chenevix Trench.
Strachey, a member of the Leftist
Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals,
depicted Gordon as a ludicrous figure, a bad-tempered, deranged
egomaniac with a nasty habit of punching out Arabs whenever he was
unhappy who led himself into disaster. Even more devastatingly,
Strachey depicted Gordon as a monumental hypocrite, noting the
contrast between Gordon's lofty Christian ideas of love, compassion,
charity, grace and hope vs. a career full of hate, war, carnage, death
and destruction. Strachey ended his essay on Gordon on a cynical
note: "At any rate, it all ended very happily-in a glorious slaughter
of twenty thousand Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire and a
step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring".
Long after his death and despite the popularity of Strachey's essay in
Eminent Victorians, the appeal of the Gordon legend lived on. As late
as 1933, the French historian
Pierre Crabitès wrote in his book
Gordon, le Soudan et l'esclavage (Gordon, the
Sudan and Slavery) that
as a Frenchman the Gordon legend had meant nothing to him when he
began researching his book, but after examining all of the historical
evidence, he could not help but admire Gordon who "died as he lived, a
Christian, a gentleman and a soldier".
In the 20th century, many British military leaders came to have a
critical view of Gordon with Field Marshal
Bernard Montgomery writing
that Gordon was "unfit for independent command, mentally unbalanced, a
fanatic, self-imposed martyr", adding that he should never been sent
Sudan and the Gladstone-Gordon relationship was a case study in
dysfunctional civil-military relations. In 1953, the British
novelist Charles Beatty published a Gordon biography His Country was
the World, A Study of Gordon of Khartoum, which focused on Gordon's
religious faith, but for the first time noted what a tormented figure
Gordon was; a man of deeply felt Christian convictions, full of guilt
and self-loathing over his own sinfulness and inability to live up to
his own impossibly high standards over what a Christian should be and
desperately longing to do something to expiate his sinfulness.
Like Strachey, Beatty found Gordon a ridiculous figure, but unlike
Strachey who had nothing but contempt for Gordon, Beatty's approach
was a compassionate one, arguing that Gordon's many acts of charity
and self-sacrifice were attempts to love others since he was unable to
Another attempt to debunk Gordon was Anthony Nutting's Gordon, Martyr
& Misfit (1966). Nutting's book was noteworthy as the first book
to argue that Gordon had a death wish. Nutting noted that Gordon
had often recklessly exposed himself to Russian fire while fighting in
the Crimea and stated he hoped to die in battle against the Russians
before leaving for the Crimea. On the basis of such statements
and actions, Nutting argued that Gordon's suicidal courage of going
into battle armed only with his rattan cane, which so impressed the
Victorian public reflected darker desires. Nutting made the
controversial claim that the basis of Gordon's death wish was that he
was gay, noting that Gordon never married, is not known to had a
relationship with any women, and often wished that he been born a
eunuch, which strongly suggested that Gordon wished to have no sexual
desires at all.
Nutting contended that the conflict between Gordon's devoutly held
Christian ideals and his sexuality made Gordon deeply ashamed of
himself and he attempted to expiate his wretched, sinful nature by
seeking a glorious death in battle. Behrman wrote that the first
part of Nutting's thesis, that Gordon had a death wish is generally
accepted by historians, but the second part, that Gordon was a
homosexual is still the subject of much debate. In his Mission to
Khartum—The Apotheosis of General Gordon (1969) John Marlowe
portrays Gordon as "a colourful eccentric—a soldier of fortune, a
skilled guerrilla leader, a religious crank, a minor philanthropist, a
gadfly buzzing about on the outskirts of public life" who would have
been no more than a footnote in today's history books, had it not been
for "his mission to
Khartoum and the manner of his death," which were
elevated by the media "into a kind of contemporary Passion Play."
More balanced biographies are Charley Gordon—An Eminent Victorian
Reassessed (1978) by Charles Chenevix Trench and Gordon—the Man
Behind the Legend (1988) by John Pollock. Urban argued that Gordon's
final stand was "significant" because it was "...a perversion of the
democratic process" as he "managed to subvert government policy",
making the beginning of a new era where decision-makers had to
consider the power of media. In Khartoum—The Ultimate Imperial
Adventure (2005), Michael Asher puts Gordon's works in the
Sudan in a
broad context. Asher concludes: "He did not save the country from
invasion or disaster, but among the British heroes of all ages, there
is perhaps no other who stands out so prominently as an individualist,
a man ready to die for his principles. Here was one man among men who
did not do what he was told, but what he believed to be right. In a
world moving inexorably towards conformity, it would be well to
remember Gordon of Khartoum."
In China and Sudan
In the People's Republic of China, the entire period between 1839 and
1949 is depicted as the "Century of Humiliation" – a time when
racist, greedy and evil foreigners humiliated and rapaciously
exploited the Chinese people. Because many aspects of the Taiping
ideology resembled Communism, the Taipings are treated sympathetically
by Chinese historians who portrayed as them as prototypical Communists
Hong Xiuquan being depicted as anticipating Mao. In this context,
Gordon is vilified in China today as just another foreigner oppressing
the Chinese people by crushing the Taiping rebellion. Furthermore,
Gordon worked for the Qing dynasty, who were Manchus, which has led
many Han to see the entire Qing period between 1644 and 1912 as a long
foreign occupation of China.
No monuments to Gordon exist in China today, through the British
journalist Rob Stallard noted that the modest Gordon would have no
doubt wanted it that way. Stallard in a 2008 article argued that
Gordon deserves a better reputation in China, arguing that he was
largely immune to the racist views so common to Westerners in the 19th
century and he always treated the Chinese with respect, maintaining
that the memory of "Chinese Gordon" could be a bridge to better
In Sudan, it is the
Mahdi who is the hero and Gordon who is the
villain. The Canadian historian C. Brad Faught wrote it was "no
coincidence" that the Sudan, a place known as a hotbed of
fundamentalist Islam produced both the
Mahdi and the current regime of
General Omar al-Bashir, which venerates the memory of the
which for a time in the 1990s sheltered Osama bin Laden.
Battle of Omdurman
^ a b Faught p.1
^ Faught p. 2
^ a b "Gordon, Charles George". Dictionary of National Biography. 22:
^ Faught p. 3
^ Faught p. 3-4
^ Faught p. 4-5.
^ a b Faught p. 5.
^ "No. 21336". The
London Gazette. 6 July 1852. p. 1890.
^ "No. 21522". The
London Gazette. 17 February 1854.
^ Hammond, Peter (August 1998). "General Charles Gordon and the Mahdi
Faith Under Fire in the Sudan". Reformation Society. Retrieved
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Judd, Denis. "General Charles
George Gordon". The British Empire. Retrieved 2016-02-29.
^ a b Faught p. 6
Charles George Gordon
Charles George Gordon (1833–1885): A Brief Biography".
Victorianweb.org. 2010-06-09. Retrieved 2016-09-11.
^ Faught p 7-8
^ a b Faught p.11.
^ a b c Faught p. 13
^ a b c Faught p. 14
^ a b Faught p. 16
^ Faught. 2008 p.13
^ "No. 21909". The
London Gazette. 4 August 1856. p. 2705.
^ Trappe page 567.
^ Tappe, E.D pages 567–568.
^ Tappe, E.D. page 567.
^ a b Tappe, E.D page 568.
^ Tappe, E.D. page 569.
^ a b Faught p. 18.
^ Faught p. 19
^ "No. 22246". The
London Gazette. 5 April 1859. p. 1414.
^ Faught p. 19-21.
^ Ch'ing China: The
Taiping Rebellion Archived 11 December 2007 at the
^ a b c Faught p. 25
^ Faught p. 26.
^ "Charles Staveley". Worcester Regiment. Retrieved 5 March
^ a b c Platt, Part II "Order Rising"
^ Cao, Shuji (2001). Zhongguo Renkou Shi [A History of China's
Population]. Shanghai: Fudan Daxue Chubanshe. pp. 455, 509.
^ a b c d e Platt, Ch. 15
^ a b Faught p. 28.
^ a b c Faught p. 29
^ a b c d e f g h i j Stallard, Robert (Summer 2008). "Chinese
Gordon". China Eye. Retrieved 2016-02-23.
^ Farwall 1985 p.107
^ Faught p. 30.
^ a b c d e f g h Urban, 2005 p. 154.
^ Urban, 2005 p. 153.
^ Urban, 2005 p. 154-155.
^ a b c Urban, 2005 p. 155.
^ a b c d e Urban, 2005 p. 156.
^ a b Faught p. 31
^ Faught p. 31-32.
^ Urban, 2005 p. 156-157.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k Urban, 2005 p. 157.
^ a b c d Faught p. 33.
^ Farwall 1985 p.111
^ Urban, 2005 p. 157-158.
^ Pollock, 1993 p. 84–85
^ a b c d e f g Urban, 2005 p. 158.
^ "No. 22820". The
London Gazette. 16 February 1864.
^ "No. 22919". The
London Gazette. 9 December 1864.
^ a b c d Tappe, E.D page 570.
Charles George Gordon
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^ a b c Faught p. 36
^ Faught p. 38
^ a b Urban, 2005 p. 159.
^ Faught p. 39.
^ a b c d e Faught p. 40
^ Mersh, Paul (11 May 2016). "Charles Gordon's Charitable Works: An
Appreciation". The Victorian Web. Retrieved 2016-07-18.
^ Faught p. 40-41
^ Max Jones, "'National Hero and Very Queer Fish': Empire, Sexuality
and the British Remembrance of General Gordon, 1918–72." Twentieth
Century British History (2015) 26#2 pp 175–202
^ Urban, 2005 p. 158-159.
^ Urban p. 158
^ Urban, 2005 p. 158 & 308.
^ Farwell. 1985 p.103 & 114
^ Nutting, 1967 p. 319.
^ Farwell. 1985 p.114
^ a b Faught. p 7.
^ Hammond, Peter (August 1998). "General Charles Gordon and the
Mahdi". Reformation Society. Retrieved 2016-10-09.
^ Mersh, Paul (August 2000). "Did General Charles Gordon Have
Aspergers Syndrome?". The Victorian Web. Retrieved 2016-07-18.
^ Faught p. 41
^ a b Tappe, 1957 p. 571.
^ a b Tappe, 1957 p. 572
^ "No. 23851". The
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^ Goldschmidt & Davidson, p. 188.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k Urban, 2005 p. 163.
^ a b Cleveland & Bunton, p. 95.
^ a b Cleveland & Bunton, p. 97.
^ Goldschmidt & Davidson, p. 189.
^ Karsh & Karsh, p. 45.
^ Karsh & Karsh. p. 45.
^ a b c d e f g h Urban, 2005 p. 164.
^ a b c Perry, 2005 p. 178.
^ a b Farwall p.116
^ a b c d e f g h Urban, 2005 p. 162.
^ Galbraith, John p. 371.
^ a b Faught p. 46.
^ Farwall 1985 p.117-118
^ a b Urban, 2005 p. 162-163.
^ Faught p. 47.
^ a b c d Faught p. 49.
^ a b Faught p. 48.
^ a b c Faught p. 51.
^ Faught p. 48-51.
^ Faught p. 51-52.
Slave trade in the
Sudan in the nineteenth century and its
suppression in the years 1877–80. Archived 3 February 2008 at the
^ Farwell, 1985. p. 118
^ Farwell, 1985. p. 119
^ Galbraith, John p. 375.
^ Galbraith, John p. 376.
^ Galbraith, John p. 377.
^ "Sudan". World Statesmen. Retrieved 5 March 2016.
^ a b c d Perry, 2005 p. 172.
^ Flint, 1977, p. 96-98
^ a b Faught p. 58.
^ a b Faught p. 59.
^ Urban, 2005 p. 161.
^ a b Urban, 2005 p. 161-162.
^ "Egypt". World Statesmen. Retrieved 5 March 2016.
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^ Faught p. 60–61.
^ a b Faught p. 61.
^ MacGregor Hastie, 1985 p. 26
^ Barnes, 1885 p. 1
^ Perry, 2005 p. 172-173.
^ Chenevix Trench, 1978 p. 128
^ Linda Colley, Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Kwarteng – review, The
Guardian, 2 September 2011. Accessed 3 September 2011.
^ a b Farwall p.114
^ a b Galbraith, John p. 380.
^ a b Galbraith, John p. 382.
^ a b Hsu, 1964 p. 147.
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^ Hsu, 1964 p. 166.
^ Faught p. 68.
^ Faught p. 68-69
^ a b c d e f g h Faught p. 69
^ a b c d Galbraith, John p. 384.
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^ a b c Faught p. 71
^ a b Faught p. 72
^ "General Charles "Chinese" Gordon Reveals He is Going to Palestine".
SMF Primary Source Documents. Shapell Manuscript Foundation.
^ a b Urban, 2005 p. 165.
^ Barnhart, 2007 p. 292.
^ Barnhart, 2007 page 292.
^ Faught p. 73
^ Mersh, Paul. "Charles Gordon's Charitable Works: An
^ Ewans, 2002, p. 45
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^ a b Urban, 2005 p. 167.
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^ a b Urban, 2005 p. 168.
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^ a b c Faught, 2008 p. 84.
^ Beresford, p 102–103
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