Major-General Charles George Gordon (28 January 1833–26 January 1885) was better known to the British public at the time of the Mahdi’s revolt as ‘Chinese’ Gordon. The entire premise behind the novel Storm Over Khartoum is the relief of the eponymous city and the rescue of Gordon, and yet – though frequently mentioned – he never appears in the story in person (he does, briefly, in the sequel Avenging Khartoum).
As Winston Churchill wrote in The River War: ‘It is impossible to study any part of Charles Gordon’s career without being drawn to all the rest. As his wild and varied fortunes lead him from Sebastopol to Pekin, from Gravesend to South Africa, from Mauritius to the Sudan, the reader follows fascinated. Every scene is strange, terrible, or dramatic. Yet, remarkable as are the scenes, the actor is the more extraordinary; a type without comparison in modern times and with few likenesses in history. Potentates of many lands…competed to secure his services.’
Born in Woolwich, London, Gordon was educated at Taunton, Somerset and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He was commissioned in 1852 as a subaltern in the Royal Engineers, and his organisational and engineering skills were to remain the core of his military career – he was first assigned to construct fortifications in south Wales. In the Crimean War (1853–56) he served at the siege of Sebastopol and at the war’s end was tasked with surveying and marking the new border between the Russian and Ottoman empires in Bessarabia and Asia Minor. Returning to England in 1858, he made the rank of captain in April 1859.
In the following year Gordon served in China during the Second Opium War (1856–60) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), a widespread civil war led by between the Christian convert Hong Xiuquan (1813–64), who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Chris, and the ruling Qing Dynasty. In May 1862 Gordon’s corps of engineers was assigned to strengthen Shanghai, the European trading enclave, which was threatened by the Taiping insurgents. A year later he became commander of the 3,500-man peasant force raised to defend the city. From that point on, Gordon’s star rose with a string of military successes.
In the space of 18 months Gordon’s Chinese troops cleared the Taipings from all the occupied towns in a 30-mile radius of Shanghai and, promoted to brevet major, in command of the Chinese forces at Songjiang – the ‘Ever Victorious Army’ – he swept through the country seizing towns until, with the aid of Imperial troops, the city of Suzhou was captured in November 1863. In the following year the ‘Ever-Victorious Army’ advanced into the Taiping heartland, capturing Changzhou Fu in May, the Taipings headquarters.
The Quing emperor gave Gordon the rank of titu, one of the highest grades in the Chinese army, decorated him with the Yellow Jacket and made him a viscount. He returned to England in January 1865, where an enthusiastic public had already dubbed him ‘Chinese Gordon’; he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and made a Companion of the Order of Bath.
Gordon spent the next eight years overseeing various military engineering projects in Britain and along the Danube. While passing through Constantinople (Istanbul) on his way to inspect the war graves in the Crimea in 1873, he was offered a post to serve under Khedive Isma’il Pasha by Egypt’s prime minister. He accepted, with the British government’s consent, and went to Cairo in early 1874, as a colonel in the Egyptian army. His skills were required to help the khedive assert Egyptian authority over its southern acquisitions, gradually annexed since the 1820s. Between April 1874 and October 1876 he mapped the upper Nile and established a line of stations along the river as far south as present day Uganda. He was then promoted to governor general, where he asserted his authority, crushing rebellions and suppressing the slave trade.
Over this last he came into conflict with the Egyptian governor of Khartoum and threatened to resign his commission, but the khedive persuaded him to remain by offering him the governorship of the entire Sudan. Gordon accepted. Sallying out from his base at Khartoum, Gordon presided over the suppression of insurrections in the north of Sudan and in Darfur largely resulting from the Arab’s economic crisis as a result of European initiatives against the slave trade. He attempted to garner a peace treaty between Egypt and Abyssinia (Ethiopia) after Isma’il’s disastrous campaigns of conquest there and in 1879 fought again against the slave traders in Darfur. In early 1880, exhausted by the incessant work, he resigned and returned to Europe to recuperate.
But his rest was short-lived as a series of extraordinary offers came his way. King Leopold of Belgium invited him to govern the Congo Free State (which he wisely refused, the Belgian colony was little more than the king’s private money-grubbing operation). A month later the South African Cape Colony wanted him to command the local Cape forces, but instead he went as private secretary to the Marquess of Ripon, Governor-General of India. Shortly after arriving in India he resigned, only to be invited to Peking (Beijing) by Sir Robert Hart, inspector-general of customs in China. There, he used all his diplomatic skills to successfully avert the threat of war between China and Russia.
In April 1881 Gordon went to Mauritius as commanding royal engineer for a year and then on down south as a major-general to settle tribal disputes in Basutoland. A few months later – effectively unemployed – he spent a year in Palestine, tracing the roots of his strongly-held Christian beliefs (he had become an evangelical Christian some 30 years earlier). On his return, Leopold of Belgium had another go at persuading Gordon to go to the Congo, and this time he accepted. But he never got there. It was 1883, and in the Sudan the Mahdi had called the Dervishes to arms in a new holy war. In the north, the Egyptians had their hands full with the Urabi rebellion, and by September the Sudanese position was looking perilous, especially after the wiping out of an Egyptian force under the command of the British officer, Hicks Pasha, near El Obeid. Prime Minister Gladstone had no intention of fighting the Mahdists, but it was essential to evacuate the thousands of Egyptian soldiers, civilian employees, and their families – both Egyptian and European. Gladstone, pressured into doing something, asked Gordon to go to Khartoum and report on the best method of carrying out the withdrawal.
Gordon started for Cairo in January 1884, accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart and arrived at Khartoum on 18 February. Ever the pragmatist, he offered the influential slave-trader Zubehr Rahma, release from prison in exchange for leading troops against the Mahdi. Some accounts suggest that Zubehr was contemptuous of the offer – the two had come up against each other several times, and Gordon had executed his son. But in the event the British government refused to support a former slaver. Gordon began sending the women and children, the sick and wounded to Egypt, and in spite of the difficulties of arranging transport about 2,500 had been removed before the Mahdi’s forces closed in.
The Mahdi’s advance towards Khartoum took place at the same time as Osman Digna’s revolt in the eastern Sudan resulted in the disasters around Suakin, including that of Baker Pasha at El Teb on 4 February 1884. A British force under General Sir Gerald Graham forced the rebels away in hard-fought actions at El Teb and Tamai. Gordon urged that the road from Suakin to Berber be re-opened, but Gladstone refused, and in April Graham’s forces were withdrawn. Gordon and the Sudan were abandoned. The Berber garrison capitulated in May and Khartoum was completely cut off.
The siege of Khartoum began on 18 March 1884. Although he could have left earlier, and even after the enclosure of the city, Gordon stubbornly resisted urgings to evacuate Khartoum. He had faith in his image and the British public pressurising the government into concerted action to save the Sudan. However, it was not until August that Gladstone gave in to increasingly hysterical demands to relieve Khartoum and Gordon, and only by November was the Nile Expedition under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley, ready.
Storm Over Khartoum graphically and accurately describes the expedition’s campaign, split into the River Corps and the ‘flying column’ of Camel Corps which crossed the Bayuda Desert from Korti to Metemma, arriving 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 24 January, two of the steamers started for Khartoum, but on arriving there four days later, they found that the city had been captured and Gordon had been killed two days previously (two days before his 52nd birthday).
To the British public, Charles Gordon was the greatest hero that ever lived, but it took a strange and conflicted man to do what he did.
Winston Churchill again: ‘It was a pity that one, thus gloriously free from the ordinary restraining influences of human society, should have found in his own character so little mental ballast. 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 before the night. The friend he loved today he loathed tomorrow. Scheme after scheme formed in his fertile brain, and jostled confusingly together. All in succession were pressed with enthusiasm. All at times were rejected with disdain. A temperament naturally neurotic had been aggravated by an acquired habit of smoking; and the general carried this to so great an extreme that he was rarely seen without a cigarette. His virtues are famous among men; his daring and resource might turn the tide or war; his energy would have animated a whole people; his achievements are upon record; but it must also be set down that few more uncertain and impracticable forces than Gordon have ever been introduced into administration and diplomacy.'
© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England
Gordon Pasha of Khartoum, wearing the uniform of the Governor-General of the Sudan.
Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali, founded Khartoum in 1821 as an outpost for the Egyptian army. The settlement grew as a regional centre of trade, most especially the Sudanese slave trade. The town was strategically sited at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. When the Mahdist army surrounded Khartoum both rivers were in flood and the town was virtually impregnable to a risky amphibious assault, but as the water levels fell it became increasingly vulnerable. To protect the southern flank, Gordon had a canal dug between the Niles. Ultimately, this proved unable to save the town. At the time, Omdurman on the opposite bank was only a small village, but after the destruction of Khartoum it became the Khalifa's capital and rapidly expanded in area.