Gordon Killed at Khartoum
The 26th of January 1885 AD
For the Victorian public, if not the political and military leaders of the country, General Charles George Gordon was a hero of the Empire, a figure of enormous symbolic if not bodily stature – he was 5’ 5” tall. But the reality of his mission to Khartoum and his death is more complex.
Charles George Gordon had fought in the Crimea, and had particularly made a name for himself in China during the Opium Wars. He had also gained a reputation as a top notch colonial administrator, serving as governor general of Sudan in 1876 among other senior positions. He had trained as a Royal Engineers officer, and been involved in several major civil engineering projects in Britain and overseas, distinguishing himself as an organiser with a will to get things done.
Egypt in the 1880s was a British protectorate, but Sudan as an Egyptian possession was largely left to the Egyptians to rule. When Mohammed Ahmed proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the chosen one who would herald the day of resurrection, the situation in Sudan grew dangerous. The British government decided on a policy of evacuation by the Egyptians to be followed by a waiting game, partly because the Egyptian army had shown itself incapable of defeating the Mahdists. Gordon was chosen to organise the withdrawal, arriving in Khartoum in February 1884.
Rather than organise a retreat from Khartoum, however, Gordon unilaterally decided to defend the Sudanese capital, much to the annoyance of his superiors. He felt that Egypt would be threatened once Sudan had fallen to the rebels.
As is so often the case, from one viewpoint the Mahdists were rebels, from another they were freedom fighters, liberating their country from Egyptian oppression. Gordon in part recognised this, destroying symbols of Egyptian power and abuse on his arrival in the city – items used for torture were smashed for example. Gladstone back in Britain held a similar view, seeing the Mahdists as fighting for their country’s independence.
Morally the situation became more complex still when Gordon attempted to recruit the jailed “slave-king” Sebehr Rahma to lead the Sudanese against the Mahdi. He even legalised slave-trading again in Khartoum on his arrival to gain favour with the Sudanese, much to the disgust of anti-slavery campaigners at home.
Refusing to withdraw from Khartoum in the face of a seemingly unstoppable advance by the Mahdists, Gordon organised the defences of the city, using the Blue and White Niles either side of the place in his defensive lines. He had armoured gunboats made from small paddle steamers. Areas not protected by the rivers were mined and strung with barbed wire. British non-combatants were evacuated to Egypt, along with wounded soldiers. And the Egyptian garrison of 8,000 were prepared for the fight.
The siege began on March 12th 1884, lasting for ten months when the garrison had stores calculated to last six at most. Civilians were dying of hunger in the final weeks of the siege. Gordon was seemingly abandoned to his fate by the British government until public pressure forced it to arrange a relief force, though from the decision to send help, in July 1884, to the arrival of the force in Sudan, in January 1885, does not argue for enormous concern on the part of the politicians.
The city finally fell when the Nile was low enough for the Mahdists to cross on foot, which they did on the night of January 25 1885. It is thought the Mahdists numbered around 50,000, and they surged through the town on January 26 slaughtering the hunger-weakened garrison, killing thousands of civilians and dragging thousands more off to slavery.
Contrary to the Mahdi’s instructions Gordon was killed, speared at the governor’s residence it is said when wearing full uniform and refusing to dignify his enemy by fighting them. His head was cut from his body and set atop a pike for the triumphant Mahdists to see. Just two days later the first troops of the relief column arrived at Khartoum. The Mahdi only outlived Gordon by a matter of months, dying of typhus in June 1885.
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