Early military career
General Gordon is best remembered for being killed in the defence of Khartoum against the forces of the Mahdi, but he had become a well-known and popular colonial general for his service in China and Africa well before he was sent to organise the evacuation of Khartoum. Gordon was born in Woolwich on January 28, 1833 and entered the Royal Military in Woolwich in 1847. Upon graduation he joined the Royal Engineers in 1852. He served in the Crimean War from January 1855 to the end of the siege of Sebastopol, and then spent two years surveying the borders between Russia and Turkey. In 1860 Gordon was sent to China where he took part in the expedition to force the Emperor to ratify previously agreed treaties. Gordon was part of the British force that occupied Peking and sacked the Summer Palace, regarded as one of the worst crimes of the c19th.
The looting of the Imperial Summer Palace, Peking
1.5 million items were taken from the Summer Palace
The Chinese government today estimates that about 1.5 million items were taken from the Summer Palace. Whilst this figure is speculative, even Elgin emphasised the size of the place and the scale of pillaging, writing: “There was not a room I saw in which half the things had not been taken away or broken in pieces.” Even the Emperor’s dogs were taken, and one given to Victoria, being christened ‘Looty’.
The Summer Palace – Yuan Ming Yuan in Chinese - was built during the 18th and early 19th century. Described by Victor Hugo as a “masterpiece”, a “dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace”, it was where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty lived and handled government affairs, a grand complex of buildings and gardens. The destruction of the palace was regarded by some commentators as revenge by the British for the killing of British negotiators captured by Tartars, however the discovery by Garnet Wolseley of five tortured and murdered envoys happened several weeks after the looting of the palace.
Subsequent to the taking of the palace and the occupation of Peking, Lord Elgin signed the peace treaty with Prince Kung on 24 October. Gordon remained in China and was given command of a force whose task was to subdue a rebellion by the Taipings during the civil war which had been fought between the Taipings and the Manchu led Qing dynasty. Gordon’s force fought thirty three actions against the Taipings, in the process taking numerous walled cities and helping to crush the rebellion. For his efforts Gordon was henceforth nicknamed ‘Chinese Gordon’.
Exploring the area west of the Red Sea
Returning to England Gordon was based at Gravesend. When free of his engineering duties Gordon used his time to visit the poor and sick, teaching waifs and strays. After working on the navigation of the Danube in 1871-2, Gordon was sent to Egypt in 1873 where he was appointed by the Khedive Ismail to explore and open up the vast expanses west of the equatorial Nile. He established a number of ports and established steamers above the last cataract on the Nile as well as opening up Lake Albert to navigation. He made efforts to stamp out slavery in the area but without much support from the Khedive, he had limited success. He returned to England in 1876 but within a year he was appointed governor of Sudan. For the next three years, he explored much of the territory between the Red Sea and the headquarters of the stream that fed into Lake Chad, and from the second cataract of the Nile to the Great Lakes. For much of his time as governor Gordon was ill with fever eventually in 1880 he felt he had to resign. He then made short visits to China and India before settling in Ireland where he worked on a new system of land law. He then volunteered to go to Mauritious to take over another officer’s duties, before travelling on to the Cape Colony where he worked for the colonial authorities. He returned to England at the end of 1882 and then went to Palestine in 1883. On his return to England, Gordon agreed to go to the Belgian Congo and work for King Leopold but before he left for the Congo, the situation in the Sudan became unstable.
The rise of the Mahdi in Sudan
Sudan at the time was regarded as effectively an Egyptian colony and with the defeat of the Egyptian army in 1882 by Wolseley, it became of British interest. Gordon had criticised the involvement of Britain in the administration of Egypt saying it went against the ‘liberty of the people’ and asking ‘What right have we to make ourselves guardians of Egypt with our pauper office makers. The people do not want us.’ Such a view was quite common amongst leading military figures including General Garnet Wolseley and Sir William Butler who said that the comet seen prior to the defeat of the Egyptian army at Tel-el-Kebir was a portent of doom. A year later an Egyptian army led by General Hicks was destroyed in Sudan by forces of the Mahdi, an Islamic leader born Muhammad Ahmad, who had inspired the Sudanese people to rise up against the rule of the Khedive of Egypt and subsequently the British. By the end of 1883, the forces of the Mahdi occupied much of Sudan.
Sent to Sudan
In England Gordon had resigned from the army, and wrote to Wolseley about his pension. The two men met in London at the War Office on 15 January, 1884, but did not discuss the situation in the Sudan. Subsequently though Gordon agreed to go to Suakin in Sudan to assess the situation if asked to do so. Gordon went to Belgium and got the agreement of Leopold to delay Gordon’s work in the Congo. Gordon then met with four members of the cabinet and Wolseley. It was agreed that Gordon would go to Sudan although afterwards those present couldn’t agree on what had been said.
On 18 January 1884 Wolseley, Hartington and the Duke of Cambridge bid goodbye to Gordon as he boarded a train, the first part of his journey to Sudan. Arriving in Alexandria, Egypt, Gordon was persuaded to travel to Cairo by Evelyn Baring, the senior British official in Egypt. In Cairo the nature of the expedition changed. Now Gordon was to be made governor general of Sudan and was to organise an evacuation of Sudan by the British and Egyptian forces before leaving in place a Sudanese administration. Once Gordon had arrived in Khartoum he decided to stay and defend the city and defeat the Mahdi.
Khartoum in the 1880s
Messages from Gordon to the British public were highly emotional and called upon the country to help save Sudan from the forces of evil and darkness. Gordon regarded it as his Christian duty and the country’s duty to save Sudan from Islamic forces but all the time that Gordon remained in Khartoum the Mahdi was consolidating his hold over Sudan. He was concentrating his forces around Khartoum from May 1884 and the British press saw it as a race between the relief force sent, commanded by Wolseley, and the forces of the Mahdi.
Wolseley's expedition to save Gordon
Wolseley’s advance force under Stewart crossed the Bayuda desert in January whilst the main force was travelling slowly down the Nile. Having arrived at the Nile a small force was sent down the Nile aboard three steamers. They arrived off Khartoum on 28 January to find the city had been taken by the Mahdi just two days earlier.
The death of Gordon
What had happened to Gordon? The Mahdi had wanted Gordon captured alive but eye witness accounts given almost forty years later testified that Gordon had been killed whilst fighting. A prisoner taken alive by the Mahdi’s forces, Karl Neufeld described Gordon as displaying superhuman strength whilst fighting. Information along these lines was reported by Wolseley’s intelligence department.
When Wolseley was told the news on 4 February, he was in despair at the death of an old friend. He wrote to his wife, Louisa, ‘Oh my dear child. I am in despair – news has just come in that Khartoum was taken by treachery on 26 January, my steamers reached Khartoum on 28th January just in time to see it occupied by the enemy and have a very heavy fire opened upon them from Mahdi’s batteries – I have telegraphed home for fresh instructions, for now I learn I have no mission left to carry out. I have proposed to concentrate my little army at Debbeh……and there await events. ‘poor Gordon! For his sake I hope he is dead. I should think this blow will kill poor old Gladstone - -he alone is to blame – he would not admit it (Khartoum) was besieged.’
George Joy's 1893 painting of his view of the death of Gordon
Later accounts from those not present claimed that Gordon had stood straight, erect and appearing indifferent to his fate at the top of the stairs leading to the British Residency in Khartoum. This is the version adopted by Sir Reginald Wingate of the intelligence department who realised it was a fitting end for a Christian hero. Wingate hoped that such a martyrdom would inspire the British to take revenge on the Sudan on Gordon’s behalf. This was the version adopted by the British press and later in 1893 in the painting by George Joy. Gordon’s death brought forth huge national grief which was later assuaged when Kitchener defeated a Sudanese army at the Battle of Omdurman.