Disasters waiting to happen: General Gordon

Disasters waiting to happen: General Gordon


Gordon meets his end at Khartoum / dailymail.co.uk

Gordon meets his end at Khartoum / dailymail.co.uk

Charles George Gordon was born in 1833. When his father discovered that the boy was wilful, obstinate, brave, selfish and over-fond of himself, he decided to send him to rough schools which would smooth things out a bit. They did not. His qualities seemed to indicate the Army, so to the Army he went.

When the Crimean War started in 1853 Gordon was already a junior field officer, and he distinguished himself at Sebastopol for being brave, wilful, obstinate etc. Later he took part in the second Opium War, and was present at the occupation of Pekin (we must learn to say Beijing) in 1860. As Gordon was annoyed with the ancient Empress of China, who had shown no interest in the murder of European missionaries, and less in the assassination of the German consul, and whose ministers had orchestrated the two opium wars anyway, Gordon decided to burn the Summer Palace to the ground, which he did. This act did not do either Gordon or Britain much good, and was to be remembered by the Chinese.

Oddly enough, in 1862 the Chinese had partially forgiven Gordon, and put him in charge of the ‘Ever-Victorious Army’. Despite having only 3500 men, Gordon led his ever-victorious troops, helping the Quing Dynasty to quell the Taiping Rebellion. By now a general, he became known in Europe as ‘Chinese Gordon’ after these exploits.

Asked to come to Egypt by the Khedive in 1873, Gordon went ‘to open the Upper Nile to commerce’. This phrase is open to investigation. Perhaps it meant ‘to clear away pirates and other wrong-doers’. Anyway by 1876 Gordon had set up safe trading posts as far as Lake Albert.

When he discovered that a very great deal of slave dealing occurred in his area, Gordon decided to stop it. Very soon he had suppressed the slave trade and made himself most unpopular with the many ‘civilized’ nations which had been taking part in it.

Then he became Governor-General of the Upper Nile, known as Equatoria, where he stayed until 1879 when he was forty-six. He thought he would return to England and retire, and did in fact sail back home. But he was not retired for long.

A religious leader called the Mahdi rebelled against Egypt’s authorities and bloodily wiped out a force sent against him by the Khedive. ‘Call for Gordon!’ Prime Minister Gladstone (q.v.) withdrew British and Egyptian troops from the Sudan and sent Gordon to supervise the withdrawal. But Gordon was wilful, obstinate etc., and stayed in Khartoum– not the safest place in the world at the best of times.

Though ordered to evacuate and leave, he stayed, arming everyone and preparing for an assault by the screaming followers of the Mahdi. Historians are agreed that his stay was deliberate. Perhaps he wanted to enter History as a Hero. He was certainly brave. He was also wilful, as we know, and thus fond of disobeying orders.


Khartoum inevitably fell, following a long, arduous and spirited defence led by the general himself. The Mahdi’s soldiers found Gordon on a staircase at his residency and killed him with spears. Afterwards they cut off his head. It was 26 January, 1885. Gordon was just fifty-two.

Two days after the disaster at Khartoum a large relief column arrived and mopped up the Mahdi, re-taking the city. General Gordon did not live to see his wish fulfilled; he became a national hero in Britain. Prime Minister Gladstone was naturally blamed for not sending the relief column earlier.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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