Gordon in the Sudan: Fundamental Errors

"This painful and dramatic end intensifies the dramatic interest of an episode in our history as an Imperial people which has had all the completeness of a Greek tragedy in its exhibition of a remorseless fate and the intensity of human passion and suffering, and with which the name of General Gordon wil be gloriously associated until the end of time"

Thus, grandiloquently enough, spoke the Times on February 12th, 1885, announcing news of Gordon's death in Khartoum. It forbore to add a third tragic element, that of hubris, which a century later may seem the leading motif of Gordon's mission. However the tangled evidence of the Cabinet's intentions may be unscrambled, Gordon was sent - or allowed to go - into the vast, obscure territory of the Sudan because he claimed to understand what was happening there. Whether, or why, he departed from his instructions to expedite evacuation is, in the end, less important than the fact that he was there, a demi-official representative of the British Empire. His presence in Khartoum was a classical instance of that inexorable process by which, against the dogged resistance of economists such as Gladstone, the Imperial presence was sucked by crazy logic into every remote hinterland of every Imperial frontier. His isolation there demonstrated the terrifying ignorance with which the Empire engaged the forces it was brought up against by that process.

Gordon fatally misjudged the nature of the revolution which began in the Sudan in 1881. His notorious telegram of February 26th, 1884, stating that the best course - easier and safer than evacuation - was to 'destroy the Mahdi, simply followed his long-held view of Mahdism as a minor protest movement against Egyptian misrule. It was, he believed, motivated primarily by resentment against reforms, pre-eminently the attempted suppression (by Gordon himself) of the slave trade; secondarily, perhaps, by an inchoate and primitive nationalism. With a kind of progressive rationalism which sat oddly alongside his own deeply religious outlook, he discounted the religious fervour animating Mahdism. His estimate of the movement's strength is most precisely shown in his belief that 200 British and some Indian Moslem troops would cause an 'immediate collapse of the rebellion'.

The catastrophic outcome of this early brush with fundamentalist Islam was satisfyingly avenged - in the British public view - by the wholesale slaughter of the Mahdist Dervishes at the battle of Omdurman in 1899. But the Sudan experience showed patterns that were distressingly recurrent in the Twentieth Century. The awful self-sacrifice of the Dervishes was assisted by their belief that as holy fighters they were invulnerable to bullets. The British noted this superstition with anger or condescension, but seldom penetrated to the core of religious conviction that produced it. Such conviction was invariably characterised as 'fanaticism', and often as 'madness'. For fundamentalist Islam was either mad or criminal.

This uncomfortable conclusion could be avoided by those who extended the explanation hinted at by Gordon, that jihad was a quest for booty. Here at least was a comprehensible (one might say quintessentially English) motive, by which the wider significance of many thorns in the Empire's flesh could be minimised. Thus the fearsome Wahhabis, whose dynamism in the 1920s threatened both the newly-established British Mandates and the newly-regularised King (formerly Imam) of Arabia, were dismissed by Air Marshal Trenchard, who had overall responsibility for security in the Mandates, as 'a few thousand "scallywags" '. A similarly robust view was taken of the Pathan campaigners of the North-West Frontier, Afridis, Mahsuds, Mohmands and Wazirs, and their doughtiest leaders in the last decades of the Raj, the Haji of Turangzai and the Faqir of Ipi. Yet the fact that the Wabhabis spread terror and dissolved settled tribes by systematically killing all males (adults and children) should have made clear that these were more than mere cattle-raiders. The jihad of the Mappillas of Malabar in 1921 involved the forcible mass conversion of Hindus to Islam, a process so destructive, psychologically and socially, as to be almost less merciful than killing. The Mappillas too sacrificed themselves in their masses through belief in their invulnerability, or fierce embracing of death.

Gordon, and even Trenchard, could take comfort from the conviction that such 'medieval barbarism' would steadily succumb to the European civilising mission. This Occidental confidence has taken hard knocks in the last decade. Yet the struggle to impose 'human rights' on, for instance, the Sudan today bears witness to its continued vitality.

By Charles Townshend

General Gordon
Back to Gordon's Biography
Further Reading
Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure
by Michael Asher

Blood-Red Desert Sand: The British Invasions of Egypt and the Sudan 1882-98 (Cassell Military Trade Books)
by Michael Barthorp

General Gordon
by Richard Garrett

Egypt's Africa Empire: Samuel Baker, Charles Gordon and the Creation of Equatoria
by Dr Alice Moore-Harell

The Mahdi of Sudan and the Death of General Gordon
by Fergus Nicoll

Gordon. Martyr and Misfit
by Anthony Nutting

England's Pride - The story of the Gordon Relief Expedition
by Julian Symons

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