On January 24, 1885, a high drama of 317 days came to an end in the city of Khartoum. As an army of Islamic militants rushed into the besieged Sudanese capital, British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon dressed himself in his formal uniform and walked out of his apartment in the palace. Finding himself face to face with a group of the armed, rebellious “dervishes,” Gordon reached for his sword, and then reconsidered. With a shrug the 51 year old general accepted his fate at the end of a long, vigorous, and inspired defense of the city.
123 years after this epic confrontation, the world seems to have forgotten Gordon, ignorant of the road that took him from Britain to the Sahara. This is unfortunate, not only because the man deserves better, but also because the world deserves better. With violent oppression in Darfur, insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unrest throughout the Middle East, the importance of Gordon’s example, dedication, and principle is as great as ever.
Charles Gordon, according to Denis Boyles’ African Lives, “was an extremely charismatic figure of profound piety, spartan simplicity, military genius, and mystical courage.” Although he won a French Legion of Honor medal in the Crimea, he first made a name for himself in China, suppressing the Taiping rebels outside of Shanghai on behalf of European merchants and the Chinese government. The assault on the fortified, Taiping-held town of Taitsan was a moment of typical dash and courage for Gordon. Charles Trench, a biographer of Gordon, relates the actions of the young officer: “It was Gordon’s first experience of leading a storming party, which he did in a highly individual style. Smoking a cigar, carrying only his ‘Wand of Victory,’ he strolled coolly forward.” Decorated by the emperor with the title of mandarin after his successful campaign, he returned home to other assignments.
The life of Gordon would first intertwine with the history of the Sudan when he accepted the Egyptian khedive’s offer of the governorship of Equitoria, the southernmost province of the Sudan. Egypt exercised control over the Sudan at the time, but this power was highly nominal in the case of Equitoria. Explorer Samuel Baker claimed to have secured Egyptian rule in Equitoria, but it was nevertheless an ungovernably vast territory of antagonistic tribes and rampant slaving. A handful of sorry military posts constituted the government’s presence there.
As the governor of Equitoria, and later as the governor of the Sudan, Gordon brought an incredible amount of energy to bear. Accepting only a fifth of his offered salary, Chinese Gordon set to work as governor of Equitoria. He produced reliable maps of the upper Nile, set up a series of garrisons, confronted the slave trade, ingratiated himself with local residents, and promoted commerce. After returning home for a few months to the much-dreaded dinner parties of British life, Gordon was named governor-general of the entire Sudan by the khedive in Cairo. Fighting corruption and poor governance, he fired crooked Egyptian officials and appointed Sudanese and Europeans. “He abolished flogging and slavery, class privileges, and army corruption and brutality,” writes Boyles. “He sat listening to endless petitions and dispensed justice…He ricocheted around the Sudan settling boundary disputes, receiving complaints, relieving taxes, making administrative reforms, chasing slave caravans, and supervising the construction of a telegraph line.” In light of Gordon’s style of governance, the Sudanese “loved him.”
Though Trench is more cautious about assessing Gordon’s popularity, he mentions a couple of telling anecdotes. Gordon’s sensitivity to local culture is revealed when Trench discusses Gordon’s entry into the town of Dara in Darfur. The governor-general found that his garrison had enlisted the use of a mosque as a munitions depot in response to a rebellion in the area. Gordon’s reaction was energetic, as always: “Iniquitous!…Gordon cleansed the mosque, endowed a muezzin, and restored it for worship…He had a respect for Islam.” As a result of Gordon’s special connection with the Sudan, his memory was preserved there even into the 20th century: “When, as part of the [Sudanese] Independence celebrations in 1953, the statues of Kitchener and Gordon were triumphantly overthrown, the slighting of the former passed without comment, but the slighting of Gordon’s memory was widely resented by the older people of Khartoum.”
Gordon returned to Europe in 1879. While he was on various assignments and personal quests in India, China, Ireland, Mauritius, South Africa, and Palestine, the situation in the Sudan deteriorated considerably. Gordon’s replacement as governor-general was an Egyptian “whom Gordon had twice dismissed for corruption, incompetence, and cruelty,” in Boyles’ words. “Inevitably, a Muslim revolt broke out, led by Muhammad Ahmad, a Shi’a fanatic who claimed to be the Mahdi, the promised Prophet, and threatened to consume both British and Egyptian interests in the Sudan.” Egyptian armies under British officers William Hicks and Valentine Baker were subsequently defeated by the self-proclaimed Mahdi’s Ansar, or army. By 1884, the situation was untenable for Egypt; it became Anglo-Egyptian policy to evacuate the Sudan of the Egyptian garrisons in the face of the Ansar. With the British press clamoring for Chinese Gordon to be sent back to right the situation, the general returned to the desert. He was reappointed governor-general by the khedive, although this time his mission was to bring the Egyptians out.
The rest of the story can be seen (albeit with the usual Hollywood embellishments) in the Charlton Heston film Khartoum. Before Gordon could transport the Egyptians up the Nile, the city of Khartoum was surrounded and eventually besieged. Links to the outside world over land, water, and telegraph were cut. Gordon might have attempted to sneak out of the doomed city, his mission of evacuation being no longer feasible. However, his loyalty to his Egyptian troops and Sudanese civilians (those who had not defected to the Mahdi) negated this possibility. In his journal, he wrote that if he were to receive an order to personally leave the city, “I WILL NOT OBEY IT, BUT WILL STAY HERE, AND FALL WITH THE TOWN.” Meanwhile, the British public, in a state of hysteria over Chinese Gordon’s predicament, forced Prime Minister Gladstone to send a force to the Sudan to save Gordon. However, due to various delays—logistical and political—the relief troops under Sir Garnet Wolseley arrived at Khartoum on the 26th of January. They were two days behind History.
But History, as the saying goes, repeats itself. The United States and our allies find ourselves, as Gordon did, in a struggle against Islamic fanaticism. (Indeed, the particular strand of Mahdist extremism embodied by Muhammad Ahmed is alive and well in the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.) Not surprisingly, there are critical lessons to be drawn from Gordon’s curtailed life. Foremost among these is the necessity to soldier-administrators of a detail-oriented, hearts-and-minds approach.
Although ours is thankfully not the work of empire, our officers in Iraq often find themselves in such roles, which are at once political and military in nature. Fortunately, whether they are familiar with the legacy of Gordon or not, America’s commanders appear to be heeding his example. A September letter from a lieutenant-colonel in Iraq to journalist Michael Yon reveals Gordon’s spirit in action: “The personal relationships built by the Troopers of [US Army unit] with individuals on the streets here is the key…We are there every hour of every day and do our best to change the conditions on the ground that allow an insurgency to flourish…I cannot walk the streets without children asking me for a soccer ball and [candy] and adults asking for a micro grant application or for the status of the one they already filled out.”
So it is that the spirit of General Charles Gordon is alive even as his exploits recede another year into the murky, forgotten past. Let us hope, though, that our modern-day Gordons are not made subject to the same political diffidence and geopolitical clumsiness that left the general to his fate 123 years ago.