Gordon of Khartoum
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Two months after the Phoenix Park murder England was awakened to the existence of complications in another region by the bombardment of Alexandria. During the last decade the debts of the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail, had compelled him to subject the Egyptian finances to the joint control of British and French.
As a practical consequence the dual control was inevitably extended to the Egyptian administration. A nationalist group in Egypt was consequently formed, which aimed at overthrowing the European ascendency through the instrumentality of the Egyptian army controlled by Arabi Pasha.
The group dominated the Khedive Tewfik, Ismail's successor, and captured the ministry. Counter-pressure from Britain and France aggravated the antagonism, and Arabi with the army assumed an attitude so aggressive that the British Admiral Seymour, after inviting the co-operation of the French, which was refused, considered it necessary to open a bombardment and then to occupy Alexandria.
But while Arabi remained in arms nothing more could be done. An expedition was despatched to suppress him, and in September his forces were shattered by Sir Garnet Wolseley at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir. Arabi was taken prisoner and Cairo was occupied.
The British action had destroyed not only the army but the whole system of Egyptian government. Except perhaps in France it was generally recognised that this action had been fully justified. France, by refusing to co-operate, had put herself out of court, and there was no escaping the necessity that Britain should on her own account reorganise the shattered government.
Annexation would have been warranted; a protectorate would have been warranted; but the British Government wanted neither and chose instead to claim a complete immediate control of affairs, in the illusory Expectation that it would be merely temporary. The Khedive's government was restored, but Lord Cromer - at that time Major Evelyn.
Baring was appointed and Consul-General, which meant in effect Dictator, and a British controller was appointed over each department of state - Finance, Public Works, Judiciary, arid Army.
Gordon and the Mahdi
The work of reorganisation went on steadily and efficiently. But far to the south in the Egyptian Sudan there arose in 1883 a fanatic calling himself the Mahdi, the appointed successor of Mohammed, who gathered to his standard the wild Mohammedan tribes of the interior.
The British refused to attempt bringing the interior under control; the organisation of efficient government in Egypt proper was work enough. But the Egyptian government despatched an expedition under an English officer, Hicks Pasha, to overthrow the Mahdi, and the expedition was annihilated instead. The British insisted that the' Sudan must be left to take care of itself and that the garrisons there must be withdrawn.
The withdrawal of the garrisons was a task of extreme difficulty. To carry it out the British Government appointed the one man who might be able to accomplish it successfully, General Charles George Gordon.
Gordon, a Puritan and a mystic, was one of those men who seemed to accomplish impossible ends by methods impossible to any one else. The one way of dealing with such a man is to accept the whole enormous risk of leaving him an absolutely free hand. Gordon went to the Sudan knowing that he had not an absolutely free hand; that he would be supported up to a certain point, but not beyond.
When he got to the Sudan he acted on the assumption that he would be supported at all costs, and proceeded to carry out plans which to the authorities appeared to be madness. They refused the support, which he demanded. The result was that in March 1884 he found himself shut up in Khartum, although a threatened invasion of Egypt proper by the Mahdi was broken by a force under General Graham at El-teb.
But it was not possible to leave Gordon to his fate at Khartum, although it had been definitely understood that no military expedition was to be sent to the Sudan. An expedition to rescue Gordon was necessary. Yet the home authorities failed to realise the urgency of the situation.
Valuable time was lost over differences as to the form which the expedition should take. It was not until September, when Gordon had already been locked up for six months, that Lord Wolseley sailed for Egypt. Then the arrangements for an advance up the Nile were proceeded with vigorously.
Even until the last moment it was believed that the relief would be effected. But in fact Khartum was hardly defensible. When the Mahdi appreciated that the British force was actually close at hand he rushed the place, and Gordon was killed two days before the arrival of the British on January 28th.
So perished the heroic soldier whose marvellous personality had at last, at the very end of his career, suddenly impressed the imaginations of the British people with an enthusiastic admiration rarely paralleled. His death dealt an irremediable blow to the Government whose blundering failure to rescue him was felt as a shameful betrayal.
But there was nothing more to be done. The reconquest of the Sudan was not to be thought of. The expedition fell back. Years of patient and persistent organisation were needed before the times were ripe for a conquering advance upon Khartum.
In the years between 1881 and 1884, during the period of the Egyptian troubles, attention was temporarily attracted to India by a somewhat ill-advised attempt on the part of the Viceroy Lord Ripon to carry out an administrative reform extending the jurisdiction of native magistrates over European residents.
A storm of indignation was raised amongst the British in India, easily understood by any one who grasped the conditions of European rule there, but unintelligible on the hypothesis that there is no reason for recognising any distinction between the white and the brown races.
The affair was unfortunate, because although the measure in the form in which it was finally promulgated did not give rise to grievances it intensified instead of diminishing the racial antagonism which is always latent in the great dependency. In relation to the colonies, the growth in the minds of a few leading men, of a new conception of the unified British Empire, was marked by the birth of the Federation League but he idea had not as yet taken any general hold of the public.
While Lord Rosebery was a lively advocate of the new movement, the official attitude was more nearly akin to that of the Colonial Secretary, Lord Derby, who had joined the Liberal ranks; it seemed to be governed by the assumption that separation was the natural and desirable goal to which all colonies were tending and should be encouraged to tend.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.