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The Death of General Gordon, Episode 64 - 11/05/06


The death of General Gordon, 1885. (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

The death of General Gordon, 1885.
(Getty Images)
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The British were in Egypt and therefore Sudan, because with their rivals France they had tried to control the Nile, its delta, the cotton crops and the surrounding territories. Egypt was so broke that it had IOUs scattered through the banks of Europe. The French and British were consequently owed millions.

The defeat of the 1882 rebellion against Anglo-French occupation and influence did not secure Egypt and Sudan for the British. The rebellion's leader, Muhammad Ahmad, or The Mahdi, founded the Mahdiya, the Brotherhood in Islam and his troops were well drilled and commanded. One British led force attempted to put down the Mahdi and was annihilated.

Gladstone's government was inclined to get out of Sudan and leave The Mahdi to establish his theocratic state at Khartoum. Eventually he did at Omdurman. General Gordon, was the focus of a growing but misguided public lobby, which said he was the man to mastermind any withdrawal. But Gordon decided to stay and fight the Mahdi. Soon it was clear he needed rescuing.

At first, Gladstone and his foreign Secretary, Granville wouldn't send any expedition. And when the Opposition, maybe following public opinion, asked Gladstone to explain why he wouldn't send a rescue force, Gladstone told Parliament there was no need. "It may be the opinion of the Hon. Gentlemen opposite that General Gordon is in imminent danger. In our view that is an entirely erroneous opinion".

Gordon had been besieged in the Sudanese capital for ten months during a jihad led by The Mahdi. A relief force was eventually sent but arrived two days after Gordon was dead. Queen Victoria observed that it had "all seemed unnecessary". In death Gordon became a heroic figure to rival Nelson.

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Historical Figure

General Gordon (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

General Gordon
(Getty Images)
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General Charles George Gordon, 1833 - 1885

Charles George. Born in Woolwich and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1852. Served in the 1854-56 Crimea War. 1860 in China, he took part in the capture of Peking and the humbling of the mandarins with the destruction of the Summer Palace. He then led loyal Chinese against the Taiping Rebellion (1863-64) so earning his name "Chinese" Gordon and a reputation as one of Britain's foremost generals. Sometimes eccentric, fond of drink, Gordon thought the Seychelles hid the Garden of Eden. Between 1865 and 1871 he was based in Kent and did memorable work among poor children. 1874-76 was governor of the equatorial provinces of Sudan but left because he failed to stop slave trading.

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Did You Know...

When the Mahdi force attacked at Abu Klea, the British were decimated. The action was the inspiration for Sir Henry Newbolt's Vitaï Lampada, which includes the lines:

'The sand of the desert is sodden red,
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks, "Play up! Play up! And play the game!"'

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Contemporary Sources

Crisis What Crisis?
Gladstone's view expressed in the Commons

"The general effect being that Gordon is hemmed in - that is to say, that there are bodies of hostile troops in this neighbourhood, forming more or less a chain around it. I draw a distinction between that and a town being surrounded. It may be the opinion of the honourable Gentlemen opposite that General Gordon is in imminent danger. In our view that is an entirely erroneous opinion."

A Relief Expedition
General Gordon furious at the thought that he needed rescuing.

"I altogether decline the imputation that the expedition has come to relieve me. It has come to save our national honour. In extricating the garrisons, etcetera, from a position which our action in Egypt has placed these garrisons in. I was relief expedition number one. They are relief expedition number two. As for myself I could have made good my retreat at any moment I wished. Now realize what would happen if this first expedition was to bolt and the steamers fell into the hands of the Mahdi; this second relief expedition would be somewhat hampered."

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