Our Abdiel: The British Press and the Lionization of 'Chinese' Gordon

Article excerpt

Press coverage surrounding the 1886 death of Charles 'Chinese' Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan, provides an exemplary instance of the functioning of imperial discourse. Surprisingly, Gordon's lionization as a charismatic imperial leader emerged from lacunae in reporting and as a response to international criticism rather than as justification for his intervention. As British resistance to a fundamentalist uprising in the Sudan weakened and failed, previously diverse representations of British imperial activity became more unified. After his death, Gordon was nostalgically celebrated as an anomalous representative of a heroic imperial past. At the same time, within a generalizable press consensus about the meaning of the events at Khartoum, inchoate critiques of imperial ideology nonetheless emerged.

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While theorists of imperial ideology generally point out its discursive nature, too often analyses of imperial texts overlook the conditions of production that generate visions of racial and national heroism. This article examines factors that contributed to the elevation of Charles "Chinese" Gordon to martyrdom, and it argues that the consolidation of his image was a response to imperial competition and resentment, the empowerment of the press, and economic factors. In this instance Orientalist rhetoric about English superiority did not simply express a national political unconscious. Instead, unified visions of the British mission appeared strategically to fill in gaps in press coverage, in response to the criticisms of foreign antagonists, and as a result of competition in the newspaper and publishing industries.

From late January 1884 through the spring of 1885, the British public consumed a prodigious output of news about the actions and the fate of General Charles "Chinese" Gordon in the Sudan (Brown 133). Gordon's death at the hands of Sudanese rebels enraged an adoring British public, who viewed the general as an archetype of missionary imperialism, of the Englishman willing to sacrifice all for the betterment of the primitive Other. Jan Morris places Gordon among "a diverse succession of visionaries [who] gave [the British empire] a metaphysical dimension" in the late Victorian period (70). The press was full of stories of imperial adventure and conflict, and the spectacle of a virtuous Englishman confronting despotism, fanaticism, and especially the slave trade reassured many members of the British public of the righteousness of the imperial mission. In this context, Gordon was "everything a legend-maker could require," possessed of a "hypnotic ... [and] grand" personality, and whose modesty, ideas about Christian duty, and service to Britain made him an embodiment of the imperial ideal (Morris 73-74). These characteristics made Gordon the darling of newspapers like the Pall Mall Gazette (PMG). Yet even during the height of the siege Gordon claimed to "dwell on the joy of never seeing Great Britain again," and he repeatedly disparaged the press that went to such lengths to celebrate him, as in the following passage: "I think the Press is first-rate, to ventilate articles ... they are most useful" (Gordon 161, 42). Gordon's iconoclasm seems surprising given his near iconic status as an imperial hero. Why, then, would the press lionize a leader disgusted by contemporary Britain and cynical about the press' role in shaping public opinion? The rhetorical elevation of Gordon provides a signature example of the complex representational dynamics of the late Victorian empire.

Gordon's voyage to the Sudan was in fact a return--he had spent several years in the 1870s as Governor-General, during which he had rather ineffectually attempted to curb the Arab slave trade. British interest in Egypt was focused upon the Suez Canal, the quickest passage to the Indian subcontinent. In the Sudan, the slave trade and oppressive tax collection, among other factors, had stimulated enormous resentment among both the Arab and African tribes. …