Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

5
Democracy and Empire
Politics, 1867–1910

In 1882, a charismatic figure calling himself the Mahdi (Messiah in Arabic) raised an army in the Sudan, a vast territory on Egypt’s southern border. The Mahdi led a millennial movement against Western influence in the region that threatened Britain’s tenuous colonial hold over the area. When an army of 11,000 British and Egyptian soldiers could not conquer him, the British government sent war hero General George Gordon to evacuate the 15,000 Westerners in Sudan’s capitol at Khartoum (Hake 1914: 240–249). Gordon, his public profile enhanced by interviews with journalist W.T. Stead, was an avowedly Christian soldier and an avid and aggressive imperialist. He had previously led an army against the Taiping Rebellion in China (1850–1864), built roads through the Sudan, and exerted himself in suppressing the slave trade. He was seen publicly as the best man for the job.

Violence and frustrated diplomacy accompanied the attempted evacuation, and the British government’s failure to send reinforcements put Gordon into a particularly weak military position. While Gordon waited fruitlessly for more men, the Mahdi’s troops besieged Khartoum for over 300 days, with Gordon and about a thousand Egyptian troops inside. Lytton Strachey, writing many years later, described the battle of wills between General Gordon, who courted martyrdom and refused to take any route available to save himself, and Prime Minister William Gladstone, who hesitated to send additional troops because he thought Gordon was exceeding his orders. Gordon wrote in his journal:

I will not leave the Sudan until every one who wants to go down is given the chance to
do so, unless a government is established, which relieves me of the charge; therefore
if any emissary or letter comes up here ordering me to come down, I will not obey
it, but will stay here, and fall with town, and run all risks. (New York Times 1885)

-91-

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