Chinese Gordon

Charles George Gordon was celebrated as a romantic hero and martyr throughout the British Empire.  He is now usually remembered only for his foolhardy defence of Khartoum against Islamist forces in the Sudan, which ended with his death two days before his 52nd birthday in 1885.  He was a complex character and here we record his earlier exploits in a life full of military action, philanthropic endeavour and intense religious beliefs.

Born into a military family, he trained at the now defunct Royal Woolwich Military Academy and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers.  His bravery and technical competence were admired when he spent long hours in forward positions surveying and mapping the defences of Sevastopol in the Crimean War, during which he was wounded by a Russian sniper’s bullet in 1855.

At the war’s conclusion, Gordon’s surveying skills caused him to be chosen to serve on an international commission which delineated the new border between the Russian and Ottoman empires in Bessarabia.  He was then sent to define the frontier between Ottoman and Russian Armenia, during which time he enjoyed tobogganing down Mount Ararat.   During his time in Anatolia, Gordon also took up the new technology of photography.  He remained a keen amateur photographer throughout his life.

Gordon returned to Britain in late 1858, and became an instructor at Chatham.  Burning for further active service, he achieved a posting to China, but arrived just too late to serve in the Second Opium War.  However, he was present in 1860 at the sacking of the Emperor’s sumptuous Summer Palace, Peking (Beijing), an act of vandalism which left him feeling uneasy.

Charles Gordon was raised to the rank of brevet major in 1862 when he was given command of a multi-national militia raised to defend Shanghai against Taiping rebels, led by a religious maniac who proclaimed himself brother of Jesus Christ.  More people are said to have died in this uprising than any other war in the nineteenth century!  With his blazing blue eyes, Gordon became a semi-mythical figure to the Chinese as he led his men to a series of victories, armed only with his officer’s rattan cane.  His brigade became known to the grateful Qing hierarchy as the Ever Victorious Army, and the local governor regarded him “as a direct blessing from Heaven… a glorious fellow.”

Besides being an outstanding soldier, Gordon was honest, incorruptible and humane. When his men took the important town of Suzhou, Gordon promised that captured rebels and their families would be treated properly, but Imperial forces arrived and massacred them all.  He received a message from the Emperor written in the best calligraphy on fine yellow silk, celebrating Gordon as a great general, with a gift of 10,000 silver coins.  Gordon returned the money, saying he was unable to receive any mark of recognition from the Emperor because of the “the circumstances which occurred since the capture of Soochow”.  His response caused grave offence, but relationships were eventually mended and the Ever Victorious Army continued its advance, culminating in the capture of the principal Taiping military base in the region.

Gordon received a gunshot wound in the thigh before his militia was disbanded in June 1864.  During his time as their leader, the Ever Victorious Army had won thirty-three battles in succession. As a mark of great esteem, the Emperor conferred upon him the Yellow Jacket, the highest imperial award of the Qing dynasty.  Gordon once more refused generous cash rewards for his achievements.

He returned home in 1864 – a hero in the eyes of the British public, which had avidly read newspaper accounts of his bravery, charisma and honesty.  He was thereafter widely known as ‘Chinese’ Gordon.  He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath, but he was distrusted as a maverick with a tendency to disregard authority by his superiors in the British Army, who rewarded the famous warrior with the mundane job of overseeing the reconstruction of forts on the river Thames.

Whilst living in Gravesend, Gordon’s strong Christian belief led him to spend much of his income on care of the poor.  He set up a school in his own house for boys living on the streets, and helped fund education for other poor children at the Gravesend Ragged School.  He took an interest in soup kitchens which provided food for the local destitute population, and regularly gave extra supplies, such as tea and tobacco, to residents of the local workhouse.  He put an end to rivalry among the various charitable providers of different religious denominations, remarking that “The church, like the British Army, is all one, only with different regiments”.  A statue in Gravesend’s Gordon Gardens still commemorates his good works.  Later attempts to discredit his work with young boys has never been supported by any evidence at all.

Although he regarded those as the happiest days of his life, Gordon was always anxious to serve overseas once more. In 1872 he was sent back to the Crimea to inspect the British military cemeteries. Whilst passing through Constantinople, he met the prime minister of Egypt, a semi-independent satrapy of the Ottoman Empire, who persuaded him to enter the service of his master Khedive Isma’il Pasha. With the consent of the British government, Gordon took up the position of governor of Equatoria, a province of the Sudan in 1874. He refused the offer of a £10,000 salary, saying £2,000 was sufficient.

The Khedive was eager to establish an Egyptian Empire in the vast lands through which the river Nile ran from its source in Lake Victoria. Gordon’s main mission was to survey the territory and establish outposts all the way along the White Nile into the Great Lakes region. He was greatly affected by the unhealthy climate, but he formed an affectionate regard for the African people of the area, and made strenuous efforts to suppress the slave trade which was rife in the region. However, this work was undermined by the governor-general of Sudan, who was deeply involved in the slavery business.

After taking leave in England, Gordon returned to Egypt with some reluctance.  He was instituted into Ottoman aristocracy as Gordon Pasha and was promoted to the office of governor-general of the entire Sudan.  He returned with real hopes of destroying the slave trade and sorting out corruption in the Sudan administration.  However, he found himself poorly supported by some of his European colleagues as well as the Egyptian bureaucracy.  His efforts were doomed when Egypt became bankrupt in 1876 and the British banker, Evelyn Baring, was installed as virtual British Commissar in Cairo with instructions to sort out the financial mess.  Baring was unwilling to provide funds for Gordon’s ambitious plans in the Sudan, and Gordon resigned in 1879.  He returned to Britain a broken man, unable to come to terms with his failure to improve the governance of African people in the Sudan.

Fame for his military exploits in China was now augmented by admiration for his anti-slavery efforts in Africa. He counted other celebrities such as Florence Nightingale and Lord Tennyson among his friends, but his character was becoming skewed by almost messianic religious views.  The army could find no useful occupation for such a man, despite his fame and past military achievements, and he was forced to cast around for other employment.  He was not short of offers; King Leopold II of Belgium renewed his request that Gordon should take charge of the Congo Free State, but he was not attracted to taking on that dubious privilege.  He refused an invitation to take command of the militia in the Cape Colony, South Africa, but in 1880 he briefly agreed to act as secretary to the Governor General of India, until he was finally tempted to return to the scene of his earlier triumphs in China, which was on the verge of war with Russia.

He infuriated the War Office in London when he disobeyed orders and sailed to China. He was offered a very senior position in the Chinese army, but soon recommended that China seek a peaceful conclusion to the problems with Russia.  When he also advised the Qing court that it was wrong to treat the Han Chinese majority as something less than human, warning that it risked revolution in the future, Gordon was ordered to leave Beijing.  He removed to Tianjin, where British compatriots commented on his ‘eccentric’ and ‘unbalanced’ behaviour.  He was convinced that everything he did was God’s will.  The Foreign Office, thoroughly alarmed by his behaviour, ordered him to return home on pain of a dishonourable discharge from the army.

He was then given an appointment in the remote colony of Mauritius, 1881-2, during which time he detached the Seychelles from Mauritian control and identified them as the biblical Garden of Eden. On his return he was promoted major general but received no further posting.  Gordon was thus able to indulge his religious faith with a prolonged visit to the Holy Land.  He espoused the idea that instead of the Holy Sepulchre Church, Christ’s tomb was located at a place now known as the Garden Tomb or Gordon’s Golgotha.  On his return to England, Gordon was finally persuaded to accept King Leopold’s renewed request to take charge of the Congo Free State but, in another abrupt change of plan, he was soon embarked for Egypt on a mission to his earlier nemesis, the Sudan.

In 1882, a revolt against Sir Evelyn Baring’s tight financial control had erupted in Egypt.  It was put down by Gordon’s friend Sir Garnet Wolseley.  Thenceforwards, Egypt was a de facto British protectorate, effectively ruled by Baring, the British Agent and Consul General.  He and the British government had little interest in Gordon’s old stamping ground, the Egyptian colony of the Sudan, when an Islamist religious zealot known as the Mahdi raised his black Jihadist flag, and Tawfiq Pasha, the new young Khedive, was permitted to send an Egyptian expedition, commanded by a retired Indian army colonel named William Hicks, to deal with the Mahdist forces in September 1883.  Hicks’s grave doubts about the quality of his Egyptian conscripts were proved correct when he and almost the entire force were destroyed at Al Obeid.  William Gladstone, the British prime minister, decreed that the Sudan should be abandoned and all personnel serving Egypt should be withdrawn.

Gladstone’s policy was upset when Gordon, recognised as an expert on Sudanese affairs, declared in a press interview that what the Mahdi had achieved in the Sudan, the fellaheen would be inspired to attempt in Egypt.  A national clamour arose, unobtrusively supported by Sir Garnet Wolseley, for ‘Chinese’ Gordon to be sent to the Sudan.  In January 1884, the government felt impelled to send him to Egypt to report on the situation and advise on the best means of carrying out the evacuation of Egyptian officials.  Gordon was convinced he must abandon his Congo job and go to the Sudan to “carry out the work of God”.  Gladstone felt he had defused a difficult situation, and the public was pleased that Gordon had been entrusted with a spectacular mission.

The experienced politician should have realised it was not in Chinese Gordon’s nature to follow orders to the letter. Evelyn Baring, having had dealings with Gordon some years earlier, was a shrewder judge of the man. He told London: “A man who habitually consults the Prophet Isaiah when he is in difficulty is not apt to obey anyone else’s orders.” Nevertheless, Baring reluctantly conceded that the Khedive should re-appoint Gordon governor-general of the Sudan with executive powers to form a government.  Gordon quoted this as his authority when he arrived to face death and glory in Khartoum in February 1884.

Several memorials were erected in Gordon’s memory, the most notable of which is a statue of Gordon seated on a camel, created for the Royal Engineers at Woolwich by Edward Onslow Ford. A replica was commissioned by General Kitchener and the owner of the Morning Post.  It was displayed near Trafalgar Square, before being shipped to Khartoum.  The ship transporting the statue collided with a Russian ship in the Thames and sank.  The statue was recovered, hosed down and loaded on the SS Lesbian, bound for Alexandria.  The statue was then submerged again on its way up the Nile to Khartoum. There it presided over the British Empire’s sunset, until the newly-independent Sudanese government took down the statue of Gordon and offered it to Britain. The government accepted the offer, and decided that it should be given to Gordon’s School at Woking, where it was unveiled in May 1959.  If that statue is compared with the original at Chatham, it will be noticed that, following its hazardous adventures, the school copy is somewhat damaged and a few bits are missing.  The Chatham Gordon is a glorious deep dark bronze colour, whilst the School’s Gordon is a splendid silvery grey.

Follow by Email