Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

Gordon—The Hero of Khartum

"Warrior of God, man's friend, not here below

But somewhere dead far in the waste Sudan,

Thou livest in all hearts, for all men know

This earth hath borne no simpler, nobler man."

— Tennyson

O N his way to India, to attend the Coronation Durbar, the Duke of Connaught had stopped in Egypt, to be present at the opening of the famous Asuan dam, which has so benefited the dwellers by the mighty Nile. Let us glance at Egypt for a moment.

Egypt was governed by one Ismail, a Khedive or Sovereign, who ruled the country subject to the Sultan of Turkey. The opening of the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, in 1869, drew the eyes of Europe to this old country of the Pharaohs, which was being sorely misgoverned by Ismail. Indeed, so reckless and extravagant was his expenditure, that Egypt was threatened with ruin, and it became necessary for European powers to interfere with the Government.

To make a long story short, Ismail was finally deposed in 1879, his eldest son Tewfik was made Khedive, and England and France jointly assumed the task of controlling the new Government. But this interference was resented by Arabi the Egyptian, under whom a rebellion now broke out. Force became necessary. A British fleet bombarded the forts defending Alexandria, which had been strongly fortified by Arabi. From dawn to sunset, through the hot hours of that July day, the great English guns boomed over the city. The forts were silenced, but for two nights and a day, the European inhabitants were exposed to the fury of Arabi's soldiers, and part of the city was burned to the ground. Two months later, the British army under Sir Garnet Wolseley, who had so successfully led the expedition in Canada against Louis Riel, defeated the Egyptians at Tel-el-Kebir, and with "one brilliant dash scattered to the winds the hopes and forces" of Arabi. Next day, the British cavalry rode in hot haste across the thirty miles of scorching desert to Cairo, where Arabi surrendered himself with 10,000 Egyptians. The Khedive's authority was thus restored, and Arabi was transported to Ceylon. England was now obliged to assume the protectorate of Egypt, to assure the future progress of the country in which, by reason of the Suez Canal, she had so much interest. She helped the Khedive to improve the condition of his wretched people, to replace injustice and oppression by justice and mercy.

"It is by such action, that the British nation realises its Imperial ideal of duty."

Meanwhile in the Sudan, a Mohammedan fanatic, calling himself the Mandi, roused his Mohammedan followers against the Government, which extended over the Sudan beyond Khartum at the junction of the Blue and White Niles. Preparations were made in Cairo at once to crush the rebellion. A force of 10,000 men was hurriedly collected. Unwilling recruits were forced into the ranks, Egyptian peasants were taken from the fields, the very donkey-boys of Cairo were armed to swell this unwieldy rabble army, which was placed under the command of Colonel Hicks. But the Egyptian Government little realised the size and strength of the rebel army awaiting their prey in the solitude of the vast desert. Hicks Pasha and his 10,000 men went bravely forth to "dare the impossible," and were never seen again. With the complete destruction of the army, consternation fell upon Cairo. The Khedive's power over the Sudan seemed at an end, and it was at last decided to withdraw from this desert land in the south altogether. Still there were isolated European garrisons in distant provinces: there was loyal Khartum itself, and from these arose a cry for help, which reached the ears of one Englishman—the heroic and enthusiastic Gordon.

"Chinese Gordon" had already spent years in the Sudan. On the death of Livingstone, he had been made Governor-General of the Sudan, for the suppression of the slave trade. He loved the black men of the Sudan, and now, in hopes of saving the loyal garrison at Khartum, he left England for Cairo. It was January 24, 1884, when he arrived. Two days later, a few faithful friends bid farewell to him and his one companion, Colonel Stewart, little thinking, as the train rolled away into the night, that they had looked their last on the two cheerful determined faces of the men, who were giving their lives to a "task of mercy beyond human strength."

That day year, Gordon stood face to face with death, away in lonely Khartum. To the panic-stricken garrison, Gordon had sent a telegram—"Be not afraid, I am coming." Arrived at Korosko, he plunged into the silent desert on his camel: every moment was precious. Never did man ride on so urgent and desperate an undertaking before. At last he arrived at Khartum. As he entered his capital, people crowded enthusiastically about him, kissing his hands, and greeting him as the saviour of the Sudan.

"I come without soldiers, but with God on my side, to redress the evils of this land," he cried to his faithful blacks; "I will not fight with any weapons save justice."

But the times were more anxious than even Gordon recognised. Daily, the rebel force was growing in strength. Within a fortnight, telegraphic communication between the little white city in the burning desert and Cairo was cut off. By April, Khartum was closely invested by the Mandi's troops. The whole of the Sudan, except Khartum and the Red Sea ports, were in the hands of the Mandi. For the next five months, a great silence fell over the little desert city, within which, two brave men were busy strengthening their defences and cheering the little garrison. The Nile rose and fell. In September, Gordon despatched a steamer under Colonel Stewart, to make its way to Cairo for help. But the little "Abbas" never reached its destination. Colonel Stewart was treacherously killed near Abu Hamed, and the silence between Cairo and Khartum remained unbroken.

Gordon was now alone—the only Englishman in that far-off desert city. His last pathetic journals describe his days during those long sad weeks. Busy all day in defending the town and ministering to the wants of his people, every night he mounted to the palace roof, and there, "alone with his duty and his God," he kept his long lonely watch over the ramparts, praying for the help that never came.


Gordon's lonely watch over the ramparts.

A relief expedition under Lord Wolseley had already started, and Gordon always felt there was the possibility that one day, "after the golden after-glow or in the solemn whitening of the dawn," his watchful eye might detect a cloud of dust, a movement of shadows, or the sudden flash of a bayonet, to show he had not been forgotten, that help was coming and the dreary siege should end.

An expedition was indeed struggling forwards to his relief. The British forces under Wolseley, helped by Canadian boatmen, were pushing on by river and desert.

Sunday, January 25, arrived. While the city slept, the Mandi's men, known as dervishes, were creeping towards the parapets of Khartum. The moon had gone down: the night was dark. There was little enough to impede their progress: only a few starving soldiers looked wearily over the parapet. With yells and screams, the dervishes rushed upon the sleeping people. In a surging mass, they threw themselves on to the palace, where Gordon kept watch. And just as the red sun was rising over the dark horizon, they killed him, cut off his head, and carried it to the Mandi in triumph. Two days later—it was Gordon's birthday—a few Englishmen from the relief expedition pushed their way to Khartum, to find they were too late. A massacre of the garrison had taken place, and the man they had come to save, had fallen at his post of duty—faithful unto death.

"By those for whom he lived, he died. His land

Awoke too late, and crowned dead brows with praise.

He, 'neath the blue that burns o'er Libyan sand,

Put off the burden of heroic days."

The Mandi had established his kingdom from Egypt to the Bahr-el-Ghazal, from Darfur to the Red Sea, and the British withdrew to Wady Halfa on the Nile—for a time.

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