- Gordon, Charles George
- (1833–1885)A British army officer famous for his leadership of native troops, killed at Khartoum by the forces of the self-proclaimed Mahdi, or messiah. As a young officer of Engineers, Gordon was converted to evangelical Christianity, which he practiced in earnest but unconventional ways throughout his life, housing paupers and at times going so far as to demand that his own salary be reduced. He fought with conspicuous courage at Balaklava during the Crimean War. In 1860, he volunteered to go to China as part of the Anglo-French expedition of that year. Two years later, he took command of what was audaciously called “the ever-victorious army,” a disorganized force of mercenaries hired to protect the merchants of Shanghai. Gordon in fact did make it victorious against the Taiping insurgents. “Chinese Gordon” became a popular hero. In 1873, Gordon was offered the governor-generalship of the southern Sudan by the Khedive of Egypt, a territory claimed by Egypt but not in fact under the Khedive’s control. Traveling with only a small escort, Gordon made the abolition of slavery a personal priority, on one occasion riding almost alone into an enemy camp in Darfur to order the rebels’ disbandment. Gordon left the Egyptian service in 1879 and undertook brief missions in Africa and India. When Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, it inherited Egypt’s dubious claims to the Sudan. In response to the defeat of an Anglo-Egyptian force there, a popular clamor arose in London, assisted by the press, to send Gordon to fight the Mahdi. William Gladstone ’s cabinet decided instead to send Gordon not to fight the Mahdi but to extract the remaining Anglo-Egyptian troops from the country. Gordon reached Khartoum, but instead of evacuating he prepared to defend the city, which he managed to do for almost a year. In the face of a further popular outcry, Gladstone was at length forced to send an expedition to relieve him. In the event, Khartoum fell and Gordon was killed on January 26, 1885, two days before the relief expedition’s boats sighted the city. Gordon’s courage and charisma combined with his ascetic Christianity to make him an imperial martyr in the sight of much of the public - the martyr’s blood being on Gladstone’s hands. Many who knew him closely thought him close to mad, and more recent critics have followed the lead of Lytton Strachey’s infamous caricature, portraying Gordon as egocentric, given to drinking bouts, possibly homosexual, and obsessed by death. Not even his critics have denied his courage.FURTHER READING:Elton, Godfrey. Gordon of Khartoum: The Life of General Charles Gordon. New York: Knopf, 1955;Pollock, John. Gordon: The Man behind the Legend, London: Constable, 1993;Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians, London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1918.MARK F. PROUDMAN
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.