Charles George Gordon
Charles George Gordon, C.B. (January 28, 1833 – January 26, 1885), known as Chinese Gordon, Gordon Pasha, and Gordon of Khartoum, was a British army officer and administrator. He is remembered for his exploits in China and northern Africa. His death while fighting against the Mahdi of Sudan made him a heroic figure for many in Britain, who saw his life and death within the context of the imperial project that claimed to be civilizing the non-Western world, bringing order and moral standards. Edward Said (1987) writes of how the colonial powers saw the Orient and the non-Western world as a theater in which they could undertake adventures, grow rich, and have careers, which they could also study, define, and control. General Gordon appears to have delighted in his imperial service, yet for much of the time he was employed by local rulers, such as the Khedive of Egypt and the Emperor of China, who appointed him to high rank. He won the respect of those whom he served, and appears to have respected the cultures within which his career played out. This was not typical at the time: Many colonial officials despised the cultures and peoples of the Empire. Unusually, Gordon believed that countries are best ruled by their own people and was a strong supporter of Home Rule for Ireland. This made him unpopular in some political circles. He always commanded what were called "native" troops and was renowned for his ability to form them into disciplined and efficient units.
A committed Christian, he engaged in charity activities, including teaching poor children, funding schools, and making army land available for poor people to farm while stationed at Gravesend. He physically fed, clothed, and nursed the sick. It is perhaps regrettable that his hero status derives from his military exploits, rather than from his philanthropy and willingness to see value in all cultures. He did not formally join any church but worshiped in Catholic and Protestant churches alike, very unusual for anyone in Victorian England.
Born in Woolwich, the son of Major-General Henry William Gordon (1786-1865), by his wife Elizabeth, née Enderby (1792-1873), he was educated at the Royal Military Academy, in Woolwich, starting in 1848. He was commissioned in 1852, as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, completing his training at the Royal Engineers' school at Chatham, and promoted to full Lieutenant in 1854.
At first, he was assigned to the construction of fortifications in defense of Milford Haven. However, the Crimean War broke out and Gordon was ordered on active service, arriving at Balaklava in January 1855. He was put to work in the siege of Sevastopol and took part in the assault of Redan from June 18 to September 8. He took part in the expedition to Kinburn, and returned to Sevastopol at the end of the conflict. With the peace, Gordon was attached to an international commission delimiting the new boundary between Russia and Turkey in Bessarabia. He continued with the surveying work, extending the marking of the boundary into Asia Minor. He returned to the United Kingdom towards the end of 1858, and was appointed as an instructor at Chatham and was promoted to captain in April 1859.
His stay in the United Kingdom was brief; in 1860, war broke out in China (Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion). Gordon volunteered to go, arriving at Tianjin in September. He missed the attack on the Dagu forts, but was present at the occupation of Beijing and destruction of the Summer Palace. He remained with the British forces occupying northern China until April 1862, when the troops, under General William Staveley, withdrew to Shanghai to protect the European settlement from the rebel Taiping army, which was threatening the city.
Following the successes in the 1850s, in the provinces of Guangxi, Hunan and Hubei, and the capture of Nanjing in 1853, the rebel advance had slowed. For some years, the Taipings gradually advanced eastwards, but eventually they came close enough to Shanghai to alarm the European inhabitants. The city raised a militia of Europeans and Asians for the defense of the town. This force was placed under the command of an American, Frederick Townsend Ward, and occupied the country to the west of Shanghai.
The British arrived at a crucial time, Staveley decided to clear the rebels from within 30 miles from Shanghai in cooperation with Ward and a small French force. Gordon was attached to his staff as engineer officer. Jiading (Kahding), Qingpu (Singpo), and other towns were occupied, and the area was fairly cleared of rebels by the end of 1862.
Ward was killed in the Battle of Cixi and his successor was disliked by the Imperial Chinese authorities. Li Hongzhang, the governor of the Jiangsu province, requested Staveley to appoint a British officer to command the contingent. Staveley selected Gordon, who had been made a brevet major in December 1862, and the nomination was approved by the British government. In March 1863, Gordon took command of the force at Songjiang, which had received the name of "The Ever Victorious Army." Without waiting to reorganize his troops, Gordon led them at once to the relief of Chansu, a town 40 miles north-west of Shanghai. The relief was successfully accomplished and Gordon had quickly won respect from his troops. His task was made easier by the highly innovative military ideas Ward had implemented in the Ever Victorious Army.
He then reorganized his force and advanced against Kunshan (Quinsan), which was captured at considerable loss. Gordon then took his force through the country, seizing towns until, with the aid of Imperial troops, the city of Suzhou was captured in November. Following a dispute with Li Hongzhang over the execution of rebel leaders, Gordon withdrew his force from Suzhou and remained inactive at Kunshan until February 1864. Gordon then made a rapprochement with Li and visited him in order to arrange for further operations. The "Ever-Victorious Army" resumed its high tempo advance, culminating in the capture of Chanchufu in May, the principal military base of the Taipings in the region. Gordon then returned to Kunshan and disbanded his force.
The Emperor promoted Gordon to the rank of titu, the highest grade in the Chinese army, and decorated him with the Yellow Jacket. The British Army promoted Gordon to lieutenant-colonel and he was made a Companion of the Bath. He also gained the popular nickname "Chinese" Gordon.
Upon his return to England, Gordon was appointed Commander of Engineers at Gravesend (1865). While stationed there, his father died. He personally nursed his father during the last days of his life and in doing so underwent a type of spiritual experience. He pledged to do all that he could to practice his Christian faith, not merely to talk about religion. He actually taught some of the children himself in the local Ragged School. He nursed, clothed and fed the sick and opened up army land for the poor to farm. In 1867, he had conversations with William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, about what they called the practical out-workings of the gospel. His religious ideas anticipated the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century. He attended Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican congregations and was friends with their clergy. He saw the church as essentially one, like the British army but divided into many "regiments," each with their own ethos and traditions. He even set up pensions for several elderly people and is said to have given away 90 percent of his army stipend, which he continued to do until his death.
Gordon returned to the United Kingdom and commanded the Royal Engineer efforts around Gravesend, the erection of forts for the defense of the Thames River. In October 1871, he was appointed British representative on the international commission to maintain the navigation of the mouth of the Danube River, with headquarters at Galatz. In 1872, Gordon was sent to inspect the British military cemeteries in the Crimea, and when passing through Constantinople, he made the acquaintance of the prime minister of Egypt, who opened negotiations for Gordon to serve under the khedive. In 1873, Gordon received a definite offer from the khedive, which he accepted with the consent of the British government, and proceeded to Egypt early in 1874. Gordon was made a colonel in the Egyptian army.
The Egyptian authorities had been extending their control southwards since the 1820s. An expedition was sent up the White Nile river, under Sir Samuel Baker, which reached Khartoum in February 1870, and Gondokoro in June 1871. Baker met with great difficulties and managed little beyond establishing a few posts along the Nile river. The khedive asked for Gordon to succeed Baker as governor of the region. After a short stay in Cairo, Gordon proceeded to Khartoum via Suakin and Berber. From Khartoum, he proceeded up the White Nile to Gondokoro.
Gordon remained in the Gondokoro provinces until October 1876. He had succeeded in establishing a line of way stations from the Sobat confluence on the White Nile to the frontier of Uganda, where he proposed to open a route from Mombasa. In 1874, he built the station at Dufile on the Albert Nile to reassemble steamers carried there past rapids for the exploration of Lake Albert. Considerable progress was made in the suppression of the slave trade. However, Gordon had come into conflict with the Egyptian governor of Khartoum and Sudan. The clash led to Gordon informing the khedive that he did not wish to return to the Sudan and he left for London. Ismail Pasha wrote to him saying that he had promised to return, and that he expected him to keep his word. Gordon agreed to return to Cairo, but insisted that he was appointed governor-general of the entire Sudan. After some discussion the khedive agreed, and made him governor-general of the entire Sudan
As governor, Gordon took on a number of wider issues. One was the relations between Egypt and Abyssinia, which had slumped in a dispute over the district of Bogos. War broke out in 1875, and an Egyptian expedition was completely defeated near Gundet. A second and larger expedition, under Prince Hassan, was sent the following year and was routed at Gura. Matters then remained quiet until March 1877, when Gordon proceeded to Massawa hoping to make peace with the Abyssinians. He went up to Bogos and wrote to the king proposing terms. However, he received no reply, as the king had gone southwards to fight with the Shoa. Gordon, seeing that the Abyssinian difficulty could wait, proceeded to Khartoum.
An insurrection had broken out in Darfur and Gordon went there. The insurgents were very numerous and he saw that diplomacy had a better chance of success. Gordon, accompanied only by an interpreter, rode into the enemy's camp to discuss the situation. This bold move proved successful, as part of the insurgents joined him, and the remainder retreated to the south. Gordon then visited the provinces of Berber and Dongola, and then returned to the Abyssinian frontier before ending up back in Khartoum in January 1878. Gordon was summoned to Cairo, arriving in March, he was appointed president of a commission. The khedive was deposed in 1879, in favor of his son.
Gordon returned south. He proceeded to Harrar, south of Abyssinia, and, finding the administration in a bad condition, dismissed the governor. He then returned to Khartoum, and went again into Darfur to suppress the slave traders. His subordinate, Gessi Pasha, fought with great success in the Bahr-el-Ghazal district and put an end to the revolt there. Gordon then tried another peace mission to Abyssinia. The matter ended with Gordon being made a prisoner and sent back to Massawa. Thence, he returned to Cairo and resigned his Sudan appointment. He was exhausted by the years of incessant work.
In March 1880, Gordon visited King Leopold in Brussels and was invited to take charge of the Congo Free State. In April, the government of the Cape Colony offered him the position of commandant of the Cape local forces. In May, the Marquess of Ripon, who had been given the post of Governor-General of India, asked Gordon to go with him as private secretary. Gordon accepted this last offer but shortly after arriving in India, he resigned. Hardly had he resigned when he was invited by Sir Robert Hart, inspector-general of customs in China, to Beijing. He arrived in China in July, and met Li Hongzhang, and learned that there was risk of war with Russia. Gordon proceeded to Beijing and used all his influence to ensure peace. Gordon returned to the United Kingdom, but in April 1881, left for Mauritius as Commanding Royal Engineer. He remained in Mauritius until March 1882, when he was promoted to major-general. He was sent to the Cape to aid in settling affairs in Basutoland. He returned to the United Kingdom after only a few months. Being unemployed, Gordon decided to go to Palestine, a country he had long desired to visit, and remained for a year. The king of the Belgians then asked him again to take charge of the Congo Free State. He accepted and returned to London to make preparations. But a few days after his arrival he was requested by the British government to proceed immediately to the Sudan, where the situation had declined badly after his departure—another revolt had arisen, led by the self-proclaimed mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad.
The Egyptian forces in the Sudan were insufficient to cope with the rebels and the northern government was engaged in suppressing the Arabi revolt. By September 1882, the position in the Sudan was very perilous. In December 1883, the British government ordered Egypt to abandon the Sudan, but abandonment was difficult to carry out as it involved the withdrawal of thousands of Egyptian soldiers, civilian employees, and their families. The British government asked Gordon to proceed to Khartoum to report on the best method of carrying out the evacuation.
Gordon started for Cairo in January 1884, accompanied by Lt. Col. J.D.H. Stewart. At Cairo, he received further instructions from Sir Evelyn Baring, and was appointed governor-general with executive powers. Traveling through Korosko and Berber, he arrived at Khartoum on February 18. Gordon at once commenced the task of sending the women and children and the sick and wounded to Egypt, and about 2,500 had been removed before the Mahdi’s forces closed in. Gordon hoped to have the influential local leader, Zobeir, appointed to take control of Sudan, but the British government refused to support a former slaver.
The advance of the rebels against Khartoum was combined with a revolt in the eastern Sudan; the Egyptian troops at Suakin were repeatedly defeated. A British force was sent to Suakin under General Sir Gerald Graham, and forced the rebels away in several hard-fought actions. Gordon urged that the road from Suakin to Berber should be opened, but this request was refused by the government in London, and in April, Graham and his forces were withdrawn and Gordon and the Sudan were abandoned. The garrison at Berber surrendered in May, and Khartoum was completely isolated.
Gordon organized the defense of Khartoum, with a siege starting on March 18, 1884. The British had decided to abandon the Sudan, but it was clear that Gordon had other plans, and the public increasingly called for his relief. It was not until August that the government decided to take steps to relieve Gordon, and in the beginning of November the British relief force was ready to start. Queen Victoria reportedly urged the government to relieve him.
The force consisted of two groups, a "flying column" of camel-borne troops from Wadi Halfa. The troops reached Korti towards the end of December, and arrived at Metemma on January 20. There, they found four gunboats which had been sent south by Gordon four months earlier, and prepared them for the trip back up the Nile. On the 24th, two of the steamers started for Khartoum, but on arriving there on the 28th, they found that the city had been captured and Gordon dead, having been killed two days previously (2 days before his 52nd birthday).
Gordon and Calvary
After his visit to Palestine in 1882-83, Gordon suggested a different location for Golgotha, the site of Christ's crucifixion, to the traditional site to the north of the Holy Sepulchre. This site, now known as "The Garden Tomb," and sometimes as "Gordon's Calvary," is regarded by many as a logical location.
Remembered as a hero
The manner of his death is uncertain but it was romanticized in a popular painting by George William Joy—General Gordon's Last Stand (1885, currently in the Leeds City Art Gallery)—and again in the film Khartoum (1966) with Charlton Heston as the British General.
General Gordon has also had a school dedicated to his memory situated in Woking, Surrey. Gordon was supposedly Queen Victoria's favorite general, hence the fact that the school was commissioned by Queen Victoria.
Gordon's memory (as well as his work in supervising the town's riverside fortifications) is commemorated in Gravesend; the embankment of the Riverside Leisure Area is known as the Gordon Promenade, while Khartoum Place lies just to the south. In the town center of his birthplace of Woolwich is General Gordon Square.
In 1888, a statue of Gordon by Hamo Thornycroft was erected in Trafalgar Square, London, removed in 1943, and in 1953, relocated to the Victoria Embankment. An identical statue by Thornycroft is located in Gordon Reserve near Parliament House in Melbourne, Australia (and, in the same reserve is a statue of his relative, Adam Lindsay Gordon). Funded by donations from 100,000 citizens, it was unveiled in 1889.
The Corps of Royal Engineers, Gordon's own Corps, commissioned a statue of Gordon on a camel. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1890, and then erected in Brompton Barracks, Chatham, the home of the Royal School of Military Engineering, where it still stands. Much later, a second casting was made and installed at Khartoum. This is the figure which now stands at the Gordon School.
The Royal Engineers Museum adjoining the Barracks has many artifacts relating to Gordon including personal possessions. There are also memorials to Gordon in the nearby Rochester Cathedral.
A rather fine stained-glass portrait is to be found on the main stairs of the Booloominbah building at the University of New England, in Armidale, NSW Australia.
Gordon Memorial College is a school in Khartoum.
The Fairey Gordon Bomber, designed to act as part of the RAF's colonial "aerial police force" in the Imperial territories that he helped conquer (India and North Africa), was named in his honor.
The City of Geelong, Victoria, Australia erected a memorial in the form of the Gordon Technical College which was renamed the Gordon Institute of Technology. Part of the Institute continues under the name Gordon Institute of TAFE and the remainder was amalgamated with the Geelong State College to become Deain University.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Churchill, Sir Winston. The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2006. ISBN 0486447855
- Pollock, John. Gordon: The Man Behind the Legend. London: Constable, 1993. ISBN 0094685606
- Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Viking, 1978. ISBN 039474067X
- Smith, G. Barnett. General Gordon: The Christian Soldier and Hero. London: S.W. Partridge, 1903.
- Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1918.
- Wortham, H.E. Gordon: An Intimate Portrait. Boston: Little, Brown, and company, 1933.
All links retrieved December 4, 2023.
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