January 26, 2008

January 26 | Chinese Gordon

January 28, 1833 - January 26, 1885: Age 51

Major General Charles "Chinese" Gordon was an extremely popular and influential figure in the British Empire. He served in the Crimea, China, South Africa, India, and the Sudan. Brave to a fault, he often rode ahead of his troops, swinging his sword and engaging the opposition in hand-to-hand combat. This made him popular, but one wonders at his judgment.

In 1884 he was sent to Sudan to evacuate occupying Egyptian troops in the face of a rising tide of angry Moslems, who did not fancy British overlordship. Instead of evacuating, Gordon fortified their position and demanded that the British government send reinforcements. "I shall hold out here as long as I can, and if I can suppress the rebellion I shall do so," he wrote. "If I cannot, I shall retire to the equator and leave you the indelible disgrace of abandoning the garrisons."

Knowing the cause to be lost, the government was reluctant to agree, but public opinion eventually forced them to send relief. It came too late. By December 1884 both of Gordon's aides had died, leaving him the last British official in Khartoum. "I think the game is up. We may expect a catastrophe." The leader of the Moslem forces sent word to him that if he surrendered, he would be spared and sent back to England. Gordon characteristically refused. On January 26 the rebels swarmed into Khartoum, and Gordon's remaining forces lasted only 30 minutes.
Gordon himself stood outside his quarters in the palace, dressed in his white uniform, with his left hand on his sheathed sword and his right hand holding a revolver. He used neither as a Moslem fighter shoved a spear through Gordon's breast. Gordon fell forward on the palace floor as other rebels jabbed their spears into his body. He was decapitated and his head delivered to the Moslem leader.*

The British reinforcements arrived two days later, on what would have been Gordon's birthday. Seeing the city in ruins, they turned back without a fight.

Back in England, the public reacted to his death with rage. No matter that the cause was hopeless, and that the whole endeavour of colonialism was becoming more and more obviously untenable. Gordon was a hero: if anything had gone wrong, it was the government's fault. By the summer, the government had fallen, and Gordon had a statue in Trafalgar Square.

*Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-A-Way, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1988

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