BOOKS: A fuzzy sense of history

The GOM became the MOG - Murderer of Gordon
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THE DERVISH WARS: Gordon and Kitchener in the Sudan 1880-1898 by Robin Neillands, John Murray pounds 19.99

BRITAIN's uneasy relationship with Egypt began in jealousy when de Lesseps completed the Suez Canal in 1869, and ended in fiasco and humiliation at the Suez crisis of 1956. Robin Neillands' book treats of a time when, at least from the viewpoint of British imperialism, the story seemed to be ending happily. In 1875 Disraeli borrowed pounds 4 million from the Rothschilds to acquire a majority shareholding in the canal and soon turned the Khedive into a British creature. When the inevitable nationalist backlash occurred in 1882, with the Arabi Pasha rising, Britain took over the civil and military administration of the country.

At almost the same time, in Upper Egypt (the Sudan), a fundamentalist religious revival was taking place under the aegis of Mohammed Ahmed, known to history as the Mahdi. Ignoring a string of military victories by the Mahdi, who soon drew to his banner formidable forces of Hadendowa warriors - known to Kipling and the British Tommy as "the Fuzzy-Wuzzies" - the Khedive employed General Gordon on a quixotic mission to bring the Sudan back under Egyptian control. Gordon allowed himself to be bottled up in Khartoum by the Mahdists, then sent frantic appeals for help to the British government.

Prime Minister Gladstone rightly felt he was being forced by Gordon into sending an expedition against his will, and delayed dispatching reinforcements. When he was finally obliged to bow before the pressure of jingoistic public opinion, it was already too late. Khartoum fell and Gordon was killed on the steps of the vice-regal palace. The British public was furious with Gladstone. The initials GOM (Grand Old Man - his affectionate sobriquet) were reversed to read MOG (Murderer of Gordon).

Political, strategic, imperial and financial considerations all delayed the British reconquest of the Sudan until 1896-98, by which time the Mahdi was dead and his successor the Khalifa ruled, providing, it should be said, a superior regime to the previous Egyptian one. There were no compelling economic or national interests at risk in the Sudan, and the massive expedition sent out under the command of Kitchener had no purpose other than the restoration of British credibility.

On the plains of Omdurman near Khartoum on 2 September 1898, Kitchener's Anglo-Egyptian force of 25,000, armed with mortars and machine guns, met a Mahdist force twice as large but armed for the most part only with swords, spears and daggers. After six hours of fighting, the Mahdists left 25,000 casualties on the field, including 11,000 dead; Kitchener sustained just 430 casualties, 48 of them dead. Never before had there been such a signal demonstration of the technological gap between the First and the Third Worlds, a gap cynically summed up by Hilaire Belloc in his couplet: "Whatever happens we have got / The Maxim gun and they have not."

The villain of this story is Kitchener, a revolting, chillingly ambitious egomaniac. His campaigning talent confirmed the old chestnut about military intelligence being a contradiction in terms. He did not advance into the Sudan until he had assembled an army so powerful that the Three Stooges could not have lost with it, but he still telegraphed back to Downing Street for "instructions" (to cover himself) as soon as he encountered the slightest obstacle. Even the flag-waving British public, whose triumphalism at the news from Omdurman denoted the unconscious national insecurity, turned against him when he desecrated the Mahdi's tomb and threw his corpse into the Nile.

Robin Neillands tells the story extremely well, but this book could have been written at any time in the hundred years since Omdurman, such is its unreconstructed, gung-ho feel. Neillands is a talented writer, but he could have made his book so much more impressive if he had been abreast of all the latest scholarship. A skimpy bibliography fails to cite fundamental studies such as those by Robert Collins, G N Sanderson and others.

Neillands has no grasp of the geopolitics of his chosen area in the 1890s. Does he know, for example, that Leopold of the Belgians schemed to conquer the Mahdist Sudan, entering from the Congo with an army under the command of the redoubtable H M Stanley? There is no sign of it in his text. So old-fashioned is his approach that he appears to be unaware that one of the motives which made the invasion of Egypt in 1882 palatable to Gladstone was that the value of the Grand Old Man's portfolio of Egyptian government bonds was bound to shoot up once stability in the area was ensured by British occupation.

Neillands' general failure to probe the motives of the principals, with the honourable exception of Kitchener, leads to grossly false assessments of important historical actors, as in the following: "The travels of at least one man, the Scots missionary David Livingstone, were totally inspired by a love of the Christian gospel, and a detestation of slavery." The very last thing inspiring Livingstone was missionary zeal - he made one convert, who lapsed. Nor did he detest slavery; he detested the slave trade, a quite different thing. But it is not surprising that Neillands does not know the difference, for his ignorance of African history seems egregious. Kabba Rega, King of the Bunyoro, becomes "the Kabarenga", and we are told he was "finally defeated in March 1873". This would have been news to the British troops who were still trying to defeat him in the 1890s.

Neillands is in awe of the "Fuzzy-Wuzzies" for being the only non-European people to break a British square in battle. To use this military metaphor, we might say that the square of Neillands' book is breached several times by inadequate scholarship. However, the excellence of the book's illustrations and the lively prose style enable him to leave the field with some shreds of honour intact.

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