Gordon a 'hostage to history': Boxes of documents released at the Public Record Office chart the activities of British intelligence and its network of agents from a century ago. Stephen Ward reports

THE accepted version of one of the dramas of the 19th century - Gladstone's failure to relieve a besieged General Gordon at Khartoum - is questioned by high-level British intelligence reports from the period, which were released yesterday.

Gladstone's government, discredited by the failure to relieve Gordon and acting on reports that the general was not dead but being held hostage, may have believed for several weeks that it could retrieve its prestige by gaining his release.

Gordon's garrison was besieged from March 1884 by the Mahdi's Sudanese forces. The Liberal government delayed sending a relief expedition. When British steamers arrived on 28 January 1885, they were greeted with a hail of bullets, and sailed away. The official version says the town fell two days earlier. Gordon was never seen again. When news reached London on 4 February, Queen Victoria sent telegrams to ministers, saying the catastrophe should have been prevented. Gladstone contemplated resigning.

The files opened yesterday reveal that on 12 February the Foreign Secretary, Lord Granville, began using information from Habib Anthony Salmone, a Syrian-born professor at London University, who had links with the Mahdist movement in London and Paris.

He suggested that Gordon was not dead, but held hostage. He also reported that Khartoum had fallen earlier than believed, and his suggestion was given weight by the fact that Gordon's last letters, pleading imminent catastrophe, had been dated 14 December (these reached the Foreign Office in late February).

There is no evidence in the files of the weight the Government gave to the information, but from March onwards officials apparently became increasingly sceptical. The Government collapsed later that month.

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