Britain's colonial adventures: The truth about Gordon of Khartoum

When David Cameron taunted Tony Blair in the Commons this week about going to Sudan 'to see the place where Gordon was murdered', he was referring not only to the Premier's uneasy relationship with the Chancellor, but also to the fate of a Victorian military hero. Terry Kirby tells the story of a man who also had a problem with his prime minister
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The painting is a dramatic and enduring image, one which depicts extraordinary bravery at a crucial moment in the history of the British Empire. It shows the heroic figure of General Charles Gordon, tall and straight-backed, defiant to the last in the face of certain death from the massed spears of the rebels as they lay siege to Khartoum.

The rebels, the painting suggests, are frozen in awe at the sight of this great warrior-diplomat standing at the top of a flight of steps - the eternal symbol of the might of the Empire. Only their overwhelming numbers, it implies, will let them to prevail.

Unfortunately, General Gordon's Last Stand, by George William Joy, now hanging in the Leeds City Art Gallery is a piece of Victorian myth-making. Iconic it may be, but the events it depicts may not have happened.

Athough there is some variation in the accounts, there is general agreement as to the circumstances under which General Gordon met his fate at Khartoum on 26 January, 1885. He was hacked to pieces and his head paraded through the town on the end of a pike. Which is not the kind of image the Victorian public really wanted,, nor did they want to be reminded of the less palatable aspects of keeping an Empire under control.

But Joy's romanticised painting was more about pandering to public opinion, rather than a need to put a gloss on colonial adventures. During the siege of Khartoum, the decision by Gladstone's Government not to send troops to relieve General Gordon was greeted with widespread protests from a public for whom he was already a national hero.

The fact that this was a Gordon who was let down by the Prime Minister of the day was a point not lost on many MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday when David Cameron, leader of the Opposition, mischievously reminded Tony Blair that, on a trip to Khartoum in 2004, he had spoken of serving a full term. "Presumably," Cameron asked him amid widespread laughter, "you wanted to see the place where Gordon was murdered?" (Blair had held talks in the Sudanese presidential palace, built on the site where Gordon had met his end.)

While it wasn't a bad joke, there is actually very little in common between the dour Scottish leader-in-waiting and the Victorian folk hero. While General Gordon is mostly remembered now in connection with Khartoum, long before that ill-fated campaign, he had become renowned for his personal bravery, his sterling service to the Empire around the world and his work for the poor in Britain.

His help was sought by heads of state and he was feted where ever he went. When he met his death at Khartoum, still waiting for the relief forces, it was two days before his 52nd birthday. Gordon Brown is 56 and still waiting to make his major contribution to history, when Blair finally relieves himself of his post.

It was inevitable that the young Charles Gordon would join the Army. He was born on January 1833, in Woolwich, the son of Major-General Henry Gordon, an officer in the Royal Artillery. He was expected to join his father's regiment after the Royal Military Academy, but was instead commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers and received further training at their school at Chatham.

He saw active service at the outbreak of the Crimean War; he took part in the siege of Sebastopol and after the conflict worked with the commission drawing up the boundary between Russia and Turkey.

Ordered to China where Britain was involved in the Second Opium War, Gordon became part of the successful defence of Shanghai, eventually becoming commander of a militia group known as "The Ever Victorious Army". He won the title of titu, the highest grade in the Chinese army, from the Emperor. The British Government promoted him to Lieutenant-Colonel, he was made a companion of the Bath and earned the popular nickname, "Chinese" Gordon.

After China, Gordon returned to Britain, where he was put in charge of the defence of the Thames around Gravesend. He also began to be active in charity work, helping the poor and campaigning against slavery.

According to Dr David Brooks, lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London, Gordon's fame was based more on his reputation as a Christian evangelist, rather than as a military commander. "He became a folk hero in the minds of the public. He was a rather clean-living figure, where in the past the Army had a hard-drinking, rough reputation."

In 1873, at the request of the Egyptian authorities, Gordon was appointed governor of the province of Equatoria in Sudan, a country then occupied by Egypt. Gordon proceeded to map the upper Nile, establishing a line of posts as far south as Uganda and fighting the slave trade along the way; his endeavours ended in him being governor-general of the entire Sudan. In 1880, ill and exhausted after years of work, he returned to Britain.

He had little respite, finding that his reputation as an administrator and adventurer had created a demand for his services. King Leopold II of Belgium asked him to take charge of the Congo Free State, while the Governor of the Cape wanted him to command the local forces. The Governor-General of India required him as his secretary; he accepted the last post, but served only briefly. Promoted to Major-General, he was ordered to China, where he helped broker peace with Russia and then Basutoland in South Africa. "Gordon became a kind of trouble-shooter, a hired gun," said Dr Brooks.

In his book, Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey describes Gordon thus: "He was by nature farouche; his soul revolted against dinner parties and stiff shirts; and the presence of ladies - especially of fashionable ladies - filled him with uneasiness. The easy luxuries of his class and station were unknown to him: his clothes verged upon the shabby; and his frugal meals were eaten at a table with a drawer, into which the loaf and plate were quickly swept at the approach of his poor visitors." The only book he read was the Bible.

There were intense contradictions, said Strachey, which grew as Gordon aged: "He was an English gentleman, an officer, a man of energy and action, a lover of danger and the audacities that defeat danger, a passionate creature."

However, continued Strachey, his subordinates dreaded his temper. "There were moments when his passion became utterly ungovernable; and the gentle soldier of God, who had spent the day in quoting texts ... would slap the face of his Arab aide-de-camp in a sudden access of fury, or set upon his Alsatian servant and kick him till he screamed."

In 1884, Gordon returned to the Sudan, where there was an Islamic uprising. He was appointed Governor-General by the British Government and given a brief to sort things out and oversee the evacuation of Khartoum. "Gladstone was against expansion of the Empire," explained Dr Brooks, "but Britain had become involved in Egyptian affairs, even though it was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. The Prime Minister didn't want to foot the bill to send any more troops there and hoped that Gordon would deal with the problems."

With typical energy, Gordon set about evacuating women, children and the sick and organised Khartoum's defences, building fortifications andplanting mines of his own design. He was twice let down by Gladstone, who refused to endorse his suggestion of an influential local leader as the head of a new government and then withdrew the only British troops in the area, leaving Khartoum isolated.

One of the most famous sieges in history began on 13 March 1884. The city had supplies, there were still lines of communication and there were 8,000 local troops, commanded by Gordon and two other British officials.

When news of Gordon's plight reached Britain, there was public anger, with mass meetings in London and Manchester, calls for a public fund-raising campaign to send more troops or, as one person put it, "to bribe the tribes to secure the General's personal safety". Prayers were offered in churches and there was a vote of censure in the House of Commons. "It is alarming," Queen Victoria wrote to Lord Hartington, the Secretary of State for War, "General Gordon is in danger; you are bound to try to save him ..." Gladstone was unmoved, maintaining that Gordon was not in real danger. It was not until August, when Lord Hartington threatened to resign, that Gladstone was persuaded to raise a relief force.

By this time, supplies in Khartoum had begun to run low. Gordon insisted on eating only the same rations as his troops. As the year wore on, Gordon wrote to a friend that he "feared treachery in the garrison". It came on 26 January 1885, when a traitor opened the gates to the city and let the rebels in.

Gordon, watching from a rooftop, quickly changed from his dressing gown into a white uniform, grabbed a revolver and a sword and went down to confront the hordes. He was killed, Khartoum fell, and the relief force arrived two days later. When news of his death reached London, the general was acclaimed not as "Chinese" Gordon, but Gordon of Khartoum.

At home, there was uproar. Gladstone was forced to attempt to re-assert his authority by investing heavily in another military campaign in the region. At this point, Gladstone was a Prime Minister embroiled in an unpopular conflict in a Middle Eastern country in whose affairs Britain had intervened with the promise that any involvement would be strictly short-term.

Sudan descended into turmoil as Islamic fundamentalists ran riot and rebel groups flocked to their cause. Plans to raise taxes to fund the venture were defeated by the House of Commons and Gladstone was thrown out of office, his political career destroyed by his refusal to help Gordon. Perhaps David Cameron might be saving that joke for later ...