Voices From the Periphary: the Siege of Khartoum 1884-1885

Anyone who has watched the post-colonial, Hollywood film Khartoum (1966) will be familiar with the story of General Charles Gordon, the lionised, almost mythical figure of 19th-century British imperial history. A very grave Charlton Heston stars as the highly principled, devoutly Christian officer charged with evacuating an Egyptian garrison in Sudan that is under threat from a growing army of Islamic fundamentalists led by the self-proclaimed Mahdi (The Expected One), played by Laurence Olivier. Although it is an adequate portrayal of the events of 1884-85, and continues to resonate with its Christian West versus Islam themes, it neither attempts to, nor could it convey, the complexities of imperial politics or the nuances and implications of the developing British national identity which drove imperialism at the time. A far more telling narrative can be found by following the events as they played out in contemporary non-fictional accounts, in particular, the Pall Mall Gazette and The Times newspapers, and The Journals of Major-Gen. C G Gordon CB at Khartoum (1885). What becomes immediately apparent in reading these sources is their ability to capture the spirit of the British Empire in the context of complex international relations, at times so convincingly as to compel the government to contradict its own policies. Fuelled by a shared sense of national identity, based on values of Christian morality, rationalism and cultural and racial superiority, these accounts indirectly led to the further expansion of the British Empire, despite the reluctance of the Liberal Government, and the ongoing exploitation of non-European people.

  Looking first at the newspaper accounts, both the liberal Pall Mall Gazette, and The Times, which was basically conservative, relied on several styles of journalism to cover the issues: interviews with leading politicians and key military figures, despatches and correspondence from the garrison, as well as op-ed pieces that discussed the broader implications of the Liberal Government’s approach to Sudan and Britain’s imperial policy. It was extensive and detailed coverage. From the initial Pall Mall Gazette interview with General Gordon on January  9, 1884, in which he outlined his alternative policy for Sudan one day prior to his being asked to evacuate the garrison, through to the same paper’s dramatic front-page headline of “Too Late” in February 1885, heralding the failure of the Relief Expedition to reach Gordon before the fall of Khartoum, the British public were very well informed as to what was at stake – British prestige and the Empire’s geo-strategic influence in the region. The values on which the British Empire had been built, those of Christianity, rationalism and cultural and racial superiority, were also the values on which the British national identity was built. The relationship between the two was complex and self-perpetuating, justifying and validating further imperial expansion and the exploitation of non-European peoples. The newspaper accounts are coloured by the language of empire. More importantly, the newspapers were largely responsible for the lionising of General Gordon as the personification of British imperialism. They championed the idea of Gordon evacuating the Sudan then turned on the Liberal Government for not acting fast enough to break the siege which began in March 1884. While providing the British public with detailed assessments of imperial policy, both sides of the print media also challenged and subverted the government by presenting alternative views on the best way to enhance, preserve and protect the prosperity of the British Empire, virtually compelling the government to act in ways that contradicted its own policies.    

  One of sharpest critics of the Liberal Government was Gordon himself. And one of the more evocative narratives came in the form of his journals, which were smuggled out of the garrison shortly before it fell. Published within five months of his death, The Journals of Major-Gen. C G Gordon CB At Khartoum (1885) was an immediate bestseller. Yet it is a problematic document. Although it is written with the authority of the most senior military figure in the region, and is filled with illustrations, maps, descriptions of military matters, and provides a clear narrative of events in the garrison as the siege dragged on, it is also littered with the personal ramblings of a highly complex man under extraordinary pressure. He openly lampoons key members of parliament, and ridicules the imperial policy of the Liberal government, knowing full well his journals would be published. The journal is Gordon’s final attempt to vindicate himself for not leaving the garrison when he could have – a decision that drew Britain deeper into the region rather than enabling them to pull back. This highlights the amorphous nature of the British Empire that, although built on shared values, was at times driven ever outward by particular individuals who acted on impulse in the name of empire, such as Henry Morton Stanley, John Speke and Richard Burton. 

  When read collectively the contemporary newspaper accounts and Gordon’s journal present an image of empire that upheld the values of the British national and imperial identity, those based on Christian morality, rationalism and cultural and racial superiority. They challenged and subverted the Liberal Government’s attempts to present itself as the embodiment of empire by providing alternative views on imperial policy as well as presenting Gordon as the real personification of the British Empire. Failure to protect Gordon from the ramifications of his own high-minded principles was a failure to protect the spirit of the Empire. The loss of prestige could only be salved with further expansion into Africa and the ongoing exploitation of non-European peoples. Khartoum (1966) ends poignantly enough with the death of Gordon, when perhaps a more appropriate denouement would have been the violent, vengeful British invasion of Sudan that occurred in 1898.   

Connell Nisbet

One comment on “Voices From the Periphary: the Siege of Khartoum 1884-1885

  1. christinecramer says:

    Hi Connell,

    I think there are a number of excellent aspects to your piece. Firstly, the introduction which hinges on a film grabs the reader’s attention. Then, when the film is revealed as lacking in complexity and depth, the reader is stimulated to read further to discover the “truth”. You have obviously put a lot of effort into researching primary sources and the sense of the historian as “detective” comes through strongly. The linking of the siege and General Gordon with British identity and imperialism was fascinating, as was the influence of the media on government policy. The reference to the film again at the end gives the story continuity, and makes the important point that the siege was a blow to British identity, leading to further imperialism and exploitation. Congratulations and best wishes for your future career.


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