Through financial mismanagement and profligacy by the government of Egypt under Said and Ismail Pasha, Britain in 1875, was put in the position of being able to purchase for £4 million, 44% of the capital of the Suez Canal Company and Egypt was declared bankrupt. This was the point of no return on the road that was leading her to direct intervention first in Egypt, then in the Sudan; an intervention forced upon her by the Politics of Empire and geography.
Although not possessed of any official standing, and was neither financier nor engineer, de Lesseps
was possessed of great powers of perseverance and persuasiveness and became a personal friend of Said and one evening Said was talked into giving permission for the canal project and further granting de Lesseps absurdly generous concessions. The project staggered through a series of financial crises. The French subscribers to the Canal’s shares were not eager to pay up. The Ottoman Empire failed to take up any of the shares reserved for it. To complicate matters Said having accepted the deal promptly died and his successor, Ismail was much less pliable.
There occurred at this time, within the populace of Egypt an uprising, brought about by the increasing tax demands of the administration of the Turks as imposed by Khedive Tewfik . The peasants and military class headed by a colonel in the Egyptian army Ahmed Bey Arabi, revolted. Arabi was arrested and brought before a Council of Ministers, but his peasant troops burst in, toppled the Council from their chairs, emptied ink pots over their heads and roared with glee. Political upheaval followed and Tewfik was obliged to accept Arabi as a minister in the government. The British “Press” and even the Liberal, anti- imperialist Gladstone, now denounced Arabi as a mutineer and a fanatic. Savage rioting broke out in Alexandria during which European diplomats were manhandled and a large number of Christians killed. Arabi was alarmed at the growing menace to Alexandria from the foreign warships assembling off shore.
In response to the British and French threat, he began to dig emplacements around the forts of Alexandria. The British would not countenance this and on 11 July, 1882, the British ships opened fire and by 5 pm. the forts were wrecked. British marines landed to restore order. At the critical moment the French fleet had disappeared over the horizon and Britain was left alone to deal with the crisis and keep the Canal open for its shipping.
Involvement in Sudan.
From early times Egypt had pushed southwards beyond Wadi Halfa into the wild cruel land of the Sudan. But Mohammed Ali had fastened a more lasting hold on it. By 1890 some 40,000 Egyptian troops were spread through garrison-posts across the Sudan, enforcing with their guns the rule of a Governor-general in Khartoum.
In 1881 an obscure man of religion, by name Mohammed Ahmed el-Sayyid Abdullah, fired a spark into the tinderbox of the Sudan. From his retreat on an island in the Upper Nile he proclaimed himself the long-expected Mahdi - the Guided One of the Prophet - and began a campaign of preaching. The time had come he urged, to make an end of the Egyptians and their Turkish overlords, and to return to the purity of the true faith. The moment was indeed ripe, and the Turko-Egyptian authority in the Sudan weakened. The Mahdi’s fervent eloquence first magnetized the downtrodden local population, then some of the most warlike tribes. An Egyptian force sent from Khartoum to arrest him retired in haste. A second was hacked to pieces. A month before the British bombardment of Alexandria, a larger punitive force met the same fate. In Cairo, fear for the whole Egyptian establishment in the Sudan was growing!
At that very moment Britain was taking over in Egypt. She was preoccupied with Egyptian problems, and she refused to extend her intervention to the Upper Nile. “Her Majesty’s Government”, the Foreign Secretary, Earl Granville declared, “are in no way responsible for operations in the Sudan”. If the Egyptian officials wish to act, that was their affair. The Egyptians response was to raise a force of 15,000 men under Colonel Hicks, a retired British officer from India. A few weeks later the Mahdi’s main army fell upon the tired thirsty and poorly trained exhausted men and cut them to pieces so thoroughly that barely 300 wounded survivors crawled away into the scrub. The rest including Colonel Hicks were dead.
The position in the Sudan was now desperate. Baring, the new British Governor-General in Cairo laid the choice before London - a British Expeditionary force, or total withdrawal! London held firm that Egypt must come first and there must be a complete withdrawal from Sudan. But how to get the Egyptian garrison out, as this consisted of handfuls of men strung out along nearly 2000 miles of the White and Blue Niles. The task would require a man of exceptional calibre. At this point the War Office came up with the name of Major-General Charles Gordon!
Gordon was one of the last of the fabled Victorian eccentrics. Short, slight, sunburnt, he seemed to prance on his tiptoes everywhere he went, boundless boyish energy shining from his bright blue eyes. He had fought with distinction in the Crimea; but was far too unorthodox for the steady climb to the top in the British army. In stead he had taken service with other governments, with most of whom he had eventually quarrelled. As a result of his daredevil exploits on behalf of the Manchu dynasty in the Taiping rebellion - in which he had shown himself a supreme leader of irregular troops - he had been universally acclaimed as “Chinese Gordon”.
Whatever spare time Gordon’s worldly battles allowed had been devoted to the Bible, and to good works among the poor. From his incessant readings of the former he had evolved his own mystical fatalistic approach to Christianity.
He was probably the most brilliant commando officer alive, and at the same time a man of passionate feeling for the underdog. For the task of organizing an abject retreat, of unsparingly abandoning those unable to join it, no one could possibly have been more unsuited.
Gordon was no stranger to the Sudan. He had spent nearly six whirlwind years there, in the service of the Khedive Ismail. He had been first, Governor of the southernmost province, Equatoria, where he mapped the Nile to within 60 miles of its source. But Gordon’s compulsive activity had allowed him not a moments rest, and the terrible climate had struck at his health. In a fit of depression he had given up, writing to his sister “I have a sort of wish I could get rid of Col. Gordon”.
Within a few months he was back, this time as Governor-General of the entire Sudan. He refused to accept more than half his £6,000 salary; and as before he drove himself to the limit of his strength against the cruelty and corruption around him. In Khartoum his trim white-clad figure, ceaselessly trotting to and fro, red fez above blazing blue eyes, became for the wretched native population the hope of a better lot. Out on the camel-tracks Gordon became equally familiar as he rode from end to end of the country, grappling with the slavers, rooting out venal officials, appointing young Europeans, his faithful disciples, to posts of responsibility. His appointment at the height of the crisis created by the Mahdi was partly due to the aura of romance that still surrounded him.
The Governor-General of Egypt, (Sir Evelyn Baring) was strongly opposed to the choice of Gordon, but at length - to his bitter self-reproach later - he concurred in it. The two men had met during Gordon’s spell in the Sudan. Now in Cairo they came face to face again. Baring, having concurred was fair and helpful. He agreed and obtained the Khedive Tewfik’s consent to Gordon’s request that he should re-enter Khartoum in his former role of Governor-General.
Khartoum had not yet been threatened by the Mahdi’s host. Communications with Egypt were still open, and the surrounding country was in the hands of loyal tribes. Gordon received a delirious welcome in the city and instantly set about strengthening morale. His energy ablaze, Gordon pelted Baring in Cairo with up to 30 telegrams a day, producing a spate of new ideas for dealing with the emergency, then cancelling them in favour of newer brain waves. Then suddenly the telegraph lines went dead. The tribes between Khartoum and the Egyptian frontier at Wadi Halfa had risen for the Mahdi. His grip was tightening, it was now a question of how to get Gordon out!
Although the grip of the Mahdi was closing in, the city could still breathe. It had 8,000 defenders, 6 months food, and a flotilla of river steamers. Runners could still get through to Egypt. Gordon himself could easily have slipped out to safety. Now that the outlying garrisons were beyond help it was his duty, in the eyes of the British government for him to do so; but nothing was further from the mind of Gordon. The civilian and military population of Khartoum were, in the sight of the Lord, his personal responsibility. Spring dragged into summer and the messages from Khartoum dwindled. All over England the pressure to rescue Gordon rose to the insistent level and included the voice of Queen Victoria. Still the government did nothing
In late summer Hartington, the Minister for War, threatened to resign which would have brought down the government for he reflected the John Bull image to the public. Gladstone gave in and by the end of September General Wolseley was leaving for Cairo at the head of a relieving force.
End Game. In Khartoum the situation was becoming critical. Food was still in supply but some 800 of Gordon’s soldiers had been killed in a battle with the Mahdi’s men and the population was losing heart.
Gordon decided to send one of his steamers - the Abbas - downstream with Col. Stewart, his second-in-command, in search of immediate help. Meanwhile Wolseley was making painfully slow progress up the Nile. Kitchiner with Wolseley, and Gordon in Khartoum, urged him to use a lighter, swifter flying column.
Then daunting news reached Gordon in the form of a letter from the Mahdi. The Abbas had been captured. The boats complement including Stewart had been put to death and all the information carried about the increasing plight of Khartoum had fallen into enemy hands. “Now” the Mahdi concluded menacingly, “we understand everything”. He demanded that Gordon capitulate voluntarily: a forced surrender would not be accepted. He moved his armies to ring the city.
As the years end approached with still no sign of Wolseley, Khartoum’s food gave out. Every animal down to the rats had been eaten. Corpses were lying in the streets. In the solitude of the palace Gordon was meticulously keeping a journal which remains among the most poignant of English records.“ I have given 6,000 pounds of biscuits to the poor. Half will be stolen. The shells fall about 200 yards short of the palace. I am worn to a shadow with the food question. Five men deserted today”.
With his hair turned snow-white, he held-on. One evening with the bullets spattering against the walls, he sent for a leading merchant of the city and insisted on sitting with him in a window lit by the largest lantern available. “When God was portioning out fear”, he said to his companion, “at last it came to my turn, but there was no fear left to give me. Go, tell the people of Khartoum that Gordon fears nothing”.
Two days later the steamers, crowded with troops, arrived within sight of Khartoum. They could see no flag flying from the Governors palace, and as they neared the town they ran into a tempest of fire. Wolesely, seeking reinforcements for a further campaign against the Mahdi, was curtly told to return; and his expedition retired in some disorder down the Nile. In Britain, a wave of hysterical anger swept the country. Crowds gathered in Downing Street to hoot and hiss at Gladstone. He was saved by Russia: for the Russians, choosing the moment of British distraction, made a lunge towards the Oxus and India. Gladstone loosed the full fury of his oratory upon them, and succeeded in diverting public wrath from himself to the Tsar.
But beneath the surface, profound national feeling had been lastingly roused. Britain had been dragged in remorseless succession into the Canal, Egypt, the Sudan. But nearly everyone knew that the deepening involvement could not be allowed to end in ignominy.
Already on January 5th 1885, the Mahdi, alarmed by Wolseley’s approach, had ordered the attack. The Egyptian
Defenders, weakened beyond further resistance by fear and hunger, had collapsed. Six terrible hours of massacre, rape and looting followed as the shrieking hordes burst through the streets. Gordon spruce and cool in his dress uniform, had met the invaders on the staircase of the palace. Against the Mahdi’s express orders he had instantly been speared to death. His head had been cut off, and his body thrown down a well.
Between 1870 and 1900, the irresistible demands of strategy and national honour - the need to control the route to India and to revenge General Gordon’s death in Khartoum - led to British control in Egypt and later to Sudan with tragic consequences for General Gordon an inspirational and idealistic but eventually flawed and misguided man.
In the era of the Pharaohs, Jehovah had visited ten plagues upon the land of Egypt. But ever since the Pharanoiac civilization had vanished Egypt had suffered, almost without intermission, an eleventh plague - vicious government at the hands of foreign aggressors. Down the centuries, Arabs, Mamelukes and Turks, had successively conquered her, exploited her, lived in extravagance on the industrious misery of her peasant fellaheen.
Britain had no wish to join the long line of Egypt’s alien conquerors. Her vital lifeline to India was the three month route round the Cape of Good Hope. The Mediterranean, with Egypt at its far south-eastern corner, was of relatively minor concern.
But when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, British officials were horrified by the nightmare possibility that he might make for India - only recently secured from the French - by the overland route through the Middle East. Egypt thus acquired a strategic significance for Britain, which she was not to lose for more than 150 years. The opening of the 19th Century saw a new, preventative British interest in the Mediterranean. The British’s reaction to Napoleon’s invasion had been violent.: Nelson had shot the French fleet to shreds in Aboukir Bay. But in the British eyes, there remained a long term threat to the route to India. Russia might sweep southwards or France eastward, swallowing as much as possible of the Arab world, including Egypt, and thus imperilling India.
The first Turkish appointed Sultan of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, allowed a British officer, Lieutenant Waghorn, to organized an overland route between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Steamships started to voyage regularly from London to Alexandria, and from Suez to Bombay, with Waghorn’s river boats and pack-animals bridging the land barrier between and cutting the journey to India to one month. By the time of Mohammed Ali’s death in 1849, Britain was well content with her position in the Mediterranean: she had provided for the land ward defence of her eastern empire and gained a second route to India.
The Suez Canal first Mooted.
But in 1854, Said, a member of Mohammed Ali’s house succeeded to the vice regal throne. Enormous and obese, extravagant and jovial, he too was a despot; his ideas, however, were well intentioned and liberal. He opened the country to an influx of privileged European residents, traders, technicians, experts and promoters of all sorts.
Among them was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman obsessed with a dream: a canal piercing the Isthmus of Suez, and providing a new sea-route to the eastern hemisphere and shortening the sea-route to India.
At Metemma, 100 miles north of the city, Wolesely’s advance guard met four of Gordon’s steamers, sent down to provide speedy transport for the first relieving troops. They delivered Gordon’s journal and a final plea ;“NOW MARK THIS, if the expeditionary force does not come in ten days the town may fall. I have done my best for the honour of our country. Good bye”. But almost simultaneously a runner brought another message; “Khartoum is all right. Could hold out for years”. It had probable been sent to deceive the Mahdi’s scouts. But the British commander on the spot acted on it. Three more days were lost overhauling the river craft and reconnoitring the country ahead. They waited too long.
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