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 of Egypt and the Sudan. Britain had no wish to join the long line of Egypt's alien conquerors. A vital lifeline to India, was the three month route round the Cape of Good Hope. The Mediterranean, with Egypt in its south eastern corner was of relatively minor concern. But when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, the British officials were extremely concerned by the nightmarish possibility that he may 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 - an interest that was accentuated by the building of the Suez canal in 1869, and led Britain irrevocably, ever deeper into the mire of Egypt’s administration.
The British concern with Egypt at this time was a result of Napoleon’s invasion, and not withstanding the fact that Nelson had shot the French fleet to shreds in Aboukir Bay, there remained a long term threat to the route to India. The eastern Mediterranean including Egypt formed part of the old Ottoman Empire. If it collapsed Russia might sweep southwards or France eastwards swallowing the Arab world including Egypt and thus imperilling India. Additionally Gibraltar and Malta had to become first line naval bases. At this point a new breed of rulers emerged in Egypt, and set themselves to bridge the gulf between Turkish colony and modern Europe.
The first of these rulers was Mohammed Ali the “father of modern Egypt” a formidable colourful scoundrel who had been an Albanian soldier in Turkish service. A ruthless dictator who started industries, introduced large scale cultivation of cotton and began a system of perennial irrigation and above all built a massive army. At this time Mohammed Ali allowed a British officer Lieutenant Waghorn to arrange an overland route between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Steamships began to voyage regularly from London to Alexandria and from Suez to Bombay, with Waghorn’s little boats and pack animals bridging the land barrier between and cutting the journey to India by one month. By 1849, Britain was well content with her position in the Mediterranean.
In 1854 Mohammed Ali was succeeded by Sa’id who was large and jovial and had a good nature, opening the country to an influx of privileged European residents, traders, technicians and experts. Among those was Ferdinand de Lesseps a Frenchman obsessed with a dream, a canal piercing the Isthmus of Suez providing a new sea route from the western hemisphere to the eastern. Also shortening the route to India. One evening at a meeting between the two men de Lesseps sweet talked Said into giving him permission to realise his dream and further persuaded the Viceroy into granting him absurdly generous concessions. From the start, official Britain was opposed to the whole project in the first place London was entirely satisfied with the Cape and overland routes to India and in the second, although de Lesseps was a lone wolf he was French, thus facing an ominous French presence between England and and her empire in the east.
Due to the prevailing alliance between Britain and France against Russia in the Crimea, efforts to stop the canal could only be of a limited and indirect character. The project itself staggered through a series of financial crises. Said having accepted the liability for Egypt, died and his successor Ismail was far less enthusiastic. One of his first acts was to demand the revision of Said’s concessions to de Lesseps regarding land, mineral rights and slave labour. Construction ceased. However the company claimed compensation and in the end Egypt shouldered almost the entire cost of the canal by signing away her dividends and was left with nothing. On November 17th 1869, the French imperial Yacht with the Empress Eugene waving from the bridge, led a procession of 51 ships from Port Said to Suez and back, in one of the most grandiose spectacles ever staged. The canal was only the first stage in Ismail’s road to ruin. He spent money like water on his own lavish living and on public works of every kind. Word spread that Egypt was a splendid field for bankers and no wonder for the finance came from Europe at shocking prices.
Loan followed loan and at last in 1875, Ismail had to fall back on his only assets - to raise cash for the interest on his loans. He let it be known that his canal shares were for sale.
The canal was changing the pattern of ocean trade and already British shipping was one of the major users. It was clear that having failed to prevent the canal Britain must need to control it. As parliament was in recession, the money for the purchase had to be raised somehow and Disraeli turned to the House of Rotheschild. Within a few days Britain stood possessed of 44% of the capital of the Suez Canal Company. It was a point of no return on the road that was leading to her direct intervention first in Egypt then in Sudan. An intervention forced upon her by the politics of empire and the facts of imperial geography. Despite this in April 1876, debt payments by Egypt were postponed and the country was bankrupt.
Britain and France were now embroiled in the future of Egypt for different reasons. Britain had gained virtual control of the canal’s finances. The canal lay wholly within Egyptian territory; Britain could not now stand aside from the finances and future of Egypt itself. France was equally concerned as she was building her empire in North Africa and one day Egypt may be required as an eastern pivot. Khedive Ismail was deposed on June 13th 1879 and his successor was Tewfik. But the voice of the people of the Nile began to speak through the mouth of a colonel in the Egyptian army Ahmed Bey Arabi. There was an uprising and Arabi created such a stir that he was given a place in government as a minister. Alarm seized creditor nations with the prospect of revolutions. Britain and France drafted a note to the Sultan in Constantinople requesting him to send a force in support of Tewfik. Savage rioting broke out in Alexandria during which a large number of Christians were killed. Positions around forts in the Alexandria area were fortified by Arabi’s followers with guns pointing seaward and on the morning of July 11th 1882, the British ships in the bay opened fire.
During the bombardment of Alexandria on the flagship’s bridge stood a young army subaltern Herbert Kitchener who was to play a dominant role in future Anglo-Egyptian affairs. The result of this conflict was that Gladstone (British prime minister) reluctantly agreed that it was essential to replace anarchy and conflict in Egypt with peace and order and this would be undertaken by a single power - Britain. No help was forthcoming from France who had their own problems in Algeria and Tunisia and at the critical moment the French squadron vanished westward over the horizon. The task of quelling the Egyptians was accomplished speedily by General Sir Garnet Wolseley with 20,000 men and a month later British bayonets routed Arabi’s forces at Tel el Kebir. Britain had wanted neither the canal or Egypt; she now unfortunately had both.
Britain was careful not to annexe Egypt she would instead ‘administer’ the country through the most suitable Egyptian government she could find, until Egypt could stand on its own two feet. Hardly was the new administration in place when the British in Egypt were faced with a new threat in the South.
There is a vast expanse of desert scrub threaded by the upper Nile called Sudan. Two major industries dominated this territory ‘ivory’ and ‘slaves’. The search for ivory caused the slaughter of thousands of elephants each year but it was the depredations of the slave trade which were the most horrific. It was carried on by highly organised raids of Arab horsemen utterly ruthless and in the 15 years from 1860 in the three provinces of the Sudan more than 400,000 people had been seized and sold and countless more had died.
By 1880 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. Except for a few years, when British appointees of Ismail among them a certain Charles Gordon, had held key posts, Egyptian rule had been evil. Her soldiery plundered the natives and Egyptian officialdom skimmed the cream off their country. The corruption was nourished by the slave trade. Everywhere there was poverty, oppression and a rising tide of acute disaffection. In 1881 an obscure man of religion by name Mohammed Achmed el Sayyid Abdullah fired the spark into the tinderbox of the Sudan. From his retreat on his island on the upper Nile he proclaimed himself the long expected “Mahdi” - the Guided one of the Prophet. 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 Mahdi’s fervent eloquence magnetised first the local downtrodden population then some of the most warlike of the tribes. An Egyptian force sent from Khartoum to arrest him retired in haste. A second was hacked to pieces. In Cairo fears for the whole Egyptian establishment in the Sudan was growing.
In January 1883 in the town of El - Obeid, the provincial capital of Kordofan had fallen to the Mahdi. This success vastly increased the numbers flocking to the Mahdi’s banner. Revolt was mushrooming into civil war. At that very moment Britain was taking over Egypt. His majesty’s government were in no way responsible for the Sudan. If the Egyptian officials wish to act, that was their affair. A force of some 15,000 men was dispatched by the Egyptians under the leadership of a retired British officer to confront the Mahdi’s forces, who, fell upon the Egyptians and the disaster was so complete that only 300 wounded survivors crawled away. The position in the Sudan was now desperate. Baring - the British Governor-General in Egypt laid a choice before London - a British expeditionary force or total withdrawal. London held to its policy that Egypt must come first.
The problem was the evacuation of Egyptian forces from the Sudan. They were located in handfuls strung out along nearly 2000 miles of the White and Blue Niles. The task would require a man of exceptional calibre and the name that was mentioned was that of Major-General Charles George Gordon. He was one of the last of the fabled Victorian eccentrics. Short, slight, sunburned he seemed to prance on his tiptoes everywhere he went with boundless boyish energy. He had fought in the past with distinction but was far too unorthodox for the steady climb to the top in the British army.
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, he had been universally acclaimed as “Chinese Gordon”. For the task of organising an abject retreat, of unsparingly abandoning those unable to join it, no one could possibly have been more ill fitted. He was no stranger to the Sudan and had spent nearly six whirlwind years there in the service of the Khedive Ismail. In Khartoum his trim white clad figure had ceaselessly trotted to and fro red fez above blazing blue eyes he became, for the wretched population the hope of a better lot.
On Ismail’s removal he finally resigned, the old sleazy Egyptian regime had returned to the Sudan and Gordon a bygone hero in his late 40’s was in virtual retirement in England on the shelf. His appointment at the height of the crisis created by the Mahdi was partly due to the aura of romance that still surrounded him. He accepted the British governments orders which were to go the Khartoum, arrange the evacuation of the Sudan and attempt nothing further. Governor-General Sir Evelyn Baring was strongly opposed to the choice of Gordon but at length and to his bitter self-reproach later, he concurred in it. Baring nevertheless was fair and helpful. He agreed to and obtained the Khedive Tewfik’s consent to Gordon's request that he should enter Khartoum in his former role Governor-General of Sudan.
Khartoum itself had not yet been threatened by the Mahdi’s host, communications with Egypt were still open, and the country around was in the hands of loyal tribes. Gordon himself was certain that seasoned British/Indian troops could readily rout the Mahdi. He made an pledge never to leave Khartoum himself until everyone under his command had had a chance to go. The grip was tightening, but the city could still breathe. It had eight thousand defenders, six months food and a flotilla of steamers on the Nile. Runners could still get through the lines. 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 to do so. But nothing was further from the mind of Gordon. Spring dragged into summer. The messages from Khartoum dwindled. All over England, the pressure to rescue Gordon rose to insistent levels. The Queen, as ever, expressed the public’s feelings unerringly. “You are bound to try and save him”, she stormed at the Secretary of War, who had been all for sending Gordon in the first place. “You have incurred fearful responsibility” and still the government did nothing to mount a rescue.
In effect, all through the summer of 1884, a silent battle of wills was raging, across the deserts and the seas between two men: Gordon in Khartoum, with his deep conviction that to leave his people to their fate would be “the climax of meanness”, and Gladstone in London with his abhorrence of subjecting Sudan to imperial occupation and his belief that Gordon was trying to blackmail him into ordering a rescue mission. Then in late summer, Hartington, Secretary for War, threatened to resign. This would have doomed the government; by the end of September Wolseley, was leaving Cairo at the head of a relieving force. Meanwhile, in Khartoum, Gordon had decided to send one of his steamers, the ABBAS downstream with Colonel Stewart, his second in command in search of immediate help. Wolseley was making painfully slow progress up the Nile with Major Kitchener sent ahead to establish contact with Khartoum and Gordon himself from the beleaguered city both urging the use of a lighter, swifter, flying column.
The expedition continued its steady march and soon the Nile began its annual fall. The boats carrying ammunition and supplies became more difficult to hand the pace slowed further.
Regrettably the ABBAS was captured, Stewart and the boat’s compliment had been put to death with all the information passing to the hands of the Mahdi. “Now” the Mahdi concluded, “we understand everything”. He demanded that Gordon capitulate voluntarily: a forced surrender would not be accepted. He moved his armies forward to ring the city.
With his hair turned snow white, Gordon held on. One evening with the bullets spattering against the wall he sent for a leading merchant of the city and insisted on sitting with him in a window lit by the largest lamp available. “When God was portioning out fear” he said “at last he came to my turn, and there was no fear left to give me. Go tell the people of Khartoum that Gordon fears nothing”. On January 25th 1885 the Mahdi alarmed by Wolseley’s approach ordered the attack. The Egyptian defenders, weakened beyond further resistance by fear and hunger collapsed. For six terrible hours 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 orders he had instantly been speared to death. His head had been cut off and his body thrown into a well. In Britain, profound national feelings had been aroused De Lesseps, Arabi, the Mahdi: by these men imperial Britain had been dragged remorselessly into the Canal, Egypt and Sudan, but everyone knew the deepening involvement could not be allowed to end in ignominy.