Hullo, I’m Hobbes, stepping in for today while Agnew steps back.
Today is the anniversary of the death of famed imperialist Major-General Charles George Gordon at the siege of Khartoum in the Sudan, 1885, sometimes called “Chinese Gordon” (ah, the Victorians) for his leadership of Qing Dynasty’s “Ever Victorious Army” as part of the British efforts to enforce their dominion over the Far East in the Opium Wars and subsequent rebellions by various Chinese popular movements.
Later dispatched to Sudan to be Governor-General to help Muhammad Ali dynasty Egypt (technically part of the Ottoman Empire but essentially also a British client state) expand into the Great Lakes region of Africa, Gordon eventually got bored of fighting with a bureaucracy rather than an enemy and quit, going home to the UK, presumably to retire.
This proved ill-timed, as a Nubian Sufi named Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi, an Islamic eschatological figure who appears at the end of days, rule for less than a decade, and, along with Jesus Christ, create the kingdom of God. While not technically part of the Quran, it’s still a popular idea with mainstream Islam.
As Mahdi, Ahmad and his followers, the Ansar (called “Dervishes” by the British which is a general term for all members of the Sufi orders), set about soundly defeating the Egyptians and their British backers, stopped only at the Nile and the Red Sea, where naval firepower prevented them from advancing. The Liberal ministry of William Gladstone, which had run on a program of reducing the Empire’s size, decided to call it a day in the Sudan, ordering an evacuation.
Enter Charles George Gordon.
Gordon had been kicking about, lying low save for a lone interview in which he opined a Muslim domino theory: that once one country had thrown off the imperialist yoke, their neighbors might do the same. After Sudan, then Egypt (again, technically not only part of a different empire but also more or less its own de facto entity, to underscore how blatant Gordon was about these things), then who knows where it might end?
Using well-designed leaks, an ultra-imperialist faction led by Sir Garnet Wolseley in the British War Office generated public momentum for sending Gordon to the Sudan. Gladstone eventually caved, agreeing to send Gordon in a limited advisory role with a narrow brief aimed at evacuating soldiers and civilians still loyal to Egypt and Britain. However, he got sick and wasn’t at the meeting where Gordon was given command, so Gordon, who was friends with Wolseley and his ultras, was given the impression he was being given carte blanche to run the Sudan how he liked.
Rather than establishing plans to evacuate, Gordon instead set about trying to suppress the Mahdi, growing insubordinate and at one point writing to the Prime Minister that they should try bribing the Ottoman Sultan into sending support, and if they would not, the Pope or American captains of industry might instead and openly criticizing Gladstone’s Sudan policy. Unable, due to public opinion, to fire Gordon, Gladstone was forced to stew, and much of the Cabinet became ill-disposed to the general. Though Gordon didn’t speak openly of a holy war, his diaries suggest that he very much felt he was on a mission from God against the Muslims.
The feeling was very much mutual among the Ansar, who viewed Gordon’s arrival as an opportunity to wreath themselves in glory for Allah, and continued to win victories against British-led Egyptian forces, driving them back to Khartoum itself and beginning a siege, which lasted nearly a year. Gladstone ordered Gordon to return home, Gordon refused, and the press continued to agitate for a relief expedition, which was eventually sent under the command of Wolseley himself. It arrived in the Sudan in January 1885, and won its first victory against the Mahdi’s forces on the 18th.
This forced the Mahdi into action on the siege front. On the night of the 25th and into the morning of the 26th, 50,000 Ansar stormed the city, taking it, and eventually finding and killing Gordon. Accounts differ. He either refused to fight and was slain, or was slain fighting, or was shot dead trying to escape to the Austrian consulate.
Neither the Mahdi’s or Gordon’s predictions came to pass. The Mahdi himself died in the summer of that year of typhus, and his conquered territory continued as a Caliphate under one of his advisors, until the British eventually defeated and killed him, putting an end to it. The Egyptians and the rest of the Arab Muslim states under British rule did not topple over in rejection of British imperialism, instead slowly developing and freeing themselves as the Empire declined. When Sudan declared its independence in 1956, the Mahdi’s son, Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, was offered the kingship, but he made a forceful statement of democracy being in keeping with the precepts of Islam. However, that too didn’t stick, as he supported Ibrahim Abboud’s coup in November 1958, possibly expecting to be named President-for-Life himself. However, he died in 1959. Today, the Sudan is two countries: Sudan and South Sudan.