Thursday, January 20, 2011

January 26, 1885 --- Death on the Nile

In Khartoum, Sudan, Colonel Charles Gordon is murdered in the British Residency by Dervish tribesmen, loyal to their spiritual leader, the Mahdi.  According to the considerable legend attached to the events, Gordon puts on his dress white uniform and armed with a sword and pistol meets his fate.  He was speared and then hacked to death; his head was then severed and hung from a tree, to be stoned by passersby and pecked at by birds. 

By the manner of his death, Gordon became - as Strachey later anointed him, however ironically - an "eminent Victorian."  In a long and mostly obscure prior career. Gordon had won some success in the Sudan.  He was now looked to as "the man" to deal with the rise of the Mahdi - who had massacred an army of 30,000 Egyptian troops with English commanders sent to put him down.  Enthusiastically endorsed by the press, Gordon - now in his 50's - was called out of retirement and sent off to Khartoum.  His orders were to safely bring the British & Egyptian forces out of the region.  Once he arrived, however, he asked for more forces, claiming he could easily crush "the feeble lot of stinking Dervishes."  Soon, he and his garrison of 8000 men were under siege. 

The drama was followed daily in the press; the siege on the southern Nile had lasted for ten months.  The Queen took great interest and demanded Prime Minister Gladstone do something, "You are bound to try to save him."  Instead, Gladstone infuriated many Britons when he actually suggested that the Dervishes may have been "rightly struggling" to drive out foreigners.  The public pressure was too great and Gladstone's government authorized a rescue force.  They arrived, perhaps, two days after the final massacre.  Gordon met his end placidly, "When God was portioning out fear ... at last it came to my turn and there was no fear left to give me." 

The word of Gordon's death and mutilation sent the Queen off the rails.  In a stunning personal rebuke, she sent Gladstone an uncoded wire: "To think that all this might have been prevented."  Gladstone, who was popularly known as "the Grand Old Man," abbreviated to GOM, was now the MOG, "Murderer of Gordon."  The British rescue force withdrew, leaving Khartoum to the Mahdi.  Gordon's revenge would be more than a decade in coming (q.v. September 2)

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