Thursday, January 27, 2011

General Charles Gordon - A Victorian Hero

General Charles Gordon

The 26th January 2011 marks the 126th anniversary of the death of General Charles George Gordon, perhaps more commonly remembered by his nicknames "Chinese Gordon" or "Gordon of Khartoum".

He was born in Woolwich, Kent on 28th January 1833 into a military family (his father was a Major-General). Charles was duly enrolled into the Royal Military College at Woolwich and after passing out in 1852 joined the Royal Engineers in the rank of 2nd Lieutenant based at Chatham, Kent.

In 1855, Gordon served in the Crimean War at the Siege of Sebastapol and remained in Russia until 1858.

In 1860, he volunteered to serve in China where the British were fighting the Opium Wars and endeavouring to suppress the Taiping Rebellion which threatened lucrative European trade interests.

The British occupied Northern China until April 1862 when they fell back to form part of an international force to protect Shanghai which was in imminent danger of attack from the rebels.

The international force was lead by an American, Frederick Townsend Ward and Gordon was attached to his staff as engineer officer. Ward was mortally wounded at the Battle of Cixi on 20th September 1862. Gordon assumed command in March 1863.

Gordon lead a very successful campaign against the Taipings and his force became known popularly as the "Ever Victorious Army". By May 1864 the rebels had been defeated and the army was disbanded.

Gordon returned to the UK and between 1865 and 1871 was stationed at New Tavern Fort in Gravesend, Kent. There he was responsible for overseeing the modernisation of the various forts that defended the lower Thames Estuary.

During his time in Gravesend, Gordon was known for his many philanthropic works with the poor and needy in the local community. He set up a Ragged School for Boys and in his free time taught at a Sunday School held at the Mission House pictured above.

In 1872 Gordon met the Prime Minister of Egypt whilst in Constantinople and was eventually invited to join the Egyptian Army in the rank of Colonel. In early 1874, he left for Egypt with the blessing of the British Government.

Gordon became Governor of the Gondokoro province and later in 1877 was appointed Governor-General of the Sudan.

The 1870's was a turbulent period in the history of the region. The Europeans were tyring to stamp out the slave trade in the Sudan which lead to an economic crisis in the North of the country and much unrest. Egypt and Abyssinia (later to become Ethiopia) went to war in 1875 over a border dispute.

Egyptian expeditionary forces were defeated in two battles at Gundet and Gura so in March 1877, Gordon was sent on a mission to make peace with the Abyssinian King. The mission was not a success. The Abyssinian King had gone South to fight the Shoa (one of the local tribes).

Back in the Sudan, an insurrection had broken out in Darfur (parallels of today?). Gordon decided to use diplomatic rather than military means to diffuse the volatile situation. Accompanied only by his interpreter, Gordon bravely rode into the insurgents camp and following talks succeeded in pacifying them.

Over the next three years Gordon was kept busy dealing with various revolts around the country, trying to broker peace with the Abyssinians and continuing the action against the slave traders.

In 1880, Gordon resigned his position and spent several months in Switzerland recovering from the exhaustion of his work in Africa. Gordon received many prestigious offers of employment from around the world and took short term commissions in India, China, Mauritius and South Africa before returning to the UK in 1882.

Finding himself "between" jobs, Gordon spent a year out in Palestine visiting biblical sites and writing a book "Reflections in Palestine".

On his return to the UK in 1883, Gordon was invited by King Leopold II of Belgium to take charge of the Congo Free State and was about to take up this offer when the British Government requested he return with all haste to the Sudan.

Yet another insurrection had broken out in the Sudan this time lead by the Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed. The Egyptian Army was unable to contain the rebellion in the Sudan as unrest had erupted simultaneously in Egypt (once again parallels of today!).

By December 1883 the situation had got so bad that the British Government instructed the Egyptians to abandon the Sudan and evacuate their forces as well as any civilians and their families. Gordon was ordered to proceed to Khartoum to assist in the plans for the evacuation.

Gordon arrived in Khartoum on 18th February 1884 and immediately set about evacuating the women and children, sick and wounded back to Egypt. The Mahdi's forces closed in on Khartoum following victories over the Egyptian Army at Suakin and the siege began on 18th March.

In April the British Government withdrew their troops from the Sudan and the garrison at Berber surrendered to the Mahdi in May.

Gordon and his men were alone - effectively abandoned by the British Government.

Unlike the British Government, Gordon resolved to defend Khartoum to the last.

This captured the imagination of the British public over the ensuing months and the Government came under intense pressure to send a relief expedition to break the siege.

Eventually, in August a decision was made to send an expeditionary force to relief. However, this was not ready to move until November.

Finally, the force (mounted on camels) set out from Egypt and arrived in Sudan on 20th January 1885. An advance party arrived in Khartoum on 28th January only to find that Gordon had been killed by the Mahdists two days earlier.

It is believed that Gordon was killed on the steps of the palace around dawn fighting to the last bullet. The Mahdists are said to have cut off his head and placed it in the branches of a tree on public display and children were encouraged to throw stones at it.

Gordon's remains were never recovered from the Sudan.

When news of Gordon's death reached the UK, he was immediately feted as a hero for his stoic defence of Khartoum and for facilitating the safe evacuation of many thousands of women and children.

The statue above (by Doulton), one of many memorials erected around the country in his honour, can be found in Gravesend in the grounds of the New Tavern Fort where he served for five years.

Even to this day, wreathes are still laid in his memory on the anniversary of his death.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, you may also like....

Double Murder at the Greyhound

In Foreign Fields

Kent Invicta The Legend


  1. Chinese Gordon, the quintessential Victorian hero! An enjoyable and informative post.

  2. This is a brilliant, well-researched post Glen, nicely done! Actually, my comment sounds like I am a spam-bot but I mean it!