Ignore advice and pay the price of pride
Gordon of Khartoum was his own worst enemy, writes Adrian Murdoch
THE NAMES Charles “Chinese” Gordon and Khartoum are so resonant of empire, the playing fields of Eton, one hesitates to mention them in polite society. Even though the origins of the Mahdist War are all a bit vague, the story of Gordon and his flawed attempt to maintain British control over the Sudan are fascinating for the way that they display the failures of large organisations and how a single individual can bring it down.
1) Technical superiority does not guarantee a victory
What prompted Gordon’s appointment in February 1884 was the battle of El Obeid at the start of November 1883. At the hands of the Mahdi and his followers, who were trying to rid the Sudan of imperial occupation, the Anglo-Egyptian army received the kind of drubbing normally reserved for the Scottish rugby squad.But despite serious military hardware (ten mountain guns, six machine guns and four Krupp field gun) and a strong defensive position, the British-led forces were completely wiped out.
2) You can get any job you want if you schmooze the right people
He may not have been popular in Downing Street, but Gordon was well-connected. Even though prime minister William Gladstone and the war secretary both thought him completely unhinged (he was fond of God, brandy and young boys in roughly equal measure), they found themselves overruled. Gordon was Queen Victoria’s favourite general and had captured the public imagination, thanks to a PR campaign of quietly briefing journalists that would make Max Clifford blush. So when a new man in Egypt was needed, Gordon found himself on the next boat for Cairo.
3) Advice can listening to
The history of business is told by those who ignored conventional wisdom and are now richer than Croesus. It is also littered with those who did the same … and are now back where they started, with huge debts and no jobs. Gordon was sent to the Sudan with orders to evacuate all allied garrisons. Instead, he decided that the Mahdi should be defeated and started to defend Khartoum. By March 1884 the city was cut off. By July a relief force had been sent, though it did not get its act together until the following January. It was too late. On the evening of January 25, Gordon was cut down along with the rest of the garrison as well as 4,000 locals still in the town.
4) Never underestimate the opposition
Sudan had never wanted to be invaded by Anglo-Egyptians. By the 1870s, a Muslim cleric decided that enough was enough. Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself Mahdi, the prophet, and set about organising revolt. Probably best to think of it in terms of the protesters who keep blocking the encroachment of Tesco supermarkets … only with spears. The successes at El Obeid and Khartoum drew a temporary line under imperial pretensions in the Sudan and the Mahdists found themselves in charge. Big supermarkets take note.
5) If you are managing director, you carry the can
Even though Gladstone had disliked Gordon, had tried to block his appointment, indeed had a great deal of sympathy with the Mahdi rebels, he found himself blamed by the British press for the failure in Khartoum. On the streets, the prime minister’s nickname GOM, for Grand Old Man, became MOG, murderer of Gordon. Rather in the same way that John Profumo’s infamous peccadillo brought down Harold Macmillan’s government in the 1960s, so too Gladstone found himself forced to resign.