On January 26, 1885, a great British soldier, a conspicuously Christian soldier, was killed in Khartoum, where a British government had sent him to evacuate Europeans from the peril of an Islamic uprising.
Charles George Gordon was born in 1833 to a family that had served as British military officers for four generations; no other career was ever contemplated for Gordon. He was educated at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich.
At his first post-academy assignment, in Wales, Gordon was befriended by Francis and Anne Drew, who introduced him to evangelical Protestantism. Philippians 1:21 was underlined in his bible, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He truly seemed not to fear death, displaying a contempt for personal danger in combat that some interpreted as a death wish.
Gordon never joined a denomination, and attended several, including Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist. He reportedly told a Roman Catholic priest that the Christian Church is like the British Army; there is only one army but it is divided into many regiments. He reportedly studied his Bible for at least an hour every day.
In 1860, after seeing action in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Gordon volunteered to serve in China, but arrived there after the British-involved fighting had ended. He stayed on to serve as an officer for a native army being raised to suppress the Taiping Rebellion. Initially, he was sympathetic to the Taipings, who were led by a charismatic madman who called himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. But after the witnessing the aftermath of a Taiping atrocity, Gordon realized they were truly dangerous, and not some eccentric sect of Christians.
In 1863, Gordon accepted command of what he called the “Ever Victorious Army,” and made it live up to its name. Instead of stealing their payroll, he insisted that the army be paid regularly. In 16 months, he planned and executed 16 major offensives, winning 33 consecutive battles, capturing or destroying most of the Taipings and their weaponry. Gordon was famous for leading from the front, going into combat armed only with a rattan cane. He refused to carry a gun or a sword.
Upon successfully suppressing the rebellion, the emperor offered Gordon a roomful of silver coins, which Gordon refused. He returned to England in 1865, and was lionized by the British media as “Chinese Gordon.”
Also in 1865, Gordon’s father died, which precipitated in Gordon an even deeper spiritual experience. He wrote that he had "had a belief that Jesus was the Son of God and used to have feelings of deep depression on account of my faults." But now "I know Jesus is my Saviour. God made me count the cost and conclude that His service should be all... the fruits of the Spirit could be had only by abiding in Christ..."
Gordon concentrated on Christian service in his community. He converted his family mansion into a mission house, in which he operated a free school, where he taught reading, writing, arithmetic and history. For the rest of his life he was involved in the relief of the sick, the suffering, the poor, and particularly homeless orphans.
In 1873, Khedive Ismail of Egypt asked Gordon to become governor of South Sudan. The position paid £10,000 Egyptian pounds a year (about $1 million in today's money), but Gordon refused that salary, saying that £2,000 per year was more than enough for him. Although a large-scale slave-holder himself, the Khedive, to curry favor with the European powers, asked Gordon to suppress the slave trade in South Sudan. About seven of every 8 black people in that territory were slaves, and virtually every government official was involved in the slave trade. Gordon threw himself into the suppression of the slave trade, and made great strides with little more than his moral authority and the force of his personality.
Gordon’s tenure as governor ended in 1881, when financial mismanagement caused Khedive Ismail to be replaced by a different Turkish official. But Gordon had transformed the South Sudan. He had abolished the Courbach (whipping the soles of the feet for not paying one's taxes), had stamped out pervasive official corruption, freed many slaves, and freed many unjustly condemned prisoners.
Gordon was promoted to Major-General and posted to South Africa, but he sympathized more with the Zulu—and with the Boers—than with the British who were fighting them. So he resigned and took a year in the Holy Land, which he declared the happiest year of his life. His daily routine involved prayer, Bible study, and visiting the historic sites where Jesus had walked, taught, and healed. He set out to establish the site of the crucifixion, the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre, and other Biblical locations. Out of this investigation came his book "Reflections in Palestine," his most prized personal achievement. Protestants today recognize the sites Gordon identified as Golgotha and the Garden Tomb as the true Biblical sites.
But trouble was brewing back in the Sudan. The mystical Sufi sect believed in the coming of the Mahdi, the “expected one,” whose advent would signal the Eschaton. The Sufi leaders, known as fakirs, and their “whirling dervish” disciples believed that the Mahdi would reveal himself in the Muslim year 1300 (1882 AD). In May 1881, 38-year-old Mohammad Ahmed ibn Abdullah came forward and proclaimed himself the Mahdi, and no other candidate fit the Islamic prophecies as closely as he.
He had chosen a good time to reveal himself and rally Muslims to his cause. There was widespread resentment of Turkish rule, and thousands had been bankrupted by Gordon’s suppression of the slave trade. When the Mahdi forbade the paying of taxes to Khartoum and announced a return to the slave trade his popularity was assured.
In September of 1883 an Egyptian force of 10,000 poorly trained troops led by Colonel William Hicks marched into South Sudan to suppress the Mahdist uprising. On November 5, 1883, Hicks’ army was annihilated, and he and all his officers were killed. Khartoum itself was now at risk.
Britain had seized Egypt from the Ottoman Empire in 1882, and thus was also responsible for the Sudan. But after the Hicks disaster, which came on the heels of a British loss to the Boers at Majuba Hill (1881) and a catastrophic rout at the hands of the Zulus at Isandlwana (1879), Prime Minister Gladstone was unwilling to send a British army to relieve Khartoum. Instead, he sent Gordon.
Gordon arrived to an enthusiastic welcome in Khartoum. He immediately ignored his orders and pursued a mission he deemed more appropriate: founding a Sudan separate from Egypt. He reported that an evacuation was impossible and requested a relief column. He announced the independence of Sudan from Egypt, appointing a council to rule on behalf of Her Majesty's Government under his supervision, and asked the British government to ratify his actions. He halved taxes and abolished tax arrears, burning the tax records in a blazing bonfire.
Gordon brought his formidable ingenuity and invention into improving the defenses of Khartoum, strengthening them with a ditch connecting the White Nile to the Blue Nile, a rampart, land mines, and wire entanglements. To encourage villagers to bring more produce to market, he also abolished customs duties at the gates. He converted passenger steamships into armored warships with cannons, and used these to break up enemy troop concentrations, capture cattle, and transport grain. He himself engaged in sharpshooting to take out enemy snipers.
As Gordon’s heroic defense of Khartoum continued, a groundswell of public outrage erupted in Britain. Newspaper editorials denounced the government's indecisiveness and dishonesty. The Times called for prayers for "General Gordon in imminent peril at Khartoum." Even Queen Victoria demanded that the government send a relief column. Finally, the British government ordered General Wolseley to organize a relief expedition.
But too late! Just after midnight on January 26, 1885, over 60,000 dervishes attacked Khartoum, overwhelming the defenses. The Mahdists poured into Khartoum, indiscriminately slaughtering both soldiers and unarmed civilians.
The first account of Gordon’s death to reach Cairo had Gordon calmly and unresisting walking down the palace stairway, eventually being speared by a dervish. This account was immortalized in a famous painting, as well as in the 1966 film “Khartoum,” starring Charlton Heston. Other accounts, however, hold that Gordon went down fighting, emptying his revolver and finally wielding a sword. Gordon was killed two days before his 52nd birthday.
Two days later the British relief column arrived. Notwithstanding an enraged British public, Gladstone withdrew all British troops from the Sudan, and it would be another decade before the British returned to pacify the region. Six months after Gordon's death, the Mahdi died.