Chinese Gordon for the Soudan

W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, January 9, 1884)

It is a rare piece of good fortune that at the critical moment in the destinies of the Soudan and the Nile Valley the ablest Englishman who ever held command in Equatorial Africa should be once more within two hours of London.

Sir Samuel Baker alone can be named in the same breath with General Gordon as an authority upon the subject, but of the two General Gordon unquestionably stands first. It is, therefore, with peculiar satisfaction that we direct the attention of our readers to our eleventh page, where we are privileged to set forth in considerable detail the views of Chinese Gordon on the question of the Soudan.

It will be found that in more than one important point they directly conflict with those which prevail in high quarters in this country. General Gordon not only impeaches directly the policy of ordering the evacuation of the Soudan, but he absolutely denies its possibility, unless we are willing to admit that when we say evacuation we mean massacre. On the question of policy we need not enter just now. We have committed the guidance of our Egyptian affairs to the able and experienced hands of Sir Evelyn Baring. He has come to the conclusion that the Soudan must be evacuated, and, as we stated the other day, we have no option but reluctantly to acquiesce in his decision. At the same time, it is only fair to remark that General Gordon's views as to the impolicy of abandoning the Eastern Soudan are shared by every authority who looks at the matter from a purely Egyptian standpoint. There is not an Egyptian Minister—not even Nubar himself, who has consented to take office—who does not regard Sir Evelyn Baring's decision as a serious, if not a fatal, mistake. That, however, is by the way. The other point raised by General Gordon is more practical, and of more immediate interest. He maintains that, whether it be politic or impolitic to evacuate the Soudan, it is quite impossible owing to the absence of a means of transport. Colonel Coetlogon has 6, 000 men at Khartoum. They are Egyptian soldiers who have remained faithful to their flag in spite of all temptations to go over to the winning side.

In addition to this garrison, there are in Khartoum several Europeans, including, among others, Italians, Austrians, Germans, and a French Consul, whose lives would not be safe if the town fell into the hands of the Mahdi. Khartoum is 350 miles from Wadi Halfa, and 200 miles from Berber; while the road from Berber to Souakim is blocked by insurgents, through whom Baker Pasha seems to be unable to cut his way. What is to be done to liberate these men? The case of the more distant garrisons is even worse. The fate of Egyptians there, it is to be feared, is past praying for. But Khartoum cannot be left to its fate without some attempt being made to extricate the force under Colonel Coetlogon and the Europeans, for whose rescue we shall find it difficult to evade all responsibility. If we could withdraw them to a place of safety, even with some considerable proportion of loss, the operation might still be attempted. But if is right in his estimate of the difficulties of the situation, and no one is less likely to overestimate obstacles in the way of success, the task is not merely difficult; it is simply impossible. The means of transport are altogether lacking, and without camels it is as absurd to talk of crossing the desert as to propose to cross the sea without ships. If this be so, then there is no alternative but to hold on to Khartoum as hard as we can and as long as we can, and trust to time and tribal jealousies to open a way of escape for the endangered garrisons.

It is possible that this aspect of the case has not been sufficiently considered either at home or at Cairo. It is all very well to decide that the entire evacuation of the Soudan is the easiest way out of the difficulty, but the first condition of a complete evacuation is ability to evacuate, and that, if General Gordon is correct, is exactly what we do not possess. In other words, at Khartoum Colonel Coetlogon is, and at Khartoum Colonel Coetlogon must remain. Of course, if the Mahdi, encouraged by the news that orders have been given for retirement, swoops down in irresistible force on Khartoum, he may terminate the difficulty by annihilating the garrison; but hitherto the Mahdi has not done much in the way of swooping, and Colonel Coetlogon, like many an Englishmen before him, may succeed in holding his own against overwhelming odds. While he is engaged in this enterprise the question at once arises whether we can do anything to help him, and this question can be discussed without in the least going back on Sir Evelyn Baring's decision to evacuate the whole country. We relieved Candahar before we evacuated Afghanistan, and we may have to relieve Khartoum before we are able to evacuate the Soudan. At present it is obviously out of the question to send an army to the relief of Colonel Coetlogon. Baker Pasha's force seems inadequate even to relieve Sinkat. In common with the ex-Khedive, of whom he speaks with remarkable cordiality, General Gordon deprecates the despatch of either Indian or English troops to the Soudan. But if we have not an Egyptian army to employ in the service, and if we must not send an English force, what are we to do? There is only one thing that we can do. We cannot send a regiment to Khartoum, but we can send a man who on more than one occasion has proved himself more valuable in similar circumstances than an entire army. Why not send Chinese Gordon with full powers to Khartoum, to assume absolute control of the territory, to treat with the Mahdi, to relieve the garrisons, and do what can be done to save what can be saved from the wreck in the Soudan? There is no necessity to speak of the pre-eminent qualifications which he possesses for the work. They are notorious and are as undisputed as they are indisputable. His engagement on the Congo could surely be postponed. No one can deny the urgent need in the midst of that hideous welter of confusion for the presence of such a man, with a born genius for command, an unexampled capacity in organizing "ever-victorious armies," and a perfect knowledge of the Soudan and its people. Why not send him out with carte blanche to do the best that can be done? He may not be able single-handed to reduce that raging chaos to order, but the attempt is worth making, and if it is to be made it will have to be made at once. For before many days General Gordon will have left for the Congo, and the supreme opportunity may have passed by.

About this website

I founded this website in 2001 to assist me in my own research on W.T. Stead, little knowing then that it would become the largest online resource on Stead's life and career. Today this site is used by students, scholars and institutions around the world and has significantly contributed to the Study of W.T. Stead and the evils which he campaigned against. I hope you find it useful.

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Owen Mulpetre, BA (Hons) MPhil