Chinese Gordon on the Soudan

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Chinese Gordon on the Soudan

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

Chinese Gordon’s arrival in London from Brussels, en route for the Congo, having been announced in yesterday’s papers, a communication was immediately addressed to him at Southampton, whither he had proceeded, asking him if he would consent to hold a conversation on the subject of the Soudan with a representative of the Pall Mall Gazette.

With characteristic modesty, General Gordon begged to be excused, as his views were of insufficient importance to warrant a journey to Southampton. Our representative [W. T. Stead] left town by the next train, and found General Gordon at his sister’s house in the outskirts of Southampton. He showed considerable disinclination to express his opinions upon the subject, but on its being represented to him very strongly that he of all men now in the country was best acquainted with the Soudan, and therefore was best able to speak with authority on the question of the hour, he consented to enter upon the subject. As soon as he had broken the ice he went on with the greatest animation, and even vehemence, expressing himself with the utmost clearness and emphasis upon all the phases of the question of the hour. No transcript of the notes of that conversation, which lasted over two hours, can convey any idea of the manner in which the late Governor-General of the Soudan discussed in all the minuteness of detail the difficulties to be faced, and indicated with the utmost precision and confidence both the causes of the disaster and the methods by which the crisis should be faced. By eliminating all that is extraneous to the vitals of the subject, and rigidly confining attention to the central point, it is possible to convey some meagre impression of what Chinese Gordon thinks of the Soudan in the following rough transcript of the substance of his remarks:—

“So you would abandon the Soudan? But the Eastern Soudan is indispensable to Egypt. It will cost you far more to retain your upon Egypt proper if you abandon your hold of the Eastern Soudan to the Mahdi or to the Turk than what it would to retain your hold upon Eastern Soudan by the aid of such material as exists in the provinces. Darfur and Kordofan must be abandoned. That I admit; but provinces lying to the east of the White Nile should be retained, and north of Senaar. The danger to be feared is not that the Mahdi will march northward through Wadi Halfa; on the contrary, it is very improbable that he will ever go so far north. The danger is altogether of a different nature. It arises from the influence which the spectacle of a conquering Mahommedan Power, established close to your frontiers, will exercise upon the population which you govern. In all the cities in Egypt it will be felt that what the Mahdi has done they may do; and, as he has driven out the intruder and the infidel, they may do the same. Nor is it only England that has to face this danger. The success of the Mahdi has already excited dangerous fermentation in Arabia and Syria. Placards have been posted in Damascus calling upon the population to rise and drive out the Turks. If the whole of the Eastern Soudan is surrendered to the Mahdi, the Arab tribes on both sides the Red Sea will take fire. In self-defence the Turks are bound to do something to cope with so formidable a danger, for it is quite possible that if nothing is done the whole of the Eastern Question may be re-opened by the triumph of the Mahdi. I see it is proposed to fortify Wadi Halfa, and prepare there to resist the Mahdi’s attack. You might as well fortify against a fever. Contagion of that kind cannot be kept out by fortifications and garrisons. But that it is real, and that it does exist, will be denied by no one cognisant with Egypt and the East. In self-defence the policy of evacuation cannot possibly be justified.

There is another aspect of the question. You have 6,000 men in Khartoum. What are you going to do with them? You have garrisons in Darfur, in Bahr Gazelle, and Gondokoro. Are they to be sacrificed? Their only offence is their loyalty to their Sovereign. For their fidelity you are going to abandon them to their fate. You say they are to retire upon Wadi Halfa. But Gondokoro is 1,500 miles from Khartoum, and Khartoum is 350 only from Wadi Halfa. How will you move your 6,000 men from Khartoum—to say nothing of other places—and all the Europeans in that city, through desert to Wadi Halfa? Where are you going to get the camels to take them away? Will the Mahdi supply them? If they are to escape with their lives, the garrison will not be allowed to leave with a coat on their backs. They will be plundered to the skin, and even then their lives may not be spared. Whatever you may decide about evacuation, you cannot evacuate, because your army cannot be moved. You must either surrender absolutely to the Mahdi or defend Khartoum at all hazards. The latter is the only course which ought to be entertained. There is no serious difficulty about it. The Mahdi’s forces will fall to pieces of themselves; but if in a moment of panic orders are issued for the abandonment of the whole of the Eastern Soudan a blow will be struck against the security of Egypt and the peace of the East, which may have fatal consequences.

The great evil is not at Khartoum, but at Cairo, It is the weakness of Cairo which produces disaster in the Soudan. It is because Hicks was not adequately supported at the first, but was thrust forward upon an impossible enterprise by the men who had refused him supplies when a decisive blow might have been struck, that the Western Soudan has been sacrificed. The Eastern Soudan may, however, be saved if there is a firm hand placed at the helm in Egypt. Everything depends on that.

What then, you ask, should be done? I reply, place Nubar in power! Nubar is the one supremely able man among Egyptian Ministers. He is proof against foreign intrigue, and he thoroughly understands the situation. Place him in power; support him through thick and thin; give him a free hand; and let it be distinctly understood that no intrigues either on the part of Tewfik or any of Nubar’s rivals will be allowed for a moment to interfere with the execution of his plans. You are sure to find that the energetic support of Nubar will sooner or later bring you into collision with the Khedive; but if that Sovereign really desires, as he says, the welfare of his country, it will be necessary for you to protect Nubar’s Administration from any direct or indirect interference on his part. Nubar can be depended upon: that I can guarantee. He will not take office without knowing that he is to have his own way; but if he takes office it is the best security that you can have for the restoration of order to the country. Especially is this the case with the Soudan. Nubar should be left untrammelled by any stipulations concerning the evacuation of Khartoum. There is no hurry. The garrisons can hold their own at present. Let them continue to hold on until disunion and tribal jealousies have worked their natural results in the camp of the Mahdi. Nubar should be free to deal with the Soudan, in his own way. How he will deal with the Soudan, of course I cannot profess to say; but I should imagine that he would appoint a Governor-General at Khartoum with full powers, and furnish him with two millions sterling—a large sum, no doubt, but a sum which had much better be spent now than wasted in a vain attempt to avert the consequences of an ill-timed surrender. Sir Samuel Baker, who possesses the essential energy and single tongue requisite for the office, might be appointed Governor-General of the Soudan; and he might take his brother as Commander-in-Chief.

It should be proclaimed in the hearing of all the Soudanese, and engraved on tablets of brass, that a permanent Constitution was granted to the Soudanese by which no Turk or Circassian would ever be allowed to enter the province to plunder its inhabitants in order to fill his own pockets, and that no immediate emancipation of slaves would be attempted. Immediate emancipation was denounced in 1833 as confiscation in England, and it is no less confiscation in the Soudan to-day. Whatever is done in that direction should be done gradually, and by a process of registration. Mixed tribunals might be established, if Nubar thought fit, in which European judges would cooperate with the natives in the administration of justice. Police inspectors also might be appointed, and adequate measures taken to root out the abuses which prevail in the prisons.

With regard to Darfur, I should think that Nubar would probably send back the family and the heir of the Sultan of Darfur. If subsidized by the Government and sent back with Sir Samuel Baker, he would not have much difficulty in regaining possession of the kingdom of Darfur, which was formerly one of the best governed of African countries. As regards Abyssinia the old warning should not be lost sight of—”Put not your trust in princes;” and place no reliance upon the King of Abyssinia, at least outside his own country. Zoula and Bogos might be ceded to him with advantage, and the free right of entry by the port of Massouah might be added; but it would be a mistake to give him possession of Massouah, which he would ruin. A commission might also be sent down with advantage to examine the state of things in Harrar, opposite Aden, and see what iniquities are going on there, as also at Berbera and Zeila. By these means, and by the adoption of a steady, consistent policy at headquarters, it would be possible—not to say easy—to re-establish the authority of the Khedive between the Red Sea and Sennaar.

As to the cost of the Soudan, it is a mistake to suppose that it will necessarily be a charge on the Egyptian Exchequer. It will cost two millions to relieve the garrisons and to quell the revolt; but that expenditure must be incurred any way; and in all probability, if the garrisons are handed over to be massacred and the country evacuated, the ultimate expenditure would exceed that sum. At first, until the country is pacified, the Soudan will need a subsidy of £200,000 a year from Egypt. That, however, would be temporary. During the last years of my administration the Soudan involved no charge upon the Egyptian Exchequer. The bad provinces were balanced against the good, and as equilibrium was established. The Soudan will never be a source of revenue to Egypt, but it need not be a source of expense. That deficits have arisen and that the present disaster has occurred, is entirely attributable to a single cause; and that is the grossest misgovernment.

The cause of the rising in the Soudan is the cause of all popular risings against Turkish rule wherever they have occurred. No one who has been in a Turkish province and has witnessed the results of the Bashi-Bazouk system, which excited so much indignation some time ago in Bulgaria, will need to be told why the people of the Soudan have risen in revolt against the Khedive. The Turks, the Circassians, and the Bashi-Bazouks have plundered and oppressed the people in the Soudan as they plundered and oppressed them in the Balkan peninsula. Oppression begat discontent; discontent necessitated an increase of the armed force at the disposal of the authorities; this increase of the army force involved an increase of expenditure, which again was attempted to be met by increasing taxation, and that still further increased the discontent. And so things went on in a dismal circle until they culminated, after repeated deficits, in a disastrous rebellion. That the people were justified in rebelling nobody who knows the treatment to which they were subjected will attempt to deny. Their cries were absolutely unheeded at Cairo. In despair they had recourse to the only method by which they could make their wrongs known; and, on the same principle that Absalom fired the corn of [illegible], so that they rallied round the Mahdi, who exhorted them to revolt against the Turkish yoke. I am convinced that it it an entire mistake to regard the Mahdi as in any sense a religious leader: he personifies popular discontent. All the Soudanese are potential Mahdis, just as all the Egyptians are potential Arabis. The movement is not religious, but an outbreak of despair. Three times over I warned the late Khedive that it would be impossible to govern the Soudan on the old system after my appointment to the Governor-Generalship. During the three years that I wielded full powers in the Soudan I taught the natives that they had a right to exist. I waged war against the Turks and Circassians who had harried the population. I had taught them something of the meaning of liberty and justice, and accustomed them to a higher ideal of government than that with which they had previously been acquainted. As soon as I had gone the Turks and Circassians returned in full force; the old Bashi-Bazouk system was re-established; my old employés were persecuted; and a population which had begun to appreciate something like decent government was flung back to suffer the worst excesses of Turkish rule. The inevitable result followed; and thus it may be said that the egg of the present rebellion was laid in the three years during which I was allowed to govern the Soudan on other than Turkish principles.

The Soudanese are a very nice people. They deserve the sincere compassion and sympathy of all civilized men. I got on very well with them, and I am sincerely sorry at the prospect of seeing them handed over to be ground down once more by their Turkish and Circassian oppressors. Yet, unless an attempt is made to hold on to the present garrisons, it is inevitable that the Turks, for the sake of self-preservation, must attempt to crush them. They deserve a better fate. It ought not to be impossible to come to terms with them, to grant them a free amnesty for the past, to offer them security for decent government in the future. If this were done, and the government entrusted to a man whose word was truth, all might yet be re-established. So far from believing it impossible to make an arrangement with the Mahdi I strongly suspect that he is a mere puppet put forward by Ilyas, Zebehr’s father-in law, and the largest slaveowner in Obeid, and that he has assumed a religious title to give colour to his defence of the popular rights.

There is one subject on which I cannot imagine any one can differ about. That is the impolicy of announcing our intention to evacuate Khartoum. Even if we were bound to do so we should have said nothing about it. The moment it is known that we have given up the game every man will go over to the Mahdi. All men worship the rising sun. The difficulties of evacuation will be enormously increased, if, indeed, the withdrawal of our garrison is not rendered impossible.

The late Khedive, who is one of the ablest and worst used men in Europe, would not have made such a mistake, and under him the condition of Egypt proper was much better than it is to-day. Now with regard to Egypt, the same principle should be observed that must be acted upon in the Soudan. Let your foundations be broad and firm and based upon the contentment and welfare of the people. Hitherto, both in the Soudan and in Egypt, instead of constructing the social edifice like a pyramid, upon its base, we have been rearing an obelisk which a single push may overturn. Our safety in Egypt is to do something for the people. That is to say you must reduce their rent, rescue them from the usurers, and retrench expenditure. Nine-tenths of the European employés might probably be weeded out with advantage. The remaining tenth—thoroughly efficient—should be retained; but whatever you do, do not break up Sir Evelyn Wood’s army, which is destined to do good work. Stiffen it as much as you please, but with Englishmen, not with Circassians. Circassians are as much foreigners in Egypt as Englishmen are, and certainly not more popular. As for the European population, let them have charters for the formation of municipal councils, for raising volunteer corps, and for organizing in their own defence. Anything more shameful than the flight from Egypt in 1882 I never read. Let them take an example from Shanghai, where the European settlement provides for its own defence and its own government. I should like to see a competent special Commissioner of the highest standing—such a man, for instance, as Mr. W. E. Forster, who is free at once from traditions of the elders and of the Foreign Office, and of the bondholders, sent out to put Nubar in the saddle, sift out unnecessary employés, and warn evil doers in the highest places that they will not be allowed to play any tricks. If that were done it would give confidence everywhere, and I see no reason why the last British soldier should not be withdrawn from Egypt in six months time.

I hope (said General Gordon, in conclusion) that you will explain that I did not wish to press my opinions upon the public. I am very reluctant to say anything calculated to embarrass the Government in a very difficult crisis; but when you appealed to me, I did feel moved at the thought of the poor Soudanese, whom I knew so well and loved so much; and I thought that for once I might, for their sake, depart from the resolution which I had formed in my mind to leave these things to be governed by the Higher Power which cannot err, without comment on my part. They are a good people, the poor Soudanese, and if I can do anything for them I shall be only too glad. But although I have spoken to you quite frankly, I should be much obliged if, when you publish these remarks, you would let it be distinctly understood that I do not wish to depart again from the rule which I have mentioned.”