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The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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been theirs for over sixty years, 2 although in the winter
of 1882-3 Colonel Stewart, an able British officer, had
reported that the Egyptian government was wholly un-
fit to rule the Soudan; it had not money enough, nor
fighting men enough, nor administrative skill enough,
and abandonment at least of large portions of it was the
only reasonable course.. Such counsels found no favour
with the khedive's advisers and agents, and General Hicks,
an Indian officer, appointed on the staff of the Egyptian
army in the spring of 1883, was now despatched by the
government of the khedive from Khartoum, for the re-
covery of distant and formidable regions. If his operations
had been limited to the original intention of clearing Sennaar

1 Wingate, pp. 50, 51. Egypt had a more or lew insecure

* The Soudan was conquered In hold over the country. In 1870 (Sir

1819 by Ismail Pasha, the son of Samuel Baker added the equatorial

Mehemet AH, and from that date provinces to the Egyptian Soudan.

VOL. II. 2 B

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BOOK of rebels and protecting Khartoum, all might have been
"^welL Unluckily some trivial successes over the Mahdi

1884. encouraged the Cairo government to design an advance into
Kordofan, and the reconquest of all the vast wildernesses of
the Soudan. Lord Dufferin, Sir E. Malet, Colonel Stewart,
were all of them clear that to attempt any such task with an
empty chest and a worthless army was madness, and they
all argued for the abandonment of Kordofan' and Darfur.
The cabinet in London, fixed in their resolve not to accept
responsibility for a Soudan war, and not to enter upon that
responsibility by giving advice for or against the advance of
Hicks, stood aloof. 1 In view of all that followed later,
and of their subsequent adoption of the policy of aban-
doning the Soudan, British ministers would evidently
have been wiser if they had now forbidden an advance
so pregnant with disaster. Events showed this to have
been the capital miscalculation whence all else of misfor-
tune followed. The sounder the policy of abandonment, the
stronger the reasons for insisting that the Egyptian govern-
ment should not undertake operations inconsistent with
that policy. The Soudan was not within the sphere of our
responsibility, but Egypt was ; and just because the separa-
tion of Egypt from the Soudan was wise and necessary, it
might have been expected that England would peremptorily
interpose to prevent a departure from the path of separa-
tion. What Hicks himself, a capable and dauntless man,
thought of the chances we do not positively know, but
he was certainly alive to the risks of such a march with
such material On November 5 (1883) the whole force was
cut to pieces, the victorious dervishes were free to advance
northwards, and the loose fabric of Egyptian authority was
shattered to the ground.

1 Mr. Gladstone said on Nov. 2, qualification that it is within the

1882 : — 'It is no part of the duty sphere of our responsibility.' Lord

incumbent upon us to restore order Granville, May 7, 1883: — ' H.M.

in the Soudan. It is politically con- government are in no way respon-

nected with Egypt in consequence of sible for the operations in the Soudan,

its very recent conquest ; but it has which have been undertaken under

not been included within the sphere the authority of the Egyptian gov-

of our operations, and we are by no ernment, or for the appointment or

means disposed to admit without actions of General Hicks.'

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The three British military officers in Cairo all agreed that Mt * 75 -
the Egyptian government could not hold Khartoum if the
Mahdi should draw down upon it ; and unless a British, an
Indian, or a Turkish force came to the rescue, abandonment
of the Soudan was the only possible alternative. The
London cabinet decided that they would not employ British
or Indian troops in the Soudan, and though they had no
objection to the resort to the Turks by Egypt, if the Turks
would pay their own expenses (a condition fatal to any such
resort), they strongly recommended the khedive to abandon
all territory south of Assouan or Wady-Halfa. Sir Evelyn
Baring, who had now assumed his post upon a theatre where
he was. for long years to come to play the commanding part,
concurred in thinking that the policy of complete abandon-
ment was the best admitted by the circumstances. It is the
way of the world to suppose that because a given course is
best, it must therefore be possible and ought to be simple.
Baring and his colleagues at Cairo were under no such
illusion, but it was the foundation of most of the criticism
that now broke forth in the English press.

The unparalleled difficulties that ultimately attended the
evacuation of the Soudan naturally led inconsiderate critics, —
and such must ever be the majority, — to condemn the policy
and the cabinet who ordered it. So apt are men in their
rough judgments on great disputable things, to mistake a
mere impression for a real opinion ; and we must patiently
admit that the Result — success or failure in the Event — is
the most that they have time for, and all that they can go by.
Yet two remarks are to be made upon this facile censure.
The first is that those who knew the Soudan best, approved
most. On January 22, 1884, Gordon wrote to Lord Gran-
ville that the Soudan ever was and ever would be a useless
possession, and that he thought the Queen's ministers ' fully
justified in recommending evacuation, inasmuch as the sacri-
fices necessary towards securing good government would be
far too onerous to admit of such an attempt being made/
Colonel Stewart quite agreed, and added the exclamation

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BOOK that nobody who had ever visited the Soudan could escape
ym ' ' the reflection, ' What a useless possession and what a huge
1884. encumbrance on Egypt!' As we shall see, the time soon
came when Gordon accepted the policy of evacuation,
even with an emphasis of his own. The second remark
is that the reconquest of the Soudan and the holding
of Khartoum was for the Egyptian government, if left
to its own resources, neither more nor less than im-
possible; these objects, whether they were good objects or
bad, not only meant recourse to British troops for the first
immense operations, but the retention of them in a huge,
and most inhospitable region for an indefinite time. A third
consideration will certainly not be overlooked by anybody
who thinks on the course of the years of Egyptian reform
that have since elapsed, and constitute so remarkable a
chapter of British administration, — namely, that this bene-
ficent achievement would have been fatally clogged, if those
who conducted it had also had the Soudan on their hands.
The renovation or reconstruction of what is called Egypt
proper, its finances, its army, its civil rule, would have been
absolutely out of reach, if at the same time its guiding
statesmen had been charged with the responsibilities of
recovering and holding that vaster tract which had been so
rashly acquired and so mercilessly misgoverned. This is fully
admitted by those who have had most to do with the result

The policy of evacuation was taken as carrying with it
the task of extricating the Egyptian garrisons. This aim
induced Mr. Gladstone's cabinet once more to play an active
military part, though Britain had no share in planting these
garrisons where they were. Wise men in Egypt were of the
same mind as General Gordon, that in the eastern Soudan
it would have been better for the British government to
keep quiet, and ' let events work themselves out.' Unfortu-
nately the ready clamour of headlong philanthropists, political
party men, and the men who think England humiliated if
she ever lets slip an excuse for drawing her sword, drove the
cabinet on to the rocks. When the decision of the cabinet was

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taken (Fob. 12, 1883) to send troops to Suakin, Mr. Gladstone CHAP,
stood alone in objecting. Many thousands of savages were v *t*
slaughtered under humanitarian pressure, not a few English iET * 75#
lives were sacrificed, much treasure flowed, and yet Sinkat
fell, and Tokar fell, and our labours in the eastern Soudan
were practically fruitless. 1 The operations had no eflfect
upon the roll of the fierce mahdi wave over the Soudan.

In England, excitement of the unsound sort that is
independent of knowledge, consideration, or deliberation;
independent of any weighing of the actual facts and any
forecast of latent possibilities, grew more and more vociferous.
Ministers quailed. Twice they inquired of their agent in
Egypt 2 whether General Gordon might not be of use, and
twice they received an adverse reply, mainly on the ground
that the presence in authority of a Christian officer was a
dubious mode of confronting a sweeping outbreak of inoslem
fanaticism, and would inevitably alienate tribes that were
still not caught by the Mahdi. 3 Unhappily a third applica-
tion from London at last prevailed, and Sir E. Baring, sup-
ported by Nubar, by Sir Evelyn Wood, by Colonel Watson,
who had served with Gordon and knew him well, all agreed
that Gordon would be the best man if he would pledge
himself to carry out the policy of withdrawing from the
Soudan as quickly as possible. ' Whoever goes/ said Sir E.
Baring in pregnant words to Lord Granville, will ' undertake
a service of great difficulty and danger/ This was on Janu-
ary 16th. Two days later the die was cast. Mr. Gladstone
was at Hawarden. Lord Granville submitted the question
(Jan. 14, 1884) to him in this form: — 'If Gordon says he

1 It was a general mistake at that with the governor -general of the
time to suppose that wherever a Soudan upon the suppression of the

Sarrison fell into the hands of the slave trade, but was appointed (1877)

lahdi, they were massacred. At governor-general of the Soudan, Dar-

Tokar, for instance, the soldiers were fur, the equatorial provinces, and

incorporated by the victors. See the Red Sea littoral. He held this

Wingate, p. 593. position till the end of 1870, suppres-

2 Granville to Baring, Dec. 1, 1883; sing the slave trade with a strong
Jan. 10, 1884. hand and improving the means of com-

* Gordon had suppressed the Tai- munication throughout the Soudan,

ping rising in China in 1863. In 1874 He succeeded in establishing compara-

he was appointed by the Egyptian tive order. Then the new Egyptian

government governor-general of the government reversed Gordon's policy,

equatorial provinces of central Africa, and the result of his six years work

In 1876 he resigned owing to trouble soon fell to pieces.

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BOOK believes he could by his personal influence excite the tribes
VI11, , to escort the Khartoum garrison and inhabitants to Suakin, a
1884. little pressure on Baring might be advisable. The destruction
of these poor people will be a great disaster/ Mr. Gladstone
telegraphed that to this and other parts of the same letter,
he agreed. Granville then sent him a copy of the telegram
putting ' a little pressure on Baring/ To this Mr. Gladstone
replied (Jan. 16) in words that, if they had only been taken
to heart, w<Juld have made all the difference : —

I can find no fault with your telegram to Baring re Chinese
Gordon, and the main point that strikes me is this: While his
opinion on the Soudan may be of great value, must we not be
very careful in any instruction we give, that he does not shift the
centre of gravity as to political and military responsibility for that
country. In brief, if he reports what should be done, he should not
be the judge who should do it, nor ought he to commit us on that
point by advice officially given. It would be extremely difficult
after sending him to reject such advice, and it should therefore,
I think, be made clear that he is not our agent for the purpose
of advising on that point.

On January 18, Lord Hartington (then secretary of state
for war), Lord Granville, Lord Northbrook, and Sir Charles
Dilke, met at the war office in Fall Mall. The summons
was sudden. Lord Wolseley brought Gordon and left
him in the ante-room. After a conversation with the
ministers, he came out and said to Gordon, 'Government
are determined to evacuate the Soudan, for they will not
guarantee the future government. Will you go and do it ? *
' / said, " Yes/' He said, " Go in." / went in and saw them.
They said, "Did Wolseley tell you our orders?" J said, "Yes."
/ said, " You will not guarantee future government of the
Soudan, and you wish me to go up and evacuate now." They
said, " Yes," and it was over, and I left at 8 p.m. for Calais. 9 1
This graphic story does not pretend to be a fall version of
all that passed, though it puts the essential point unmistak-
ably enough. Lord Granville seems to have drawn Gordon's

1 Gordon's Letters to Barnes, 1885. bag, and the Duke of Cambridge held
Lord Granville took his ticket, open the carriage door.
Lord Wolseley carried the General's

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special attention to the measures to be taken for the security
of the Egyptian garrisons (plural) still holding positions in •
the Soudan and to the best mode of evacuating the interior. 1 iET * 75 *
On the other hand, according to a very authentic account
that I have seen, Gordon on this occasion stated that the
danger at Khartoum was exaggerated, and that he would be
able to bring away the garrisons without difficulty.

Thus in that conclave of sober statesmen a tragedy began.
The next day one of the four ministers met another;
'We were proud of ourselves yesterday — are you sure
we did not commit a gigantic folly ? ' The prime minister
had agreed at once on receiving the news of what was done
at the war office, and telegraphed assent the same night 2
The whole cabinet met four days later, Mr. Gladstone among
them, and the decision was approved. There was hardly a
choice, for by that time Gordon was at BrindisL Gordon, as
Mr. Gladstone said, was a hero of heroes. He was a soldier
of infinite personal courage and daring ; of striking military
energy, initiative and resource; a high, pure, and single
character, dwelling much in the region of the unseen. But
as all who knew him admit, and as his own records testify,
notwithstanding an under-current of shrewd common-sense,
he was the creature, almost the sport, of impulse ; his im-
pressions and purposes changed with the speed of lightning ;
anger often mastered him ; he went very often by intuitions
and inspirations rather than by cool inference from carefully
surveyed fact: with many variations of mood he mixed,
as we often see in people less famous, an invincible
faith in his own rapid prepossessions while they lasted.
Everybody now discerns that to despatch a soldier of this
temperament on a piece of business that was not only
difficult and dangerous, as Sir E. Baring said, but profoundly
obscure, and needing vigilant sanity and self-control, was
little better than to call in a wizard with his magic. Mr.
Gladstone always professed perplexity in understanding why
the violent end of the gallant Cavagnari in Afghanistan,

1 Baring's Instructions to Gordon concurrence in yonr proceedings about

(Jan. 25, 1884). Gordon : but Chester would not

3 Gladstone to Granville, Jan. 19, awake and the message only went on

1884. — 'I telegraphed last night my this morning.'

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BOOK stirred the world so little in comparison with the fate of
: * Gordon. The answer is that Gordon seized the imagination

1884. f Eogland^ and seized it on its higher side. His religion
was eccentric, but it was religion ; the Bible was the rock
on which he founded himself, both old dispensation and
new ; he was known to hate forms, ceremonies, and all the
' solemn plausibilities ' ; his speech was sharp, pithy, rapid,
and ironic ; above all, he knew the ways of war and would not
bear the sword for nought All this was material enough
to make a popular ideal, and this is what Gordon in an
ever-increasing degree became, to the immense inconveni-
ence of the statesmen, otherwise so sensible and wary, who
had now improvidentiy let the genie forth from the jar.


It has been sometimes contended that all the mischief
that followed was caused by the diversion of Gordon from
Suakin, his original destination. If he had gone to the
Red Sea, as originally intended, there to report on the state
and look of things in the Soudan, instead of being waylaid
and brought to Cairo, and thence despatched to Khartoum,
they say, no catastrophe would have happened. This is not
certain, for the dervishes in the eastern Soudan were in the
flush of open revolt, and Gordon might either have been
killed or taken prisoner, or else he would have come back
without performing any part of his mission. In fact, on his
way from London to Port Said, Gordon had suggested that
with a view to carrying out evacuation, the khedive should
make him governor-general of the Soudan. Lord Granville
authorised Baring to procure the nomination, and this Sir "
Evelyn did, 'for the time necessary to accomplish the
evacuation.' The instructions were thus changed, in an
important sense, but the change was suggested by Gordon
and sanctioned by Lord Granville. 1

1 "Dilke in House of Commons, Feb. object of reporting from thence on

14, 1884. See also Lord Granville to the best method of effecting the

Sir E. Baring, March 28, 1884. In re- evacuation of the Soudan. . . . His

capitulating the instructions given instructions, drawn up in accordance,

to General Gordon, Lord Granville with his own views, were to report to

says : — ' His (Gordon's) first proposal ber Majesty's government on the

was to proceed to Suakin with the military situation in the Soudan, 'etc.

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Gordon's instructions 393

When Gordon left London his instructions, drafted in fact CHAP,
by himself, were that he should ' consider and report upon
the best mode of effecting the evacuation of the interior of
the Soudan.' He was also to perform such duties as the
Egyptian government might wish to entrust to him, and
as might be communicated to him by Sir E. Baring. 1
At Cairo Baring and Nubar, after discussion with Gordon,
altered the mission from one of advice and report to an
executive mission — a change that was doubtless authorised
and covered by the original reference to duties to be
entrusted to him by Egypt But there was no change in
the policy either at Downing Street or Cairo. Whether
advisory or executive, the only policy charged upon the.
mission was abandonment. When the draft of the new
instructions was read to Gordon at Cairo, Sir E. Baring
expressly asked him whether he entirely concurred in ' the
policy of abandoning the Soudan/ and Gordon not only
concurred, but suggested the strengthening words, that he
thought 'it should on. no account be changed.' 2 This
despatch, along with the instructions to Gordon making
this vast alteration, was not received in London until
Feb. 7. By this time Gordon was crossing the desert, and
out of reach of the English foreign office.

On his way from Brindisi, Gordon had prepared a memor-
andum for Sir E. Baring, in which he set out his opinion
that the Soudan had better be restored to the different petty
sultans in existence before the Egyptian conquest, and an
attempt should be made to form them into some sort of
confederation. These petty rulers might be left to accept the
Mahdi for their sovereign or not, just as they pleased. But
in the same document he emphasised the policy of abandon-
ment ' I understand,' he says, ' that H.M.'s government
have come to the irrevocable decision not to incur the very
onerous duty of granting to the peoples of the Soudan a just
future government' Left to their independence, the sultans
'would doubtless fight among themselvea' As for future
good government, it' was evident that ' this we could not

1 For the f nil text of these mstruc- * Baring to Granville, January 28,
tions, see Appendix. 1884.

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BOOK secure them without an inordinate expenditure of men and
T * / money. The Soudan is a useless possession ; ever was so,
1884 - and ever will be so. No one who has ever lived in the
Soudan can escape the reflection, What a useless possession
is this land.' Therefore — so he winds up — ' I think H.M.'s
government are fully justified in recommending the
evacuation, inasmuch as the sacrifices necessary towards
securing a good government would be far too onerous to
admit of any such attempt being made. Indeed, one may
say it is impracticable at any cost. H.M.'s government will
now leave them as God has placed ther^.' x

It was, therefore, and it is, pure sophistry to contend that
Gordon's policy in undertaking his disastrous mission was
evacuation but not abandonment. To say that the Soudanese
should be left in the state in which God had placed them,
to fight it out among themselves, if they were so minded,
is as good a definition of abandonment as can be invented,
and this was the whole spirit of the instructions imposed by
the government of the Queen and accepted by Gordon.

Gordon took with him instruments from the khedive into
which, along with definite and specific statements that
evacuation was the object of his mission, two or three loose
sentences are slipped about ' establishing organized govern-
ment in the different provinces of the Soudan,' maintaining
order, and the like. It is true also that the British cabinet
sanctioned the extension of the area of evacuation from
Khartoum to the whole Soudan. 2 Strictly construed, the
whole body of instructions, including firmans and khedive's
proclamations, is not technically compact nor coherent. But
this is only another way of saying that Gordon was to have
the widest discretionary powers as to the manner of carrying
out the policy, and the best time and mode of announcing
it. The policy itself, as well understood by Gordon as by
everybody else, was untouched, and it was: to leave the
Soudanese in the state in which God had placed them.

The hot controversy on this point is idle and without
substance — the idlest controversies are always the hottest

1 Dated, Steamship « Tanjore,' at Sea, Jan. 22, 1884.
* Granville to Baring, March 28.

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— for not only was Gordon the last man in all the world CHAP,
to hold himself bound by official instructions, but thev_

actual conditions of the case were too little known, too uEt# 76,
shifting, too unstable, to permit of hard and fast direc-
tions beforehand how to solve so desperate a problem. Two
things at any rate were clear — one, that Gordon should faith-
fully adhere to the policy of evacuation and abandonment
which he had formally accepted ; the other, that the British
government should leave him a free hand. Unhappily
neither of these two clear things was accepted by either
of the parties.


Gordon's policies were many and very mutable. Viewing
the frightful embarrassments that enveloped him, we can-
not wonder. Still the same considerateness that is always
so bounteously and so justly extended to the soldier in the
field, is no less due in its measure to the councillor in the
cabinet This is a bit of equity often much neglected both
by contemporaries and by history.

He had undertaken his mission without any serious and
measured forecast, such as his comrade, Colonel Stewart,
was well fitted to supply. His first notion was that he could
restore the representatives of the old rulers, but when he got
into the country, he found that there were none ; with one
by no means happy exception, they had all disappeared.
When he reached Berber, he learned more clearly how the
question of evacuation was interlaced with other questions.
Once at Khartoum, at first he thought himself welcome as
a deliverer, and then when new light as to the real feelings
of the Soudanese broke upon him, he flung the policy of his
mission overboard. Before the end of February, instead of the
Suzerainty of Egypt, the British government should control
Soudanese administration, with Zobeir as their governor-
general 'When Gordon left this country/ said Mr. Glad-
stone, ' and when he arrived in Egypt, he declared it to be,
and I have not the smallest doubt that it was — a fixed
portion of his policy, that no British force should be

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 36 of 91)