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The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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employed in aid of his mission.' 1 When March came, he

1 Feb. 23, 1885.

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BOOK flung himself with ardour into the policy of 'smashing
Vil1, * up ' the Mahdi, with resort to British and Indian troops.
1884 - This was a violent reversal of all that had been either settled
or dreamed of, whether in London or at Cairo. A still more
vehement stride came next He declared that to leave out*
lying garrisons to their fate would be an ' indelible disgrace.'
Yet, as Lord Hartington said, the government ' were under
no moral obligation to use the military resources of this
empire for the relief of those garrisons.' As for Gordons
opinion that ' indelible disgrace ' would attach to the British
government if they were not relieved, ' I do not admit,'
said the minister very sensibly, ' that General Gordon is on
this point a better authority than anybody else.' 1 All this
illustrates the energy of Gordon's mental movements, and
also, what is more important, the distracting difficulties of
the case before him. In one view and one demand he
strenuously persevered, as we shall now see.

Mr. Gladstone at first, when Gordon set all instructions
at defiance, was for recalling him. A colleague also was
for recalling him on the first instant when he changed his
policy. Another important member of the cabinet was, on
the contrary, for an expedition. ' I cannot admit,' wrote a
fourth leading minister, ' that either generals or statesmen
who have accepted the offer of a man to lead a forlorn hope,
are in the least bound to risk the lives of thousands for the
uncertain chance of saving the forlorn hope.' Some think
that this was stern common sense, others call it ignoble.
The nation, at any rate, was in one of its high idealising
humours, though Gordon had roused some feeling against
himself in this country (unjustly enough) by his decree
formally sanctioning the holding of slaves.

The general had not been many hours in Khartoum
(February 18) before he sent a telegram to Sir E. Baring,
proposing that on his withdrawal from Khartoum, Zobeir
Pasha should be named his successor as governor-general
of the Soudan . he should be made a K.C.M.G., and have
presents given to him. This request was strenuously
pressed by Gordon. Zobeir had been a prime actor in the

1 May 13, 1884.

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devastations of the slave trade ; it was he who had acquired CHAP.
Darfur for Egypt; he was a first-rate fighting man, and.

the ablest leader in the Soudan. He is described by the ^- 75 -
English officer who knows the Soudan best, as a far-seeing,
thoughtful man of iron will — a born ruler of men. 1 The
Egyptian government had desired to send him down to aid
in the operations at Surikin in 1883, but the government in
London vetoed him, as they were now to veto him a second
time. The Egyptian government was to act on its own
responsibility, but not to do what it thought best So now
with Gordon.

Gordon in other days had caused Zobeir's son to be shot,
and this was supposed to have set up an unquenchable blood-
feud between them. Before reaching Cairo, he had suggested
that Zobeir should be sent to Cyprus, and there kept out of
the way. This was not done. On Gordon's way through
Cairo, the two men met in what those present describe as
a highly dramatic interview. Zobeir bitterly upbraided
Gordon : ' You killed my son, whom I entrusted to you.
He was as your son. You brought my wives and women
and children in chains to Khartoum.' Still even after that
incident, Gordon declared that he had 'a mystical feeling'
that Zobeir and he were all right. 2 What inspired his
reiterated demand for the immediate despatch of Zobeir
is surmised to have been the conviction forced upon him
during his journey to Khartoum, that his first idea of
leaving the various petty sultans to fight it out with the
Mahdi, would not work ; that the Mahdi had got so strong
a hold that he could only be met by a man of Zobeir's
political capacity, military skill, and old authority. Sir E.
Baring, after a brief interval of hesitation, now supported
Gordon's request. So did the shrewd and expert Colonel
Stewart. Nubar too favoured the idea. The cabinet could
not at once assent ; they were startled by the change of front

1 Wingate's Mahdism, p. 109. and ability. He possesses great in-

* Baring to Granville, Jan. 28. — fluenoe in the Soudan, and General

'I had a good deal of conversation Gordon is of opinion th&tcircum&tances

with General Gordon as to the manner might arise ichich would render it

in which Zobeir Pasha should be desirable thai he should be sent back to

treated. Gen. Gordon entertains a the Soudan. 9
high opinion of Zoberr Pasha's energy

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BOOK as to total withdrawal from the Soudan — the very object of
VIIL . Gordon's mission, and accepted by him as such. On Feb-
1884. ruary 21 Mr. Gladstone reported to the Queen that the
cabinet were of opinion that there would be the gravest
objection to nominating by an assumption of British
authority a successor to General Gordon in the Soudan, nor
did they as yet see sufficient reasons for going beyond
Gordon's memorandum of January 25, by making special
provision for the government of that country. But at first
it looked as if ministers might yield, if Baring, Gordon, and
Nubar persisted.

As ill-fortune had it, the Zobeir plan leaked out at home by
Gordon's indiscretion before the government decided. The
omnipotent though not omniscient divinity called public
opinion intervened. The very men who had most loudly
clamoured for the extrication of the Egyptian garrisons, who
had pressed with most importunity for the despatch of
Gordon, who had been most urgent for the necessity of
giving him a free hand, now declared that it would be a
national degradation and a European scandal to listen to
Gordon's very first request. He had himself unluckily given
them a capital text, having once said that Zobeir was alone
responsible for the slave trade of the previous ten years.
Gordon's idea was, as he explained, to put Zobeir into
a position like that of the Ameer of Afghanistan, as a buffer
between Egypt and the Mahdi, with a subsidy, moral sup-
port, and all the rest of a buffer arrangement The idea may
or may not have been a good one ; nobody else had a better.
It was not at all surprising that the cabinet should ask
what new reason had come to light why Zobeir should be
trusted ; why he should oppose the Mahdi whom at first he
was believed to have supported ; why he should turn the
friend of Egypt ; why he should be relied upon as the faithful
ally of England. To these and other doubts Gordon had
excellent answers (March 8). Zobeir would run straight,
because it was his interest. If he would be dangerous, was
not the Mahdi dangerous, and whom save Zobeir could you
set up against the Mahdi ? You talked of slave-holding
and slave-hunting, but would slave-holding and slave-hunting

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stop with your own policy of evacuation? Slave-holding CHAP
you cannot interfere with, and as for slave-hunting, that , ' —
depended on the equatorial provinces, where Zobeir could iEx ' 76 *
be prevented from going, and besides he would have his
hands full in consolidating his power elsewhere. As for
good faith towards Egypt, Zobeir's stay in Cairo had taught
him our power, and being a great trader, he would rather
seek Egypt's close alliance. Anyhow, said Gordon, ' if you
do not send Zobeir, you have no chance of getting the
garrisons away/

The matter was considered at two meetings of the cabinet,
but the prime minister was prevented by his physician from
attending. 1 A difference of opinion showed itself upon the
despatch of Zobeir; viewed as an abstract question, three
of the Commons members inclined to favour it, but on the
practical question, the Commons members were unanimous
that no government from either side of the House could
venture to sanction Zobeir. Mr. Gladstone had become a
strong convert to the plan of sending Zobeir. ' I am better
in chest and generally/ he wrote to Lord Granville, ' but un-
fortunately not in throat and voice, and Clark interdicts my
appearance at cabinet, but I am available for any necessary
communication, say with you, or you and Hartington/ One
of the ministers went to see him in his bed, and they con-
versed for two hours. The minister, on his return, reported
with some ironic amusement that Mr. Gladstone considered
it very likely that they could not bring parliament to swallow
Zobeir, but believed that he himself could. Whether his
confidence in this was right or wrong, he was unable to turn
his cabinet. The Queen telegraphed her agreement with
the prime minister. But this made no difference. 'On
Saturday 15/ Mr. Gladstone notes, 'it seemed as if by
my casting vote Zobeir was to be sent to Gordon. But

1 {From his diary.) March 9.— yesterday. 13th. Got to my sitting-

... At night recognised the fact of room in the evening. It has, how-

a cold, ana began to deal with it. ever, taken longer this time to clear

10th. Kept my bed all day. 11th. the chest, and Clark reports the pulse

The cabinet sat, and Granville came still too high by ten. Saw Granville,

to and fro with the communications, Conclave, 7J to 8J, on telegram to

Clark having prohibited my attend- Baring for Gordon. I was not allowed

ance. Read Sybil. 12th. Bed as to attend the cabinet.

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BOOK on Sunday and receded from their ground,

- and I gave way. The nature of the evidence on which

1884. judgments are formed in this most strange of all cases,
precludes (in reason) pressing all conclusions, which are but
preferences, to extremes/ ' It is well known/ said Mr. Glad-
stone in the following year when the curtain had fallen on
the catastrophe, * that if, when the recommendation to send
Zobeir was made, we had complied with it, an address from
this House to the crown would have paralysed our action;
and though it was perfectly true that the decision arrived
at was the judgment of the cabinet, it was also no less
the judgment of parliament and the people.' So Gordon's
request was refused.

It is true that, as a minister put it at the time, to send
Zobeir would have been a gambler's throw. But then what
was it but a gambler's throw to send Gordon himself ? The
Soudanese chieftain might possibly have done all that
Gordon and Stewart, who knew the ground and were watch-
ing the quick fluctuation of events with elastic minds, now
positively declared that he would have the strongest motives
not to do. Even then, could the issue have been worse ?
To run all the risks involved in the despatch of Gordon, and
then immediately to refuse the request that he persistently
represented as furnishing him his only chance, was an inco-
herence that the parliament and people of England have not
often surpassed. 1 All through this critical month, from the
10th until the 30th, Mr. Gladstone was suffering more or less
from indisposition which he found it difficult to throw of£


The chance, whatever it may have been, passed like a
flash. Just as the proposal inflamed many in England, so
it did mischief in Cairo. Zobeir like other people got wind
of it ; enemies of England at Cairo set to work with him ; Sir
E. Baring might have found him hard to deal with. It was
Gordon's rashness that had made the design public Gordon,
too, as it happened, had made a dire mistake on his way
up. At Berber he had shown the khedive's secret firman,

1 The case of the government was of which it Admitted, in Lord Gran-
stated with all the force and reason ville's despatch of March 28, 1884.

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announcing: the intended abandonment of the Soudan. The CHAP.


news spread ; it soon reached the Mahdi himself, and the v.

Mahdi made politic use of it He issued a proclamation of iET# 76#
his own, asking all the sheikhs who stood aloof from him or
against him, what they had to gain by supporting a pasha
who was the next day going to give the Soudan up. Gordon's
argument for this unhappy proceeding was that, the object of
his mission being to get out of the country and leave them to
their independence, he could have put no sharper spur into
them to make them organize their own government. But
he spoke of it after as the fatal proclamation, and so it was. 1
What happened was that the tribes round Khartoum
almost at once began to waver. From the middle of March,
says a good observer, one searches in vain for a single
circumstance hopeful for Gordon. * When the eye wanders
over the huge and hostile Soudan, notes the little pin-point
garrisons, each smothered in a cloud of Arab spears, and
remembers that Gordon and Stewart proceeded to rule this
vast empire, already given away to others, one feels that the
Soudanese view was marked by common sense/ 2 Gordon's
too sanguine prediction that the men who had beaten Hicks,
and the men who afterwards beat Baker, would never fight
beyond their tribal limits, did not come true. Wild forces
gathered round the Mahdi as he advanced northwards. The
tribes that had wavered joined them. Berber fell on May 26.
The pacific mission had failed, and Gordon and his comrade
Stewart — a more careful and clear-sighted man than him-
self — were shut up in Khartoum.

1 In the light of this proceeding, OazeUe t Jan. 8, 1884.
the following is curious: — 'There is ... 'In the afternoon of Feb. 13
one subject which I cannot imagine Gordon assembled all the influential
any one differing about. That is the men of the province and showed
impolicy of announcing our intention them the secret firman. The reading
to evacuate Khartoum. Even if we of this document caused great excite-
were bound to do so we should have ment, but at the same time its pur-
said nothing about it. The moment port was received evidently with
it is known we have given up the much gratification. It is worthy of
same, every man will go over to the note that the whole of the notables
Mahdi. All men worship the rising present at this meeting subsequently
sun. The difficulties of evacuation threw in their cause with the Mahdi.'
will be enormously increased, if, in- — Henry William Gordon's Events in
deed, the withdrawal of our garrison the Life of Charles Qeorgt Qordon y
is not rendered impossible.' — Inter- p. 340.
view with General Gordon, Pall Mall * Wingate, p. 110.

VOL, II. % c

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BOOK Distractions grew thicker upon the cabinet, and a just
• - reader, now far away from the region of votes of censure, will
1884. k ear th em ' m mind. The Queen, like many of her subjects,
grew impatient, but Mr. Gladstone was justified in remind-
ing her of the imperfect knowledge, and he might have
called it blank ignorance, with which the government was
required on the shortest notice to form conclusions on a
remote and more than half-barbarous region.

Gordon had told them that he wanted to take his steam
vessels to Equatoria and serve the king of the Belgians.
This Sir Evelyn Baring refused to allow, not believing
Gordon to be in immediate danger (March 26). From
Gordon himself came a telegram (March 28), 'I think we
are now safe, and that, as the Nile rises, we shall account
for the rebels.' Mr. Gladstone was still unwell and absent.
Through Lord Granville he told the cabinet (March 15) that,
with a view to speedy departure from Khartoum, he would
not even refuse absolutely to send cavalry to Berber, much
as he disliked it, provided the military authorities thought
it could be done, and provided also that it was declared
necessary for Gordon's safety, and was strictly confined to
that object. The cabinet decided against an immediate
expedition, one important member vowing that he would
resign if an .expedition were not sent in the autumn, another
vowing that he would resign if it were. On April 7, the ques-
tion of an autumn expedition again came up. Six were
favourable, five the other way, including the prime minister.

Almost by the end of March it was too probable that
no road of retreat was any longer open. If they could cut
no way out, either by land or* water, what form of relief
was possible ? A diversion from Suakin to Berber — one
of Gordon's own suggestions? But the soldiers differed.
Fierce summer heat and little water ; an Indian force might
stand it; even they would find it tough. A dash by a
thousand cavalry across two hundred miles of desert — one
hundred of them without water; without communication
with its base, and with the certainty that whatever might
befall, no reinforcements could reach it for months ? What
would be your feelings, and your language, asked Lord -

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Harrington, if besides having Gordon and Stewart beleaguered
in Khartoum, we also knew that a small force of British ,
cavalry unable to take the offensive was shut up in the - Er - 75 -
town of Berber ? 2 Then the government wondered whether
a move on Dongola might not be advantageous. Here again
the soldiers thought the torrid climate a fatal objection, and
the benefits doubtful. Could not Gordon, some have asked,
have made his retreat at an early date after reaching
Khartoum, by way of Berber ? Answer — the Nile was too
low. All this it was that at a later day, when the time had
come to call his government to its account, justified Mr.
Gladstone in saying that in such enterprises as these in the
Soudan, mistakes and miscarriages were inevitable, for they
were the proper and certain consequences of undertakings
that lie beyond the scope of human means and of rational
and prudent human action, and are a war against nature. 2
If anybody now points to the victorious expedition to
Khartoum thirteen years later, as falsifying such language as
this, that experience so far from falsifying entirely justifies.
A war against nature demands years of study, observation,
preparation, and those who are best acquainted with the
conditions at first hand all agree that neither the tribes nor
the river nor the desert were well known enough in 1885, to
guarantee that overthrow in the case of the Mahdi, which
long afterwards destroyed his successor.

On April 14 Sir E. Baring, while as keenly averse ar
anybody in the world to an expedition for the relief oi
Khartoum if such an expedition could be avoided, still
watching events with a clear and concentrated gaze, assured
the government that it was very likely to be unavoidable ;
it would be well therefore, without loss of time, to prepare
for a move as soon as ever the Nile should rise. Six days
before, Lord Wolseley also had written to Lord Hartington
at the war office, recommending immediate and active
preparations for an exclusively British expedition to Khar-
toum. Time, he said, is the most important element in this

1 Lord Hartington, House of Com- ministers up to this date,
mons, May 13, 1884. An admirable a Address to the electors of Mid-
speech, and the best defence of lothian, September 17, 1885.

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BOOK question, and in truth it was, for time was flying, and so were
events. The cabinet were reported as feeling that Gordon,
'who was despatched on a mission essentially pacific, had
found himself, from whatever cause, unable to prosecute it
effectually, and now proposed the use of military means,
which might fail, and which, even if they should succeed,
might be found to mean a new subjugation of the Soudan —
the very consummation which it was the object of Gordon's
mission to avert/ On June 27 it was known in London that
Berber had fallen a month before.


Lord Hartington, as head of the war department, had a
stronger leaning towards the despatch of troops than some
of his colleagues, but, says Mr. Gladstone to Lord Granville
in a letter of 1888, ' I don't think he ever came to any sharp
issue (like mine about Zobeir) ; rather that in the main he
got what he wanted/ Wherever the fault lay, the issue was
unfortunate. The generals in London fought the battle of
the routes with unabated tenacity for month after month.
One was for the approach to Khartoum by the Nile ; another
by Suakin and Berber ; a third by the Korosko desert. A
departmental committee reported in favour of the Nile as
the easiest, safest, and cheapest, but they did not report until
July 29. It was not until the beginning of August that
the House of Commons was asked for a vote of credit, and
Lord Hartington authorised General Stephenson at Cairo to
take measures for moving troops southward. In his
despatch of August 8, Lord Hartington still only speaks of
operations for the relief of Gordon, ' should they become
necessary ' ; he says the government were still unconvinced
that Gordon could not secure the withdrawal of the garrison
from Khartoum ; but ' they are of opinion that the time had
arrived for obtaining accurate information as to his position/
and, ' if necessary, for rendering him assistance/ 1 As soon as
the decision was taken, preparations were carried out with
rapidity and skill. In the same month Lord Wolseley was

1 See the official History of the Soudan Campaign, by Colonel Col vile,
Part I. pp. 45-9.

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appointed to command the expedition, and on September 9 CHAP,
he reached Cairo. The difficulties of a military decision had >
been great, said Lord Harrington, and there was besides, he -*** ^
added, a difference of opinion among the military authorities. 1
It was October 5 before Lord Wolseley reached Wady-
Halfa, and the Nile campaign began.

Whatever decision military critics may ultimately form
upon the choice of the Nile route, or upon the question
whether the enterprise would have been any more success-
ful if the route had been by Suakin or Korosko, it is at
least certain that no position, whether strategically false
or no, has ever evoked more splendid qualities, in face of
almost preterhuman difficulties, hardship, and labour. The
treacherous and unknown river, for it was then unknown,
with its rapids, its shifting sandbanks and tortuous channels
and rocky barriers and heart-breaking cataracts; the
Bayuda desert, haunted by fierce and stealthy enemies ; the
trying climate, the heat, the thirst, all the wearisome
embarrassments of transport on camels emaciated by lack
of food and water— such scenes exacted toil, patience, and
courage as worthy of remark and admiration as if the
advance had successfully achieved its object. Nobody lost
heart ' Everything goes on swimmingly/ wrote Sir Herbert
Stewart to Lord Wolseley, ' except as to time.' This was on
January 14,1885. Five days later, he was mortally wounded.

The end of it all, in spite of the gallantry of Abu Klea and
Kirbekan, of desert column and river column, is only too
well-known. Four of Gordon's small steamers coming down
from Khartoum met the British desert column at Gubat on
January 21. The general in command at once determined
to proceed to Khartoum, but delayed his start until the
morning of the 24th. The steamers needed repairs, and Sir
Charles Wilson deemed it necessary for the safety of his troops
to make a reconnaissance down the river towards Berber
before starting up to Khartoum. He took with him on two
of Gordon's steamers— described as of the dimensions of the
penny boats upon the Thames, but bullet proof — a force of
twenty-six British, and two hundred and forty Soudanese.

1 February 27, 1885.

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BOOK He had also in tow a nugger laden with dhura. This was
YUI - , what, when Khartoum came in sight (Jan. 28) the ' relief
1886. force' actually amounted to. As the two steamers ran
slowly on, a solitary voice from the river-bank now and
again called out to them that Khartoum was taken, and
Gordon slain. Eagerly searching with their glasses, the
officers perceived that the government-house was a wreck,
and that no flag was flying. Gordon, in fact, had met his
death two days before.

Mr. Gladstone afterwards always spoke of the betrayal of
Khartoum. But Major Kitchener, who prepared the official
report, says that the accusations of treachery were all vague,
and to his mind, the outcome of mere supposition. c In my
opinion,' he says, ' Khartoum fell from sudden assault, when
the garrison were too exhausted by privations to make pro-
per resistance.' 1 The idea that the relieving force was only

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 37 of 91)