One of the iconic images of the glory days of British Empire shows a tall, stiff-backed soldier standing defiant at the top of stairs against an advancing horde of turbaned natives brandishing spears. Joy’s painting of General Gordon’s Last Stand, which now hangs in Leeds City Art Gallery, immortalizes the death of one of 19th-century Britain’s greatest soldiers and administrators. Impressive as George Gordon’s resistance undoubtedly was, the image is, however, a piece of Victorian myth-making designed to reflect the public mood. The reality, as so often, was grimmer and altogether more brutal.
The Sudan region of northeast Africa had been under the joint control of Britain and Egypt for most of the 19th century. When a Muslim radical named Muhammad Ahmad led a savage uprising in 1881 against colonial rule, he soon prevailed and established an independent Islamic state over a large area of the Upper Nile. Although Khartoum, the capital, remained under colonial control, Gladstone, the British prime minister, had no appetite for further imperial expansion, so in February 1884 he sent General George Gordon, a career soldier who had distinguished himself in the Crimea and in China, to the Sudan to oversee the evacuation of Khartoum and the withdrawal of Anglo-Egyptian forces down the Nile to Cairo. Within weeks of arrival Gordon found himself under siege by the forces of the ‘Mahdi’, as the rebel leader came to be known.
Gladstone initially resisted the strong public calls for action, including from the Queen herself. When a relief force did finally leave Cairo in September 1884 to go to Gordon’s assistance, it was hampered by complacent and incompetent leadership. An advance detachment eventually reached Khartoum on January 28 1885, two days after the town had fallen to the Mahdi and Gordon and his entire garrison had been slaughtered.
When: January 26 1885
Where: Khartoum, Sudan
Death toll: General Gordon and his entire garrison of 7,000 troops were killed, as well as an estimated 4,000 civilian inhabitants. Losses on the Mahdist side are unknown.
You should know: The exact circumstances of Gordon’s death may never be known. It is possible that he was not killed along with his troops, but captured and then executed in the Mahdi’s camp. What is certain is that his head was afterwards paraded through the streets on the end of a pike.