Charles George Gordon | Timothy Young


‘“Never,” said General Gordon to a corporal, as he himself jumped upon the parapet of a trench before Sevastopol to fix a gabion which the corporal had ordered a private to fix, and wouldn’t fix himself, “Never tell another man to do what you are afraid to do yourself.”’

Who is the man this text describes?  Most sources would not refer to him as general, definitely not when he served in the Siege of Sevastopol, where he was a mere lieutenant.  The text that he is described in is fairly obscure itself.  It is “The Chocolate Soldier; Or The Lost Chord of Christianity” a religious tract by the former star cricket player of the late 1800s England, who later turned missionary and served in China, India and the Interior of Africa.  Why would Gordon be the only positive secular example mentioned by name in the text, of this radical call for missionaries to go to foreign lands?  

Because Charles Gordon was not an ordinary man.  At one of the heights of the British Empire he was a household name.  At his death, a government fell.  

Charles George Gordon was born into a military family in 1833.  Like his father before him, he went into the army.  Unlike his father he was sent into the Royal Engineers and graduated from Chatham in 1854.  He served in Sevastopol, where his Methodist faith was tested, but unlike many men who go to war, he found it strengthened.  He was involved in some actions, including demolition of a Russian dockyard.  He was hit by shrapnel and reported wounded by the surgeon, which greatly disgusted him as he had only been stunned. 

His fame and moniker, Chinese Gordon, came from his involvement in the Taiping rebellion. The Taiping rebellion has been called a proto-Communist uprising.  There was redistribution of wealth and it was a leveling force.  The leader, adopting the title of Heavenly King, declared himself to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother, come to create a heavenly peace on earth.  He did not succeed, but this joining of Christian sounding ideas with local beliefs and practices made him wildly popular amongst the locals and confused Christian observers to some degree.  Brutal torture, mass arson and murder eventually convinced all but the most extreme that he was not a positive Christian local, nor could his counter claim for rule advance European or American interests in the region. In short, the Taiping rebellion was extremely disruptive and extremely destructive to human life.  It is estimated by some sources that the loss of life was greater than that which incurred between all sides during the First World War.  

Gordon arrived and originally served in a force to defend the interests of British merchants in one of the British spheres of influence.  In time, he also was appointed and served as an officer of a unit raised by an American mercenary who died in the conflict.  The unit, to improve morale, was granted the title ‘The Ever Victorious Army’ by the local higher ups.  This had not been an accurate title under the previous leadership, but became closer to accurate over his months of leadership. 

Gordon demonstrated immense tactical success, fighting against numerous fortified and fixed positions held by superior numbers of enemy forces and, in all but one case, he and his men were able to carry them with the point of the bayonet. Surprisingly, he managed to do this with extremely low casualties amongst his own troops, through a use of surprise attack and the order he instilled in his men.  Throughout the campaigns he used steamboat tactics to great effect and broke a number of forces with the fire of guns from it and the terror weapon that was the steam whistle.  

He demonstrated mercy to the defeated and was well respected by his foes, so much so that many of the defeated ended up joining his formations.  By the end of the campaign, the majority of his units had formerly been in the service of the enemy.  

At the end of the campaign, he was offered an award of £3 000 for his services to the Chinese Imperial Court.  He refused to demonstrate that not all British officers served for mercenary reasons and that he was a good Christian.  In modern money values, he essentially turned down a gift of a bit over £385 000.  This, somewhat unsurprisingly, made him stand out to the Imperial Court.  What Gordon could not escape was being given the honorary title of ‘Titu’ the highest rank in the army the Chinese had at the time and being made a member of the Order of the Yellow Jacket.  This was the most important Chinese decoration at the time, and so far as I know, the only time this was given to a foreigner.  

He returned to England as a household name and tried to hide himself away.  During this time he oversaw the building of a number of fortresses on the Thames.  He had the unhappy awareness that these fortresses, however well built, were technologically out of date, but he built them.  In his private life he vigorously gave out tracts for the Methodists and found young street urchins and helped them get a career at sea.  In fact, he even took many of them into his house, fed them, gave them money and clothes and formed evening classes for them.  He tried to teach them to be Christian gentlemen and of particular interest to modern internet enjoyers, he called them ‘kings.’

And on and his list of good deeds in his personal life go.

But he did not die quietly in the outskirts of London, trying to help the poor and do the best possible work on fortresses that the Isles have been blessed to never require in times of war.  He was sent to the Danube where he served for two years.  He was then hired by the Khedive (ruler) of Egypt to govern the Sudan.  

He was offered £10 000 per year to do it and turned that salary down saying that he would, “to show the Khedive and his people that gold and silver idols are not worshipped by all the world.”  Next he toured the land.  It was not really under the control of the Egyptians, which disgusted him to the point of leaving, but the Khedive insisted that he had been promised help.  Despite feeling that he had been lied to, Gordon would not break a promise and went to Khartoum.  

In part his appointment was to open the area to trade, but in part it was to close it to the slave trade.  Gordon was firmly against cruelty, but he realized, as his letters demonstrate, a deeper understanding of the problem of slavery.  According to one source, by the time of his arrival in Egypt, 84 out of every 100 in the population were slaves and it was unrealistic to try to force the end practice as a whole.  What he was uncompromising towards though, were the small slave trading operations that would bring children across 500 miles of desert.  

One instance is instructive.  A caravan that began with 400 children after a terrible desert crossing, only had 90 surviving children.  In such cases he brought the children under his care, while the slavers were whipped, stripped and driven away into the desert.  

It is said that in his first three days of governorship he gave away £1000 to feed the poor.   

He left Sudan and served in various parts of the Empire, briefly in India, using his influence in China to keep the peace between Russia and China and briefly in South Africa.  The Belgians tried to acquire him to lead in the Belgian Congo, and it is fascinating to consider what good he could have done there, but the British government requested that he go back and once more work in the Sudan.  

Before this he went to the Holy Land and alternated his readings between biblical studies and reading Marcus Aurelius.  It was after a year there that he returned to the Sudan.  In his few years of absence things had drastically deteriorated.  A man he had kicked out for misgovernment had been appointed his successor, which had turned out as you might expect.  The impositions of the Egyptians on the Sudanese and general discontent had given a rebel the opportunity to declare himself the mahdi. This being an eschatological declaration amongst Muslims, he started, in effect, a war of religion.  

Gordon held Khartoum against him, but due to the quibbling of the government in England he was killed, no effectual support having come to his aid.  It is pleasing to note that the government that was responsible for this tragedy, fell apart in large part due to this disaster in the coming year and that the man who called himself a prophet of the end times died in less than heroic circumstances.

In conclusion, Gordon was a man not bound to gold or silver, but an exemplary tactician, undefeated in battle, honorable in conduct, harsh to those who preyed upon the weak, generous to the poor and downtrodden, a man of incredible energy and largely unknown in this age.


This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

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