Friday 16 December 2022

Friday 16th December - General Gordon's Last Stand

 Blimey, where has the month gone? I normally mark the half-way point, but we are well over that now and on the cusp of the last week already.  I better crack on with today's post because I've not even got round to putting my Christmas decorations up yet! 

General Gordon's Last Stand (c.1893) George William Joy

Here we are again, with George William Joy who did this one, venturing again into marvellous English patriotic propaganda, excuse me, an accurate record of the last heroic moments of a proper English Hero (TM), which the Victorian absolutely loved.  We've touched on the need for reassurance over Empire with Major Wilson, earlier in Stabvent, but in comparison, General Gordon is a superstar who rapidly became a massively contested figure in the way no other Victorian was, certainly not so speedily.  Even today, I was surprised while reading about him, how people still struggle with explaining Gordon, what sort of man he was, and what he meant for England.

Charles George Gordon (c.1870s-80s)

There are certain people whose names you know before you even know who they are and, growing up in the 1970s, General Gordon was a name that was still talked about as being in common knowledge.  In Dad's Army, Corporal Jones tells people he served with the Gordon Relief Expedition in 1884-5 as a boy soldier, sent to relieve Gordon at Khartoum. When reading for this post, there is a lot of very complex information about the way Gordon behaved - as we have seen from Major Wilson, death in defence of Empire or occupation is a delicate one to interpret.  With Gordon's death and the romanticising of it, the Victorians have outdone themselves.  I won't go too deeply into the history of it all as I only have until Christmas Eve, but I can give you a brief look at how we got to that painting...

Charles 'Charlie' Gordon was from a long line of military men. Born in Kent in 1833, his father was a Major General and there had been four generations of British Army Gordons, which must have been a lot of pressure.  He was one of around a dozen children in the Gordon family, with all the sons serving in the army.  What is slightly disturbing is that only two of the daughters made it out of the Victorian period.  Charlie did reasonably well making it to 51 before dying, it seems.  While I know the life expectancy for Victorians was not as good as nowadays, for a wealthy, middle-class family, I expected better, but then I guess military service is a hazard to your health...

With all those military Gordons, General Charlie Gordon was known as 'Chinese Gordon' (which sounds like one of those awful things your uncle would say at Christmas after a few sherries when trying to remember who is in his darts team).  There are some really appalling things written about his sexuality, which is an exciting aspect I wasn't expecting but also might explain a bit about his personality.  He remained a bachelor and expressed a distaste for all things sexual.  It has been suggested he was probably gay, although how on earth would you express that in the most manliest of military families?  Nowadays, we might go for asexual, maybe he just didn't bother at all.  I was horrified to see that as he had spent a lot of time working for boys charities that he must therefore have nefarious interest in children, which I think says more about the people saying that sort of thing than it does about Gordon. Anyway, he was also deeply religious which also probably didn't help with any aspect of sexuality.  This leads me on to his attitude to conflict: he was brave to the level of insanely reckless because he believed in the afterlife.  He put himself in danger on multiple and often unnecessary times, but this was seen as a great thing, a heroic thing. No-one was about to say 'Are You Okay, Hun?' to one of England's most charismatic, brave and swashbuckling heroes of war. The answer was, of course, no, he was not okay...

Blimey, I did not expect 'Damn, General Gordon was a hottie' to be something I said this month, but here we are.  Anyway, let's skip over lots of military escapades to Khartoum and Gordon had become Governor-General of the Sudan in 1873.  I cautiously say that he doesn't seem to have been a bad person in many ways, being anti-slavery and attempting to reform society in the countries where we had occupation.  I mean, English occupation of places is never a good thing, for goodness sake, but he had great hopes of bettering the lives of Africans, specifically framed in Christian terms, which is also problematic.  He obviously came up against a lot of people who were merrily making money off the misery of others and so made a lot of enemies but he seems to have worked, or rather over-worked, to the point where he burnt out and returned to England.  When the Madhist revolt in 1882 destabilised the area, the Prime Minister at the time, William Gladstone, was in favour of pulling out of the Sudan all together.  The usually media-shy General Gordon was asked his opinion of this and he ranted on about how we should be fighting for the Sudan, which was in turn used by other military personnel as propaganda to get the public onside with retaking and holding the Sudan, specifically using Gordon in the action.  Gladstone caved, sending Gordon to Khartoum with the specific aim of advising on evacuation, nothing more. Gordon had possibly been led to believe his mission was somewhat more action-based, but either way, as a friend said "A man who habitually consults the Prophet Isaiah when he is in a difficulty is not apt to obey the orders of anyone" - Gordon was going to do what he thought was best, and therein was chaos because oddly lots of people, including the Mahdi, who wanted their own free religious state in the Sudan, thought differently. The siege of Khartoum began, trapping 34,000 troops and civilians within the city against up to 50,000 Mahdi soldiers.  Rather than evacuating, Gordon fortified and prepared for the fight...

Charlton Heston is General Gordon!

Gordon did manage to evacuate about 2,000 children, women and invalids from Khartoum before it was cut off, but for everyone left inside, it was a 10-month siege.  By the summer of 1884, the British Press were over-excited by General Gordon's plight and began to load pressure on to the government to send relief.  Even Queen Victoria intervened and Gladstone unwillingly agreed, but even so, it took another almost six month to reach the Sudan, by which time the people in Khartoum were starving to death.  The arrival of the British troops also prompted the Madhi fighters to take Khartoum as quickly as possible before the help arrived, leading to the fall of Khartoum on the 26th January 1885.   Stories of exactly how Gordon died vary from massively heroically to cowardice but probably the truth is somewhere in the middle, given that he was the sort of man whose arrogance wouldn't have led to running away.  News of his death came back eventually to a heart-broken England who had held out hope that he had heroically escaped or was captured, alive.  This was not to be.  Less than two days later the relief arrived to find the city under Mahdi control and Gordon verified as dead by a prisoner who had seen the severed head presented to the Mahdi ruler. They turned round and went home.

The pose held in the painting, at the top of the stair in Joy's painting, roughly 8 years after the events, matches the description of the General's last moments by his servant Khaleel Aga Orphali, debriefed by the British in 1898.  He described Gordon fighting on the stairs, pierced by a spear, then attacked again.  Orphali was knocked unconscious and awoke later to find Gordon's decapitated body beside him. Other accounts must have matched that, making Joy's vision of the hero in a red jacket staring down the stairs at his attackers the agreed version of events.  One thing I hadn't noticed before is how thin Gordon is, and how he is not holding up his gun.  Explanations were that he was so starved and weak, he barely had the strength to stand, let alone fight.  When the painting was exhibited in Bristol in 1896, 11 years after Gordon's death, it drew vast crowds to see it.  In 1898, the Aberdeen Weekly Journal contained a reproduction of the painting and descriptions of the events that had descriptions of 'dervishes', 'fanatics' and claims that Gordon was one of the few good men left in Khartoum, destined to be betrayed by the perfidious locals with traitors at every turn.

General Gordon's Memorial (c.1885) W. Hamo Thornycroft

I found Gordon to be a far more interesting figure than I expected (which sounds terrible) and if you want to know more about his life, there is a jolly fine article here. The article says that the outpouring of love for Gordon after his death was akin to what we went through with Princess Diana.  With Gordon, Gladstone took the brunt of public anger, but Gordon's own actions and the inactions of Gladstone are the subject of much discussion, even now. Gordon
 wrote on a scrap of paper - 'England was made by adventurers, not by its Government', an attitude that was never likely to warm him to any Prime Minister, to be fair. The hero worship was punctured a little in 1917 by Lytton Strachley who included the death of Gordon in his biography Eminent Victorians, yet the final figure is one of a mad hero, devout and death-wishing.  Can what he became after his death, and what that meant for the whole business (and I use that word in all its meanings) of Empire fairly be blamed upon him? In the jingoistic celebrations of war, slaughter and martyrdom, the Victorians excelled. They put Gordon on a pedestal, literally on the top step, so he was bound to come toppling down eventually.

See you tomorrow.


  1. Dear Kirsty
    Propaganda does its thing yet again. No-one came out of this looking great, did they? I remember a pub named after him in Stamford, Lincolnshire, apparently closed now (after a quick search).
    Best wishes

  2. This is really interesting, I think there is a tunic in RAMM Exeter something to do with General Gordon and the siege. I'll refresh my memory next time I have an opportunity. And of course I remember Corporal Jones! Appreciating all the effort you are putting in to amuse us. Even Queen Vic might be amused, I certainly am.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx