Khartoum! Where god finally sacked Gordon


28/09/2012 by noonobservation

It’s taken me a bit longer than I expected to finish my book about General Gordon. There are three reasons:

The average lifespan for a book in my care is 4.3 weeks.

1. It is too fragile to read on buses, trains, in the bath, etc.

2. Harold Godwineson’s manly moustache caught my eye and I became temporarily distracted.

3. There were some really boring-looking chapters in the middle about religion.

Though Seton Churchill’s biography is wildly pro-Gordon, the author is unable to disguise the fact that Gordon was mad as a bag full of squirrels. I was originally going to address the question “Was Gordon mad?”, but have revised this to:

What were the distinctive features of Gordon’s madness?

1. Extreme antisocial behaviour

Gordon famously hated social gatherings and was known to walk up to 12 miles into the African bush to avoid attending receptions held in his honour. As he wrote in 1884 while besieged in Khartoum, “I would sooner live like a Dervish with the Mahdi, than go out to dinner every night in London. I hope, if any English general comes to Khartoum, he will not ask me to dinner. Why men cannot be friends without bringing their wretched stomachs in, is astounding.”

Unsurprisingly, he was not popular with most of his fellow officers.

2. Preference for small boys over ladies

Gordon remained a bachelor his entire life (leading some people think he may have been a closet homosexual). He took great care never to be in the society of ladies, many of whom were in the habit of talking to him and even paying him compliments – something he abhorred. Gordon claimed that he did not marry because he had never met the right girl; a statement which is fully believable considering the efforts he went to not to meet any girls at all.

He generally preferred the company of small boys (leading some people to think he may have been a paedophile). Both his love of small boys and lack of success with ladies is illuminated by this brief anecdote from his time at Gravesend:

“Another story is told of a case in which Gordon handed over a dirty little urchin to one of his lady friends, with the remark, “I want to make you a present of a boy.” Under good influences the lad grew up until he became a respectable member of society.”

Gordon was clearly unaware that it is essential to wash urchins before giving them as presents to ladies.

3. Hulk-like fits of RAGE!!!!!

Hulk GordonLike professor Banner, Gordon was able to turn into a snot-coloured bundle of unreasoning muscular violence at the slightest provocation. As well as occasionally shooting Chinese subordinates, he once got so angry with his employer, Governor Li Hung Chang, that he roamed the city of Soo-Chow for a day brandishing a revolver with the intention of shooting him in head. He was also known to kick his servants until they screamed and once reduced New York to a pile of rubble because he’d misplaced his moustache net.

4. Disregard for worldly possessions

Gordon had absolutely no interest in personal gain. For his services in the Taiping rebellion, the Chinese government tried to give him a small fortune, which he stubbornly refused to take. On accepting the governorship of the Sudan, he negotiated his wages down from £10,000 per year to £2000.

Some of this money might have come in handy during his time as a fort-builder and philanthropist in Gravesend, where his table was so meagre that even the urchins he took in thought that the food was awful.

By the time he set off for the Sudan in January 1884, Gordon’s phobia of worldly goods had become extreme. He turned up at Charing Cross station with one bag and no money. The foreign secretary had to buy his train ticket for him and Lord Wolseley had to give him his own watch and all his spare change so that he could at least make it to Calais.

5. Heresy

Is Catholicity really a word?

Gordon’s queer religious views were perhaps the driving force behind all of Gordon’s other madnesses. Seton Churchill devotes a whole chapter to explaining how, despite his eccentricities, Gordon was, like all true Christian Heroes, firmly C of E.

Gordon’s heretical views included:

1. That god’s throne was located directly above the Temple of Jerusalem, while the devil lived somewhere above the Pitcairn Islands.

2. That some Catholics are “OK”.

3. That communion works because it is a direct antidote to the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden.

4. That the Garden of Eden is in the Seychelles.

5. Reincarnation is real.

Churchill excuses these “errors” on the grounds that “Gordon was not a trained theologian but an earnest Christian soldier,” and that his solitary lifestyle meant that he “often lost opportunities of hearing both sides of a question.” Otherwise, we can rest assured, he would have been a thoroughly conventional Anglican.

6. Being difficult

Heston Pasha

Gordon was famous for being difficult. During a brief hiatus in his soldiering, he signed up to be the Viceroy of India’s private secretary. Having undertaken the long sea voyage to India, on his third day in the job, he was asked to tell a deputation that the Viceroy had “read their address with great interest”. Gordon told Lord Beresford, “You know perfectly that Lord Ripon has never read it, and I can’t say that sort of thing, so I will resign.”

Gordon concluded his resignation speech by hitting Beresford on the arm and saying, “Yes, that is flesh, that is what I hate, and what makes me wish to die.”

Following this, he embarked on a year-long tour of Palestine, visiting as many biblical sites as possible, most of which he decided were both “disappointing” and “wrong”.

7. Predestination

Gordon had a strong belief in predestination, i.e. that man has no free will and that god has predetermined everything that happens. He writes:

“For my part, I can give myself no credit for anything I ever did; and further, I credit no man with talents, &c. &c., in anything he may have done. Napoleon, Luther, indeed all men, I consider, were directly worked on, and directed to work out God’s great scheme.”

It is amusing to think of Napoleon as merely fulfilling god’s plans when he so clearly thought he was satisfying his own giddying ambitions using his own exceptional talents. How wrong he was! The 3.5-6 million fatalities in the Napoleonic Wars were also presumably part of the plan and no fault of his at all.

In these circumstances, Gordon argues, “The only consolation is to fall back on the text, ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding.”

Personally, I am fond of leaning unto mine own understanding. Gordon would doubtless tell me this is because I am prideful, but I like to think my understanding prevents me doing bat-shit crazy things like shutting myself in my tent with the Bible and a bottle of brandy for days at a time, refusing to issue orders to my troops.


So, by the time Gordon was sent to the Sudan to evacuate the country of Egyptian troops and civilians, he was pretty far down the zig-zag road to Crazyville. The British had absolutely no interest in holding onto the Sudan and directed Gordon to get out. Instead, he sat there for 9 months, slowly sending off all the foreign nationals down the Nile in little sinkable boats, carrying copies of his journal. The relief expedition luckily arrived two days too late to prevent Gordon from dying a martyr’s death.

But was that really his intention? According to Gordon’s views, this was god’s choice and indicative that the almighty was ready to dispense with his earthly services. I would argue that at the age of 51, with no family to speak of (save his faithful sisters), no money and a hatred of social contact, Jesus was probably Gordon’s one remaining friend. Perhaps he was lonely.

Gordon’s death

General Gordon action figures also now available.

How Gordon probably didn’t die.

No one knows exactly how Gordon died. Victorians liked to paint it like this, but actually no one who saw the event lived to tell the tale, at least not in English.

It is said that Gordon’s head was cut off and the Mahdi had it stuck in the branches of a tree for children to throw stones at. His remains were never found.

Book review: General Gordon by Seton Churchill

This is not the most thoughtful or well researched book in the world and is thoroughly biased in favour of its subject. On the other hand, it is pricelessly entertaining for its stereotypical Victorian attitudes towards “heatherns”, “natives”, “uncivilised nations”, etc. I much enjoyed Churchill’s description of the Catholic Church as “that ecclesiastical survival of the dark middle ages” and the general assumption that the author is living through a halcyon age of English civilisation and moral hegemony. The extract below concerning the proper British attitude to war amply demonstrates the wonders to be enjoyed:

7 thoughts on “Khartoum! Where god finally sacked Gordon

  1. 1Homerj says:

    Liked the blog, was a good read. I’m not sure that he was all that atypical for men of his time, didn’t Gladstone force himself to undergo temptation (sexual arousal) by rehabilitating prostitutes? I doubt that Gordon was alone in his odd religious beliefs, look at the growth (foundation) of Theosophy, Spiritualism, the Sally Army, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Church of the Latter Day Saints and the Church of Christ, Scientist in the 19th century.
    I also think that the poor bloke had a Borderline Personality Disorder, which suggests that he was probably abused/neglected as a child (oh those wacky Victorians!).

    “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”
    ― Horace Walpole

    • Thanks for you’re great comment. Honestly, there was just too much to say about Gordon to put it all in a blog! You are right – Gordon was not as extreme in the context of his time as he appears today. In the flurry of radical Christian groups, I find it interesting that Gordon never settled on a church, but essentially made up his own version of Christianity based solely on his own obsessive reading of the Bible. Which is why it’s so odd. Probably contributed to his loneliness too – he would have been much happier if he’d been a real Calvinist (or whatever) and hung out with other Calvinists.
      I agree, there are similarities with Gladstone – they were both men trying to reconcile rigid Victorian Christian values with everyday life and sex. Gladstone was somewhat better at it than Gordon – Gordon I think just couldn’t reconcile them at all and therefore rejected any form of sexual behaviour.
      I read an interesting article suggesting he suffered from Aspergers. He has a lot of the symptoms, like relating better to children than adults, having difficulty socialising, being meticulous and obsessed with routine, and being of above average intelligence. He did also have bouts of depression when he would fall into drinking. Poor bloke indeed!

  2. wjmartin says:

    This reminds me of an old story. A man from America was sent to England for work some time ago and brought his son with him. His son became fond of a statue with Gordon’s name on it in the public square showing Gordon heroically astride a camel. On his last day before returning to America, the boy had to make one more visit to see the Gordon statue. The man was touched when the boy cried a tear. As they were leaving, the boy asked his father, “daddy, who is that man on top of Gordon?”

  3. Wim Wallerbos says:

    I liked this blog very much for it shows the other side of the coin, which was good to read because I was far from thoroughly informed concerning General Gordon. I have only read the book “Eminent Victorians” by Lytton Strachy in which one of the items concerned General Gordon.

    I tend to admire people that follow there own conviction to effect their ideals even if it could eventually lead to the final consequence. But of course the line between being a hero and a madman is often wafer-thin.

    Nowaday’s terrorists in France (Nice, Normandy)

    Being a lover of historical fiction, but wanting to be the fiction within the boundaries of historical facts, I have appreciated this item greatly and I will certainly revisit this blog in the future.

    • I’m really not sure what you are saying here, are you saying you admire those who killed innnocent people in France/Germany/many other places?

      Or are you saying that they are nearly heroes?

      Or perhaps both?

  4. Wim Wallerbos says:

    Sorry for the confusion, I sent the reply accidently before deleting the insertion concerning France. I wanted to confine myself to General Gordon. I think premeditated killing of innocent people can not be justified for whatever cause and is utterly evil.

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