Friday, 10 April 2015

The Ultimate Imperial Adventure

Khartoum – The Ultimate Imperial Adventure. Michael Asher. Penguin Books, 2005. pp 450

This review was written on March 4th 2013

This is a long book read on Kindle,  tedious at times because of much military detail and the numerous names and titles of people, the various inhabitants of the near East and of North Africa and of  the British politicians and military personnel. Added to these are the names of various places cited. It is essentially about Sudan and the attempted rescue of Major General Charles George Gordan in Khartoum, and the British ambitions to include Sudan in part of its wide spreading imperial interests during the latter half of the 19th century.

Imperial powers in Africa in the late 19th century.
Sudan lies just south of Egypt in the north-easterly part of Africa.  In size it is 74 times greater than Britain itself.  It is largely desert and sand with rock and wilderness and some forest.  It was inhabited by numerous different tribes of various ethnic origin and various languages and religions.  But by the mid 19th century, the Islamic incursions over the previous centuries had created a permanent group under the control of Mohamed Ahmad, who claimed to be the Mahdi, who believed he was the direct descendent of Mohamed and whose commitment to his religion was as powerful and compelling as his commitment to political and military power.  Those who were not Muslim were treated as outsiders and they were politically disadvantaged in every way. 

At the time, Britain was in a very close military relationship with Egypt and was in full control of the British and Egyptian military.  Britain was obviously concerned about the Suez Canal which was built in the 1840s and which provided the vital route between the British Isles and India.  Britain was also concerned about the potential rivalry with the French since the earlier conflict with Napoleon and early incursions into East Sudan.  Egypt itself was controlled by Mohamed Ali from 1811 to 1849 and his control and the gradual disintegration of the Turkish Empire allowed the British predominance to develop at the time.  Mohamed Ali had annexed Sudan and Syria during his time in the earlier part of the 19th century. 

Khartoum was the capital of Sudan and is 1400 miles south of the Egyptian capital Cairo.  It is situated on the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, was a vital centre of control of Sudan and was almost impregnable as a military centre because of the two rivers which enclosed most of the town and its environs.

Gordon was a very controversial character.  He was deemed to be unstable and over-religious but more directly to God than to any formal faith. Whilst he deplored corruption, hypocrisy and military incompetence, he was notoriously unreliable in the sense that he would follow his own instincts irrespective of political direction and of military rules.  He is described as cold and composed when in action but was prone to violent tempers and on some occasions could be quite physically aggressive.  He had little or no respect for seniority.  He became a hero with many of the British when, as a young man, he played a major role in the British wars in China.  He had many faults and many virtues and thus will always remain a controversial figure.  He lacked that sense of conformity that makes it easier to understand, particularly in a military person. 

A romantic depiction of Gordon's last stand.
Despite the controversies which surrounded him, Gordan will always remain a hero in the eyes of the British because of the nature of his life and death and the stirring political and military affairs which were a feature of his time in Sudan. The   details described during the three military expeditions at Gordon’s time in the Sudan were only some of the many wars which were conducted by the British imperial expansion worldwide during the latter half of the 19th century. It is hard for us in these years of peace to understand the courage, the commitment and the enthusiasm which was shown by the soldiers and the officers, even under the most frightful military conditions in the Sudanese time. 

Gordon was in many ways the central figure of this book.  The principle theme of the book was his isolation by the Mahdi in Khartoum after the Muslims had taken over the country in the military sense after the defeat and massacre of the first Anglo-Egyptian expedition.   It was his isolation there and the valiant but failed attempt by the Anglo-Egyptian army to rescue him that makes the theme of the book.  Gordon’s role and his dying in the hands of the Mahdi in 1885 enormously enhanced the appreciation of his heroism by the British.  His plight in Khartoum when isolated there  became a matter of huge importance in Britain where Queen Victoria herself, the Tory party and most of the British people demanded that he should be rescued irrespective of the price.  Gladstone was less than enthusiastic about committing more military reserves to the problem as he was also less supportive of Britain’s imperialistic ambitions. He was supported by his Foreign Secretary and by members of his own party on the issue of Gordon’s relief. Gladstone’s lack of enthusiasm for the undertaking was responsible for the fatal delay in sending a relief force and was to lead to his defeat in the next election. Eventually, thanks to the outspoken concern of Queen Victoria and of public opinion, and a reluctant Gladstone, an army of Anglo-Egyptians set out on an eight month odyssey to Khartoum, arriving close to the city just to find it had just been sacked by the Mahdi forces.  All the members of the town were killed, including Gordon.

After Gordon’s death, Sudan remained in the hands of the Mahdi and his successor until the might of new British forces relieved Khartoum 14 years later and shortly before the Boer War.  Mahdi died shortly after Gordon’s death and was succeeded by his successor Torshayn, a simple man of nomadic origin, who proved an inspired military tactician.  He was to survive the later recovery of Sudan by the Anglo-Egyptians.

Statue of Gordon in Khartoum  offered back to Britain in 1959
It was a remarkable period of imperial expansion in countries such as Britain, France and Italy. The influence of the European powers on the African continent, bringing with them their social, secular and materialistic policies, can hardly justify the changes imposed on the rational social structures of these more primitive countries.  Among British politicians and military  there was always tensions and concern about the French invading central and western Africa and the Eastern Sudan and the active interest of Italy in Eritrea and Ethiopia. 

I was struck by the bravery and at times the enthusiasm among the officers and men facing battle and the indifference to the risks involved during these military activities. The hardship endured by the members of the Anglo-Egyptian armies must have been incredible.  It must have required a tremendous sense of courage and toleration of hardship. At the same time the dervishes were foolhardy to the very limit in their total disregard of fear and often fought with nothing more than swords and pikes and would race vast numbers into the guns and artillery of the invading forces.

I read the book in detail at the beginning and at the end on Kindle but during the details of the military campaigns, which included more than 200 of the 450 pages of text, I fast read or skipped the many details of army logistics, manoeuvres and strategies because of their detailed and complex nature and the maps which, on Kindle, are virtually impossible to interpret because of their limited size.

For those who are specialists in political and military history this is a useful bibliography of some of the major military figures and of some of the Egyptian and the Sudanese politicians and generals. The book is worth reading to provide insights into the political and military situation at the time in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa but there are two excessively long descriptions, firstly the army attempt to rescue Gordon and, secondly, the army under Kitchener 14 years later sent to retrieve Sudan for the Anglo-Egyptian group. Kitchener was greatly served by cartographers and engineers who did much of the work in connection with transport, railways and technology. These chapters extended to more than 200 of the book’s 450 pages and they could well be a source of confusion to experts in military affairs.

After 1898 Sudan remained a joint Anglo-Egyptian possession until Egypt achieved its independence in 1958.  Kitchener’s success in 1898, at the battle of Omberman close to Khartoum is described as a great and most romantic adventure of the imperial age. Against this romantic adventure we must recall that the rescue of Sudan required the most detailed logistic organisation and training problems and was marked by considerable loss of life, many injuries suffered and huge cost of the enterprise in terms of investment and money. Added to these were the huge loss through injury and death of horses and camels which were required during the campaign and the cruelty they must have suffered.

Sudan was followed shortly afterwards by the Boer War.  These two wars were only part of many wars, which were a feature of British imperial aspirations in various parts of the world in the late 19th century. Whatever about the success of these aspirations there must have been some compensations for the victim nations. The spreading of the English language has certainly made a huge academic and practical contribution to modern communication.  The successful building of a railway by Kitchener to Khartoum and the Egyptian railways, like the training of the Egyptian soldiers, had been greatly improved by that time. Britain had a huge influence on Egypt in terms of its modernisation and its political maturity. 

The British Empire in 1914

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like it was tough going! I read Alan Moorehead's book "The White Nile" as a child, and was enthralled by it. The whole stance of the book, of course, was far less questioning of the idea that you could invade someone else's country and add it to your empire simply because you were a christian, or had firearms or something.

    It is a pity that, with very few exceptions, these stories are always told from the European perspective. Amin Maalouf's wonderful book chronicling the crusades as the arabs experienced them (The crusades through arab eyes) casts a devastating light on the sheer barbarity of the christian invaders, and, indeed, the arab world paralysed by factional and sectarian warfare, unable to mount a coherent response to the crusaders. But it's a notable exception. How did the sudanese experience the british invasion? Who will tell their story?