The invasion of Egypt, 1882

IN THE LATE AUTUMN of 1879 William Gladstone began his celebrated “Midlothian campaign”. Over a two-week period the 69 year old veteran spoke at 27 meetings to an audience estimated at over 80,000 people. His speeches were fully reported in both the national and local press. According to one historian, the old man’s “charismatic power” reached its zenith during the campaign and he brought about what could almost be described as “an uprising of the populace”.1 On 25 November Gladstone spoke at the Music Hall in Edinburgh. He condemned “the established dietary of the present government” which consists of “a series of theatrical expedients, calculated to excite, calculated to alarm, calculated to stir pride and passion”. What, he wondered, would be their “next quasi-military operation”? The Conservatives were setting up “false phantoms of glory” which were leading people to believe that they were better than the rest of the world. More specifically, he condemned the annexation of the Transvaal, the attack on the Zulus, the assumption together with France of “the virtual government of Egypt” and “the most wanton invasion of Afghanistan”. The Afghanistan adventure had “broken that country to pieces, made it a miserable ruin”.2 These were to be recurrent themes in the wide-ranging indictments of Conservative misrule that were taken up by Liberals and Radicals throughout the country. Gladstone presented a crushing indictment on both moral and practical grounds. When the general election was finally held in April 1880 the Conservative government was routed, with 351 Liberal MPs returned and only 239 Conservatives.

Gladstone’s repeated condemnation of the government’s actions in Egypt in his Midlothian speeches is especially noteworthy because he was to order a full-scale invasion of that country some two years into office. This turnaround should not come as a complete surprise. Even in his Midlothian speeches Gladstone made it clear that he was condemning ill-considered imperial adventures rather than the empire as such. In a speech in Glasgow on 5 December 1879 he had actually promised “to consecrate” the empire “to the Almighty by the strict application of the principles of justice and goodwill, of benevolence and mercy”.3 More to the point, every government he had been a member of in his long career had invaded somewhere and he had always managed to square it with his conscience. Moreover, his own first government had sent a military expedition to the Gold Coast in west Africa in 1873-74 (“the Ashanti War”) and had been preparing to annex Fiji when it lost office. Even so the turnaround from condemning the assumption of the “virtual government” of Egypt to full-scale invasion still requires some explanation.

Ismail and the bankers

Egypt had been delivered up into the hands of the French and the British by the efforts of its ruler, the Khedive, to modernise the country. At the time of his succession in 1863 Egypt was benefiting from a boom in the demand for its cotton brought about by the disruption of supplies from the Southern States during the American Civil War. This created what has been described as the “Klondike of the Nile” with European banks rushing to “spoil the Egyptians” with loans. Ismail, the Khedive, invested heavily in improvements to the country’s infrastructure. During his reign 112 irrigation canals were dug totalling 8,400 miles in length, the railway system was extended from 275 to 1185 miles, 430 bridges were built and the harbour at Alexandria was modernised. He increased the amount of agricultural land from some 4 million acres in 1862 to nearly 5.5 million in 1879. Ismail also invested heavily in education with the number of elementary schools increasing from 185 to 4,685. And he presided over the construction of the Suez Canal.4

The Suez Canal can be seen as the first step along the road to eventual bankruptcy and the takeover of Egypt by the British. Construction, which took from 1859 until 1869, cost some £16 million of which shareholders subscribed £4,500,000 and the Egyptian government the rest. The bulk of the profits from the operation of the canal nevertheless went to the shareholders, not the government. Even worse, the Egyptian government had to borrow the money for its own investment on ruinous terms so that by 1873 it had paid £6 million in interest on these loans alone.5 According to one economic historian, “Egypt’s financial difficulties originated with the building of the Suez Canal” and moreover, while its construction was of considerable benefit to European, particularly British commerce, it “could not possibly be of any benefit” to Egypt.6

By 1876 the Egyptian government had foreign loans amounting to £68 million, internal loans of over £14 million and a floating debt of £16 million. Of the amounts borrowed something like a third had never made it into the Egyptian treasury but had been siphoned off by the banks as “discounts and commissions which were exaggerated and inflated to the verge and beyond the verge of fraudulence”.7 The Marxist Theodore Rothstein provided a useful account of the “methods of modern finance” with regard to a loan for £32 million that Ismail negotiated with Rothschild’s investment bank in 1873. The Rothschilds kept nearly £12 million as security and, of the £20 million actually handed over, some £9 million was in substantially over-valued bonds of Egyptian floating debt. The Egyptians received less than half of what they had borrowed and, of course, had to pay interest on the whole of it. This was fraud on a massive scale that goes unmarked by most historians. The 1873 loan, instead of alleviating the Egyptian position, seriously weakened it.8 Bankruptcy was only avoided in 1875 by the sale of the Egyptian government’s share in the Suez Canal to the British government for a derisory £4 million.

This merely postponed the inevitable, and the following year Ismail announced his intention of postponing of the bondholders’ coupon. The Egyptian government was effectively bankrupt. Egypt was delivered into the hands of European financial interests, who, with the support of the British and the French governments, progressively took over the running of the country. Egypt was to be governed for the benefit of the bondholders, the investors who had bought into the Egyptian debt, and its population despoiled to ensure the payment of their interest. British investors owned a third of the debt. This constituted a significant section of the British upper class, including William Gladstone, who was one of the bondholders. Their exactions were to provoke revolution.

The scale of the problem is demonstrated by the budget for 1877. Egyptian revenue was £9,526,000 extracted from the peasantry, the fellahin, often with considerable brutality. Of this, most, £7,474,000, went to the bondholders; £470,000 went as tribute to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul (this tribute was also owned by European bondholders) and £200,000 went as interest on the Suez Canal shares sold to the British. This left £1,400,000 to pay for the government, administration and defence of the country.9 Under pressure from the European powers Ismail was forced to agree to the appointment of two controllers-general, one British and one French, to supervise the government, although Ismail did his best to obstruct this system of “Dual Control”. As early as February 1878 George Goschen, MP for the City of London, a senior Liberal politician and Gladstone’s personal financial adviser (and one of the architects of this dual control) wrote in his diary that Ismail would have to be “deposed if he won’t give way”.10

Ismail was bullied into accepting the appointment of an Englishman, Rivers Wilson, as minister of finance and a Frenchman, de Blignieres, as minister of public works. Increasing popular hostility to European influence encouraged him to try and retrieve the situation and in April 1879 he dismissed them both. Only shortage of troops prevented the then Conservative government intervening militarily, with Lord Salisbury complaining that “all our force is locked up” in Zululand and Afghanistan.11 Instead a diplomatic offensive in Istanbul secured Ismail’s removal and he was replaced by his son, Tewfik, on 25 June 1879. From the very beginning Tewfik was aware that his fate was dependent on the British.

“Egypt for the Egyptians!”

The late 1870s were a period of the most appalling hardship for the Egyptian fellahin. A series of crop failures produced famine in Upper Egypt in 1878 during which thousands starved to death. At the very same time the exactions of the tax collectors, whip in hand, were stepped up in order to ensure the payment of the bondholders’ interest. Rivers Wilson records in his memoirs being told by one Egyptian official of the plight of the people. When he insisted that the taxes had to be collected he was told that it would be done but “I must beg that you make no inquiry into the means which I will employ”.12 These means were flogging, torture and imprisonment. None of this caused serious problems of conscience for most Europeans. There were, of course, individual exceptions. Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote that the fellahin “were in terrible straits of poverty…the European bondholders were clamouring for their ‘coupons’ and famine was at the door”. “We did not”, he went on, “as yet understand, any more than did the peasants themselves, the financial pressure from Europe which was the true cause of these extreme exactions.” Even less, he later confessed, did he suspect “our English share of the blame”.13

Opposition to European exactions grew and was given voice in the Chamber of Notables that Ismail had established in 1866. This body was a sort of pseudo-parliament that was never intended to have any influence. Now as unrest grew, many Egyptians came to see it as a means of curbing both Ismail’s despotism and European influence. An important feature of this emerging nationalist opposition was what has been described as “Muslim Modernism”. The key figure espousing this doctrine was the Persian, Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who called upon Muslims to resist Western domination, to establish popular representative governments and to embrace the scientific advances of the modern world. The man who tried to interpret this “Muslim Modernism” to the British was Wilfred Scawen Blunt.14

One of Tewfik’s first acts on becoming Khedive was to order the deportation of al-Afghani. The cause was taken up by others, however, most notably by Shaikh Mohammed ’Abdu. All Tewfik achieved was to bring together the various opposition factions and interests around the demand of “Egypt for the Egyptians”.

The opposition embraced all levels of Egyptian society, fuelled by a variety of grievances. For many, the privileges accorded to the over 90,000 Europeans resident in the country by 1880 were intolerable. They were exempt from taxation and, to all intents and purposes, from Egyptian law. Once Tewfik was installed their influence increased until “by mid-1880 there was scarcely an aspect of Egyptian domestic affairs over which the French and the British, and to some extent other Europeans, did not exercise substantial, if not complete sway”.15

While Egyptian officials were dismissed or had their pay held in arrears as an economy measure, European officials were taken on, paid considerably more and regularly. The salaries of 1,300 Europeans, overwhelmingly British and French, swallowed a twentieth of government revenue.16And while the economy measures that left Egyptians impoverished were ruthlessly enforced, the little luxuries that made life bearable for Europeans were left untouched. As Blunt pointed out, the £1,000 a year paid by the government to the Reuters news agency was sacrosanct because how else would it be possible “to know at Cairo the odds on the Oxford and Cambridge boat race or even on the Derby and Grand Prix”. Similarly, the £9,000 subsidy to the European Opera House was essential.17 Even the more wealthy Egyptians turned against the Europeans complaining of excessive taxation and the government’s decision to leave debts to Egyptians unpaid so that the European bondholders could receive their interest. This growing unrest inevitably adopted an Islamic rhetoric, provoked not just by the takeover of the country by Christians, but by the racist attitudes that accompanied it. The French occupation of Tunisia in April 1881 gave added impetus to the opposition because it seemed clear that Egypt was destined for a similar fate.

The classic mistake the British and French made in their takeover of Egypt’s “virtual government” was to alienate the army. The economy measures taken to ensure the payment of the coupon involved a reduction in the size of the army and the dismissal of large numbers of officers and men whose pay was generally months in arrears. To many this seemed to be preparing the way for a European military occupation of the country. The result was to throw the army into the hands of the opposition. Instead of the army being available to crush the opposition and, if necessary, close down the Chamber of Notables, the army put itself at the service of the opposition and became a champion of the chamber. The greed of the bondholders and their representatives had seriously exceeded their political judgement. The man who emerged as the key figure in the military opposition was Colonel Ahmed Urabi, who was to give his name to what was to become a revolutionary movement. In May 1880 Urabi put himself at the head of protest against the government, giving notice that the army had become an independent political actor. In February 1881 an attempt to arrest him and other officers sympathetic to the opposition provoked open mutiny, forcing Tewfik into a humiliating climbdown. And in September the army intervened to force Tewfik to dismiss his European ministers and appoint a nationalist government responsible to the Chamber of Notables. The historian of the Urabist movement, Juan Cole, insists that while the army “became a pivotal ally of the civilian revolutionaries, intervening at crucial points…the evidence does not support the charge that it was a martial law dictatorship at any time in 1881-82”.18This is an important point because one of the main British justifications for invading Egypt was that they were saving the country from military tyranny.

Blunt met with Urabi in Cairo in December 1881 and agreed to represent the nationalist case to the Liberal government in London. After their conversations, together with Mohammed Abdu and others, he drew up a “Programme of the National Party of Egypt”. Copies were sent to Gladstone and to The Times. The programme was deliberately moderate, intended to win over liberal opinion and persuade the British government to support constitutional reform in Egypt. The nationalists were not proposing to repudiate Egypt’s debt; what they were proposing was an end to European control of the administration, the ending of Khedival autocracy and the introduction of constitutional government, and the assembly’s control over that part of the budget not committed to servicing the foreign debt. While there was some expression of sympathy on the part of the British Liberals, including Gladstone himself, in the end the British government realised that only a despotism under European control could safely protect the bondholders’ interests.

On 8 January 1882 the British and French governments issued a “Joint Note” that made clear their support for Khedival autocracy and opposition to the constitutional claims of the Chamber of Notables. This completely alienated the nationalists and strengthened the position of the army as the one body that could force Tewfik to submit to the chamber and defend the country against European invasion. With the nationalist movement defiant, European invasion became inevitable. The British consul general in Cairo, Edward Malet, wrote to the foreign secretary on 23 January 1882 informing him of discussions he had had with the president of the Chamber of Notables, Mohammed Sultan. When the president made it clear that the chamber was determined to secure control over the budget, Malet warned him that he was entering on the path of the French Revolution, “the consequence of which was that the country was inundated with the blood of its citizens” and its government overthrown “by an European coalition against it”. The warning was ignored. Malet went on to confess that he personally disliked the idea of “a war engaged in on behalf of bondholding and which would have for effect to repress the first attempt of a Mussulman country at a parliamentary government. It seemed unnatural for England to do this”.19 At this stage, it is clear that the British objection was not to any supposed military dictatorship, but to the establishment of parliamentary government in Egypt.

The Liberal response

Gladstone’s government responded to Egyptian defiance in a very traditional way. Warships were despatched (an Anglo-French force) to Alexandria in May 1882 in an attempt to intimidate the nationalists and bolster the authority of the Khedive. In the circumstances, this only made the situation worse. Intervention was inevitable. Gladstone is often portrayed as an opponent of military action, only reluctantly brought to accept it by more determined colleagues. A better way of regarding the situation is that Gladstone hoped to intimidate the nationalists into compliance and only when this approach had clearly failed did he finally embrace intervention, with, as we shall see, considerable enthusiasm. Within the Liberal government there was no serious disagreement over the need to maintain Khedival autocracy as the instrument of European control.

Towards the end of May the British and French demanded that Tewfik dismiss the nationalist government and exile Urabi. Popular protest forced him to retreat once again, fearful that the country was on the edge of revolution. Even so, popular anger finally burst onto the streets of Alexandria on 11 June. Following a clash between an Egyptian youth and a Greek, Egyptian crowds set about the Europeans. The assault was provoked by resentment at the privileged position of the Europeans and their racist arrogance, and by fury at the continued intimidatory presence of the Anglo-French warships. For Juan Cole, the image “of a furious Egyptian crowd attempting to overturn the carriages of the European consuls, who had superciliously lorded it over them for two decades, eloquently expresses the entire revolution”.20 By the time Urabi’s troops had restored order, 50 Europeans had been killed, including three British seamen on shore leave. At the same time some 250 Egyptians had also been killed, shot down by the city’s well-armed European population.

There was outrage in Britain at a native population daring to attack Europeans. Reprisals were necessary or else the British living among native populations throughout the empire and beyond would be at risk. Moreover, it was widely perceived as a Muslim attack on Christians. Something had to be done. Charles Dilke, one of the radical members of Gladstone’s government, wrote in his diary, “Our side in the Commons are very Jingo about Egypt. They badly want to kill somebody. They don’t know who”.21 The people of Alexandria had to be taught a lesson.

Egyptian improvements to their coastal forts at Alexandria were seized on as a suitable pretext for military action. They were to be presented as a threat to British warships that could not be tolerated. In fact, the forts posed no credible threat. Indeed, only days before the riots Lord Northbrook, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had written that the navy did not “entertain the slightest apprehension with regard to them”.22 Now, however, they were seized on as a convenient excuse for military action. Ministers were quite explicit in this regard. As Lord Northbrook candidly informed the foreign secretary, “If we want to bring on a fight we can instruct B Seymour [the admiral] to require the guns to be dismantled. My advisers do not think they will do much harm where they are”.23 This is an important point. Charles Royle, a contemporary observer, later admitted in his history of the invasion of Egypt that “the actual danger to Admiral Seymour’s ships…was at the time simply nil”. Nevertheless, he insisted that the bombardment of Alexandria was “a necessity if only to restore European prestige”.24 And it was not just Liberal ministers and MPs who wanted bloody retribution. The Khedive himself was privately urging the British to shell his subjects into submission.

Seymour actually demanded that the Egyptians surrender the forts. When they refused, he prepared for an attack. At this point the French withdrew their ships. At 7am on 11 July Seymour’s eight iron-clad warships began their bombardment. After a relentless ten-hour bombardment the Egyptian guns fell silent. Although the Egyptians mounted a brave defence, the battle was completely one-sided, providing further testimony that the forts posed no threat. The British had five men killed and 28 wounded, while Egyptian casualties were in the region of 2,000 men killed and wounded.

By the time the bombardment ended, much of Alexandria itself was in ruins. The British blamed this on Egyptian mobs, but there is overwhelming evidence that most of the damage was the result of the British shelling. One young naval officer was detailed to recover unexploded shells from the town. “Our gunnery, during the bombardment”, he acknowledged, “had not been very good, and the town appeared to me to have suffered more from the misses than the hits”.25 An army officer on the scene later recalled that though he could see that “considerable damage had been done to the town of Alexandria by the bombardment, and the fire which followed it, the forts that lined the coast had suffered but little”.26 Another officer reported that “the huge shells flew wide and high, some of them reaching Lake Mariout, two miles inland”.27

Clearly this was a shameful episode costing hundreds of lives, many of them defenceless civilians. What is of interest is how little it has affected the reputations of those involved. The horror of a city under bombardment is airbrushed out, an incidental detail in the careers of great men. The reality was somewhat different. Those responsible delighted in what they had done. Dilke wrote in his diary at the time, “My room at the House [of Commons] presented a most animated appearance while the bombardment of Alexandria was going on… Hartington, Brett, Childers and other members of our Jingo gang kept coming in to hear the news by telephone from the FO”.28 The bombardment, he was to observe, “like all butchery is popular”.29

One member of the cabinet, the veteran Radical, John Bright, felt obliged to resign in protest. A few days before the bombardment he had written in his diary of how painful it was “to observe how much of the Jingo or war spirit can be shown by certain members of a Liberal cabinet”.30Gladstone tried to persuade him to stay, arguing that the bombardment had “taught many lessons…shown the fanaticism of the East that the massacre of Europeans is not likely to be perpetrated with impunity, and greatly advanced the Egyptian question towards a permanent and peaceable solution”. Gladstone insisted that he felt “that in being party to this work I have been a labourer in the cause of peace”.31

The problem was not that Gladstone was a liar, but rather that he had the very useful facility of being able to convince himself that anything was right. Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote of there being two Gladstones—“a man of infinite private sympathy” and an “opportunist statesman”. He went on to write that Gladstone’s:

Public life was to a large extent a fraud…the insincerities of debate were ingrained in him…if he had a new distasteful policy to pursue his first objective was to persuade himself into a belief that it was really congenial to him, and at this he worked until he had made himself his own convert … Thus he was always saved the too close consciousness of his insincerities, for like the tragedian in Dickens, when he had to act Othello he began by painting himself black all over.32

“Vast numbers of Egyptian dead”

The bombardment of Alexandria did not end the crisis. Although Tewfik promptly defected to the British, the nationalist government remained defiant in revolt against both the Khedive and his masters. Urabi prepared to defend the country against invasion. Accordingly, Gladstone despatched an expeditionary force under General Garnet Wolseley to put down the Egyptian revolution. The vote authorising the invasion was carried by 275 votes to 21 in the House of Commons on 27 July. The spirit of Midlothian that had swept Gladstone into office was well and truly dead.

The Egyptian army was decisively defeated at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir on 13 September 1882. The British overwhelmed their defences in a surprise attack just before dawn and carried out a textbook massacre, a model of well-executed colonial warfare. British casualties were 57 killed and 382 wounded. Estimates of the Egyptian dead, as is the way with colonial wars, range from 2,000 to 10,000 dead. No one counted. According to one British officer, Colonel William Butler, an Irish Catholic and admirer of the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, the Egyptians had put up a brave but hopeless resistance against a British attack that had fallen on them like “a thunderbolt”. There was, he felt, no glory in this sort of one-sided encounter. It was a “gift war-horse which the Stock Exchange is now able to bestow” and which one could not afford to examine “too severely in the mouth”. What, he asked, was “the bad revolting star of this Egyptian business…which guided us to overwhelm the sleeping fellaheen host at Tel-el-Kebir? The Egyptian peasant in revolt against his plunderers or an English Liberal government in revolt against Liberalism?” He remembered “vast numbers of Egyptian dead”.33

Butler was not alone in being appalled at the slaughter. The Presbyterian chaplain with the expedition, the Reverend Arthur Male, wrote of “a strange and horrible sight” on the battlefield: “as far as the eye could reach, a line of bodies lying or kneeling or reclining against the parapet, from end to end. There they had stood till the rush of our men was upon them, and there they had fallen.” Although Male’s commitment to the British soldier was absolute, he could not accept that this was a just war. The Urabist movement was “really a national protest against the tyranny of a government with a weak viceroy at its head and men alien to its country as its ministers”. Urabi had the Egyptian people behind him and as for his being an adventurer as was alleged in Britain, Male observed that he “was a poor man when he began his movement; he was no richer when he ended—a strange fact, indeed, had he been nothing but an adventurer”. But for the British, Urabi would, in Male’s view, have been an Egyptian Oliver Cromwell.34 Another officer, Colonel William Hicks, confessed himself “ashamed of the fuss” made over such a one-sided victory and was convinced that it had been “magnified…to make political capital for Mr Gladstone…honours and decorations in bushels”. It was “enough to make one sick”.35

Making political capital out of the victory was, indeed, Gladstone’s intention. He wanted guns fired in Hyde Park and church bells rung in celebration. One of his private secretaries, Edward Hamilton, described him as being “in the highest possible spirits” after this “brilliant little campaign”. He remarked on Conservative rage because Gladstone had “adopted their policies and taken leaves out of their books which he cut up to pieces so when he was in opposition”. Now it had all come good and “has given a great ‘fillip’ to the government”. Queen Victoria was, of course, absolutely delighted and both she and Gladstone hoped that Urabi “could be hung without any inclemency”.36

One last point here: Gladstone benefited financially from the invasion of Egypt. As we have already noted, he had a substantial investment in the Egyptian debt and this appreciated in value once the country had been occupied. Was this corrupt? The point has been made in his defence that at this time “almost anyone with a substantial portfolio would have held one or other issue of the Egyptians”.37 It was inconceivable to this class, of which Gladstone was a member, that their interests would not be protected. This was, after all, what the British state was for. As far as Gladstone was concerned he was not protecting his personal investment—this was incidental—he was protecting the investments of his class. To do otherwise would not have occurred to him. Moreover, the battle of Tel-el-Kebir, with its piles of Egyptian dead, precipitated a “rush to get into Egyptian securities” and for several days this was “the one feature of Stock Exchange business”.38

The Mahdi and Sudan

Success soon turned to dust. On 29 October 1882 Edward Hamilton recorded in his diary the first intimations that all was not well. “There seems to be reason to fear that we are not out of our difficulties in Egypt”, he wrote. “News has arrived which is calculated to raise grave apprehensions, that the so-called ‘false prophet’ in the Sudan is, with large forces at his back about to march on Egypt… This may mean a most serious business”.39

In Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad had taken advantage of the crisis in Egypt to proclaim himself the Mahdi in June 1881 and raise the standard of revolt against Anglo-Egyptian rule. Having put down a modernising Islam in Egypt, the British now confronted a fundamentalist Islam in Sudan. Wilfred Scawen Blunt made the connection admirably:

The revolt in the Sudan stood in close analogy with that in Lower Egypt. Both had a double character, beginning as the natural rebellion of a people against long misgovernment, and taking a religious complexion when Christian Europe had intervened in support of the tyrannical ruler against the people. The only difference between the two cases lay in the fact that whereas in Egypt the reformers were enlightened men, representing the humane and more progressive side of Islam, the Sudanese reformers were reactionary and fanatical. It cannot be too strongly insisted on that the great, the capital wrong committed by our English government in 1882, was less the destruction of the hopes of free government in Egypt as a nation, than the treacherous blow its armed intervention struck everywhere at the aspirations of liberal Islam… What wonder then that the defeat at Tel-el-Kebir should have been taken through all Mohammadan lands as a setback to reform, an impulse to reaction.40

Blunt’s criticism of the “reactionary and fanatical character” of the Mahdist movement did not compromise his support for their revolt against oppression in the slightest.

The British meanwhile continued to consolidate their control over Egypt by means of “all the now-familiar techniques of overcoming peasant resistance…military raids, secret police, informants, massive imprisonment (the country’s jails were filled to four times their capacity) and the systematic use of torture”.41 While this was accomplished, a hastily assembled Egyptian army under the command of Colonel William Hicks was despatched to crush the Mahdi. In early November 1883 Hicks’s force was destroyed by the Mahdi’s armed followers, the Sunni Ansar, at Shaykan. The British government responded to the crisis by sending the popular hero General Charles Gordon to Khartoum to supervise the evacuation of most of Sudan. A law unto himself, Gordon was cut off and very reluctantly Gladstone recognised that an expedition would have to be sent to rescue him. Wolseley, by now Baron of Cairo, was put in command. This was to prove a much more hard-fought campaign than his conquest of Egypt and on a number of occasions the expedition was close to disaster. In the end, it arrived too late. Khartoum fell to the Mahdi on 26 January 1885. The British had been humiliated and Gladstone became the villain of the hour for his failure to save Gordon. As Edward Hamilton observed “The gloom and rage of London knows no bounds”.42

There were, however, voices raised against British intervention in Sudan. When Khartoum fell, Commonweal, the newspaper of the Socialist League, carried an article “Gordon and the Sudan” by the Marxist Ernest Belfort Bax. This roundly attacked Gordon, criticised the British relief expedition for its slaughter of “ill-armed and ill-disciplined barbarians” and condemned “the great god Capital” for being responsible for “this wretched business war”.43 This stand flew in the face of public opinion which regarded Gordon as a martyr, “our boys” as above criticism and the empire as a glorious enterprise. William Morris, one of the leaders of the league, wrote to his daughter at the time that “Khartoum has fallen—into the hands of the people it belongs to”. On 26 March 1885 he wrote a letter defending the Socialist League’s position, in particular its stance regarding the death of Gordon. “It was”, he wrote, “quite necessary to attack the Gordon worship, which has been used as a stalking horse for such widespread murder” in Sudan. He went on to provide a fine statement of the Marxist position:

We assume, as we must, that the Mahdi is the representative of his countrymen in their heroic defence of their liberties; on that assumption we may well approve of him if we are not to condemn Garibaldi… As to his fanaticism (which it seems must be condemned in him though praised in Gordon) you should remember that any popular movement in the East is bound to take a religious form; the condition of development of the Eastern peoples forces this on them. Surely it must be considered an article of faith with us to sympathise with all popular revolutionary movements though we may not agree with the all the tenets of the revolutionists.44


Sudan was not to be reconquered by the British until Kitchener’s campaign of 1898 that culminated in the battle of Omdurman on 2 September. On this occasion the Sudanese conveniently launched a frontal assault on the invading army and were massacred in a display of overwhelming firepower. Modern rifles, machine guns and artillery destroyed the Sudanese army before it even got close enough to the British to begin inflicting casualties. The British themselves were very much aware of how one-sided the battle was. One NCO described the slaughter (his words) as “dreadful”, “I thought it was like murder”, and another considered the battle “more like a butcher’s killing house than anything else”. After the battle the bodies of some 10,800 Sudanese were counted but many more who had fled the scene would have subsequently died of their wounds. The British themselves estimated the final Sudanese death toll from the battle at 16,000. British losses were 48 killed and over 400 wounded.

The aftermath of the battle saw prisoners and wounded being shot and bayoneted out of hand. The troops were ordered “to bayonet and shoot everyone we saw” in revenge for Gordon and some of them entered into the killing with considerable enthusiasm. One soldier later boasted of killing “about 25, I think,” and after each one “I said ‘Another one for Gordon’”.45 The young Winston Churchill, a participant in the battle, wrote home that the victory was “disgraced by the inhuman slaughter of the wounded” for which he blamed Kitchener. He singled out in particular for censure the troops under the command of Colonel John Maxwell. Maxwell was subsequently put in charge of the occupation of the town of Omdurman where, he privately admitted, he “quietly made away with a bunch of Emirs”.46 Some 18 years later the by then General Sir John Maxwell was to command the British forces suppressing the Easter Rising in Dublin. Meanwhile, as part of the revenge for Gordon, the Mahdi’s tomb was broken into and subsequently blown up, his skeleton thrown into the Nile and his skull presented to Kitchener as a trophy. Even Queen Victoria thought that this “savours…too much of the Middle Ages” and complained that as the Sudanese had respected British graves so theirs should also have been respected. The Mahdi’s skull was buried in secret.47

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