Gordon v the Mahdi: From Fighting Slavery to Fighting Fanaticism

This year is the 130th anniversary of Britain’s Anti-Slavery Convention of 1877.  In the second of two articles,1 James Heartfield discovers that “Anti-Slavery” turned out to be an excuse for colonisation in the struggle between Gordon of Khartoum and the Mahdi.

Successful as the Anti-Slavery ethos of British policy was in rendering British domination as liberation, it foundered on Britain’s willingness and ability to see it through.  In practice a real policy of anti-slavery could only be pursued to the extent to which the British were able to develop Egyptian society beyond the system of forced labour that prevailed in the Sudan, which is to say not at all.

First the policy of Anti-Slavery was curiously selective.  While attacking the slave trade in the Sudan, forced labour under European control was ignored.  The Corvée was continued in Algeria under French rule and was even a part of the contract between the Egyptian administration and the Suez Canal Company.  The British, as principal shareholders in the company, were the principal beneficiaries of this species of forced labour, just as they were castigating slave trading in the Sudan.

Second, the British had little alternative to slavery in the Sudan since they were unwilling and unable to develop the area economically.  In practice this meant that the forcible destruction of slavery could only tend to destroy the Sudanese economy without putting anything in its place.  This was a spur to the Mahdist uprising.

This point was recognised at the time by Samuel Baker, leader of the Upper Nile Expedition:

Every household in Upper Egypt and in the delta was dependent upon slave service; the fields in the Sudan were cultivated by slaves; the women in the harems of both rich and middle-class were tended by slaves; in fact Egyptian society without slaves would be like a carriage devoid of wheels . . . it could not proceed. 2

Rudolf von Slatin, an Austrian officer in the Khedive’s Army, was similarly circumspect about the influence of the anti-slavery campaign:

there is no doubt that our attitude in regard to the slave question caused widespread discontent.  The religion permitted slavery, and from time immemorial the ground had been cultivated by slaves . . .  Now we, by our activity and energy, had not only made the export of slaves from the black countries almost impossible, but we listened to the complaints of slaves against their masters and invariably set them free.  Muhammed Ahmed [the Mahdi] cleverly seized the occasion of all this discontent to act.3

Insofar as there was an anti-slavery campaign, then, its influence was far from liberating, leading instead to the collapse of the Sudanese economy, and, in the process, creating the basis of the Mahdi’s support.

Third, General Gordon himself was entirely pragmatic about the question of slavery in his practical relationships with the Sudan.  Whilst he did, as Slatin describes, attack the slave traders that stood outside of British influence and Egyptian jurisdiction, he was easily reconciled at least to slave ownership under the Khedive.

This was sheer practicality.  Gordon understood that there was no basis to remove slavery by diktat, only by changing the material conditions of that society, and that he could find no support for such a policy among the Sudanese.  This was all the more obvious in Gordon’s second campaign, when the challenge from the Mahdi forced him to reconcile himself to support from the loyal slave-holding gentry.

Gordon’s status as an Anti-Slaver was called into question quite early when he put Abu al-Su’ud, an infamous slave trader, in charge of his staff in 1874, much to Baker’s dismay.4

Gordon, however, was far from a supporter of abolition.  He rationalised his role, in private correspondence with the Khedive, as one of regulation rather than prohibition.5  Anticipating criticism from the Anti-Slavery Society, Gordon wrote to his sister: “so let the Anti-Slavery Society get the type[face]s ready for ‘Increase of Slave Trade’ and for ‘atrocious’, ‘disgraceful’ and ‘Colonel Gordon’.”6

More pointedly, Gordon’s own army were themselves slaves, bought by Gordon with funds from the Khedive’s treasury, a point on which he was defensive in this diary entry: “I need troops — how am I to get them but thus?”7  Insofar as the Anti-Slavery campaign is a bogus pretext for imperial domination, one can sympathise with Gordon’s immediate predicament — that the rhetoric and the reality of his campaign were irreconcilable.

Gordon’s Second Campaign: Anti-Slavery Shelved

Gordon’s return to Britain in 1881 was short-lived.  The Mahdist revolt put new strains upon British standing in the Sudan.  In September of 1883, (William) Hicks Pasha, a British officer in the Khedival service left Khartoum to try to reestablish control over Kurdufan with a force of 10 000.  On November 5 the Egyptian force were roundly beaten by the Mahdi.

In Britain Gladstone was threatened with censure in the Commons by Northcote and in the Lords by Salisbury.  Gladstone offset the challenge by announcing the return of Gordon to the Sudan, with instructions to re-take the ports, evacuate the interior, and disrupt the slave trade.

However, it was in the practicalities of the campaign that Anti-Slavery was shelved as the organising principal of the campaign.  Soon upon arriving in the Sudan, Gordon cut the knot and announced that the decisions of the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1877 no longer applied.8  This much was a simple necessity if Gordon was to retain any influence.  Henceforth the propaganda goal of the campaign was to defeat the Mahdi, while its practical goal, remained unclear, standing somewhere between re-establishing control of the Sudan and evacuating the garrison.

In Britain there was outcry at Gordon’s unilateral redefinition of his mission, as described by Cromer:

That a man who had heretofore been considered a champion of the anti-slavery cause should immediately on his arrival at Khartoum sanction slavery, and thus run counter to the traditions of his previous career, seemed, indeed, astonishing.  The special supporters of the anti-slavery movement were up in arms.9

The rhetorical commitment to anti-slavery had been shelved as impractical.  Indeed the work of the anti-slavery campaign in promoting British intervention in the Sudan was done.

Gordon was, as ever, withering about the rhetoric of anti-slavery, in defending himself against the charge of reneging on the 1877 convention:

Was it not openly announced that the Sudan was going to be abandoned and that consequently that the Sudanese were to be allowed follow their own devices (which are decidedly slave-hunting inclined)?  What possible influence could my saying that the feeble treaty of 1877 was going to be enforced have on the people who were going to be abandoned?  The sole and only objective of my mission was to get out the garrison and the refugees without loss of life.  And in saying what I did I merely told the people a platitude.10

Fighting Fanaticism: A New Ethos for British Policy

With the evaporation of the anti-slavery campaign the new ethos for British policy in the Sudan was to fight the fanaticism of the Mahdi.  This was an interesting turnaround in that it represented not so much a shift in the problems faced in the Sudan, as a shift in Britain’s own understanding of its role.  Instead of trying to change Africa, and therefore adopting an evangelical posture, Britain was engaged in trying to stave off change, and therefore adopted a more measured, conservative stance.

Pointedly, the campaign against fanaticism was not particularly Gordon’s own enterprise, but instead the interpretation foisted upon him after his defeat, or as seen from afar in Britain and Cairo.

The hawkish Cromer, longstanding author of British policy in Egypt initiated the redefinition of Gordon’s role:

Before Gordon had long been at Khartoum, his combative spirit completely got the better of him.  As a soldier, he could not brook the idea of retiring before the Mahdi.  Moreover as a civilized European, he winced at the idea that a country in which some germs of civilization had been sown should relapse into barbarism . . . he wished, therefore, to ‘smash up’ the Mahdi, and perhaps it was natural that he do so.11

The Death of General Gordon at Khartoum, 1885Representing Gordon as the reluctant defender of fair play and civilization involved a thorough demonisation of the Mahdi.  Interestingly a key figure in this retrospective attack was the liberal-minded Lytton Strachey who recreated Gordon as his own ideal of a non-ideological hero (as well as hinting broadly at his homosexuality).  By contrast Strachey presented the Mahdi as a late Victorian bigot:

It was his mission, he declared, to purge the true faith of its Worldliness and corruptions, to lead the followers of the prophet into the paths of chastity, simplicity and holiness; with the puritanical zeal of a Calvin he denounced junketings and merry-makings, songs and dances, lewd living and all the delights of the flesh.12

Strachey’s account is certainly taken from the time (Sir Michael Hicks Beach wrote of Gordon being “expected to tame this fanatical Mahdi and all his savage followers”13).  But it is also a recreation in the light of Strachey’s own preoccupations.  It did, though, become the model for the retrospective presentation of the threat from the fanatical Mahdi.

Rudolf von Slatin, Gordon’s second in command in the first Sudan campaign, had a good opportunity to see the Mahdi close-up since he, unlike Queen Victoria and Hicks Pasha, took up the Mahdi’s offer of conversion and served in the Mahdist army, before escaping to write his memoirs.  Slatin recalls the Mahdi as neither fanatical nor foolish:

he was aware that religion was the only possible means of uniting all these discordant elements and widely diversified tribes who were at continual feud with each other; therefore he declared himself the Mahdi . . . hoping by this means to drive out the hated Turks, Egyptians and Europeans.14

Gordon a Muslim?

On July 15, 1993 the Public Records Office at Kew revealed documents suppressed by the Foreign Office for more than a hundred years.  An Arab intermediary, a Syrian professor Habib Salmone, reported that Khartoum had not fallen on January 26, 1885 but three months earlier.  Furthermore, according to Salmone, who was acting as a negotiator in secret talks with the Mahdists in Paris, Gordon had been taken hostage and converted to Islam.

According to the Foreign Office, Salmone was an “untrustworthy” source and it would seem that the date of the fall of Khartoum is difficult to square with Gordon’s extant diaries and his review of his troops at Omdurman in January 1885.  Nonetheless their anxiety that his report should be suppressed was well justified.15

At the time the Mahdi’s practice of inviting his opponents to convert and join him was portrayed as further proof of his insanity.  Letters to Pasha Hicks and even Queen Victoria demanding conversion were publicised with much outrage.

In fact the Mahdi’s tactic was often successful, and Rudolf von Slatin, the Austrian who had worked under Gordon, was only the most famous European to prefer Islam to death.  Indeed it was von Slatin who conveyed the invitation to convert to Gordon, as he was surrounded in Khartoum.

Judging by Gordon’s diaries, it was an invitation that deserved consideration.  Gordon himself had sought a rapprochement with the Mahdi, offering him the Governorship of Kurdofan in the service of the Egyptian authorities as a way of settling the conflict.

Reflecting on the claims of Islam, Gordon defends the religion against the missionaries’ charge that it places an intermediary between God and man (truer of the Catholic church) and insists that “the God of the muslims is our God.”16 His principle argument with Slatin was that it was too opportune to make a decision about the Mahdi on the basis of coercion.

Sensitivity about the possibility of Gordon’s capture, or worse his conversion, led the Foreign Office to suppress Salmone’s reports.  The cult of Gordon that followed his death indicates that he was used more as a symbol than as a practical instrument of imperial policy.  Nevertheless, Gordon’s campaign in Darfur saw a significant shift in colonial ideology: from Anti-Slavery to the war against “fanaticism.”


1  “The Limits of Abolitionism,” MRZine 18 January 2001.

2  Pierre Crabites, Gordon, the Sudan and Slavery, London: Routledge, 1933, pp. 13-14.

3  Rudolf von Slatin, Fire and Sword in the Sudan, London, 1897, pp. 56-7.

4  Magali Morsy, North Africa 1800-1900: A Survey From the Nile Valley to the Atlantic, London: Longman, 1984, p 277.

5  Crabites, p 30.

6  Crabites, p 31.

7  Crabites, p 98.

8  Earl of Cromer, Modern Egypt, NewYork: Macmillan, p 471.

9  Crabites, p 212

10  The Journals of Major General Gordon CB at Khartoum, London: Kegan Paul, 1885, p 54.

11  Cromer, p 562

12  Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, Folio Society, 1967, p 224.

13  Bernard Allen, Gordon and the Sudan, Macmillan, London, 1933, p 259.

14  Rudolf von Slatin, Fire and Sword in the Sudan, pp. 56-7.

15  Daily Mail 16 July 1993.

16  Crabites, p 290.

James Heartfield is the author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million Homes in the Next 10 Years (2006), The “Death of the Subject” Explained (2002), Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy (2000), and Need and Desire in the Postmaterial Economy (1998) among numerous other publications.

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