One of the great pleasures for me in researching my novel Pharaoh was acquiring an original copy of General Charles Gordon’s Journals, covering his final months as Governor-General in Khartoum in 1884-5 before the city was overrun by Mahdist forces and he was killed. I’d wanted to find out more about his archaeological and ethnographic interests, but I found myself utterly absorbed by his day-to-day management of the city and the problems he faced. Unlike his other published work of the period, Reflections in Palestine, put together by admirers on the basis of private notebooks from the year he had spent on leave in Palestine in 1883, the Journals were intended from the outset to be read by others, and had been despatched to safety from Khartoum with express instructions that they were to be edited appropriately. I’m certain that he would have been appalled by Reflections, a work of hagiography that he probably never saw – it was published in 1884, when he was already besieged in Khartoum – and which did much to bolster the image of Gordon the mystic that has clouded popular perception of him ever since.
Those expecting anything of this sort in the Journals will be disappointed. I’ve often wondered whether Joseph Conrad had Gordon in mind when he created his character Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (1899), and certainly one take on Gordon has him staring half-crazed out of his compound surrounded by hanging corpses and the stench of death like Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, strongly derivative of Conrad. But when Martin Sheen in the film famously tells Brando ‘I don’t see any method at all,’ the connection for me with Gordon is broken. The Journals reveal Gordon as a consummate professional, with a great deal of method. Gordon was charged - had charged himself - with the governance of a city on the edge of starvation and insanity, squalid and desperate almost beyond belief but that he could just sustain by rationing out food and medicine from his dwindling supply, keeping up hope by showing that he himself had not lost it. They reveal a man of immense, almost sleepless energy – the Journals themselves are a considerable achievement, running to several hundred thousand words, let alone the work they describe – and of enormous passions, yet who channelled his frustrations into practical measures where he could. By seeing his vitality, I began to understand how he attracted such close friendships and admiration among those who did not actually have to try to bring him under their control.
Much of what preoccupied Gordon as Governor, and fills the pages of the Journals– ranging from sanitation and hygiene to siege fortifications, range-finding for rifle fire and daily accounting of ammunition expenditure – he had learned early on in the Corps of Royal Engineers, in the two-year course that all newly commissioned sapper officers had to attend at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham. The Royal Engineers attracted a generally higher intellect than other branches of the army, and officers ambitious for field experience could see much campaign service and rise to high command. The Gordon Relief Expedition included more than seventy R.E. officers, including Major-General Sir Gerald Graham, V.C.; Colonel Sir Charles Wilson, Lord Wolseley’s intelligence chief who ended up in command of the ‘desert column’ after its general had been been killed; Major Horatio Kitchener, Wilson’s intelligence deputy and future nemesis of the Mahdi, who I’ve blogged about here; and many junior officers with their sapper companies carrying out survey, railway building, boat maintenance and other engineer tasks. When I came to create a fictional protagonist with the expedition it seemed right that he too should be a Royal Engineer, not least because many of those men knew Gordon personally and their sympathy for a fellow officer helped to focus my story on Gordon himself and what was really going on in Khartoum.
My own fascination with Gordon, as with Kitchener, stems from my boyhood, when my grandfather told me that his grandfather – a Royal Engineer Colonel, Walter Andrew Gale – had known both. While on the staff at Chatham in the 1890s my great-great grandfather had been chair of the ‘Gordon Relics Committee’, an attempt by the Royal Engineers to look after Gordon’s legacy; the fruit of their work was an exhibit in 1897 at the Museum of the Royal United Service Institution in London, including artefacts from the Sudan that can be seen today in the Royal Engineers Museum. Gale also edited the Proceedings of the Royal Engineers Institute, and flipping through those compendious volumes, full of scholarly papers on all manner of subjects, made me appreciate better the professional focus of an officer like Gordon. His passion for antiquities was shared by many of his fellow officers – often with a biblical backdrop – and drove a fascination with Palestine, Egypt and the Sudan that bolstered their own Christian morality, in Gordon’s case strengthening his belief in his role as saviour of the Sudanese people even if it was ultimately a doomed cause.
As for the manner of Gordon’s death, the famous painting by George Joy shown here may not be that far from the truth. The few eyewitness accounts are of uncertain reliability, but suggest that he donned his dress uniform and met the enemy with sword and revolver in hand. In so doing he was following the prime directive of his Corps, to be a soldier first and engineer second. Gordon may have been a man of profound religious leanings, veering towards the messianic at times, but when it came to it the evidence suggests that he did not welcome death like a martyr but instead went down fighting, a soldier rather than a prophet, a man upholding the professional ethos of the Corps of Royal Engineers to the very end.