Gordon must fall? The ‘Martyr General’ and Brexit Britain

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Guest-blogger James Selway reflects on what the legacy of General Charles Gordon means to him in light of the recent decision by Britain to leave the European Union.

If 2016 was a year of political revolt in Britain, 2017 has kick-started a process of reflection across our disunited Kingdom. Critics have labelled Brexit ‘Empire 2.0’, yet for all the competing visions that now exist for Britain, an economic re-engagement with the Commonwealth seems inevitable. Revisiting my undergraduate dissertation for this article has been a process of reflection on my part. In 2013 I investigated the memorialisation of Charles Gordon – a maverick British General murdered in 1885 during the siege of Khartoum by Sudanese rebels loyal to the fanatical prophet Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi – and argued that a re-evaluation of this largely forgotten eminent Victorian was long overdue. I now believe that Brexit and the unrelenting spate of terrorism across the West make Gordon more relevant than ever. It would appear that I am not alone in this; imperial icons are once again generating headlines but for reasons I never envisaged. Increasingly vocal sects now demand we ‘decolonise society’ by renaming public spaces and removing historical edifices – seemingly whitewashing the nation’s history rather than engaging with it. In these turbulent times, surely it is more productive to ask whether imperial figures can help create a brighter tomorrow, in reminding the former British World of common interests and shared prosperity with the former metropole.

The Imperial Hero

Before we can consider reinventing Gordon however, I would like to share some of my initial findings on his memorialisation during the age of empire and what ensued following later decolonisation. From the outset, it is vital to stress that framing Gordon in sculpture and literature was an inconsistent exercise. Before he became an abstract deity open to hijack, a window lasting no more than a few months where the man’s character and personal achievements were evaluated did exist. This occurrence was largely facilitated by the slow process of constructing imperial edifices; literature had to form the crux of what I dubbed Gordon’s ‘First Memorialisation’ before the statues, institutions and ephemera characteristic of a ‘Second Memorialisation’ could act as vehicles for religious and political myth-making. Pamphlets formed an intrinsic part of my ‘First Memorialisation’ concept, with Annie Besant’s ‘Gordon judged out of his own mouth’ being particularly noteworthy as she described Gordon as ‘by no means heroic’ and ‘worthy neither of very high praise or very severe blame’.[1] Additionally, Demetrius Boulger knew Gordon personally and his mammoth two volume work attempted to explain the general’s ‘two sided character’ and humanise him, rather than just focussing on his achievements.[2]

As 1885 drew to an end however, Gordon was still grabbing newspaper headlines through admiration and intrigue – but the objectivity that had driven the ‘First Memorialisation’ was absent. Far more sinister currents were now at work, intent on taking advantage of a grieving metropole and its empire to advance both short-term and long-term interests.[3] Early biographical works on Gordon’s life and death – often written by female admirers who saw the man as a martyr – introduced the concept of the Christian hero to the Khartoum saga. Gordon’s faith had been one of the few well publicised areas of his otherwise obscure existence and, when coupled to the Christ-esque mystery surrounding the fate of his body, it is only logical that a religious theme would usurp the memorialisation process.[4] Life of General Gordon written by Eva Hope in 1885, aimed to educate readers about both the country Gordon had sacrificed himself for and how Christ had influenced his worldly decisions, with the ultimate view that Christian civilization had a divine duty to triumph over Islamic barbarism.[5] This Christianization process was extensive and other examples can be found in my unabridged work, but it is worth mentioning a quite by chance meeting with the Rector of St. Mary’s Church in Cottingham, Father Paul Smith, in 2012. His family tale described how on the 31 March 1900 a clergyman not only presented Father Smith’s Granddad – then but a child – with a copy of Life of General Gordon in recognition of ‘regular Church attendance and strength of character’, but also made the boy promise to emulate ‘Gordonian’ piety wherever possible.[6]

General_Gordon's_Last_Stand
‘General Gordon’s Last Stand’ (1893) by George W. Joy. Public Domain.

In the end however, only physical edifices could truly globalise the martyrdom process. As early as 12 March 1885 Robert Fowler, a colourful M.P., raised the issue of a commemorative sculpture for Gordon in the House of Commons.[7] Due to ongoing funding issues however, a statue would not be the first imperial edifice to address the imbalance with commemorative literature; this honour would go to the Gordon Boys’ Home which opened on 1 October 1885.[8]  This institution inspired by the ‘Gordonian piety’ discussed above was established first on a temporary basis at Fort Wallington, Hampshire, but by 1886 the boys had moved into their permanent Woking site that still functions today.[9] The objective of the home was simple; to educate necessitous boys from the ages of 13 to 17 in trades as diverse as tailoring, carpentry, engineering, gardening, cookery and blacksmithing so they could serve the empire in civil employment or the armed forces.[10] Obviously Christianity was an intrinsic part of life at the school, epitomized in the motto ‘Semper Fidelis’ – meaning ‘Ever Faithful’.

Yet, if the presence of this single commemorative edifice was supposed to suffice, Whitehall was mistaken. After an overwhelming national response a sculptor was promptly chosen – Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm – for a sarcophagus-esque depiction of the Martyr General in St. Pauls, formally unveiled in May 1887. Similarly, a close friend of Gordon – Prebendary Barnes – was so distraught at the lack of response from the government that he personally paid for a lamppost of remembrance. Symbolic for the religious connotation of bringing light to the dark, this lamppost can still be found in Livery Dole near Exeter and a sibling also resides in Cheltenham. Fearing that these memorials were still too removed from everyday life however, the First Commissioner for Works, David Plunket, approached William Hamo Thornycroft in August 1885 and the two agreed that for £3,000 a larger than life effigy of the Martyr General would inhabit the pulsing heart of the imperial metropolis – Trafalgar Square.[11] This location should come as no surprise; only Trafalgar Square could provide the public footfall needed for the longevity of the Gordon myth. By now Gordon was an imperial brand. Born in England, he was nevertheless claimed by the Scottish Clan Gordon, who commissioned a statue that now stands outside the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen; and following another public subscription scheme a second casting of Thornycroft’s masterpiece was promptly shipped to Melbourne, Australia, where it still stands. Thousands filled Melbourne’s streets for the grand unveiling in June 1889, where the press proclaimed a new age of religious and imperial strength.[12]

This religious dimension to Gordon’s memorialisation was profound, but his politicisation had more impact on the very direction of the empire. For many citizens who followed British domestic politics, Gordon’s death was synonymous with the failures of Liberal Imperialism and its chief architect, Prime Minister William Gladstone.[13] A once popular politician nicknamed the Grand Old Man (GOM), Gladstone wounded British pride so much in 1885 that he promptly became known to the people as the Murderer of Gordon (MOG), eventually being banished to the political wilderness whilst the Conservative Party dominated British politics for the next decade.[14] Gladstone’s relief column had arrived in Khartoum two days late to rescue Gordon, leading a young and heartbroken Kitchener to write ‘never was a garrison so nearly rescued, never was a commander so sincerely lamented’.[15] Soon vengeful thoughts turned to ‘smashing the Mahdi’, but other imperial crises superseded the Sudanese campaign. The nation had to wait until 2nd September 1898, where after a two year desert campaign, British forces finally locked horns with “hordes of Dervishes at Omdurman” in what Niall Ferguson has described the ‘acme of imperial overkill’. The “Dervishes” numbered 52,000, but suffered a 95 per cent casualty rate to 48 British dead from their force of 20,000. [16] While other strategic and economic reasons for the re-conquest of the Sudan existed, for many citizens and soldiers it was only ever about Gordon.[17] When Khartoum was finally retaken, Kitchener – now Commander in Chief – organised an open-air memorial service for the Martyred General and then took great pleasure in destroying the Mahdi’s tomb.[18] Kitchener had one final mark to leave on the city however; as much of it had been destroyed in the conflict a programme of rebuilding was quickly undertaken – the new Khartoum was laid in the shape of a Union Flag, with a Gordon statue at the centre.[19]  Avenging Gordon had been used to justify imperial expansion, and many citizens of the ‘British World’ approved. Gordon would again be ‘wheeled out’ during the two World Wars as a stiff upper lipped hero to emulate, or as an imperial brand to sell themed merchandise ranging from Staffordshire pottery to cigarette cards – his centrality to British collective memory went unquestioned.

‘Return to Sender’

On a typical Saturday afternoon a far from ordinary statue was re-erected in the grounds of a peculiar school in Surrey. The date was 14 May 1960, the institution in question was the Gordon Boys’ school and the statue inevitably was of General Gordon perched atop a camel. This imperial edifice had once stood imposingly at the intersection of Gordon Avenue and Victoria Avenue in Khartoum, but that was now a distant glory. The recently independent Sudan had no qualms in sending this mass of brass back to Britain, renaming the avenues where it had stood and essentially terminating an unwanted relationship.[20] By the time Gordon’s statue was mounted at the school it had lost most of its former importance, the re-positing of the statue only received a solitary picture in The Times of that day.[21]

So what had changed? Essentially, the edifice had outlived the world it represented; this new age was not one of colonizer and colonized but apologist and emancipated. Following the Suez “quagmire”, the fact that nineteenth century commemorations were largely for, but not of, the people became increasingly prevalent. The Gordon cult, in all its forms, essentially celebrated the life and work of one man – a man who the new British electorate and recently independent Sudanese populous could not assimilate with or even remember. Moreover, the early heroes of the Elizabethan period like Drake and the relatively distant Napoleonic generals like Nelson were easier for post-colonial communities to forgive and rationalise, but contemporary Victorian heroes were often perceived as racist and xenophobic establishment types.[22] Yet as these great heroes of the nineteenth century made up a significant proportion of the nation’s edifices, they could not simply be ignored.

The solution came in the form of a biographical revolution; liberal theorists no longer constrained by Victorian mantras – like Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man Thesis’ – promptly critically re-evaluated Gordon and often focused on his sexuality. The most iconic of these early derogatory biographies was by Anthony Nutting. Written in 1966, Gordon of Khartoum, Martyr and Misfit centred on the idea that Gordon’s death was his own fault – a seismic departure from traditional works.[23] By the 1970s other academics had digested Nutting’s philosophy and were publishing works in line with its teaching; Charles Chenevix Trench attempted to de-mythologize Gordon by following a more socio-cultural approach – emphasising the negative aspects of Gordon’s career and character.[24]  The last time any serious biography was attempted of Gordon was by John Pollock in 1993; the book itself is fantastic and is based on many papers from the Gordon family archive, but conventionally it was very similar to many of its predecessors.[25]

Thus, Gordon seems to have become stale in the post-post colonial world, biographies do not command the same attention academically or excite readers domestically as they once did – perhaps this explains why in 2005 an author of fiction called Michael Asher used Gordon as the lynchpin for his story Khartoum – The Ultimate Imperial Adventure in an attempt to inject some romance back into the tale? Whatever the case, thus far Gordon is not attracting attention in academia or even in the media – not a single reference was made to him during the Arab Spring in 2012, despite the British embassy being attacked in Khartoum.[26] The British Empire still polarises opinion of course, so naturally there is an emphasis to focus on more controversial figures to feed this debate. Tim Jeal recently brought Stanley back into the spotlight with his epic biography in 2007, stimulating a spree of new statues in 2010,[27] but Gordon cannot even rely on a forthcoming anniversary to reignite some interest – the next big event numerically concerning Gordon will be the bicentenary of his birth on 28 January 2033.

Gordon must fall?

As I write there has indeed been a wider re-engagement with Britain’s imperial edifices, even if Gordon continues to languish in obscurity. The modern phenomenon of whitewashing our history has started to spread beyond the University of Oxford and the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign; only last week in Bristol the ‘Countering Colston’ group pressured Bristol’s largest concert hall into ditching the slave trader’s surname from the building.[28] As yet, there have been no protests at the University of Aberdeen by minority groups demanding Gordon’s statue be removed. Perhaps this is due to his relative obscurity, but also his lesser/untainted part in the ‘empire project’? This enterprise has already divided social commentators; Geoffrey Alderman of The Spectator recently pondered how selective these groups are in their choice of targets, asking ‘how gross does someone’s moral turpitude have to be before memorials to them are considered ripe for removal?’[29] Gordon was always tricky; he was never the imperialist like Rhodes or a slave trader like Colston, but a genuine reformer and maverick who became more politically useful to Britain in death. He is not easy to pigeon hole and perhaps that is why I was drawn to him, but will this be enough to save him from a second exorcism? I fear not.

As a warning, it was ‘Identity Politics’ and the perceived threats from Globalisation that caused the upheavals of 2016. Substituting dialogue for a self-flagellating doctrine is flawed and will only provoke further backlash. It is important to remember that whilst every statue honours the empire in some overarching form, they also honour both the individual and the society that commissioned the work. If we choose not to de-couple the individual from the wider imperial ideology, and instead remove every trace from public life, will this erase the episode from our collective memory? Ask Germany; a guilt ridden nation still unable to exercise their demons despite 75 years of frantic purging. The irony is of course that Britain’s imperial heroes were largely forgotten to the public before these campaigns reignited discussion around their purpose and future. To heal, Brexit Britain needs those historically and objectively minded enough to seize upon this renewed interest in our imperial edifices, and emphasise those positive Victorian virtues (democracy, enterprise, morality) to a weary world. Gordon can be at the forefront of this process. To echo Brendan O’Neill, ‘it is the cult of victimhood that must fall’.[30]

Gordon in Aberdeen
James Selway standing next to the statue of Charles Gordon in Aberdeen.

James Selway studied for a BA Honours History at the University of Hull, graduating in 2013 with a First class degree. Focussing in particular on the 19th century British imperial project, he enjoyed researching socio-political history and collective memory, cementing a passion he would later pursue at the University of Edinburgh, through the MSc in Nationalism Studies programme. He now works in the education sector in Manchester.

Further Reading and References

This article is very much a whistle-stop tour of my 10,000 word undergraduate dissertation, so for anyone wishing to investigate Gordon’s memorialisation further do please contact me via this blog for the full electronic copy.

Primary Sources

Besant, Annie, Gordon Judged Out Of His Own Mouth (London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1885).

Boulger, Demetrius, The Life of General Gordon: Vols. 1 & 2 (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1896).

Hope, Eva, Life of General Gordon (London: Walter Scott Ltd, 1885).

Tennyson, Hallam, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by his son, Volume II (London: Macmillan & Co., 1897).

Secondary Sources

Cannadine, David, Admiral Lord Nelson, Context and Legacy (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Chenevix Trench, Charles, Charley Gordon: An Eminent Victorian Reassessed (London: Allen Lane, 1978).

Corvi, Steven J., and Beckett, Ian F. W., Victoria’s Generals (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2009).

Ferguson, Niall, Empire, How Britain Made The Modern World (London: Penguin, 2004).

Hall, Catherine, and Rose, Sonya O., At Home with the Empire, metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Jeal, Tim, Stanley, The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2007).

Judd, Denis, Empire, The British Imperial Experience From 1765 to the Present (London: I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, 2012).

Magnus, Phillip, Kitchener, Portrait of an Imperialist (London: Murray, 1958).

Nasson, Bill, Britannia’s Empire, A Short History of the British Empire (Stroud: Tempus, 2006).

Nutting, Anthony, Gordon of Khartoum, Martyr and Misfit (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1966).

Pollock, John, Gordon, The Man Behind The Legend (Reading: Cox and Wyman Ltd, 1993).

White, Adam, Hamo Thornycroft and The Martyr General, Studies in the History of Sculpture Number 2 (Leeds: W.S. Maney and Son Ltd., 1991).

Other

Cult of Victimhood http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/never-mind-rhodes-its-the-cult-of-the-victim-that-must-fall/17762#.WQehldLyvIU [Accessed 1 May 2017]

Rhodes must fall https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/02/rhodes-must-fall-activists-curiously-selective-targets/#  [Accessed 1 May 2017]

Countering Colston https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/apr/26/bristol-colston-hall-to-drop-name-of-slave-trader-after-protests [Accessed 1 May 2017]

Henry Morton Stanley statue http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/congo/7908247/Row-over-statue-of-cruel-explorer-Henry-Morton-Stanley.html [Accessed 20 April 2013

Khartoum in the Arab Spring http://www.cnn.co.uk/2012/09/14/world/meast/embassy-attacks-main/ [Accessed 20 April 2013]

Stephanie D. Laffer, “Gordon’s Ghosts: British Major-General Charles George Gordon and His Legacies, 1885-1960” (2010). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations, Paper 3319, p. 5

Notes

[1] Annie Besant, Gordon Judged Out Of His Own Mouth (London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1885), p. 3

[2] Demetrius Boulger, The Life of General Gordon: Vols. 1 & 2 (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1896), p. v

[3] Catherine Hall and Sonya O. Rose, At Home with the Empire, metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 2

[4] Steven J. Corvi and Ian F.W. Beckett, Victoria’s Generals (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2009), p. 127

[5] Stephanie D. Laffer, “Gordon’s Ghosts: British Major-General Charles George Gordon and His Legacies, 1885-1960” (2010). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations, Paper 3319, p. 5

[6] This narrative was learnt during an interview with Fr Paul Smith in December 2012.

[7] Adam White, Hamo Thornycroft and The Martyr General, Studies in the History of Sculpture Number 2 (Leeds: W.S. Maney and Son Ltd, 1991), p. 11

[8] TT, 2 July 1885, p. 8

[9] Gordon Boys’ Home http://www.gordons.surrey.sch.uk/history [Accessed 11 Dec 2012]

[10] Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by his son, Volume II (London: Macmillan & Co., 1897), p. 225

[11] Phillip Carter, Trafalgar Square in History, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oct 2005; online edn, Sept 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/94299, accessed 11 March 2013]

[12] TDT, 27 June, 1889, p. 7

[13] Bill Nasson, Britannia’s Empire, A Short History of the British Empire (Stroud: Tempus, 2006), p. 148

[14] Niall Ferguson, Empire, How Britain Made The Modern World (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 269

[15] BL, Additional Manuscripts, Kitchener’s report can be found at the back of the sixth volume of the journals, 34479, f. 133

[16] Niall Ferguson, Empire, How Britain Made The Modern World (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 267

[17] Ibid.

[18] NA, Public Records Office Kitchener Papers, letter from Kitchener to Cromer , 30/57/14, 1 February 1899

[19] Philip Magnus, Kitchener, Portrait of an Imperialist (London: Murray, 1958), p. 148

[20] Denis Judd, Empire, The British Imperial Experience From 1765 to the Present (London: I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, 2012), p. 354

[21] TT, May 14, 1960, p. 14

[22] David Cannadine, Admiral Lord Nelson, Context and Legacy (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 145

[23] Anthony Nutting, Gordon of Khartoum, martyr and misfit (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1966), p. 314

[24] Charles Chenevix Trench, Charley Gordon: An Eminent Victorian Reassessed (London: Allen Lane, 1978), p. 9

[25] John Pollock, Gordon, The Man Behind The Legend (Reading: Cox and Wyman Ltd, 1993), p. ix

[26] Khartoum in the Arab Spring http://www.cnn.co.uk/2012/09/14/world/meast/embassy-attacks-main/ [Accessed 20 April 2013]

[27] Henry Morton Stanley statue http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/congo/7908247/Row-over-statue-of-cruel-explorer-Henry-Morton-Stanley.html [Accessed 20 April 2013]

[28] Countering Colston https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/apr/26/bristol-colston-hall-to-drop-name-of-slave-trader-after-protests [Accessed 1 May 2017]

[29] Rhodes must fall https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/02/rhodes-must-fall-activists-curiously-selective-targets/#  [Accessed 1 May 2017]

[30] Cult of Victimhood http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/never-mind-rhodes-its-the-cult-of-the-victim-that-must-fall/17762#.WQehldLyvIU [Accessed 1 May 2017]

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