General Charles Gordon
General Charles Gordon; drawing by David Levine

Carl Sagan, in his latest book,* has been writing mordantly about “the paradoxers,” those who make fortunes out of pseudo-science to service the occult explosion of our times. It is commonplace to see in that “explosion” a defensive movement, an obdurate and childish flight from the authority of knowledge into Indian territory, into an empty place where a counterauthority can be set up and function on a barbarous parody of scientific law. But it is more than that. Hogwash gives energy. People become restless for change, impatient to rebel, but find that all the ideological weapons they might use have been locked up. And out of the junk and scrap of the past, they will manufacture their own.

The nineteenth century swarmed with paradoxers; for every Darwin, there were crowds of people like Mary Baker Eddy and Joseph Smith, and respectable scientists who privately believed in fairies. Willful irrationalism, the synthesizing of new belief systems, was in no way confined to Europe and North America. The impact of imperialism on Africa and Asia released monstrous energies even before the colonial partitions were accomplished, as ancient societies faced rebellions which were modernizing and irrationalist at once.

This is the irony of Charley Gordon. In 1885, when he was slain by the troops of the religious leader called the Mahdi at the storm of Khartoum, Gordon became a Victorian saint. His bravery and spunk seemed to rebuke the effete British politicians who had left him besieged in Khartoum and had done so little to relieve him. His voluntary poverty and love for his Bible atoned for the pomp and materialism of Empire. This cult of Gordon the Redeemer nauseated Lytton Strachey, who awarded him a superb chapter in Eminent Victorians, but Strachey was not unkind to the man inside the myth. He saw the joke—that Charley Gordon was every bit as crazy as the hordes who hacked him down.

His glory rests on two campaigns: his quelling of the Taiping Rebellion in China, and his disastrous conflict with the Mahdists in the Sudan. Both movements were vast surges of social energy, the one seeking to overthrow the Manchu dynasty and renew China as the Europeans moved in, the other a messianic movement determined to sweep out the foreign invader, to bring in the age of Islamic purity and fulfillment, and to rescue society from the chaos which had followed disruption of the slave trade.

Both groups—the Taiping rebels especially—relied for ideology on a counter-authority. In 1850, the Cantonese peasant Hung-sen Tsuen proclaimed himself the Heavenly King, the third member of the Trinity to God the Father and Jesus Christ. His followers wore “tawdry, harlequin garb” and grew their hair long and shaggy. Their program was to expel the Manchus and abolish sin, but also to introduce the Dynasty of Perpetual Peace by bringing to China railways, steamships, hospitals, and agrarian socialism. The Mahdists were neither as syncretic nor as drawn to modernization as the Taipings. They drew their vigor from the declaration by the son of a Dongola boat builder that he was the Mahdi, or Messiah. Like Hung, the Heavenly King, the Mahdi claimed all forms of authority for himself; he was the Imam with temporal sovereignty over all Moslems, the Successor of the Prophet who had charge of their souls, and the Expected One whose long-prophesied appearance announced the coming end of the world. His followers enforced an austere diet and their armies wore the jibbah—a coarse robe patched in colors representing the four hues of the human body. This is, of course, an enduring Islamic pattern of revolt, in both the Shia and Suni regions of the Moslem world, and its features—the xenophobia, the fundamentalism, the asceticism, and the theocratic energy—have once again taken the world by surprise in the person of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Against this seething irrationalism there marched a little, square fellow with curly hair and blue eyes, an officer of the Royal Engineers. In China and in the Sudan, he walked up boldly for a closer look without fear of their curses or missiles. When it came to a scrap, he strolled forward into battle carrying a light cane and smoking a cigar. This was Charles Gordon, the man from the lands of civilization, reason, and the Maxim gun, to all appearances everything that these frantic occultists in arms were not. But that was before you knew what was going on inside his head.

It was not just that he believed in a direct personal relationship with God—“the Friend.” It was not even his own version of the jibbah: his ostentatious dislike of ostentation, his indifference to money, his practice of eating lunch from bread kept in a desk drawer. It was Gordon’s confidence that he drew from his Friendship the power to solve mysteries. He found the Garden of Eden, which had been on Praslin Island in the Seychelles group. There grew the Coco de Mer, the enormous nut which resembles a woman’s pelvis in every nook, fur, and cranny. Obviously, this was Eve’s tree, while the breadfruit, bulging in phallic symbolism, was Adam’s. (Plainly referred to in Isaiah 11:1. There was a serpent on Praslin, too.) In Palestine, Gordon discovered that the Flood had collapsed the bottom of the Dead Sea, creating a vortex which drew the Ark eastward until it grounded on what was to be the Crucifixion Rock, in turn allowing the body of Adam to be buried there so that the blood of Jesus could soak through the soil onto his skull.


A man like this was brother in spirit to both the Heavenly King of the Taipings and to the Mahdi. A revelation of his intimacy with God was followed by the realization that he had been granted the golden key to “hidden knowledge,” access to the secret of secrets. In all three cases, the balloon was inflated by a huge release of confidence and energy. In all three cases, this confidence proved infectious and attracted the helpless, measureless loyalty of other human beings. It cannot be claimed that Charley Gordon or Hung recognized this kinship between them, or with the Mahdi. But the Mahdi, in many respects the sanest of these three fantasts, does seem to have sensed that Gordon and he were in the same trade. As the siege closed around Khartoum, he sent Gordon a patched jibbah (which the enraged apostle of poverty threw away), and then a succession of grave and penetrating letters suggesting that the British commander might wish to seek the path of “regeneration and felicity” by going home and practicing his virtue in his own country.

As it happened, Gordon was never given command of British troops on active service. In China, he led the Ever-Victorious Army, an unruly but devoted outfit whose officers were largely foreign mercenaries—especially Americans. In the Sudan, he was not in British service but under the orders of the Khedive of Egypt, and his troops were Egyptian or African. Mr. Chenevix Trench is intrigued by this British reluctance to give Gordon responsibility, despite his fame in the press as “Chinese Gordon.” Perhaps it was snobbish prejudice against Engineer officers. Perhaps some official in the War Office saw early that Gordon was unmanageable, undisciplined, and in no way fit to command regular troops in a crisis. For whatever reason, the British Army never offered him anything more lustrous than the job of building useless forts on the Thames estuary.

It is difficult not to feel that Gordon was in his person an instrument of “indirect rule,” the technique by which most of British Africa was acquired and held. Britain was happy to profit by Gordon’s exploits, absolutely unwilling to take responsibility for them. When he saved Shanghai, it was the Chinese who rewarded him (or tried to: he refused their money, and took only the yellow ceremonial uniform), while the British merely made him a Companion of the Bath—as Lytton Strachey unattractively remarked, “the reward usually reserved for industrious clerks.” When he was trapped in Khartoum, Mr. Gladstone saw no urgent reason to send British troops to rescue him. The clamor of the public and the appeals of Queen Victoria finally obliged him to make an effort, but it was famously too late. The armed paddle steamers of the relief expedition chugged around the Nile bend into sight of Khartoum, but the Union Jack no longer flew over the Residency. Poor Charley Gordon’s head had already spent two days wedged up a tree as prey for the kites.

Mr. Chenevix Trench’s biography is long, rich, and judicious. But he avoids reflections, historical or psychological, which venture beyond Gordon’s career. He is very self-effacing, very efficient. All the same, a dry sympathy makes itself felt. Gordon was “half-cracked,” as they said in London, and an impossible subordinate. Most people who are old enough to have served the late British Empire in the field—as Mr. Chenevix Trench did—have identified the same sort of hairline cracks in themselves, and perhaps regret that they were not more defiant to their superiors. Any District Officer was invisibly under siege; any colonial capital had its indifferent Gladstones, its uncomprehending Sir Evelyn Barings, who paid little attention to the needs of a frightened young man perched on some forgotten province. A D.O. who did not suffer from paranoia and convulsions of self-doubt was a D.O. without a soul.

Gordon constantly asked himself what he was doing in Africa. His first task for the Khedive was to pacify and garrison the province of Equatoria, in the southern Sudan, an to repress the slave trade. The fact that he was working for Egyptian imperialism rather than directly for Britain made him far more vulnerable to such doubts. The tribesmen said to him: “We do not want your beads, we do not want your cloths, we want you to go away.” When his own force was defeated in a skirmish, he wrote: “We derided the poor blacks who fought for their independence, and now God gave them victory.” To feed his troops, he was regularly obliged to seize grain from people who did not want to sell it. “This is harmful work to me, but what can I do?… What right has a man of one nation in another nation’s territory?”


Gordon’s attacks on the slave routes merely diverted them into the desert, increasing the suffering of the slaves, and disrupted Arab society throughout the Sudan. If Gordon had a theory of empire, it was that colonization of what he considered “empty” lands—Canada, Australia—was justified, but that populous countries like India or New Zealand should have been left alone. He saw no glory in painting tracts of the globe red; in the high age of British imperialism, Gordon was an anachronism. But these were doubts shared not only by the Colonial Office but by many Victorian Englishmen who nonetheless took part in the final scramble for Africa and Asia. Those who never asked themselves such questions were usually Scots.

As a young man, Gordon was pushy, pranky, and rather nasty. He had served in the Crimea, and was thirty before the chance came to break out on his own, to command the Ever-Victorious Army against the Taipings. Returning to Britain as the celebrated “Chinese Gordon,” he was consigned to the forts at Gravesend. Six dull years ensued. Gordon’s religiosity blossomed in the vacuum; the Colonel of Engineers scattered tracts about the fields, taught Ragged Schools, and gathered about him a gang of small boys. He washed them, preached at them, instructed them, found them jobs. What else? Mr. Chenevix Trench accepts that Gordon was a repressed homosexual, and there are hints that he was sexually assaulted in some way as a small boy. He gave, however, no cause for scandal and much for gratitude to his “laddies.”

In 1874, Gordon went out to the Sudan in the service of the Khedive Ismail; although the press had called for “Chinese Gordon,” he had not been offered the more glittering prizes of Napier’s expedition against Abyssinia and Wolseley’s campaign against Ashanti. Far up the Nile, in country so awful that his Egyptian soldiers sometimes preferred to sell themselves as slaves in Cairo rather than to decay in Equatoria, his eccentricity deepened. His rages were notorious. He also took to the bottle; not—as Mr. Chenevix Trench demonstrates—in the wholesale way suggested by Lytton Strachey, but with dignity. Nobody seems to have seen him drunk. Instead, he would for a time close himself in his tent, alone with brandy and Bible.

There followed his time as governor of the Sudan, installed in the palace at Khartoum. He was not a success. Administration was not his field, and he never learned Arabic. Gordon was happier speeding about his colossal dominion on a racing camel. But meanwhile, the campaigns he waged against the slave trade were ruining the whole merchant class and edging the country toward explosion. Mr. Chenevix Trench observes acutely that “his prestige was higher than his popularity.” In Egypt and in Britain, it was supposed that Gordon was a hero to his subjects. The truth was that he was respected but his rule was detested.

Again he returned to Britain, to the last interregnum of his life. He wandered. He flirted with the idea of serving King Leopold II of the Belgians, in the Congo. He went out to India with the new Viceroy, and resigned instantly. He returned briefly to China, harangued the mandarins and came back again. He took a dead-end job in Mauritius, which produced only the Coco de Mer theory of the Fall, then moved to South Africa for the usual row-and-resignation sequence. “What a queer life mine has been, with all these fearful rows continually recurring!” Gordon retired to Palestine to crack the code of Genesis.

All this time, he was an extremely famous man. Vanity Fair’s profile called him “the grandest Englishman now alive.” If he was not put to use, he was nonetheless listened to by the Victorian public, and when he declared for land reform in Ireland, there was consternation in government. Ireland, Afghanistan—he loved writing letters to editors. “Newspapers feed a passion I have for giving my opinion.” His scorn for worldly pomp struggled with a passion to be talked about. Gordon personified this craving as a spirit called “Agag,” constantly tempting him to create sensations.

Nearly half the book is taken up by the final episode, the incredible tale of Gordon at Khartoum. Agag was at the root of it. When the Mahdist revolt began to threaten Khartoum, and it became clear that the European and Egyptian population would have to be evacuated, nobody in authority suggested that Gordon should go there. Gordon himself actually welcomed the revolt, and so did much of British public opinion; as Mr. Chenevix Trench points out, they saw it as a nationalist rebellion against a corrupt Egyptian administration. They failed to grasp that this was a fundamentalist Islamic movement, a challenge not to a few paunchy Pashas but to the entire Moslem world. However, the newspapers were soon on Gordon’s doorstep. Agag gave interviews, and in no time a national campaign to send out Chinese Gordon was surging about Mr. Gladstone’s government. They capitulated. There was an interval of hasty, contradictory briefings on Gordon’s task. Then he was at Charing Cross station, frantically overexcited, borrowing cash and a gold watch from Lord Wolseley when he discovered he had forgotten to bring any money. The Foreign Secretary bought his ticket, the Duke of Cambridge opened the compartment door and pushed him in.

Mr. Chenevix Trench unwinds the rest of the story—“the Scroll,” as Gordon liked to name his own career. And he does it with some sympathy for those who are usually cast as villains, especially for Sir Evelyn Baring, the glacial agent-general in Cairo. Baring knew what Gordon was like, and resisted his appointment as long as he could. When he was overruled, he did his patient best to support him. As the hero advanced up the Nile and installed himself at Khartoum, a blizzard of cables poured over Sir Evelyn, a ceaseless babble of complaints, of schemes contradicted and replaced within the hour by others, of dotty reflections. Sir Evelyn stoically read through them all, day after day, and distilled from the heap what he considered to be the serious points that Gordon was making.

Gordon’s Khartoum diary shows that he came to see Baring as the man who did not care about his fate. But Baring did care. No doubt he was only saved from a nervous breakdown when the Mahdists finally managed to cut the telegraph line to Khartoum and the cables stopped. All the same, he stayed loyal, even justifying to London the shattering request from Gordon that the great slaver Zebeyr should be given authority over the Sudan. “Having sent Gordon to Khartoum, it appears to me that it is our bounden duty not to abandon him.”

Despatched originally to advise on the evacuation of Khartoum, Gordon was soon talking about “smashing up the Mahdi” and assuming British sovereignty over the Sudan. Gladstone’s administration was appalled, and when Khartoum was cut off—ending the chances either of evacuation or defeating the Mahdi—Gladstone felt that he was being tricked into military intervention. The project of a rescue force dawdled. The press and the public wailed. Starvation set in at Khartoum, and in the early hours of January 26, 1885, the Mahdists broke through the defenses. Gordon died, not an unresisting martyr as a famous painting shows him, but apparently fighting with sword and pistol in the palace garden until the spears and scimitars cut him down.

So the Scroll ends. For all the art of Mr. Chenevix Trench, Gordon remains an essentially grotesque figure. Better for him if, after China, his Agag had allowed him to live out his life as a talented Colonel of Engineers. As it was, his ungainly coquetting with fame resembles that of T.E. Lawrence, another leader of native irregulars who nourished himself on fantasy (but Lawrence, unlike Gordon, was a conscious liar). The author says very candidly that “there is something about Gordon which eludes us…. He never lost his power to compel love as well as fear, exasperation and obedience; those bright blue eyes in the sunburnt face could ‘charm the birds out of a tree.’ “

But perhaps it doesn’t elude us after all, and Mr. Chenevix Trench has the secret in his hand without knowing it. Gordon was transparent, disarming. While people saw the joke in him, they were at the same moment bound to him. This book contains a marvelous quotation from Gambetta’s secretary, Joseph Reinach, who at one time drank a lot of brandy with Gordon in Paris. “C’était un héros, à très court vue comme beaucoup d’héros, un mystique qui se payait de phrases, et aussi—comment dirai-je? Un peu ‘un fumiste.’ Il ne croyait pas tout ce qu’il disait. Dans les lettres de lui que j’ai conservés, il traitait volontiers Dizzie [Disraeli] et ses amis de Mountebanks. Il était, lui-même, Mountebank…. Il m’a beaucoup interessé, beaucoup amusé.”

This Issue

August 16, 1979