“Chinese” Gordon and the 12th Imam.

180pxmuhammad_ahmad_almahdi "There is an ancient tradition in the Mahommedan world, telling of a mysterious being, the last in succession of the twelve holy Imams, who, untouched by death and withdrawn into the recesses of a mountain, was destined, at the appointed hour, to come forth again among men. His title was the Mahdi, the guide; some believed that he would be the forerunner of the Messiah; others that he would be Christ himself. Already various Mahdis had made their appearance; several had been highly successful, and two, in mediæval times, had founded dynasties in Egypt. But who could tell whether all these were not impostors? Might not the twelfth Imam be still waiting, in mystical concealment, ready to emerge, at any moment, at the bidding of God? There were signs by which the true Mahdi might be recognised—unmistakable signs, if one could but read them aright. He must be of the family of the prophet; he must possess miraculous powers of no common kind; and his person must be overflowing with a peculiar sanctity. The pious dwellers beside those distant waters, where holy men by dint of a constant repetition of one of the ninety-nine names of God, secured the protection of guardian angels, and where groups of devotees, shaking their heads with a violence which would unseat the reason of less athletic worshippers, attained to an extraordinary beatitude, heard with awe of the young preacher whose saintliness was almost more than mortal and whose miracles brought amazement to the mind. Was he not also of the family of the prophet? He himself had said so; and who would disbelieve the holy man? When he appeared in person, every doubt was swept away. There was a strange splendour in his presence, an overpowering passion in the torrent of his speech. Great was the wickedness of the people, and great was their punishment! Surely their miseries were a visible sign of the wrath of the Lord. They had sinned, and the cruel tax-gatherers had come among them, and the corrupt governors, and all the oppressions of the Egyptians. Yet these things, too, should have an end. The Lord would raise up his chosen deliverer: the hearts of the people would be purified, and their enemies would be laid low. The accursed Egyptian would be driven from the land. Let the faithful take heart and make ready. How soon might not the long-predestined hour strike, when the twelfth Imam, the guide, the Mahdi, would reveal himself to the World? In that hour, the righteous would triumph and the guilty be laid low for ever. Such was the teaching of Mahommed Ahmed. A band of enthusiastic disciples gathered round him, eagerly waiting for the revelation which would crown their hopes. At last, the moment came. One evening, at Abba Island, taking aside the foremost of his followers, the Master whispered the portentous news. He was the Mahdi."  Lytton Strachey



"When the news of the Hicks disaster reached Cairo, the Pashas calmly announced that they would collect another army of ten thousand men, and again attack the Mahdi; but the English Government understood at last the gravity of the case. They saw that a crisis was upon them, and that they could no longer escape the implications of their position in Egypt. What were they to do? Were they to allow the Egyptians to become more and more deeply involved in a ruinous, perhaps ultimately a fatal, war with the Mahdi? And, if not, what steps were they to take? A small minority of the party then in power in England—the Liberal Party—were anxious to withdraw from Egypt altogether and at once. On the other hand, another and a more influential minority, with representatives in the Cabinet, were in favour of a more active intervention in Egyptian affairs—of the deliberate use of the power of England to give to Egypt internal stability and external security; they were ready, if necessary, to take the field against the Mahdi with English troops. But the great bulk of the party, and the Cabinet, with Mr. Gladstone at their head, preferred a middle course. Realising the impracticability of an immediate withdrawal, they were nevertheless determined to remain in Egypt not a moment longer than was necessary, and, in the meantime, to interfere as little as possible in Egyptian affairs. "  Lytton Strachey


"Eminent Victorians," written in the first years of the 20th Century is a minor masterpiece of the English language.  In this book, Strachey, a thorny character himself, outlines sketches of four people he considers to have been representative of the Victorian era.  One of them is "Chinese" Gordon.Charlesgordon3_1

If General Gordon had been an officer of our Army, he would have been considered "out of the mainstream," and might have ended up in the Green Berets, or worse yet, as a specialist in the Arab World.

This brilliantly written sketch of Gordon is interesting, not so much for its description of him as a personality, but for its crystal clear tale of Western politicians trying to deal with  a phenomenon of Islamic history that they only dimly comprehend.   250pxcharlesgordon2_1

I commend it to you.

Pat Lang



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27 Responses to “Chinese” Gordon and the 12th Imam.

  1. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Egypt was important for 1 reason and one reason alone – British India.
    That does not obtain for Iraq today.

  2. W. Patrick Lang says:

    And what is Iraq about? pl

  3. Happy Jack says:

    “And what is Iraq about?”
    Interesting that you should bring this up now. I just finished a plate of chicken with gai lan.

  4. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Was it good and which school of chinese cooking was this? pl

  5. Babak Makkinejd says:

    Col. Lang:
    I do not know the mind of IS policy makers; you should direct your question of the CIC.
    I was trying to question the aptness of the allusion.

  6. Babak Makkinejd says:

    Sorry: too many mistakes:
    I do not know the mind of US policy makers; you should direct your question to CIC.

  7. Happy Jack says:

    pl – yes it was. The only restaraunt around that serves “authentic” Chinese. Mainly Cantonese, but they have a few Sichuan and Hunan dishes.
    If I want Mandarin, I have to drive to Windsor. I’m not very fond of the Eastern provinces cooking.

  8. W. Patrick Lang says:

    The attribution of such simple motivations is not apt. pl

  9. ali says:

    “But the great bulk of the party, and the Cabinet, with Mr. Gladstone at their head, preferred a middle course. Realising the impracticability of an immediate withdrawal, they were nevertheless determined to remain in Egypt not a moment longer than was necessary, and, in the meantime, to interfere as little as possible in Egyptian affairs.”
    That was 1883, the British “stayed the course” in Egypt, by 1922 they’d installed a fairly effective quasi independent government. They didn’t really leave Egypt until Suez in 1956.
    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    Send forth the best ye breed–
    Go, bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captive’s need;
    To wait, in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild–
    Your new-caught sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.

  10. Hannah K. O'Luthon says:

    I liked Strachey’s portrait
    of Cardinal Manning better,
    although I don’t have an appropriate key for translating into contemporary politics. If memory serves,
    Florence Nightingale was also skewered. Strachey was clearly a subversive, suitable for prudent surveillance.

  11. Eric says:

    God, Old Arnold’s in there too.
    Rugby School must have been a really strange place.

  12. ali says:

    On Gordon:
    I’m in two minds about Gordon: a fine evangelical soldier of some principle martyred in Khartoum but also a prime mover in the despicable opium wars.
    Only the English could dress up the violent opening of a new market for Indian narcotics as a holy war.
    I suspect McDonald Fraser has him right in the Flashman books. The sort of gloriously charismatic fanatic a sensible coward avoids serving under with difficulty.

  13. ckrantz says:

    I would have tagged Gordon as a true beliver. A neocon of his day beliving in a higher mission for his country and himself. It’s interesting though how little has changed and how much the geopolitics of yesterday have in common with todays. Different players but the same game.

  14. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    There were a number of American officers in the Khedive’s service after 1869, former Union AND Confederate men working together.
    For example, Lt. Col. Charles Chaille Long, a Marylander, realized the construction of earthworks at Tel el Kebir. Gordon selected him in 1874 as chief of staff and commander of his Egyptian troops. They moved south to Gondokoro and Long thence pressed on to Uganda for Gordon on a mission to undertake negotiations with King Mutesa. One result was that the King agreed to divert the lucrative Uganda ivory trade from Zanzi to Gondokoro on the Nile. After this, Long undertook a major geographical expedition and discovered Lake Victoria fed into the Nile among other accomplishments.
    Chief of the Egyptian General Staff: General Charles P. Stone of Massachusetts
    Inspector General of the Egyptian Army then Commander First Army Corps: Brig. Gen. William W. Loring of Florida
    Chief of Artillery at Rosetta: Henry H. Sibley
    General Sherman arrived for a visit in 1872, following which more officers flowed into Egypt.
    Col. Raleigh E. Colston, colleague of Stonewall Jackson at VMI and brigadier of the Army of Northern Virginia
    Col. William M. Dye, West Point grad to Egyptian General Staff section.
    Dr. Edward Warren, former medical insepctor of the Army of Northen Virginia, surgeon Egyptian General Staff.
    The officers’ school at Abassieh was remodelled along West Point lines. General Stone established regimental schools to promote literacy. The Egyptian Department of Public Works was transferred to the General Staff in 1873 so General Stone was in charge of canal and harbor modernization. And so forth.
    And many more…a fascinating story. As Egypt was occupied by the British in 1882, General Stone resigned his post in December 1882 and all the Americans, save one, withdrew.
    Although General Stone had drawn up a plan for the reconquest of Sudan requiring 27,000 troops. The British administrator refused the funds and disbanded the army. The following year, a 10,000 man expedition under Hicks was crushed at El Obeid.
    At the moment, public opinion in Egypt reported by the Pew Global Attitudes project is running 78 percent negative and 21 percent positive with respect to the US. http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=256
    Given the degraded state of the contemporary American policy “elite”, and hence policy, I expect the Chinese will replace the US in Egypt in the not too distant future. 06 changed nothing and there is no reason,at this time, to believe that 08, 10, or 12 will either.

  15. W. Patrick Lang says:

    An interesting tid-bit about the Egyptian garrison at Khartoum at the time of Gordon’s death is that two Egyptian officer who were there with him (and killed by the Mahdists) had been in the contingent loaned by Louis Napoleon to Maximilian, emperor of Mexico. These Egyptians and Sudanese were thought to be yellow fever immune.
    The prize given at West Point for the cadet who is the best Arabic scholar over four years is called the “Charles P. Stone, Class of 1845 Prize.” It was endowed by Haggar the clothing manufacturer. There ought to be a similar prize at VMI named for Raleigh Colston. Stone Pasha is buried next to George Custer at West Point.
    There are a couple of interesting books on the americans in Egypt. “The Blue and the Grey on the Nile,” and “A Confederate Soldier in Egypt.” This last is by Loring. pl

  16. Martin K says:

    Churchill wrote some fine prose on the attempt at relieving Gordon, and the subsequent slaughter of the Mahdis army. Guess they learned their lesson about meeting the empires of the West in the open field there. Poor Gordon was that strange bree, an ideological cyniscist.

  17. VietnamVet says:

    Every war; every colonial occupation skims off expatriates who never find peace or home. Not in Iraq or Afghanistan, not after a Crusade. No old soldiers in bars of Bagdad or Kabul; just security guards in sunglasses, until they too are gone.

  18. Dan says:

    I was lucky enough recently to pick up the autobiography of reginald wingate, the last sirdar of the Egyptian army whose career was largely focused on defeating the “dervishes” in the sudan. The book brims with his frustration that he was asked to do nearly impossible tasks and then not given sufficent support to be succesful. I recomend it.

  19. johnf says:

    IMHO, Lytton Strachey was a bit of a Bloomsbury twat.
    A better read about Victorian evangelicals needlessly provoking the jihadis is William Dalrymple’s excellent “The Last Mughal”, about the Indian Mutiny/Uprising of 1857.

  20. Montag says:

    One fascinating aspect is the question of Gordon’s request for the employment of Zubeir Pasha by the Egyptian government, an exiled slave trader who still had much influence in the Sudan. But the British government, despite the recommendations of virtually every expert consulted, vetoed the suggestion. In Churchill’s “The River War,” he rakes them over the coals for this insanity, which turned out to dictate subsequent British policy to an astonishing degree:
    “But if the justice of the decision is doubtful, its consequences were obvious. Either the British Government were concerned with the Soudan, or they were not. If they were not, then they had no reason or right to prohibit the employment of Zubehr. If they were, they were bound to see that the garrisons were rescued. It was an open question whether Great Britain was originally responsible for the safety of the garrisons. General Gordon contended that we were bound to save them at all costs, and he backed his belief with his life. Others may hold that Governments have no right to lay, or at any rate must be very judicious in the laying of burdens on the backs of their own countrymen in order that they may indulge a refined sense of chivalry towards foreigners. England had not misgoverned the Soudan, had not raised the revolt or planted the garrisons. All that Egypt had a right to expect was commiseration. But the moment Zubehr was prohibited the situation was changed. The refusal to permit his employment was tantamount to an admission that affairs in the Soudan involved the honour of England as well as the honour of Egypt. When the British people–for this was not merely the act of the Government–adopted a high moral attitude with regard to Zubehr, they bound themselves to rescue the garrisons, peaceably if possible, forcibly if necessary.”
    I guess you could say that the Zubehr blunder was the nose of the Sudanese camel intruding into the British tent–the nose of a very LARGE camel, as history would prove.
    In the 1966 movie, “Khartoum,” the Zubehr issue is glossed over by having ZUBEHR be the one to veto the proposal, because Gordon had been responsible for the execution of his son. Isn’t it lovely to think so?

  21. W. Patrick Lang says:

    “Dear Pat:
    I wanted to thank you for posting the superb passages from Strachey. They read the way a good popular history should read. Srachey once said the first qualification for an historian was that he or she be a literary artist. This he clearly is, and a magnificent one.
    For me the most stunning passage on the death of Gordon:
    “(The Mahdi) was at once all courtesy and all command. Thousands followed him, thousands prostrated themselves before him, when he lifted up his voice in solemn worship, knew that the heavens were opened and that they had come near to God. Then all at once the onbeia — the elephant tusk’s trumpet — would give out its enormous sound. The nahas — the brazen war drums — would summon, with their wierd rolling, the whole host to arms. The green flag and the red flag nd the black flag would rise over the multitude. The great army would move forward, colored, glistening, dark, violent and beautiful. The drunkeness, the madness of religion would blaze on every face, and the Mahdi, immoveable on his charger, would let the scene grow under his eyes in silence.”
    With greetings to all,
    Richard Sale”

  22. walrus says:

    May I recommend “The River War” by Winston Spencer Churchill for an account of the war against the Mahdi.
    Churchill participated at the last cavalry charge made the British Army at the battle of Omdurman.(Although the last I am aware of by an imperial force was the Australian Light Horse at the Battle of Beersheba in October 1917)
    To me the real lesson of the campaign was that Charismatic religious leaders get you killed.
    Bear in mind that the reason the Mahdi was ultimately defeated was his use of conventional (European style) tactics against a technologically superior enemy. I’m not sure if the British used the Maxim or the Gatling gun against Sudanese armed to some extent with spears.
    I’m also not sure if the British would have succeeded had the Mahdi engaged in insurgency – although how one could be “The Mahdi” and hide one’s light under a bushel is beyond me.
    And, since it’s convenient to show contempt once again for “The Decider” (but not the office he is currently contaminating) it’s worth noting that Churchill served and participated in four shooting wars, at risk to his own life and limb, before he became Prime Minister. Would that Dubya had done the same.
    (Malakand Field Force – Afghanistan, The Sudan War, The Boer War and World War one in the trenches after losing office)

  23. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    Gordon’s demise in 1885 occured within an imperial context that is not so clear in Strachey’s prose cited.
    Seems to me the general context was one in which Khedive Ismail hoped to attain independence for Egypt through modernization of the economy and the military with
    American assistance. He felt he needed to expand his area of influence — southward along the Red Sea and into the Sudan and the Lakes region — for strategic depth. As General Stone said in a detailed memorandum in 1876, “In my view, a strong nation controlling the sources of the Nile will always hold the key to lower Egypt.”
    The large Remington Arms sale to the Khedive in 1870 shocked Europeans and included manufacturing machinery for the Egyptian arsenal. The arrival of American military experts in the early 1870s further raised European eyebrows. If Egypt could extricate itself from Turkish suzerainty, Turkey being subject to European pressures itself, then an independent Egypt might give rise to some uncomfortable strategic consequences on the African continent and in the Indian Ocean.
    The Khedive’s downfall was finance. The sale of the Suez Canal shares in 1875 indicated to the American consul general that a British protectorate was in the offing. His assessment was correct. Egyptian finances came under direct British and French control. To “disarm” Egypt, army and navy budgets were slashed and most American advisors left in 1878, Stone remaining. The US consul general’s assessment as related in his despatches of 1879 was, “it is, today, as if the whole country was owned by a company of Paris and London bankers, and the people were either slaves or serfs, attached to the soil.” In 1879, European powers pressured Turkey to replace Ismail with his pliable son Tewfik, etc.
    When the British “occupied” Egypt in 1882, General Stone tendered his resignation. South of the Sahara, the scramble for Africa gathered momentum, Gordon’s colorful demise as part of that landscape. The United States avoided entanglement in the “Eastern Question” and the “Scramble” focusing instead on the Pacific Basin.

  24. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    Per Raleigh Edward Colston of VMI and Egypt plus other Americans in Egypt see the website:
    For Colston’s articles (Century Magazine March 1885 and Century Magazine Sept 1884) on Sudan matters and Gordon see them at (long URLs):
    The articles are quite detailed reflecting his profound knowledge of the region.

  25. Montag says:

    There’s a quite excellent book by Janusz Piekalkiewicz, “The Cavalry of World War II,” which gives their last gasps in each country. Here’s what he says about the British Army:
    “Great Britain
    By the outbreak of war, only the 5th Cavalry Brigade–composed of three regiments, the Cheshire Yeomanry, the North Somerset Yeomanry and the Yorkshire Dragoons–had been spared the process of mechanization into armoured units. The Cheshire regiment, or the Earl of Chester’s Yeomanry, was posted to the Near East under Lieutenant-Colonel D. E. Williams, M.B.E., T. D., to take part in the Syrian campaign of June 1941. It was the last action seen by a mounted unit of the British Army. The Yeomanry cavalrymen were armed with sabres and rifles; each squadron had a Hotchkiss machine-gun section, and in the headquarters squadron there was a Vickers machine-gun section. The horses were mainly hunters. The Yeomanry Regiment acquitted itself well, and Churchill noted that ‘this successful campaign in Syria’ notably improved the strategic position in the Near East. Shortly afterwards the regiment was dismounted and became a dispatch unit for the Royal Signals. Lieutenant-Colonel Williams observed: ‘There was no actual farewell mounted parade; but the whole regiment had a cross-country race of four miles, which finished with swimming the River Jordan. It was very much enjoyed by all.'”
    The last mounted British Imperial troops were the Burmese Frontier Force, with each column of 100 Burmese being commanded by 2-3 British officers seconded from the Indian cavalry. On March 18, 1942 the the 2nd Frontier Forces column under Captain Arthur Sandeman mistook Japanese soldiers for Chinese and rode too close before discovering their mistake:
    “The machine-gunners opened fire from two sides at once; the patrol had fallen into an ambush. Captain Sandeman instantly drew his sabre, ordered the bugler to give the signal for attack, and galloped towards the enemy. This was to be the last cavalry charge in the history of the British cavalry. With the battle cry ‘Sat Sri Akal!’ his riders followed. But neither the captain nor any of his men reached the Japanese positions. Captain Sandeman died in a hail of bullets, sabre in hand.”

  26. Leila says:

    The Haggars of the textile concern were/are Lebanese-Americans, although I believe at the time they immigrated, they were from Syria and therefore called Syrians. (Lebanon was carved out of Syria by the French in the 1920s).
    So that explains why they would endow an Arabic studies scholarship…

  27. Got A Watch says:

    For those who thought I was alarmist with my comment the other day about the US economy:
    “Learn from the fall of Rome, US warned”
    “August 14 2007 – The US government is on a ‘burning platform’ of unsustainable policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon, the country’s top government inspector has warned.
    David Walker, comptroller general of the US, issued the unusually downbeat assessment of his country’s future in a report that lays out what he called “chilling long-term simulations”.
    These include “dramatic” tax rises, slashed government services and the large-scale dumping by foreign governments of holdings of US debt.
    Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there were “striking similarities” between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including “declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”.
    The fiscal imbalance meant the US was “on a path toward an explosion of debt”.
    “With the looming retirement of baby boomers, spiralling healthcare costs, plummeting savings rates and increasing reliance on foreign lenders, we face unprecedented fiscal risks,” said Mr Walker, a former senior executive at PwC auditing firm.
    Current US policy on education, energy, the environment, immigration and Iraq also was on an “unsustainable path”.”
    That about sums up the situation. I am an investor/trader, I spend 12 hours a day looking at 2 wide-screen monitors with 12 windows and 40 tabs or so open, reviewing financial events world-wide to see how it impacts my investments.
    Trust me when I say this, there is an ongoing financial/credit system crisis going on right now in back rooms all over the globe. The entire global economy and banking system is under direct threat of possible systemic collapse, and every day more bad news filters out to the public space.
    This crisis is directly traced back to reckless financial excess on Wall St., who sold worthless paper all across the globe and thought nothing bad would happen.
    This will have a direct impact on geo-politics, make no mistake, and the outcomes do not look positive for the USA, world’s largest debtor and prime purveyor of toxic paper. I could provide inumerable links to illustrate, but this is not the place for that.
    For those reading this, best look to your investments. Position yourself so that all accounts/investments/broker accounts are spread out to fit under gov deposit insurance limits, and buy some gold/silver. Money market funds are NOT safe.
    Looking back through history, these types of crisis have led directly to massive international wars.

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