Your #1 source for kayaking and canoeing information.               FREE Newsletter!
my Profile
Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

War in a Wilderness

Part 1—The Siege of Khartoum

By Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

We've all heard it said that history repeats itself. It doesn't, of course. Life's too complicated for that. But it does come close from time to time. Today, as American planes bomb Osama bin Laden's forces in Afghanistan, we look back on an earlier "War in a Wilderness," a war which brought Orkney boatmen and French-Canadian voyageurs face to face with the army of an earlier warrior-prophet.

October 23, 2001

A fading superpower grows weak and totters toward collapse. In a restive province on the margins of its eroding empire, a puppet government restores order for a time, but its subject peoples are soon abandoned to the mercy of a succession of venal military governors, who rob and murder with impunity. The people endure their growing misery with great patience, but at last they rebel, rallying behind the banner of a fanatic warrior-prophet from the desert. At the same time, an up-and-coming superpower, its supremacy now beyond challenge, welcomes the new world order, while failing to appreciate the dangers it brings in its wake. Military and diplomatic reverses then follow in quick succession, culminating in an atrocity that captures the attention of the world. War is declared, and the atrocity is avenged. But a new century dawns with the global balance of power forever changed, and the prospect of many more wars to come.

No, this isn't a pessimistic summing-up of today's headlines. The events I've just described took place in the last half of the nineteenth century. The fading superpower was the Ottoman Empire, the second superpower—the ascending star—was Great Britain, and the restive province was the region around the headwaters of the Nile known as the Sudan. And the warrior-prophet? He was an ascetic named Muhammad Ahmad, better known to his followers as the Mahdi: the One Who is Guided by God, the Long-Expected One. Nor were the Mahdi's admirers to be found only among the desperate peoples of the desert. In the words of a young British cavalry officer and occasional newspaper correspondent, writing in 1899, the Mahdi was "foremost among the heroes of his race." And who was this young officer, so generous in the praise he heaped on his country's enemy? None other than Winston Spencer Churchill.

In 1884, however, Churchill had yet to eulogize the Mahdi, and the Expected One's followers were on a collision course with the world's greatest superpower, then de facto colonial administrator of Egypt and Sudan. Having just learned of a disastrous defeat in the desert at Kashgil, in which a 1,700-man force of Egyptian troops under the command of a former colonial officer was annihilated by the Mahdi's army, the British government decided that the time had come to evacuate all Egyptians from the Sudan, soldiers and civil servants alike. The man they sent to do the job was a popular hero and a former governor-general of the province, Charles "Chinese" Gordon.

"Chinese" Gordon—he acquired his unusual honorific in crushing the Taiping rebellion, at the head of an international force known as the "Ever-Victorious Army"—was a brilliant eccentric, inspired and infuriating by turns. In the eyes of many colorless bureaucrats and cautious politicians, he was not a happy choice. He was a man who, in Churchill's ironic words, was "sustained by that belief in personality which all too often misleads great men." He was also the darling of the British Foreign Office, though, and that was what mattered most.

Gordon left London in good spirits, and began the long journey to Khartoum, the great city at the confluence of the two Niles—the White and the Blue—that was the seat of Egyptian power in the Sudan. By the time he arrived, however, his high spirits had flown, their place taken by something very near to despair. He had been charged by the British government with the task of evacuating all Egyptian nationals from the Sudan. To accomplish this, he needed the help of the native garrison at Khartoum. Now, however, he found that he was regarded only as an infidel, the despised commander of a reluctant Muslim army, arrayed against a force of their own countrymen, who were led by a prophet of their own faith. Gordon had been ordered to conduct an evacuation. Instead, he was himself hopelessly ensnared, an unwilling participant in a holy war.

Unwilling or not, however, there was no escaping the fact that the Sudanese troops he ostensibly commanded were all but useless to him. He immediately requested assistance from the British government, asking that a former enemy, a well-connected slave-trader named Zubehr Pasha, be dispatched from Cairo and authorized to negotiate with the Mahdi in his name. The government demurred. Gordon then requested that regular British troops be sent to reinforce the native garrison at Khartoum. None were. Finally, he resigned his commission, but his resignation was not accepted. Instead, he was told to save himself, abandoning Khartoum and its inhabitants to their fate.

This Gordon would not do. "I will not leave these people," he wrote. And that was that. If he could not evacuate the city, he could at least buy time for its inhabitants. He began by improving the city's defenses. He rallied his wavering army, relying on the fact that self-preservation was a stronger goad than duty. He succeeded. But even as he worked, one outlying garrison town after another fell to the Mahdi's army. Soon it was Khartoum's turn. On the 15th of March, 1884, the Mahdi cut the only telegraph wire. Gordon's link with Cairo fell silent. The siege of Khartoum had begun in earnest.

It did not end quickly. While the British government debated and delayed, Gordon's position became increasingly precarious, though the risks he ran were self-imposed. Had he wished to escape at any time, all he need do was board one of the steamers docked at Khartoum and head downriver to Metemma, leaving the garrison to the mercy of the Mahdi. But he refused to do this. When his government letter-of-credit was exhausted, he paid his troops with personal checks. When their morale flagged, he gave medals to those who served him well, and shot those who betrayed his trust. For a while, it worked. Against the odds, Khartoum held, and Gordon remained within the city walls. But time was passing, and time was on the Mahdi's side. The British government was now forced to concede that something must be done. The "Gordon Relief Expedition" was born.

It was a difficult birth. Not only were the generals unable to agree on the best plan of action, they couldn't even agree on how to get their troops to Khartoum. The Suakin-Berber road was considered first, but it led through 250 miles of desert, more than 50 miles of which were entirely waterless. The Nile was a more attractive choice, but 1,650 miles separated Cairo from Khartoum, and much of the river was impassable to all but small boats. Worse yet, these boats would have to be rowed (or towed) against the current of one of the world's greatest rivers, traversing uncharted cataracts and canyons. The generals chose sides and refused to budge. Their squabbling, wryly christened the "battle of the routes" by George Sydenham Clarke, continued for some months. Tempers flared. Inconclusive reports were drafted, read, and fruitlessly debated. In the end, the politicians put a stop to the bickering. They wanted a popular war. A route involving "no chance of bloodshed" was therefore demanded. Once it was suggested that the Nile was just such a route, the result was predictable: when at last the Gordon Relief Expedition got under way, it took the "safe" route. It followed the Nile.

Still, the generals looked long and hard at the blank spaces on their maps, and they wondered what unexpected difficulties might delay the boats of the Expedition's "River Column" in the great bend of the Nile between Korti and Abu Hamed. At the last minute, they did what generals usually do when confronted by nagging uncertainties: they hedged their bets. The River Column was supplemented by a Desert Column.

Neither was a good place for regular soldiers, but the army did its best. The Desert Column was the easier of the two to organize. A special Camel Corps was created from 1,100 men, carefully selected from among twenty-eight home regiments. Plucked from their English barracks and transported to the desert wastes of the Sudan, these picked men were soon drilling in sandstorms and struggling to handle their unfamiliar mounts.

The River Column posed more of a problem. Cavalry officers and troopers could exchange their horses for camels with comparatively little difficulty, but the British soldier was not an amphibious creature. He knew nothing of handling small boats in rapids and strong currents. The army needed boatmen, and it needed them fast. But where could it find them?

In the end, the army located exactly the type of men it wanted, in a place far distant from the Sudan. It found them in the newly-independent Dominion of Canada, among the ranks of the Hudson's Bay Company's French-Canadian voyageurs and Orkney boatmen. Leaving a familiar, well-watered landscape of spruce forest and bog behind them, these Company "servants" travelled one-third of the way round the world, arriving at last in a dust-dry and altogether alien wilderness. The only familiar thing was the winding river that lay before them. They were embarking on the adventure of their lives, and it was just beginning.

To be continued….

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

Sponsored Ad:
Follow us on:
Free Newsletter | About Us | Site Map | Advertising Info | Contact Us


©2015 Inc.