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Gordon in the Sudan: Fundamental Errors

Charles Townshend evaluates the judgement of General Gordon and the ill-fated British mission in the Sudan.

"This painful and dramatic end intensifies the dramatic interest of an episode in our history as an Imperial people which has had all the completeness of a Greek tragedy in its exhibition of a remorseless fate and the intensity of human passion and suffering, and with which the name of General Gordon wil be gloriously associated until the end of time"

Thus, grandiloquently enough, spoke the Times on February 12th, 1885, announcing news of Gordon's death in Khartoum. It forbore to add a third tragic element, that of hubris, which a century later may seem the leading motif of Gordon's mission. However the tangled evidence of the Cabinet's intentions may be unscrambled, Gordon was sent – or allowed to go – into the vast, obscure territory of the Sudan because he claimed to understand what was happening there. Whether, or why, he departed from his instructions to expedite evacuation is, in the end, less important than the fact that he was there, a demi-official representative of the British Empire. His presence in Khartoum was a classical instance of that inexorable process by which, against the dogged resistance of economists such as Gladstone, the Imperial presence was sucked by crazy logic into every remote hinterland of every Imperial frontier. His isolation there demonstrated the terrifying ignorance with which the Empire engaged the forces it was brought up against by that process.

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