Story of General Gordon - Jeanie Lang

Gordon and the Slavers

Gordon went to his work on the Danube on 1st October 1871, and remained there until 1873.

On his return to England then, his short visit was a sad one. While he was home his mother became paralysed, and no longer knew the son she loved so much; and the death took place of his youngest brother, who had shared his pranks in the long-ago happy days at Woolwich.

In the same year the Khedive of Egypt asked Gordon to come, at a salary of 10,000 a year, to be Governor of the tribes on the Upper Nile.

Gordon accepted the post, but would not take more than 2000 a year. He wished, he said, "to show the Khedive and his people that gold and silver idols are not worshipped by all the world." He knew that the money was wrung from the poor people of Egypt and that some of it was the price of slaves, and he could not bear to enrich himself with money so gained. The Soudan, or Country of the Blacks, which was now to be the scene of Gordon's work, is one of the dreariest parts of Africa.

In years not so long ago, the Egyptians had nothing to do with it. For between Egypt and the Black People's country lay hundreds of miles of sandy desert—desolate, lonely, without water. Behind its rocks the wild desert tribes could hide, to surprise and murder peaceful traders who tried to bring their camel caravans across the waste of sand. And when the desert was crossed and the Soudan reached, the country was not one to love or to long for.

A wretched, dry land is the Soudan, a land across which hot winds sweep, like blasts from a furnace, driving the sand before them. The Nile wanders through it, but in the Soudan there is none of the green and pleasant river country that we know, who know the Thames and the Tweed, the Hudson or St. Lawrence.

There is never a fresh leaf, never a blade of grass. The hills are bare slopes, the valleys strewn with sand and stones. Tufts of rough yellow grass and stunted grey bushes, a mass of thorns, grow here and there on the yellow sand. The mimosa trees, sapless and dry, are thick with thorns. The palms, called dom-palms, grow fruit like wood. The Sodom apples, that look like real fruit, are poisonous and horrible to the taste.

Tarantulas, scorpions, serpents, white ants, mosquitoes, and every kind of loathsome creature that flies and crawls is to be found there.

When men are toiling through that land, dust in their throats, sand in their eyes, and longing with all their hearts for the sight of something green, and the touch and taste of fresh, cool, sparkling water, sometimes they see a great wonder.

In front of them suddenly appears a lake or river, sparkling and shimmering. There is green grass at the water-side. White-winged birds float on it, and trees dip their leafy branches into its coolness. Sometimes great palaces and towers overlook it. Sometimes it seems a lonely spot, quiet and peaceful, and delicious for the weary wanderers to rest at.

English soldiers have often started off running with their empty water-bottles to fill them in that lake or river. Many, many travellers have hastened towards it when they knew that they must have water or die. But ever the mirage, as it is called, retreats before them. That water is like magic water that no human being can ever drink. The palaces and towers are like fairy palaces and towers into which no real person ever enters. The green leaves and white birds, the trees and the grass, are only a picture that the sun and the desert make to madden thirst-parched men.

"When Allah made the Soudan," say the Arabs, "he laughed."

European traders were amongst the first to open a way into the Soudan. The Egyptians knew that there was much fine ivory to be got there, but were too lazy to try to get it. The Europeans, many of them Englishmen, braved dangers and hardships, and made much money by the ivory they bought from the black people of the desert land. Soon they found there was something else for which they could get much higher prices than any that they could get for elephants' tusks. They called it "black ivory." By that they meant slaves.

At once they began to raid, to harry, and to kidnap the black races of the Soudan. They built forts and garrisoned them with Arabs, to whom no cruelty was too frightful, no wickedness too great. They burned down the villages of the blacks. They stole their flocks and herds. They burned or stole their crops. Their wives and little children they tore from them, chained them in gangs, and took them across the desert to sell for slaves. The men whom they could not take they slew.

Charles Gordon


So great and shameless became this trade, that at last Europe grew ashamed that any of her people should be guilty of it. There was an outcry made. The Europeans sold their stations to the Arabs, and quietly withdrew. The Arabs then agreed to pay a tax to the Egyptian Government, which saw no harm in stealing people and selling them as slaves, so long as some of the money thus gained went into the royal treasury.

And so the slave trade grew and grew, until, in 1874, out of every hundred people of the land about eighty-four were slaves. The Arabs trained some of the black boys they caught to be slave-hunters, and taught them so well that they grew up even more wicked and cruel than their masters.

Before long the slavers became so powerful and so rich that they no longer owned the Khedive as their king. Their king was Sebehr, the richest and worst of them all—a man who used to have chained lions as part of his escort, and who owned a great army of armed slaves. When the slavers refused to pay a tax any longer, and when they had cut in pieces the army the Khedive sent to quell them, the Khedive grew afraid.

He knew that England and the other European Powers were angry with him because he permitted slavery. And now that the slavers refused to obey him, he was between two fires.

So the Khedive and his ministers suddenly seemed to become very much shocked at the wicked traffic in slaves in the Soudan, and asked Colonel Gordon to come and help to stop it.

Early in February Gordon arrived in Cairo. He had been but a few days there when he wrote: "I think I can see the true motive now of the expedition, and believe it to be a sham to catch the attention of the English people." He felt he had been humbugged. Only in name was he Governor, for the Egyptian Government only owned three stations in that wide tract of country which he had been asked to come and govern.

But Gordon never turned his back upon those who wanted help. The land was full of misery. There were thousands of wretched people to fight for and to set free. Humbugged or not, he must do the work he had come to do, and on the 18th of February 1874 he started for the Soudan.

The Egyptian troops and Gordon's own staff were amazed when they found what sort of a man was the new Governor. They were used to the Egyptian officials who never did any work they were not paid for, who did not do it then if they could find any one else to do it for them, and whose hands were constantly held out asking for bribes.

Sebehr the slaver, when he went to Cairo, took with him 100,000 to bribe the Pashas. It was as if some notorious criminal should go to London with 100,000 gained by murders and thefts to bribe the British Government. But what would be outrageous in our country was a very usual thing in Egypt.

As Gordon and his troops (200 Egyptian soldiers) sailed up the Nile in their dababeah, the boat was often blocked by the tangled water weeds. And always one of the first to spring into the water and help to pull the boat onwards was the new Governor. The old Nile crocodiles, even, must have been surprised; but they did him no harm, for they never touch any one who is moving.

They landed at Berber, and after a fortnight's march across the desert they reached the two or three thousand yellowish-white, flat-roofed, mud-walled houses that made Khartoum, the capital of the Soudan.

There eight busy days were spent. He issued proclamations; he held a review; he visited the hospitals and the schools. "The little blacks were glad to see me," he wrote; "I wish the flies would not dine on the corners of their eyes."

The grown-up people at Khartoum also seemed delighted to see "His Excellency General Colonel Gordon, the Governor-General of the Equator," as his title went. "They make a shrill noise when they see you, as a salutation; it is like a jingle of bells, very shrill, and somewhat musical," wrote Gordon.

From Khartoum he sailed up the Nile to Gondokoro, and enjoyed like a boy all the new sights he came across.

Hoary old crocodiles lay basking on the sand, their hungry mouths agape. Great hippopotamuses, "like huge islands," walked about in the shallows, and sometimes bellowed and fought all night. Troops of monkeys, "with very long tails stuck up straight like swords all over their backs," came down to drink. Herds of elephants and of fierce, coal-black buffaloes eyed the boat threateningly from the banks, while giraffes, looking like steeples, nibbled the tops of trees. At Khartoum the sight of flocks of English sparrows had gladdened Gordon's heart. Now he saw storks and geese preparing to go north for the summer, and many strange birds as well. He found out that some little white birds that roosted in the trees near where he camped were white egrets. Their feathers make the plumes of horse artillery officers, and trim many hats and bonnets, so Gordon did not tell his men of his discovery. "I do not want the poor things to be killed," he wrote.

Not only strange birds and beasts were to be seen on the way to Gondokoro. The wild black people came down to the banks to stare. Some had their faces smeared with ashes, others wore gourds for head-dresses. Some wore neither gourds nor anything else. One chieftain's full dress was a string of beads. At first he was afraid to come near Gordon, but when he had been given a present of beads and other things he grew very friendly.

"He came up to me," says Gordon, "took up each hand, and gave a good soft lick to the backs of them; and then he held my face and made the motion of spitting in it."

This was a mark of great politeness and respect. A chief of this tribe once welcomed an English traveller by spitting into each of his hands, and then into his face. The traveller, in a rage, spat back as hard as ever he could, and the chief was overcome with joy at the traveller's friendliness.

Near Gondokoro, at St. Croix, Gordon came to the ruins of an Austrian missionary settlement. Only a few banana trees, planted by the missionaries, and some graves, marked where the Christian settlement had been. Out of twenty missionaries who had gone there during thirteen years, thirteen had died of fever, two of dysentery, and two, broken in health, had had to go home. And yet they had not been able to claim as a Christian even one of the blacks amongst whom they worked. No wonder that the Austrian Government lost heart and gave up the mission.

When Gordon reached Gondokoro he saw that it was absurd to pretend that the Khedive ruled any of the country outside its walls. No one dared go half a mile outside without being in danger of his life from the tribes whose wives and children and cattle the slavers had taken.

Gordon felt that to make friends with those people, to show them that he was sorry for them, and that he wished to help them, was the first thing to be done if he was to be in reality their Governor. And so, as he travelled on from point to point—back to Khartoum from Gondokoro, to Berber, to Fashoda, to Soubat—he made friends wherever he went. Quickly the black people came to love the man who punished or slew their enemies, who took them from the slavers, and gave them back their wives and children and cattle. He gave grain to some, set others to plant maize, fed the starving ones, and always paid them for each piece of work that they did for him.

Sometimes, even, he would buy from them the children that they were too poor to feed, and find good homes for them.

One man sold him his two boys of twelve and eight for a basket of dhoora (a kind of grain). He soon found that the blacks did not look on the sale of human beings in the same way that he did.

One man stole a cow, and when the owner found out the thief and came to claim his cow, it was too late. The cow had been eaten.

Next day Gordon passed the man's hut, and saw that one of his two children was gone.

"Where was the other?" he asked of the mother.

"Oh, it had been given to the man from whom the cow had been stolen," she replied with a happy smile.

"But," said Gordon, "are you not sorry?"

"Oh no! we would rather have the cow."

"But you have eaten the cow, and the pleasure is over," said Gordon.

"Oh, but, all the same, we would sooner have the cow!"

Two little boys came smiling up to Gordon one day, and pressed him to buy one of them for a little basketful of dhoora. Gordon bought one, and both boys were delighted.

"Do buy me for a little piece of cloth. I should like to be your slave," said one little fellow that Gordon rescued from a gang of slavers. It was this boy, Capsune, who years afterwards asked Gordon's sister if she was quite sure that Gordon Pasha still kept his blue eyes. "Do you think he can see all through me now?" he asked, and said, "I am quite sure Gordon Pasha could see quite well in the dark, because he has the light inside him."

Most of the slaves that the Arab slavers had in their gangs were little children. In one caravan that Gordon rescued there were ninety slaves, very few over sixteen, most of them little mites of boys and girls, perfect skeletons. They had been brought over 500 miles of desert, and the ninety were all that lived out of about four hundred.

When Gordon rescued them, they knew the gentle, tender Gordon, whose tenderness was like a mother's.

It was another Gordon that the slavers knew—a man terrible in his anger. Having taken from the ruffianly Arabs who had so cruelly treated the little children, their slaves, their stolen cattle, and their ivory, he would have them stripped and flogged, and driven naked into the desert.

For two months he was at Saubat River, a lonely and desolate country, the prey of slavers. It was so dull and dreary a place, that the Arab soldiers were sent there for a punishment, as the Russians are sent to Siberia.

But Gordon was too busy to be dull. He was always so full of thought for others, that he never had time to be sorry for himself.

"I am sure it is the secret of true happiness to be content with what we actually have," he wrote from Saubat.

From there, too, he wrote: "I took a poor old bag-of-bones into my camp a month ago, and have been feeding her up; but yesterday she was quietly taken off, and now knows all things. She had her tobacco up to the last."

Looking out of his camp he saw a poor woman, "a wisp of bones," feebly struggling up the road in wind and rain. He sent some dhoora to her by one of his men, and thought she had been taken safely to one of the huts. All through that wet and stormy night he heard a baby crying. At dawn he found the woman lying in a pool of mud, apparently dead, while men passed and repassed her, and took no notice. Her baby, not quite a year old, sat and wailed in some long grass near her. The woman was actually not dead, but she died a few days later. The baby boy was none the worse for his night out, and drank off a gourd of milk "like a man." Gordon gave him to a family to look after, paying for him daily with some maize.

Mosquitoes and other insects were a pest wherever he went, but at Saubat he had the extra pest of rats. They ran over his mosquito nets, ate his soap, his books, his boots, and his shaving-brush, and screamed and fought all night, until he invented a clever trap and stopped their thefts.

When Gordon returned to Gondokoro, he found nearly all his own staff ill with fever and ague. Out of ten only two were well,—one of these having newly recovered from a severe fever. Two were dead, and six seriously ill. Gordon himself was worn to a mere shadow, but he had to act as doctor and as sick-nurse. The weather was cold and wet, and the rain came into the tents. To his sister, Gordon wrote: "Imagine your brother paddling about a swamped tent without boots, attending to a sick man at night, with more than a chance of the tent coming down bodily." Of course he got chilled, and ill too, and at last gave an order that "all illness is to take place away from me."

Nor was it only sickness amongst his friends that he had to sadden him. He found that his Egyptian officials—some of them those he had most trusted—were leaguing with the slavers, taking bribes, helping to undo the good work he had already done, and trying to rouse his troops into mutiny. The troops themselves were a great trial. They were lazy, treacherous, chicken-hearted fellows, with no pluck. "I never had less confidence in any troops in my life," Gordon said, and he declared that three natives would put a whole company to flight. The native Soudanese were as brave as lions. A native has been known to kill himself because his wife called him a coward. The Arab soldiers when on sentry duty would all go to sleep at their posts, and think no harm of it.

The climate of the Soudan did not suit them, and they died like flies. Of one detachment of 250, half were dead in three months, too invalided, and only twenty-five fit for duty, and yet the Egyptian Government continued to send them instead of the black troops Gordon asked for.

From Gondokoro, Gordon moved to Rageef, and there built a station on healthier ground, higher up from the marshes. He sent to Gondokoro for ammunition for his mountain howitzer, and the commandant there thought it a good chance to pawn off on him some that was so damp as to be useless. With ten men and no ammunition, his Arab allies left him in a place where no Arab would have stayed without 100 well-armed men.

Gordon's German servant, and two little black boys that Gordon had bought, followed in a small boat to Rageef with Gordon's baggage.

The German came to Gordon with a very grave face.

"I have had a great loss," said he. Gordon at once thought that one of the boys must have been drowned.

"What?" he anxiously asked.

"I saw a hippopotamus on the bank," said the man, "and fired at him with your big rifle; and I did not know it would kick so hard, and it kicked me over, and it fell into the water."

Said Gordon, "You are a born idiot of three years old! How dare you touch my rifle?"

But the rifle was gone, and he had to smile as the little black boys mimicked the German's fright when he dropped the rifle and laughed in scorn at him.

At Rageef, seeing he need expect no real help from the Egyptian Government, Gordon began to form an army of his own, making soldiers of the Soudanese,—the "Gippies," as our own soldiers now call them. And the Gippies are as brave and soldier-like a body of troops as is to be found. "We," they say, "are like the English; we are not afraid." He enlisted men who had been slaves, and men who had been slavers. A detachment of cannibals that he came across he also enlisted, drilled, and trained, and turned into first-rate soldiers.

The slavers grew afraid of Gordon Pasha, and of the army that he had made.

Where an Egyptian official would not have dared to go without a convoy of 100 soldiers, and where a single soldier would have been sure to have been waylaid and murdered, Gordon could now go in safety, alone and unarmed. He would walk along the river banks for miles and miles, only armed when he wished to shoot a hippopotamus.

Gordon's work was always much varied. Always, each bit of it was done with all his might.

He drilled savages, shot hippopotamuses, mended watches and musical boxes for black chiefs, patched his own clothes and made clothes for some of his men, invented rat-traps and machines for making rockets, tamed baby lions and baby hippopotamuses, cleaned guns, raided the camps of slavers, nursed the sick, and fed the hungry. And day and night he worked to rid the land of slavery; to teach the black people the meaning of justice, of mercy, and of honour.

His food all the time was of the plainest—no vegetables, only dry biscuits, bits of broiled meat, and macaroni boiled in sugar and water. Ants and beetles often nested in the stores, and made them horrid to the taste. "Oh, how I should like a good dinner!" he wrote to his sister.

In addition to all his other work, Gordon had the task of finding out for himself the exact geography of that part of the Nile of which he was Governor, and he had to do much exploring.

While doing this he one day marched 18 miles through jungle, in pouring rain. Another day, in the hottest season of that hot land, he marched 35 miles.

Charles Gordon


As he and his men sailed up the Nile they met with many dangers. There were rapids to pass, furious hippopotamuses to charge their boats, and on the banks were concealed enemies, throwing their assegais with deadly aim. And through all this he had only a pack of cowardly Arabs to depend on for everything.

A wizard belonging to one of the black tribes, sure that the white man and his soldiers could only have come for some evil purpose, stood on the top of a rock by the river, screaming curses at them and exciting his tribe.

"I don't think that's a healthy spot to deliver an address from," said Gordon, taking up a rifle and pointing it at the wizard, who at once ran away.

"We do not want your beads; we do not want your cloth; we only want you to go away," one tribe said to him. Gordon's heart was full of pity for them. It was for them that he was spending his life, had they only known it.

The never-ending work and worry tried him badly.

"Poor sheath, it is much worn," he wrote of himself from the dreary land of marsh and forest into which he had come while laying down a chain of posts between Gondokoro and the Lakes.

The dampness of the marshes was poison to white men, and earwigs, ants, mosquitoes, sandflies, beetles, scorpions, snakes, and every imaginable insect and reptile seemed to do their best to make things unpleasant for him.

The turf was full of prickly grass seeds; the long grass cut the fingers to the bone if people tried to pick it. The very fruit was bitter and poisonous. Rain sometimes fell in unexpected torrents, so heavy that he was flooded out of his tent.

When he was dead tired, body and soul, Gordon would sometimes build castles of what he would do when he got back to England. He would lie in bed till eleven, and always wear his best fur coat, and travel first class, and have oysters every day for lunch!

In 1876 there seemed a chance of his really building his castles.

He felt it was impossible to rid the land of slavery, with the Egyptian officials, who did not wish to have it stopped, working hard against him, and so, after three years of hard work, he threw up his post and went home.

No sooner was he gone than the Khedive realised how great a loss it would be to him and to his country if Gordon were not to return.

He begged him to come back, and he would make him Governor-General of the Soudan, and help him in every possible way to carry out the work he wished to do.

So Gordon returned, and in February 1877 he started for the Soudan, absolute ruler now of 1640 miles of desert, marsh, and forest.

"So there is an end of slavery," he wrote to his sister, "if God wills, for the whole secret of the matter is in that Government (the Soudan), and if the man who holds the Soudan is against it, it must cease." . . . "I go up alone with an infinite Almighty God to direct and guide me, and am glad to so trust Him as to fear nothing, and, indeed, to feel sure of success."

From this time on, in every direction, the slavers were hunted and harried and driven out of the land, as one drives rats from a farmyard.

On every side he came on caravans packed with starving slaves, dying of hunger and thirst, and set them free. The desert was strewn not only with the bodies of camels, that the dry air had turned into mummies, but with the bones and whitened skulls of the slave-dealers' victims. Everywhere he had to look out for treachery and for lying, and be ready to pounce on slaves cunningly concealed by the kidnappers.

A hundred or more would sometimes be found being smuggled past, down the Nile, hidden under a boatload of wood.

Gordon, on a camel that he rode so quickly that it came to be called the Telegraph, seemed to fly across the silent desert like a magician. Daily, often all alone, he would ride 30 or 40 miles. In the three years during which he governed the Soudan he rode 8490 miles.

The black people knew that he was always willing to listen to their troubles, always ready to help them. In the first three days of his governorship he gave away over 1000 of his own money to the hungry poor.

Great chiefs, as well as poor people, came to see him and became his friends. If one of them sat too long, Gordon would rise and say in English: "Now, old bird, it is time for you to go," and the chief would go away, delighted with the Governor's affability and politeness. Those who begged, and continued to beg for things he could not grant, knew a different Governor.

"Never!" he would shout in an angry voice. "Do you understand? Have you finished?" and they would hurry off, frightened at his flashing eyes.

When fighting was necessary, he led his men as he had led his Chinese troops in past days. Like Nelson, he did not know the meaning of the word "fear."

News came to him that the son of Sebehr, king of the slavers, with 6000 men, was about to attack a poor, weak little garrison that they could have wiped out with the greatest ease. At once Gordon mounted his camel, and, alone and unarmed, sped off across the desert, covering 85 miles in a day and a half. On the way he rode into a swarm of flies that thickly covered him and his camel. Of his arrival at the little garrison he wrote to his sister: "I came on my people like a thunderbolt. . . Imagine to yourself a single, dirty, red-faced man on a camel, ornamented with flies, arriving in the divan all of a sudden. They were paralysed, and could not believe their eyes."

Still more paralysed were the slavers when, at dawn next morning, there rode into their camp Gordon Pasha, radiant in the gorgeous "golden armour" the Khedive had given him. Fearlessly and scornfully Gordon condemned them, and ordered them at once to lay down their arms. They listened in silence and wonderment, and then weakly submitted to this great Pasha who knew no fear.

When the slavers' power had been broken and their dens harried out—not without some heavy fighting—Gordon went on a mission from the Khedive to the King of Abyssinia, one of the cruellest and most savage of cruel kings. The Khedive wanted peace, but the Abyssinian King would not have it, and treated Gordon with the greatest insolence.

"Do you know that I could kill you?" he asked, glaring at Gordon like a tiger. Gordon answered that he was quite ready to die, and that in killing him the King would only confer a favour on him, opening a door he must not open for himself.

"Then my power has no terrors for you?" said the King.

"None whatever," replied Gordon, and the King, who was used to rule by terror, had no more to say.

This mission over, Gordon, utterly worn out, and broken in health, returned to Egypt, and resigned his post as Governor-General of the Soudan.

The slaves that he had set free used to try to kiss his feet and the hem of his garment. To this day there is a name known in Egypt and in the Soudan as that of a man who scorned money, who had no fear of any man, who did not even fear death, whose mercy was as perfect as his uprightness. And the name of that man is Gordon Pasha.

"Give us another Governor like Gordon Pasha," was the cry of the Soudanese when the Mandi uprose to be a scourge to the Soudan.