England was at the preeminent position in the world during the reign of their Queen Victoria. The British Empire, through wars with France and other European nations, had gained an empire which stretched from sea to sea, and from one to the other end of the world. With various peoples and lands under their control, they were also the dominant commercial and trading power in the world, a model by which jealous rivals sought to emulate by carving their own empires (Hayes, et al. , 1962, p. 637). The English, viewing their vast empire, were swept away in an idealistic patriotism.
They were still feeling the effects of the Romantic Movement, which stressed passion over logic. They thus expressed their zeal for their nation and for themselves without constraints. It was during this time that General Gordon was born. He was ultimately a product of his age—restless, religiously devoted, imperialistic and unorthodox. He read the Holy Bible profusely, and was possessed by a constant need to reaffirm his faith. At the same time, his spirit carried him off across the Crimea, China, and from one end of Africa to the other (Strachey, 1963, pp. 283-284).
His actions seemed self-contradictory, but taken in the context of the great movements that was sweeping his society at that time, the contradictions in his character could be more understood, and found to complement each other. There were many strong movements that gripped England during Gordon’s lifetime. One of them was a sudden revival in religious devotion. Different sects, from Baptist to Methodist, began to grow in numbers, and the Anglican Church had its members discovering a new zeal in evangelization, a need for piety, and a return to religious roots.
A new “Oxford” movement sought to reform the Anglican Church by returning it to its historical, traditional roots, some, like John Henry Newman, finding it in reconciliation with the Catholic Church (Hayes, et al. , 1962, p. 580). General Gordon was first introduced to his society’s religious awareness through his sister Augusta. He was deeply influenced by her zeal and soon began to reflect on sin and salvation. Gordon’s religiosity never left him; he carried it during his time in Egypt, and again while he was at the Sudan (Strachey, 1963, pp. 235-236).
He was stirred to visit Palestine and trace “the site of the crucifixion, the line of division between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, the identification of Gibeon, and the position of the Garden of Eden” (p. 233). His correspondence with his sister were filled with his ruminations on God, and justified his various adventures in this way: “… to be happy, a man must be like a well-broken, willing horse, ready for anything. Events will go as God likes” (p. 249). The Romantic movement, which emphasized sentiment and emotion over reason and what was deemed as apathy, possessed Gordon fully.
The Romantics stressed the value of the individual over society, and diversity over uniformity (Hayes, et al. , 1962, p. 577). Gordon was heavily influenced by this, and rejected the conformity of the social circles of England, and sought instead to be as far away from the public view as he possibly could. He fused his aversion to society with religious conviction and “his soul revolted against dinner-parties and stiff shirts… He had, besides, a deeper dread of the world’s contaminations” (Strachey, 1963, p. 244). Writing his sister from the Sudan, he resolved never to return to London: “…
How we can put up with those things, passes my imagination! It is a perfect bondage… ” (p. 320) His religious fanaticism, and his Romantic inclinations, led him often to clash with authorities who were “men of the world” and more pragmatic than idealistic. He spoke out vocally, as when he, outraged by the dishonor of having betrayed some Taiping rebel leaders in China after he guaranteed their safety, confronted the Chinese Governor “with a loaded pistol in his hand”. The Governor tried to calm him by bribes and commendation but “…
he refused the 10,000 taels… and, with an oath, said that he did not want the Throne’s medal. This is showing the greatest disrespect” (p. 243). His refusal to compromise had him “heaped with insults” by the Negus of Abyssinia, and he resigned his post in India three days after receiving it, reasoning that the Viceroy had asked him to lie about the former having read a letter that “… you know perfectly… [he] never read… and I can’t say that sort of thing, so I will resign, and you will take my resignation” (pp. 256-257).
Though he sought the solace of isolation, away from the dinner parties that he detested, the Romantic in him stirred his sense for adventure. He was swept away by the nationalistic idealism of his duty to “spread the language and superior culture to the backward peoples of the earth” (Hayes, et al. , p. 662). It was this passionate stirring which finally led to his ruin in the Sudan. Having gone from one place to another, never content, he was given the appointment to evacuate the Sudan. A local rebel there, who styled himself as a Mahdi, had risen in power and had all but expelled the British and native armies (Strachey, 1963, p.
262-269). General Gordon was tasked merely to prepare the British forces there to withdraw to Egypt. The Romantic fervor in Gordon led him to blow out of proportion his mission in Sudan and turn it from an evacuation to a “plan to smash up the Mahdi using British and Indian troops”. His idealistic fervor had before led him to victory in China against the Taiping rebels. Perhaps, he thought that he could relive his glory in the Sudan. He was “among his people… and it was to them he was only responsible—to them and to God”. He could not bring himself to let the Sudan fall to a “sanguinary impostor” (p.
289). Eventually, as the Mahdi Army began to encircle the capital city of Khartoum, he seesawed between regretting his arrogant act—“I believe ambition put me here in this ruin” (p. 293) and the duty he felt he had for these people: “I will not obey it, but will stay here, and fall with [the] town, and run all risks” (p. 319). General Gordon was possessed by the ideas that the Victorian era fostered. He was a man of God, terribly anxious and conscious of his limitations, and driven by a need to do and go as God would have commanded him.
He was driven by the adventurism of his times, but he went resigned to the belief that His Lord needed him to be “a well-broken, willing horse”, ready to serve Him. Gordon reconciled all his ideas in the Sudan. His Victorian piety justified the Christian mission to save the Sudanese, “his people”, but it was his Romantic tendencies that drove him to act on his impulse, and to his eventual doom. REFERENCES Hayes, Carlton, et al. (1962). History of Western Civilization. New York: The Macmillan Company. Strachey, Lytton. (1963). Eminent Victorians. New York: Capricorn Books.