Siege of Khartoum Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The siege of Khartoum by a Muslim fundamentalist army and the resulting death of General Charles Gordon was a defining moment in British imperial history that forced the collapse of William Ewart Gladstone’s ministry and the establishment of an extended British interest and presence in Northeast Africa. The siege embodied a variety of values associated with religion, slavery, exploration, and control over the headwaters of the Nile River.

Summary of Event

During the 1850’s, British interest in Africa was reinvigorated by the explorations of Richard Francis Burton, David Livingstone, and others who sought to locate the source of the Nile River. During the 1870’s, British imperial interest in Africa was renewed under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and Suez Canal[Suez Canal] , who in 1876 acquired control of the Suez Canal for Great Britain. Khartoum Gordon, Charles George Mahdi, the Sudan;Khartoum Islam;fundamentalist movements Islam;Mahdism British Empire;and Sudan[Sudan] Mahdism [kw]Siege of Khartoum (Mar. 13, 1884-Jan. 26, 1885) [kw]Khartoum, Siege of (Mar. 13, 1884-Jan. 26, 1885) Khartoum Gordon, Charles George Mahdi, the Sudan;Khartoum Islam;fundamentalist movements Islam;Mahdism British Empire;and Sudan[Sudan] Mahdism [g]Africa;Mar. 13, 1884-Jan. 26, 1885: Siege of Khartoum[5385] [g]British Empire;Mar. 13, 1884-Jan. 26, 1885: Siege of Khartoum[5385] [g]Sudan;Mar. 13, 1884-Jan. 26, 1885: Siege of Khartoum[5385] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 13, 1884-Jan. 26, 1885: Siege of Khartoum[5385] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 13, 1884-Jan. 26, 1885: Siege of Khartoum[5385] Gessi, Romolo Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph [p]Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph[Wolseley, Garnet Joseph];in the Sudan[Sudan] Kitchener, Horatio Herbert

Meanwhile, Egypt’s Khedive Ismāՙīl Ismāՙīl Pasha Pasha hired Charles George Gordon to serve as governor of the Equatoria Province in the Sudan in 1873. A British army engineer, Gordon had earned a reputation as a warrior in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and in China, where his exploits earned him the name “Chinese” Gordon. In 1865, Gordon had returned to Britain. While continuing to serve in the army there, his interest in Christianity was transformed into a personal mystical Christianity through which he believed that he communicated directly with God. Gordon then took up the causes of the dispossessed and became a vehement opponent of slavery wherever it still existed throughout the world. This was the Charles Gordon whom the khedive hired to stabilize the Sudan.

During his tenure as governor, Gordon’s accomplishments were extensive. Between 1874 and 1876, he explored the Nile, with the assistance of the Italian explorer Romolo Gessi, developed detailed maps, and reached as far south as present-day Uganda Uganda . In 1876, Gordon was elevated to the position of governor of the entire Sudan. For four years, he labored at establishing order, modernizing the government, and eliminating the slave trade Slave trade;Northeast African . His adamant opposition to slavery and all of its vestiges resulted in his creating many enemies among Arab slave traders and slaveholders. At the same time, however, he earned a growing respect and admiration among the Sudanese peoples. Eventually, however, his strenuous efforts in the Sudan led to his physical collapse, so he returned to England in 1880.

In early 1881, a resurgence of radicalism Islam Islam;fundamentalist movements manifested itself in the Sudan. Under the leadership of Muḥammad Aḥmad ibn as-Sayyidՙ Abd-Allāh, who is better known as the Mahdi, fundamentalist and militant Islam targeted all infidels, both native and foreign. In 1883, the Mahdi’s forces annihilated an Egyptian army led by British officers. The European and Egyptian survivors then took refuge in Khartoum and adopted a defensive posture as they awaited a relief force. However, the British response was slow. Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone’s Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Sudan[Sudan] government had little enthusiasm for further involvement in Northeast Africa.

Gladstone himself was an anti-imperialist and entertained suspicions about the accuracy of the reports coming out of the Sudan. However, the British press clamored for action to rescue those in Khartoum. Finally, Gladstone reluctantly agreed to send Gordon back to the Sudan to evacuate Khartoum. Once again appointed governor of the Sudan, Gordon accepted the assignment and arrived in Khartoum on February 18, 1884. During the following three weeks, he had more than two thousand foreigners—mostly women, children, and the older persons—evacuated down the Nile, toward the Egyptian frontier. On March 13, 1884, the Mahdi’s forces surrounded the city, making additional evacuations extremely difficult. The Siege of Khartoum had begun.

Contemporary depiction of General Gordon’s death at Khartoum.

(Library of Congress)

Although Gordon did not comply with Gladstone’s order to evacuate the garrison or report directly on what he found, he did transform the environment of Khartoum. He organized Khartoum’s defenses and resources. Using his expertise as an engineer, he directed the construction of new fortifications and used the natural terrain and the Nile River itself to his advantage. He established a plan to conserve foodstuffs and even managed to increase the supply of food that was available. He inventoried his armaments and centralized control over stores of ammunition.

Gordon also introduced discipline among Khartoum’s Egyptian-Sudanese defenders, trained them for the defense of Khartoum, and improved their morale. He permitted no dissension among his troops and had troublemakers shot or expelled from the city. On the larger question of whether Gordon ever intended to evacuate Khartoum himself there can be little question. By choosing to remain in Khartoum, Gordon meant to force Gladstone to send a relief force to the Sudan to rescue him. The relief force would then defeat the Mahdi, secure the region for British interests, and end slavery and the slave trade. To drum up public support for his cause, Gordon sent letters directly to British newspapers, which responded by calling for an army to be sent to the Sudan.

Gladstone was outraged by Gordon’s tactic and, surprisingly—in Gordon’s eyes—resisted the mounting political pressures, including pleas from Queen Victoria Victoria, Queen [p]Victoria, Queen;and Africa[Africa] , until August, 1884, when his government finally approved forming a relief expedition. Under the leadership of General Garnet Wolseley Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph [p]Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph[Wolseley, Garnet Joseph];in the Sudan[Sudan] , the British relief force took an inordinate amount of time to train for desert warfare after its arrival in Egypt. It finally advanced from its base at Wadi Halfa in October, 1884. Wolseley’s force defeated the Mahdi’s troops in two minor battles. Confronted with the choice of withdrawing from Khartoum to save his army from possible defeat by the British or attacking the city before the main British force could arrive, the Mahdi gambled and attacked Khartoum on January 26, 1885. After a fierce struggle, the city fell and Gordon and the defenders were slaughtered. Two days later, on January 28, 1885, advance units of the British force arrived; Colonel Horatio Herbert Kitchener Kitchener, Horatio Herbert and Lord Charles Beresford Beresford, Charles William de la Poer were among the first to arrive at Khartoum. After a brief struggle, both sides withdrew. The Mahdi and his army left Khartoum and made Omdurman, on the opposite side of the Nile, their base.


The immediate consequences of the Siege of Khartoum were the deaths of Gordon and the defenders in the garrison, the collapse of Gladstone’s government, Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Sudan[Sudan] enhanced reputations for Wolseley and Kitchener, and the suppression of the Mahdi and his militant Muslim forces. More significantly, however, the temporary establishment of a major British military force in the Sudan had a far-reaching impact upon the expansion of British imperial designs on Northeast and East Africa East Africa;British colonization of . Some pro-imperialists advocated a Cape-to-Cairo railroad "Cape-to-Cairo" railroad[Cape to Cairo railroad] , and that would necessitate British control of most of eastern Africa.

During the mid-1890’s the French government decided to establish a foothold in the region and quietly sent an expeditionary force across the African continent. At the same time the followers of the Mahdi, who died in 1885, revolted against the Anglo-Egyptian regime in the Sudan. Finally, the British sent a large expeditionary force under General Kitchener that decisively defeated the so-called dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman Omdurman, Battle of (1898) on September 2, 1898. Kitchener’s forces then moved on Khartoum, where they learned of a French garrison at Fashoda (now Kodok) Fashoda incident (1898) British Empire;Fashoda incident British Empire;Fashoda incident on the White Nile. Kitchener moved on the French position, and a major Anglo-French crisis known as the Fashoda incident unfolded. This crisis almost led to war between the two great powers, but the French backed down and undertook to normalize relations with Britain. Eventually, the French persuaded the British to enter the Anglo-French Entente of 1904 Anglo-French Entente (1904)[AngloFrench Entente (1904)] , which resolved their later colonial disputes in Africa.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elton, Godfrey. Gordon of Khartoum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955. Well-written biography that makes no attempt to hide the author’s admiration for his subject. Nevertheless, Elton does not overlook Gordon’s shortcomings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Charles George. The Journals of Major-General Charles George Gordon, C.B., at Khartoum. Edited by Egmont A. Hake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885. These journals cover only September 10 through December 14, 1884, but they provide the best insight into Gordon’s mind during his last days at Khartoum.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Peter. Gordon of Khartoum. Wellingsborough, England: Patrick Stephens, 1985. Solid biographical study of Charles Gordon that is especially good for those with little knowledge of Gordon or the resurgence of militant Islam in the Sudan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore-Harrell, Alice. Gordon and the Sudan: Prologue to the Mahdiyya, 1877-1880. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2001. Examines the years preceding the Mahdist revolution in Sudan by focusing on Gordon’s administration as governor-general. Provides details about the political, economic, and social developments under Gordon’s leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neillands, Robin. The Dervish Wars: Gordon and Kitchener in the Sudan, 1880-1898. London: John Murray, 1996. Important contribution to the literature on Gordon and the British in Northeast Africa; a book that should be of interest to general readers as well as serious students of this period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicoll, Fergus. Sword of the Prophet: The Mahdi of Sudan and the Death of General Gordon. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2004. Focuses on the Mahdi’s role as the charismatic leader of the Sudanese independence movement, and examines Gordon’s death from the Mahdi’s perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Brian. Imperial Vanities: The Adventures of the Baker Brothers and Gordon of Khartoum. London: HarperCollins, 2001. Well-written account intended for general readers that approaches its subjects as explorers and adventurers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waller, John H. Gordon of Khartoum: The Saga of a Victorian Hero. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Sympathetic but not uncritical account of Gordon’s activities in the Sudan that argues that the fall of Khartoum constituted a major turning point in British imperialism in Africa.

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Benjamin Disraeli; William Ewart Gladstone; Charles George Gordon; the Mahdi. Khartoum Gordon, Charles George Mahdi, the Sudan;Khartoum Islam;fundamentalist movements Islam;Mahdism British Empire;and Sudan[Sudan] Mahdism

Categories: History