Days passed without any sign of British steamers, and the morale of the government troops began to droop once more. ‘Gordon Pasha used to say every day, “They must come tomorrow,”’ recalled Bordeini, ‘but they never came and we began to think that they must have been defeated by the rebels after all.’ Gordon had all the ammunition moved along the waterfront, to the Catholic church, where it would be safer behind thick stone walls. He had a mine primed in the church, with a fuse linked to the palace, so that it could be blown if necessary. He had long ago had two massive mines set up in the basement of the palace itself, ready to blow himself to smithereens before the dervishes could capture him. The small steamer Mohammad ‘Ali was kept moored and provisioned at the palace jetty, to provide an escape-route for the consuls and other prominent citizens.
On Sunday 25 January 1885 the sun came up weak and pallid. The morning was cold, and the Nile was at its lowest, a dirty brown trickle between mud-banks and shoulders of dried mud like cracked and broken leather. Gordon was on the terrace with his telescope at first light, scanning the dervish positions. In wad an-Nejumi’s camp at Kalakla, near the White Nile, to the southwest, thousands of dervish warriors had left their positions and were couching and loading camels. Gordon sent his ADC, Khalil Agha Orfali, a Syrian ex-Bashi-Bazuk, to the telegraph office on the ground floor to order the men stood to. He expected an attack. He instructed the officers on the defences to hold their positions until 0800 hours the following morning, when, he assured them, British troops would arrive.
He called his Chief Clerk, Giriagis Bey, and had him convene a committee meeting in his office at the palace. Once again, Gordon did not attend in person. Instead, Giriagis relayed his instructions that every male in Khartoum above the age of eight years must be collected and told to line the defences alongside the troops.
After the meeting Bordeini Bey asked to see Gordon and was shown into his room next door. Gordon was sitting on a divan near a table on which Bordeini saw two full boxes of cigarettes. When the Bey entered, Gordon pulled off his tarboosh and flung it moodily at the wall. ‘I have nothing more to say,’ he told him. ‘People will no longer believe me, and I have told them over and over that help would be here, but it has never come, and now they must see I tell them lies. If this, my last promise, fails, I can do no more. Go and collect all the people you can on the lines and make a good stand.’
Bordeini realized that Gordon was more agitated than he had ever seen him, and in fact had been too upset to attend the meeting. This was why he had sent Giriagis instead. His hair seemed to have turned white overnight. Gordon told Bordeini that if the attack came, he should stay in his house until he sent for him. ‘Now leave me and let me smoke these cigarettes,’ he said. They were Gordon’s last recorded words.
After sunset there were three other visitors: consuls Martin Hansall and Nikolaos Leontides, and a Greek doctor. They remained with him until midnight. After they had gone, Gordon stayed up for another hour, writing, chain-smoking and occasionally pacing the room. At one in the morning he called his ADC, Orfali, and told him to check with the telegraph room to see if there was any news from the defences. Orfali returned minutes later to report that all was quiet.
Half an hour afterwards Gordon heard the sound of gunfire from the southern ramparts. Orfali told him that there had been a minor attack on Burri fort, but that it had been repulsed. Gordon then prepared for bed. After closing all the doors along the corridor, Orfali went down and instructed the duty telegraph clerk to notify him immediately if there were any developments. He then retired to his room.
At about 0300 hours, Orfali roused Gordon and told him the Mahdi had launched an attack from the direction of the White Nile. Gordon threw on his dressing-gown and prepared for action, but the first reports suggested that the attack had been broken off. Soon after, though, both Gordon and Orfali heard shooting, and several orderlies ran down from the terrace and told them that waves of dervishes were flooding into the town.
The Mahdi and ‘Abdallahi had crossed the White Nile by boat shortly after last light, and joined their hordes under ‘Abd ar-Rahman wad an-Nejumi near Kalakla. At midnight, just as Gordon was bidding farewell to Hansall and Leontides, the Mahdi had given wad an-Nejumi the order to attack. The dervishes had advanced so silently on the gap in the defences that the troops manning the ramparts further to the east never heard a sound. They were not aware that an attack was in progress until minutes before the enemy crossed the line. The troops had been expecting an assault from the west, near Burri, believing that the gap was too muddy for an offensive.
The dervishes burst suddenly out of the night, carrying old angarebs to help them breast the deep mud. Some waded waist deep into the slough and allowed themselves to be used as stepping-stones by their advancing companions. Others found the ground in places less muddy than they had expected. Within minutes they were inside the town. Sentries opened fire blindly in the darkness. The starving soldiers awoke to find the enemy scrambling over the parapet in thousands, screaming death to the unbelievers.
The 5th Egyptian Regiment, under Colonel Hasan Bey al-Bahnassi, saw the enemy racing towards them. ‘They came in shouting,’ said Sid ‘Ahmad ‘Abd ar-Razak, a subaltern of the 4th battalion. ‘They broke in near the White Nile. We fired in that direction, and when we saw the enemy were behind us, Nos. 3 and 4 companies formed square, and we remained firing until the square was broken, then we formed groups and fell back on the 1st Regiment. The [dervishes] broke in amongst us and there was a mêlée, then some [of us] were taken prisoner, and others were killed.’
The government Jihadiyya, manning the wall further along, were attacked simultaneously by massed assault parties. They smashed against the Burri gate, west of the palace, and the Masalamiyya gate, to the south. In places the Sudanese troops put up a stiff resistance. ‘Though we went on firing our rifles until they were too hot to hold,’ said a survivor, Yuzbashi (Captain) ‘Abdallah Adlan, ‘[the dervishes] finally poured over the ramparts by sheer force of numbers, and anyone who remained standing was killed. Life was dear, and many of us threw ourselves down among the dead and wounded while the dervishes passed over us into the town.’
Faraj Pasha, the Commander-in-Chief, had been at Buri when the assault began. He rode down the defences on a horse, bawling at his men to hold steady. When he reached the Masallamiyya gate, though, he realized that the dervishes were inside, and that the game was up. According to some witnesses, he threw a civilian coat over his uniform and ordered the sentry to open the gate. He told his men to stop firing, and surrendered to the enemy.
The dervishes surged through the native town and dashed across the open space to the Blue Nile waterfront. Aroused by the noise, the population ran outside to see warriors teeming through the streets. Many civilians were butchered where they stood. The dervishes, wild with victory, broke into the houses, massacring, raping, pillaging and looting. ‘The whole town was now filled with the screams of the people and the shouts of the
,’ wrote Nushi Pasha, in his official report based on eye-witness accounts. ‘They killed everyone they met, attacked the inhabitants in their houses and slaughtered them and ransacked everywhere.’ Other eye-witnesses reported that the Mahdi’s men systematically raped the fairer-skinned women, especially Egyptians, and women of the Ja’aliyyin and Shaygiyya tribes. Some officers shot their wives and children, then put bullets through their own heads, rather than allow them to fall into dervish hands. Mohammad Pasha Hussain, the Head of Finance, saw his daughter and her husband murdered in front of him, and refused to flee with his friends. Instead he hurled curses on the Mahdi at the onrushing warriors until they silenced him permanently.
They caught the Greek consul, Nikolaos Leontides, in his house, and severed both his hands at the wrists before cutting off his head. They smashed their way into the house of another Greek family nearby, shooting the father through the forehead and cleaving his twelve-year-old son’s head with an axe, splattering brain matter and blood over his pregnant wife, who was claimed as a concubine by wad an-Nejumi. Almost all the Egyptian Copts in the town were murdered. Among the dead was the American consul, a Copt called Aser, who died of a heart attack when his brother’s head was struck off before his eyes.
Many people were betrayed by their former slaves and servants. Austrian consul Martin Hansall’s servant led a party to his house. In the courtyard, they found Hansall’s carpenter, Mulatte Skander, whose head they cut off. Hansall himself came downstairs, unarmed, to find Skander’s headless corpse lying in a pool of blood. A second later the warriors hacked off Hansall’s head, and in a killing frenzy stabbed both his dog and his parrot. They took man, dog and parrot outside, doused them in alcohol, set them on fire, and tossed them into the Blue Nile.
Franz Klein, a Hungarian Jew who had converted to Catholicism, and who had been the official tailor to many governors-general of the Sudan, was seized in his house and had his throat cut from ear to ear in front of his Italian wife and five children. His eighteen-year-old son was speared to death, and his daughter raped.
On the waterfront, the brother left in charge of the Catholic Mission, Domenico Polinari, opened the gate a crack. He found the guards chopped to pieces, and thousands of chanting dervishes standing over their bodies, brandishing bloody spears and swords. He slammed the gate shut and fled with some black workers to a hay shed in the corner of the ornate garden. Seconds later, dark figures burst through the gate and swarmed over the high walls. The blacks lost their nerve and quit their hiding-place, only to be caught and dismembered by the dervishes. Every man employed in the Mission grounds was killed. Polinari remained concealed, but could hear clearly their shrieks of terror, and the dry thwack of the dervish swords. A group of warriors came into the hut and poked their spears into the hay. Astonishingly, they missed him.
Dawn was already gathering over Omdurman, blood-red streaks gashing the night sky. Further along the Nile bank, hundreds of Mahdist banners were bobbing around the palace, and scores of dervish warriors were massing. According to one account, they were reluctant to enter, since several former palace servants had told them it was mined. But Gordon had abandoned the idea of blowing himself up, which would have been suicide, and therefore an act of cowardice and a betrayal of faith.
How Gordon actually died is a mystery. The figure of the hero standing on the palace steps in full uniform, sheathed sword at his belt, revolver unfired, with a host of spear-toting dervishes below him, is a familiar icon of the British Empire. The concept of martyrdom, with its Messianic overtones, was dear to the Victorian mind, and that this is how it happened seems somehow obvious to us, mainly because of George William Joy’s famous painting The Death of Gordon. Lytton Strachey’s embellishment in his biographical essay The End of General Gordon, suggesting that there was a dramatic pause while Gordon and the dervishes contemplated each other, has also added to the myth. The 1960s film Khartoum, starring Charlton Heston as Gordon, has the dervishes actually backing away when Gordon appears.
This image, though, is based on an account by Bordeini Bey, who had last seen Gordon hours before, and seems highly unlikely. Bordeini stated that Gordon was on the roof terrace in his dressing-gown until first light, when he descended to his room and dressed in his uniform. He then stood outside the door of his office, which was situated at the head of the stone steps leading down to the palace entrance.
A moment later, four dervishes came up the stairs. At least one of them had worked as a servant here previously, and knew the layout of the place. According to some accounts, Gordon demanded, ‘Where is your master, the Mahdi?’ The first man, a tribesman of the Danagla named Taha Shahin, ignored the question and bawled, ‘O cursed one, your day has come!’ He ran his spear into Gordon’s body. Gordon staggered, made a gesture of contempt, and turned his back. Taha stabbed him again, between the shoulder-blades. Gordon collapsed in a gush of blood. Taha’s three companions then came forward and hacked at the body with their swords until he was dead.
It might be better for posterity, perhaps, to leave Gordon standing there at the top of the steps, passively waiting for a martyr’s death. His ADC, Orfali, though, describes a very different passing – one that has Gordon fighting to the bitter end. This story cannot be dismissed, because, unlike Bordeini, Orfali was certainly present in the palace when the dervishes entered it, and his account is rich in the sort of convincing detail the other stories lack.
Orfali relates that within five minutes of Gordon learning that the dervishes had broken into the town, he had organized a defence of the palace. He stationed more than fifty soldiers and servants at windows, at the door on the ground floor, and on the roof terraces. Each man was armed with a Remington and had 120 rounds of ammunition. As the dervish mass streamed into the garden, cascades of fire roared out of the windows and rained down from the roof. About seventy warriors were killed or wounded. They were quickly replaced by their comrades, who ran round the walls and climbed over the vine trellis at the back. ‘They were met with the fire from the windows and terraces,’ recalled Orfali. ‘They came in great numbers, very quickly. Some ran to the entrance, killed the guards, and opened the door. Then they all ran to the [ground floor] door and killed the telegraph clerks.’
Some hared up the stairs on the right and began to slaughter the soldiers on the terrace. Others broke down the door into the upper corridor with axes, only to find Charles Gordon waiting for them with a loaded Webley revolver in one hand, a drawn sword in the other, and a grim look on his face. As they staggered back in surprise, he fired five or six rounds, knocking down two of them. He ran his sword through another, then began to reload his pistol, but at that moment some warriors who had entered from the other end of the corridor smashed through the door behind him. Orfali, standing next to him, rushed to block their way. A spearman stabbed him in the face. Gordon ran to help, but was hit by a hurled spear that glanced off his left shoulder. Ignoring the wound, he opened rapid fire. Orfali, with blood streaming down his face, fired blindly at point-blank range. Three bodies hit the floor, and the rest retreated, several of them losing blood.
Gordon was bleeding slightly from the glancing spear wound. Orfali’s face was covered in blood, but the wound was not as severe as it looked. They retired to Gordon’s room and reloaded their weapons. Gordon’s left hand was already black with powder burns from his rapid firing. A moment later, they heard more dervishes clumping up the stairs, and ran out to meet them. Just as they reached the head of the stairs, a dervish leaned out of an office door and rammed a spear into Gordon’s left shoulder from behind. Orfali chopped at the man’s hand, almost cutting it off. The dervish toppled across the corridor and down the stairs, and was impaled on the spear of one of his comrades coming up. At almost the same moment, a warrior on the top step cut Orfali’s leg with his blade.
More warriors were bounding down the corridor behind them. They were trapped on both sides. Another dervish slashed Orfali’s left hand. Gordon hacked him down with his own blade, and kicked him in the head. A tall black man, skulking in the doorway of one of the rooms, stepped out suddenly and fired at Gordon with a revolver. Gordon staggered, hit in the breast. He brought his own pistol up, and snapped a shot at the big warrior, knocking him flat.
Before he had even fallen, dozens more warriors sprinted up the corridor behind him. Gordon and Orfali blasted off their last rounds, then turned and tried to fight their way downstairs with their swords. They forced their way step by step, fighting shoulder to shoulder, cutting and thrusting, until they reached the bottom. By this time, Gordon had lost so much blood that he could scarcely stand. A last thrust from a spearman took him in the right hip, and he sank down on the mat at the base of the staircase. Orfali tried to back into the Finance Office nearby, but was knocked senseless with a club. He lay there among the corpses until afternoon. When he came round, he saw Gordon’s body lying where it had fallen, covered in blood and flies. His head had been cut off.
Orfali’s account is the most detailed of all the versions of Gordon’s death, but may not be the final word. Another eyewitness, a servant of Giriagis Bey, claimed that Gordon was not killed in the palace at all, but shot in the street while leading a party of soldiers and servants towards Martin Hansall’s house. Yet another eye-witness on the dervish side, a former clerk from el-Obeid named Ibrahim Sabir, claimed that Gordon was shot by a standard-bearer called Mursal Hammuda while standing at the top of the steps. Only when the body had rolled to the ground was it identified as that of Gordon. A chief called Babikr Koko came riding up on a horse, cut off Gordon’s head with his sword, stuffed it in a leather bag, and rode away.
What happened to Gordon’s body is uncertain. Most probably it was simply dropped into the Blue Nile. The river to which he had returned over and over again in his life became his final resting place.
The killing, raping, torture and looting in Khartoum continued until 1700 hours, when the Mahdi ordered it stopped. By that time, as many as ten thousand men, women and children may have been massacred.
Rudolf Carl von Slatin, still in chains at the dervish camp in Omdurman, had been up all night. He knew that something was afoot, but had not been told that the dervish army had advanced. He had just fallen asleep at dawn when he was awoken by the clatter of musketry and the roar of artillery-fire from across the river. He realized that the Mahdi must have launched an offensive. ‘Excited and agitated,’ he wrote, ‘I awaited the result with intense impatience. Soon shouts of rejoicing and victory were heard in the distance, and my guards ran off to find out the news. In a few minutes they were back again, excitedly relating how Khartoum had been taken by storm and was now in the hands of the Mahdists.’
At first he was not inclined to believe them. Crawling out of his tent, though, he saw that the camp was jam-packed with thousands of exultant warriors, most of them gathered before the pavilions of the Mahdi and the Khalifa ‘Abdallahi. Suddenly, Slatin noticed a slave marching directly towards him followed by a crowd of crying people. The slave, one of ‘Abdallahi’s warriors, whom Slatin recognized as a southerner called Shatta, was carrying something wrapped in a bloody cloth. Shatta halted before Slatin and made an insulting gesture. Then he unwrapped the cloth, and showed Slatin the severed head of Charles George Gordon. ‘Is this not the head of your uncle, the unbeliever?’ he leered.
Slatin was staggered. For a moment his heart seemed to stop. Then he recovered his self-control. He studied Gordon’s familiar features, looked the slave in the eye, and said quietly, ‘What of it? A brave soldier, who fell at his post. Happy is he to have fallen. His sufferings are over.’
From Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure by Michael Asher.