The weeping general

2011-05-19 00:00

MAJOR General Charles Gordon is better known to history as Gordon of Khartoum, but for a brief moment in 1882 he might have been dubbed Gordon of Kokstad. Gordon’s short visit to Kokstad — three days in all — has been overshadowed by the fate that would meet him three years later in the Sudan.

According to one account, when Gordon arrived in Kokstad on July 1, 1882 “he went to the Royal Hotel, ordered a room, threw open the window, and spent two hours in prayer and meditation”. That might sound like unusual behaviour for a general but then Gordon was no ordinary general.

Although not formally affiliated to any specific church, Gordon was a devout evangelical Christian. He wrote and distributed religious tracts, and he founded a home and school for orphan boys. Some of his biographers seem unsure as to whether he was really a soldier, a saint or a maverick misfit. Nor was he a typical imperialist, frequently voicing views and proffering advice, asked for or not, directly opposed to British policy.

Born into a military family in 1833, he made his reputation in the 1860s leading a Chinese imperial force during the Taiping rebellion, thus earning himself the nickname “Chinese” Gordon. During the 1870s he suppressed the slave trade in the Sudan.

In 1882, Gordon was invited by the Cape Colony to bring the Basuto Gun War to a conclusion and to administer Basutoland. Following the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 there had been a move to disarm all Africans. The Basutos in their mountain kingdom objected on the basis that they had bought their guns legally with money earned working on the Kimberley diamond mines. While Paramount Chief Letsie ordered his people to comply, his half-brother Masupha defied the order.

Above: All that remains of the Royal Hotel in Kokstad where Major General Chalres Gordon stayed in 1882. It was demolished to make way for a shopping mall. (Photo: Andile Moshoeshoe/Fever Publications/Media24)

Shortly after his arrival Gordon produced a memorandum on the situation criticising the British government for handing over control to the Cape and the colony for not allowing Basuto representation in the colonial parliament. Gordon’s solution was to steer Basutoland towards self-government. The authorities decided Gordon was best kept away from Basutoland and offered him the post of Commandant General of the Colonial Forces. On May 19 he left Cape Town for his new headquarters in King William’s Town.

There he met Colonel E. Y. Brabant who recalled his “sensation of surprise and almost of disappointment” on meeting Gordon. “His appearance was not such as to give you the impression of his being the great soldier he really was. Of small stature and somewhat shabbily dressed …” But it was not long before Brabant was convinced Gordon “was a great military genius. He was, it is true, very eccentric, even to the point of making one doubt his absolute sanity, but on questions of military or civil administration with which he was at that time concerned, he was as sane and sound as any living person.”

Gordon habitually reviewed troops wearing a top hat and old frock coat, further insisting his military secretary Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Homon-Folliott not call him “Sir”, fining him a shilling if he did. Gordon also wrote down the names of those he encountered during the course of the day in order to pray for them.

From King William’s Town, Gordon went on a tour of inspection of the various garrisions in the Cape, the Transkei and Griqualand East. When Gordon neared Kokstad a detachment of the Cape Mounted Rifles (CMR) stationed in the town rode out to escort him into town. As already noted, courtesy of a letter written by Reverend Forbes Robinson, Gordon booked into the Royal Hotel and immediately immersed himself in prayer. “The next day was Sunday,” writes Robinson, and Gordon asked Reverend Frederick John Adkin, rector of Kokstad, what was being done for the 1 000 CMR then stationed there. “When he learnt that nothing was being done for their spiritual food, he burst into tears. On Monday morning the first telegram which he sent off to the Cape government was a request that a chaplain should be appointed. Adkin was appointed and remained chaplain until the force was disbanded.”

According to S. J. Halford in The Griquas of Griquland, on the day of Gordon’s departure from Kokstad an escort of “about 20 paraded outside the hotel in the morning. General Gordon came out to inspect the men. He asked the officer in charge, Captain Waring, if the men had had breakfast and he was told that they had not. The general then said he did not require an escort, climbed into the wagon, and amid the cheers of troops and civilians, left Kokstad for Umtata.”

Gordon’s own views on the troops under his command were hardly cheering. He found them idle, incompetent and insurbordinate, but his plan to reorganise them was turned down. Meanwhile, his opinions on Basutoland were politely ignored. Frustrated on all fronts, Gordon threatened to resign but was persuaded to remain, and in September 1882 he was given permission to go to Basutoland with J. W. Sauer, secretary for Native Affairs.

Gordon saw himself on a peace mission. It turned into a fiasco. Gordon visited Masupha at his stronghold on Thaba Bosiu. While Gordon was busy talking peace, news arrived of a force organised by Chief Letsie that was about to attack. Gordon found himself both compromised and at risk. Fortunately, Masupha believed his denials of complicity and he was allowed to go in safety. Gordon blamed Sauer for the affair and refused to share a train compartment with him on the return to Cape Town. Mutual recriminations followed in both private and public, with the result that on October 14, 1882, according to biographer John H. Waller, “a thoroughly disillusioned and angry Gordon sailed for England”.

Although the mission proved a near farce there was one incident indicative of Gordon’s complex character. At Morija, outpost of the Paris-based Evangelical Missionary Society, the Reverend Adolphe Mabille persuaded Gordon to address a Sunday school class. As Gordon stood to address them he froze and then ran from the room. Mabille found him seated head in hands outside and persuaded him to return. Gordon later wrote: “When I looked into the faces of those dear black lambs of the Saviour and recalled that all the black race has suffered from our hands, I could not go on.”

In 1884, Gordon returned to Africa, acceding to the British government’s request to go to Khartoum to evacuate Egyptian soldiers, civilians and their families threatened by the forces of Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi that had overun most of the Sudan. Gordon had evacuated 2 500 when the Mahdi’s forces closed in. After a protracted siege Khartoum fell and Gordon was killed on January 26, 1885, two days before his 52nd birthday and two days before the arrival of a relief force.

A year earlier the Cape had relinquished control of Basutoland to be ruled instead by Britain directly, just as Gordon had recommended. Consequently, as another of Gordon’s biographers, John Pollock noted, what became Lesotho “thus escaped the apartheid of the next century and in due time became independent”.

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