Review: Three Empires on the Nile: Egypt 1869-1899, Dominic Green

Colonial encounters fascinate me. Sometimes I think that I will abandon all my other reading and devote myself only to colonial fiction and nonfiction. In general, I like colonial encounters by colonizing country in this exact order from best to worst: British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, Italian, German, Spanish, American. I have a particular sneaky fondness for novels from the olden days where stalwart British protagonists go abroad and have stiff upper lips and unyielding codes of hono(u)r. Please don’t judge me.

Three Empires on the Nile had a lot of players and a lot of new words and terms for various groups of players. I discovered, belatedly, that there was a glossary in back explaining the words, but it was just impossible for my poor little brain to remember all the characters. I couldn’t remember who was in charge of what: British government, British army, British government in Egypt, British government in Sudan, Sudanese armies, Sudanese slavers, Sudanese rebels, Turkish rulers, Turkish armies, Egyptian armies, Egyptian government. As long as we stuck with one set of characters for an extended period, I was okay, but if we left behind, say, the Turkish financial adviser, and then came back to him twenty pages later, I had utterly forgotten his name and why I cared about his activities. If I had had a journal to write down everyone’s name, or better yet, a glossary of characters in the back of the book, that would have helped a lot.

With that caveat, the stuff I did manage to follow was fascinating. It was the same old story of British colonialism: They wanted to carry on with their trade activities in Egypt, they didn’t want it to be governed by any other European country, and so, griping and grumbling and calling each other “the Honourable Gentleman” when really they wanted to hit each other very hard in the face, they took over Egypt and then, even more grumpily, the Sudan. The process was gradual and complicated and full of diplomatic tap-dancing around Turkey and France and Belgium and Egypt.

I also learned that the story of the gallant Gordon is quite as exciting as rumors of Gordon’s gallantry make it sound. Do you know about it? I will tell you. Well, once upon a time, England really didn’t want to be in charge of the Sudan, because it was a hot mess there (ha, literally), and moreover the Mahdi was carrying on a religious revolution. The people in charge of Britain asked the gallant Gordon, whose professional and personal reputation was very good, to pop down to the Sudan and evacuate the Egyptians who were stationed there, so that they would not get smashed up by the Mahdi and his crusaders. AND THEN COME STRAIGHT HOME (they told Gordon).

Instead of coming straight home, however, Gordon started trying to sort out a new government for the Sudan, so that the Mahdi could be quashed and would not come into Egypt and take over Egypt. He wanted to Stop the Mahdi and believed he could convince the British government to help him do it; and he became convinced that leaving Khartoum would be ungentlemanly because (he thought) then what would happen to the poor Sudanese people who got left behind? He felt responsible. So rather than evacuating Khartoum in a timely manner and then going straight home, he stuck around and fortified it for a siege, all the while sending letters back to England asking them please to send more troops as he had already promised everyone that more troops were coming. Then the Mahdi surrounded Khartoum and nobody could get out.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Prime Minister, Gladstone, did not want to send any more troops, and he did not like the gallant Gordon anyway. He said “Well really, shouldn’t he be able to get home if he wants to, and can we afford to send troops to reinforce him?” And Gordon sent more and more telegrams to say, “Hello hello, I am still here in Khartoum but now I properly cannot get home, we can survive for another few months but then we will start starving to death.” Gladstone still didn’t want to send reinforcements, so he posted Gordon a letter asking him to explain the situation in more precise detail, and that took several months to arrive. Meanwhile the Mahdi’s troops carried on beseiging Khartoum, and the Mahdi kept sending Gordon letters to say, “We know that no back-up is coming. I promise we won’t kill you if you will just surrender and convert to Islam,” but Gordon did not feel this was an act for a British gentleman and a Christian. And everyone in Khartoum was like, “Dude, you said British troops were coming,” and Gordon was like, “…I really thought they were.”

But they did not. All the people at Khartoum who did not give up and surrender to the Mahdi got killed, including of course Gordon. And yes, I know that Gordon was a nasty colonialist, but still, when I was reading the book I couldn’t help feeling terribly tense and hoping that Gladstone would give in and send reinforcements and save Gordon and the people at Khartoum. So I am not surprised that everyone in England was extremely cross with Gladstone for leaving all his fellow countrymen, not to speak of the Sudanese and Egyptians still in Khartoum, to die. They sent Gladstone loads of hate mail, which stressed him out so much he got diarrhea and couldn’t go in to work.

That story is the main thing that stuck in my brain from this book, because it is the event for which my brain had a small network of association. Everything else fell out like a sieve two seconds after I had turned the page, and that is why this is not a proper review but really just an excuse to tell you the story of Gordon at Khartoum. I’m still interested in Egypt and Britain, though, so if anyone knows of any good nonfiction books that deal with this subject, I would appreciate the recommendations.

If anyone else out there (*hem* Anastasia *hem*) shares my love of trashy adventure novels a la The Prisoner of Zenda, I just want to report that this book told me about an author called G.A. Henty who churned out novels by the dozens, all about daring British youths having adventures. They are called things like By Right of Conquest and When London Burned and With Clive in India, and look, I truly don’t know why this is, but if there is one thing I absolutely cannot resist, it’s British imperialist propaganda in the form of adventure novels.

19 thoughts on “Review: Three Empires on the Nile: Egypt 1869-1899, Dominic Green

  1. LOOK. I am already HEAVILY bogged down by a bunch of British imperialistic propaganda in the form of travel narratives that I have yet to read and I WILL NOT be tempted by more adventure novels to add on top of that!

    Oh– ALRIGHT. Yes I will. “When London Burned” has a great title! Much more exciting than “Adrift on an Ice-Pan,” although I suspect that the latter has arctic qualities to it that might be interesting. Did you know there’s a whole section on ManyBooks dedicated to adventure novels?

    Also I think I have a modern trashy adventure novel called Khartoum somewhere in my room. I THINK I do. Or maybe I just dreamed I have it. Anyway, this review is massive and I haven’t read all of it yet because my eyes are closing, but I’ll come back here in the a.m. and comment properly on it. 😀

    • Bahahahaha, I knew you would not be able to resist. There is something about those books that cannot be resisted. And no, I did not know about this adventure novels page! I have to investigate! This is going to be terrible for my reading list.

  2. Colonial encounters are very high on my list of interesting topics to read about as well! I find it fascinating that there’s no mention of Dutch colonialism in your post. Not that I blame you, it is probably not the most interesting colonial experience, but it is something that keeps me occupied in my daily studies. I am not sure if there is even a lot written about it (in fiction, anyway). The Dutch like to ignore their colonial history, much as the Belgians do. If you want to read a classic though, you might want to add “Max Havelaar” by Multatuli to your list. I have not read it yet (most have to read it in high school), but I plan to read it sometime in the upcoming year. A lot of people say it is extremely boring, but I am never sure if that isn’t because a lot of people find classics boring..

    • Damn! I suck! I knew there was a major colonizer I was forgetting about. It’s just because the book I was just reading didn’t have any Dutch people in it. Bother. I’m not uninterested in Dutch colonialism. I just forgot about it. *facepalm*

  3. Oh! I’m glad you talked about this, since I had it out from the library earlier and didn’t get to it. I had to do a paper in college on Egypt, Sudan, and their history, so I think I have enough of a background to like it. Anyway, I want to give it a go.

    Also, I am fascinated by colonial encounters too. I know it’s fiction and you asked for nonfiction, but I HIGHLY recommend getting your hands on Season of Migration to the North (my post on it).

    • One of my projects at work is dealing with Egypt and the Sudan, and that’s what piqued my interest in this book. I really wanted to get a recently-published book all about Gordon and the Mahdi, but the library’s only copy is non-circulating. I don’t understand why, the book was published in 2004, it’s not like it’s old and rare. Hrmph.

      I want to read Season of Migration to the North! I think I probably put it on my book list after you reviewed it, but yeah, it’s definitely on my radar.

  4. Ooh, how interesting! It’s interesting (and terrifying) how people can bumble into creating empires, isn’t it? My goodness.

    Have fun with the Book Snob tomorrow! What a fun encounter that will be 🙂

    • “Bumble into creating empires” is a perfect description of it. All the while people in Britain screaming and carrying on about how wicked it would be to take over the countries in question. It’s fascinating.

  5. The story was great. I know what you mean about the mind being a sieve. I felt myself utterly lacking in knowledge of Middle Eastern history so I read a book last year called, basically, History of the Middle East, and it was informative, if a bit dry and in need of more anecdotes. Of all the history thrown at me in the book, the parts of the history that were already quasi-familiar to me stuck in my brain, while the rest seems to have eventually slid off.

    • I feel like I’m embarking on a phase of reading all about the Middle East. It is a fascinating region of the world, and every country has its own particularly intriguing history. I know a bit about Iran, and now I know a bit about Egypt, but in the grand scheme of things, almost nothing. It makes me feel sad for myself. ;p

  6. I have not read many of these types of books, but I do have one on my shelf waiting for me. And your story about the gallant Gordon was just fascinating to me, and a reason why I will probably go out and buy this book. I will probably have a hard time with it, but I am not deterred in the slightest after having read this review. Thanks for another wonderful and funny review!

    • I should warn you, the Gordon story only takes up a relatively small section of the book. There’s a lot of stuff about the rulers of Egypt and Turkey and the Sudan, which I didn’t retain because of my shocking ignorance. Might be better to check this one out from the library first, and see what you think.

  7. When I was little people used to read G.A. Henty – I’ve read Under Drake’s Flag myself, and was wondering whether to try some others. There’s lots of British grit and stiff-upper-lip in them. How do you feel about John Buchan and Rider Haggard?

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