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.