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Milton Allimadi's The Hearts of Darkness...(5)

Posted in: Essays/Articles
Sep 17, 2007 - 3:03:42 AM

The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa

Part 5:  The Mahdi Defeats Gen. Charles Gordon Death_of_General_Gordon_at_Khartoum,_by_J.L.G._Ferris

by Milton Allimadi

Mr. Allimadi is CEO and Publisher of The Black Star News. This series originally appeared in the Black Agenda Report.

The death of the Victorian hero, General Charles Gordon at the hands of the Mahdists in the Sudan was one of the most traumatic defeats for the British in Africa, or anywhere else in the world. It has haunted the Western psyche for generations, and accounts for much of the negative and biased coverage of Islam in Western media.

This was because in addition to being an African "savage" the Mahdi embodied the "Islamic peril" to the West; he represented the antithesis of Christian civilization.

For centuries the West had a real and abiding fear of Islam, as Edward Said showed in his book Orientalism (1978).  Islam, according to the West, was a "false religion" and many of the writers referred to the faithful derogatively as "Mohammedans;" in other words, they were followers of Mohammed, a mere mortal, and since Mohammed was regarded as a disseminator of a false revelation, Said wrote, he became "the epitome of lechery, debauchery, sodomy, and a whole battery of asserted treacheries, all of which derived ‘logically' from his doctrinal impostures."

"For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma."

The Europeans had good reason to fear Islam, having been conquered by Muslims at an earlier period. "Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic hordes of hated barbarians," Said wrote.  "For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma. Until the end of the 17th Century the ‘Ottoman Peril' lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of the Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues, and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life."

So one can imagine the national trauma that gripped England when Gordon was cut down by the Mahdi after his army was overrun in the great battle of Khartoum. One of the better and more realistic accounts of the episode is found in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918). Strachey was a freethinking Britisher who did not echo the national adulation for Gordon. He wrote in a sober manner and his accounts are more credible compared to most of the contemporaneous as well as subsequent accounts of the battle.

Gordon had gained wide fame for exploits in China, where he reputedly trained and commanded a force of British and Chinese soldiers who crushed a rebellion led by a charismatic visionary. In return, he gained the nickname "Chinese" Gordon.

He was first invited to Africa in 1874 by Egypt's Khedive Ismail to replace Samuel Baker - the same "Baker of the Nile" who was outwitted by chief Commoro (see Part 3 ) - as governor of Equatoria province in what is now modern Sudan . After two mediocre stints in the region Gordon was sent for a third tour by the British government to help rescue trapped garrisons of Egyptian troops and English commanders in the Sudan. 

In the early 1880s, a Sudanese preacher, Muhammad Ahmed ibn Abdallah, had emerged as a powerful leader and built a vast following throughout Sudan. When the Egyptian governor-general in Khartoum sent an army of 200 to arrest him, they were quickly annihilated. After that victory, Ahmed ibn Abdallah marched to El Obeid, the capital of Kordofan, where he defeated an Egyptian garrison in January 1883.

After a string of victories Ahmed was declared the Mahdi - the last prophet in a succession of 12 holy Imams beginning with the prophet Muhammad.  "The tall, broad-shouldered, majestic man with the dark face and black beard and great eyes," Strachey wrote, "who could doubt that he was the embodiment of a superhuman power?" In contrast with Strachey's sober evaluation, Alan Moorehead, the famous apologist for colonialism and racism, in the White Nile (1960) claimed the Mahdi was a "mad man."

The British were wary about developments in the Sudan because of events in Egypt. In 1881 under the leadership of a nationalist, Col. Ahmed Arabi, Egyptian nationalists who hated the British and French control of the country's finances and the fact that the army was commanded by Turkish officers staged a successful uprising.  The British army intervened brutally and defeated Arabi's followers at the battle of Tel el-kebir.

In the Sudan, the British were stunned when the Mahdists ambushed a 10,000-strong expeditionary force led by a retired English officer, Col. William Hicks. The expeditionary army was no match for the Mahdists and nearly all of them were wiped out, except 300 survivors who managed to escape.

"Gordon began his regime by proclaiming the resumption of the Slave Trade."

There was no question after the destruction of Hicks' army that the British would go after the Mahdi's head. So England's most celebrated general was selected for the mission after weeks of campaigning by British newspapers, including The Pall Mall Gazette. Upon landing in Cairo, on his way to the assignment, Gordon was declared governor-general of the Sudan. He began his regime by proclaiming the resumption of the Slave Trade, hoping that this maneuver would win him the support of wealthy slave dealers and build opposition against the Mahdi. He was denounced by the Anti-Slavery Society.

But instead of defeating the rebels, Gordon and his military secretary colonel Stewart soon found themselves surrounded by the Mahdists forces in Khartoum. The nature of the mission changed very quickly. "The question now," Evelyn Baring, the British Consul General in Cairo, wrote to Lord Granville, the foreign minister, "is how to get General Gordon and Colonel Stewart away from Khartoum."

The Mahdi was content with maintaining a siege of Khartoum, and he confidently urged Gordon to surrender. "For after the beginning of the battle were you to surrender," he warned in a letter to the British general, "it would be from fear, and not willingly, and that will not be accepted."  Gordon responded defiantly, firing off numerous telegraph messages to Baring demanding more British and Indian troops so that he could "smash up the Mahdi."

Trapped in Khartoum with Gordon were also Colonel William Hicks and Frank Power, who became a correspondent for the English newspaper, The Times. Power made surprisingly frank - one could even say "seditious" by the standards of those days - observations in his journals, which were in total contrast to the adulation of British imperialism prevalent in most of the accounts of the era. "I am not ashamed to say I feel the greatest sympathy for the rebels," Power declared, as quoted in We Thundered Out: 200 Years of The Times, 1785-1985 (1985), "and every race that fights against the rule of the Pashas, backsheesm, bribery, robbery, and corruption. It is the system, and not the Mahdi, that has brought about the rebellion. The rebels are in the right, and God and chance seem to be fighting for them. I hope they will hunt down every Egyptian neck and crop out of the Sudan."

On September 10th 1884 Power and Colonel Hicks left Khartoum aboard a steamer in a bid to escape.  When the steamer grounded, the two men were killed.  Some steamers did make it through the Mahdists' tight gantlet along the Nile, surviving the rifle shots from the banks of the river and succeeding in smuggling the trapped general's volumes of notes, later published as the Khartoum Journals. This is Lytton Strachey's evaluation of the book: "A more singular set of state papers was never compiled. Sitting there, in the solitude of his palace, with ruin closing around him, with anxieties in every hand, with doom hanging above his head, he let rush, for hour after hour in an ecstasy of communication, a tireless unburdening of the spirit, where the most trivial incidents of the passing day were mingled pell-mell with philosophical disquisitions, where jests with anger, hopes and terrors, elaborate justifications and cynical confessions, jostled one another in reckless confusion."

The Mahdists finally broke through the British defenses and overran the garrison, killing General Gordon on January 26th 1885. By the time a rescue expedition led by Charles Stewart arrived on January 28th, Khartoum had been razed. So powerful was Gordon's hold on the Victorian imagination that even his death was romanticized. There is the famous painting by G.W. Joy, which shows Gordon standing defiantly on top of a flight of steps, with his left arm crossed at an angle as if he were checking a wristwatch, with a pistol pointing toward the ground in his right hand. The long-robed Mahdists, one holding a spear, are shown creeping toward him, hesitantly, as if awed by the prospect of their prize, this great white general.

This imagery is so illogical that it cannot bear resemblance to reality - it's more convincing to imagine that Gordon either charged into combat and was killed, or that he unsuccessfully pleaded for his life before he was stabbed multiple times. What has never been disputed is the fact that Gordon's head was lobbed off and taken to the Mahdi in Omdurman.

"The queen was in a terrible state about the fall of Khartoum," her private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby wrote in his memoirs (as quoted in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians), "and indeed it had a great deal to do with making her ill." The newspapers throughout Europe and the United States went wild. There was real fear that an Islamic uprising would sweep to Egypt, throughout north Africa and into Europe.

MapNearKhartoum "El Mahdi Triumphant," The New York Times announced in a three-lined heading on February 8th 1885; the second sub-headline read, "The Peril of the British Forces on the Nile," and a final sub-headline declared, "Gen Gordon Believed to Be Dead."

London was reported to be in a panic, with officers volunteering for service in Africa. In Paris, although the French must have privately chortled at the defeat of the British, their colonial rival, they secretly worried that the French colonies of Algeria and Tunisia could be swept by an Islamic tide. The Italian prime minister and the war minister "fully resolved" that their country was ready to join England in concerted action against the Mahdi, according to the article.

"Chinese Gordon Killed," mourned The Times of London on February 11th when the general's death was confirmed; a sub-headline read, "Hero of Khartoum Treacherously Stabbed," (even though he had been killed in warfare), and another sub-headline declared: "His Fate No Longer in Doubt - The Egyptian Soldiers Massacred in the Streets by The Mahdi's Followers."

"There was real fear that an Islamic uprising would sweep to Egypt, throughout north Africa and into Europe."

"The scenes of slaughter are described as surpassing the Bulgarian atrocities and rivaling the worst horrors of the Sepoy mutiny," the Times of London reported, "The panic-stricken Egyptians were captured in their flight and put to death in the most fiendish tortures."

Several decades later, Alan Moorehead, the famous apologist for European colonialism, was still trying to malign the Mahdi in the White Nile, claiming that once he retired to Omdurman to enjoy his victory, "there was an extreme love of sensual pleasure in the Mahdi's character, and once the siege was over he seems to have abandoned to it altogether."  The Mahdi, Moorhead claimed, grew "enormously fat," and in the privacy of his harem, "his concubines attended him as though he were some great, sleek queen-bee in the pulsating center of a hive."

The Mahdists' victory contributed to the fall of Gladstone's government in England. The Mahdi himself died within months of Gordon's defeat. Yet, in September 1898, more than 14 years later, the British remained so bitter about the defeat that when Colonel Herbert Kitchener defeated the Khalifa Abdullah in the Sudan, he desecrated the Mahdi's tomb. His remains were exhumed and tossed into the Nile. Evelyn Baring declined to accept the Mahdi's skull when Kitchener sent it to him as a trophy.

National Geographic Magazine & Africa's Savagery

One of the most preposterous articles published about Africa appeared in the October 1922 issue of The National Geographic magazine, a publication that was very influential in shaping the perception of Africa to Americans.

Founded in 1888 as the publication of The National Geographic Society by a group of investors, geographers, lawyers, bankers and biologists, the magazine's objective was to "further the prosecution of geographic research," and to "diffuse the knowledge so gained, among men, so that we may all know more of the world upon which we live." By the 1950s, the magazine had a subscription base of five million.

The October 1922 article was entitled "Transporting a Navy Through the Jungles of Africa," and was written by a Briton, Frank J. Magee. It was Magee's account of how he and 27 English naval volunteers journeyed from the West Coast of the continent, with African porters, into the interior, to assist Belgians in Belgian Congo who were then fighting German soldiers on Lake Tanganyika in 1915 - Germany then controlled Tanganyika.

Their objective was to reach the river Lualaba with their disassembled boats. From there, the boats would be re-assembled, and the crew would sail to Lake Tanganyika. The concocted article is worth reviewing in some detail because it offers insight into the psyches of the writer, the editors who commissioned the article, and the readers it was intended for.

"And so early in the coolness of an African morning," Magee wrote, recalling the beginning of the journey, "we turned our backs on civilization and all that it meant, to fade away, but for a short time, we hoped, into the heart of the African bush."

The writer portrayed the traditional rulers encountered along the way with the same type of contempt displayed by the authors of the 19th Century explorers' journals - not surprising since he was trying to emulate them.

"One old chief, I remember, was attired in an old British militia tunic and a pair of spats, his crowning glory being an opera hat and a pink sunshade," Magee wrote. "I was aware that a big business in out-of-date uniforms is carried on between traders and these tribes, but the origin of the spats and the sunshade puzzled me somewhat until I remembered we were in the land of reputed cannibals." 

According to Magee, when he and his colleagues ignited the engine to start up the bulldozers for clearing a path, all the "natives" fled into the bush, thinking it was some kind of monster that had come to devour them. Along the way, the "natives" happily sang Christian hymns while carrying loads that weighed more than 50 pounds. "They had memorized the tune and words, but they had no actual comprehension of the meaning," Magee explained. "Imagine therefore, a crowd of natives on the march, each carrying a load of some 60 pounds on his head, with a prospect of a 30-mile trek under a blazing sun, singing such a hymn as ‘Now the Laborer's Task Is O'er.'"

"They came bounding down from the trees and the hill-tops, falling over each other in their hurry to pay homage to the new Great White Chief."

On September 28th, 1915, the expedition reached the Lualaba river and after transporting their vessels "The Mimi" and "The Tou-Tou" by railhead, it sailed the rest of the 350-mile distance along the river, shooting crocodile and hippos along the way, as all brave adventurers can be expected to do. When they reached their destination, they were welcomed by Belgian troops and they all started constructing a harbor using blasted stones. By the time Christmas arrived, all their vessels were afloat - so the team waited patiently for the German enemy.

Suddenly one day, according to Magee's account, a German vessel appeared with guns ablaze and the battle commenced.  By the time the smoke cleared, the German vessel, the Kingani, was immobilized and three German marines killed. Three Africans were missing, while the British suffered no losses, Magee reported.

When the German vessel was escorted to the shore, flying the white flag of surrender, the "natives" erupted in wild celebration of the British victory, Magee claimed. "They came bounding down from the trees and the hill-tops, giving vent to loud whoops of delight and gesticulating wildly, simply falling over each other in their hurry to reach the beach in order to pay their homage to the new Great White Chief, our commander," he wrote. Magee then followed up with a scene that he plagiarized from Joseph Conrad's Hearts of Darkness: "There they assembled in thousands, arrayed in their brightest pigments and grandiest loin-clothes, a jigging, jogging, frenzied mass of black humanity - a sight not to be forgotten."

Once the British commander landed ashore, Magee claimed, "The natives, with grunts of satisfaction and approval, threw themselves flat on the ground and trickled sand on their hair - a sign of respectful homage - as the commander passed among them. The native women flocked around in an effort to be seen by him, regarding this as a fetish which would protect them from evil spirits." In contrast to the "natives" barbaric form of celebration, the Europeans, Magee wrote, "expressed their joy in the usual demonstrative Continental fashion of embracing and kissing each other and by singing of their national anthem."

The dead Germans were then buried with "full military honors" after which, according to Magee, "specially chosen native troops were put on guard over the graves" around-the-clock.  "The significance of this," he explained, "lies in the fact that a large majority of the Belgian native troops were recruited from tribes addicted to cannibalism and some of them might have felt tempted to take the opportunity of indulging in their horrible custom if precautions had not been taken to prevent it."

The natives, Magee claimed, were so impressed by the victory over the Germans that they molded the likeness of the British commander, Spicer Simson, in clay and started worshipping him as their new "ju ju." Magee explained: "This was very well for Commander Spicer Simson, but it must have proved rather disconcerting to the Belgian White Fathers of the native mission - who had spent years and years in an effort to open the native mind to Christian teachings to find their black folk suddenly turning to a new ju ju in the form of a British naval commander in clay."

This psychotic writer saved his best concoction for the last part of his fairy tale. The Belgians had decided to test a Marconi wireless equipment at the precise moment that they were also test-flying a newly assembled plane. "Picture, therefore, the amazement of the superstitious negroes," Magee wrote, "when, shortly after the wireless had begun sending testing messages, with the rasping, crackling of electrical sparks, lo and behold came the answer to their prayer to Heaven, as the natives thought, in the form of a low droning, gradually getting louder."

He continued, "Suddenly, the seaplane shot into view out of the sky, describing circles and going through sundry evolutions over the camp. The natives stood spellbound, gaping upward with arms extended, eyes bulging, and mouths agape. The airmen then made a sudden dive downward and that broke the spell. The savages bounded off into the bush, terror lending wings to their progress. Mothers snatched up pickaninies and dived for the shelter of their kraals, shrieking at the top of their voices, it was real pandemonium."

The National Geographic even published an obviously staged photograph of the terrified "natives," showing seven Africans kneeling on the ground, gazing up at the sky with arms upraised, and with the following caption: "Spell-bound, gazing upward with their arms extended, eyes bulging, and mouth agape, the awe-stricken natives first believed the aero plane a new kind of monster swooping down from the sky to destroy them." Who can blame any African, reading these lines today, for wishing that many Europeans like Magee had been consumed by the alleged cannibals they encountered?

Mussolini's ‘Civilizing' Mission in Ethiopia

MussoliniBigHatEuropeans did not mind killing millions of Africans, or fellow whites for that matter. However, in order to maintain the worldwide myth of white superiority - which was essential to enable them to dominate the non-white races - it was paramount that Africans not see them fighting amongst themselves.

After British and French colonial armies clashed with Germans in Africa, a New York Times article published on March 20th, 1915 under the headline "African War A Blot," reported that the Duke of Mecklenburg, who was the president of the German Colonial Society, had complained bitterly in a letter. According to the good Duke, "The actions of the British and French are destroying the civilizing work of Europeans in Africa and that this procedure constitutes a ‘mockery of the law of nations and definite international agreements.'"

"Before the eyes of natives, white men, with the aid of blacks, now engage in the slaughter of white men," the Duke protested, in his letter, "The effect of that unhappy racial encounter can be only fatal to the future colonizing work of every European nation in Africa."

The Duke also complained in his letter that the French had transported German captives from Togo and Cameroon to French Dahomey, making them walk 300 miles in the process. The Germans were forced to suffer further indignity during the journey. According to the Duke, the white captives were "compelled to do manual work under the supervision of black men."

After Germany's defeat in the War there was a scramble to divide up her colonial possessions in Africa, and as always the Europeans knew what was in the best interest of the Africans. A New York Times article published on December 7th, 1918 under the headline, "Says Colonies Favor Britain," revealed that Walter Hume Long, the British Secretary of State for Colonies had told Parliament that the "Natives of Germany's colonies want to come under British rule." The honorable Secretary never explained how he arrived at this conclusion without the benefit of a survey or referendum that might have solicited the opinion of those natives.

"It will be a great injustice to our great dominions," Hume is quoted as telling Parliament, "to tell them that the colonies, which, in a large measure, they conquered by their blood and valor, are to pass under the control of anybody but the empire to which they belong." Perhaps it had never occurred to Hume; was it not plausible that the "natives" might have preferred to govern themselves?

During the 1930s, Italy was once again contemplating the conquest of Ethiopia. An article published in The New York Times on December 23rd, 1934, under the headline "Abyssinia Encircled by Covetous Powers," reported that Italy wanted to control Ethiopia before Germany and Japan. All these countries, the Times explained, coveted the "vast potential sales to Abyssinia's millions" the "quantities of the cheap gimcracks which so fascinate semi-civilized populations."

"The Times attempted to re-write history, to make it appear as if the Italians had not been fairly defeated."

The Italians remembered their annihilation at the hands of Menelik's army in SelassieWsoldiersGOOD 1896, as the Times article recalled. Here's how the newspaper characterized that Italian defeat: "There was a fast and fierce clash, the battle of Adowa, in which a quarter of a million savage black warriors, equipped mainly with spear and shield, slaughtered nearly 40,000 Italians practically in their tracks and in spite of the Italian rifles and artillery." Here, almost 40 years later, there is an attempt to re-write history, to make it appear as if the Italians had not been fairly defeated, and had been merely overwhelmed by superior numbers. The writer never bothered to consult the Times' own archives to learn how his predecessors had documented Ethiopia's great victory. In fact, Menelik's army had numbered about 70,000, not the 250,000 the Times now claimed.

"The insult of defeat has rankled in the breasts of Italian militarists these many decades," the Times article explained, "Fully as strongly as burned the Ethiopian conviction that, having once beaten Europe at her game of war, Abyssinia could do so again." The article cautioned Europeans and Americans not to underestimate the psychology of the Ethiopian, particularly the "true Abyssinian" who was Amharic and "considers himself vastly superior to a white man."

But Il Duce wanted to avenge Italy's humiliating loss and nothing would stop him from invading Ethiopia, not even a desperate appeal to the League of Nations by Emperor Haile Selassie, and an Op-Ed article he published in The New York Times on July 14th, 1935 to rally international diplomatic support. The emperor vowed that he would resist any Italian aggression and criticized Mussolini for not submitting the disputes between the two countries to a neutral arbiter. Selassie was to discover, bitterly, that the "collective world security" espoused by the League of Nations did not apply to natives.

On May 5th, 1936, Selassie was forced to flee as 30,000 Italian troops, backed by 1,000 trucks, abundant supplies of mustard gas, which the Italians used liberally, and with 50 planes flying overhead, swept into Addis Ababa. The emperor set up a government in exile in London while Ethiopians continued guerrilla warfare against the Italians.

The New York Times account of the conquest was written by Herbert L. Matthews, who had traveled with the Italian convoys. The headline of a May 6th, 1936 Times article read like a press release from the Italian military: "Ethiopia is Italian, Says Mussolini as His Troops Occupy Addis Ababa."  A second sub-heading read, "Raises Italian Tricolor," and a third stated, "Finds Miserable Scene."

SelassieStanding "Ethiopia's era of independence, which had lasted since biblical times, ended at 4 o'clock this afternoon when the Italians occupied Addis Ababa," Matthews wrote. "This account is being written in the automobile in which this correspondent came to Addis Ababa from Dessye with Marshall Pietro Badoglio."

Marshall Badoglio, the Italian commander, fired barbs at the departing emperor, and Matthews was evidently happy to take dictation for him. "The Negus, following his great victories, has been obliged to flee from his capital," Badoglio told Matthews, sarcastically referring to Selassie by his title, which meant "king of kings" in Amharic, "We, following the defeats we received, have arrived here.

"You have seen the welcome the populations have given us along the road," Marshall Badoglio continued, and the obliging Matthews wrote, without bothering to get a quote from a single native, "They feel themselves freed of the heaviest yoke. Now begins the labor for us, as arduous as that of the war we won, to give civilization and progress through peace and tranquility to these people for all."

The brutal occupation was punctuated by a New York Times article published on May 10th, 1936 under the headline "Conquest of Africa Completed" and under the byline of P.W. Wilson. The Italian victory, the article reported, completed "four centuries of a territorial transition that now embraces the whole of the once-Dark continent of Africa with its 12,000,000 square miles and about 150,000,000 inhabitants." With the "comparatively unimportant exception of Liberia, a Negro republic on the Atlantic seaboard," the article added. "The evaluation of Africa as a white man's empire is subject to emotional factors and especially pride of possession..."

© Milton G. Allimadi

Part 1:  How Europeans Created the Racist Image of Africa

Part 2:  Blackness as Bestiality

Part 3:  A European Meets a 'Savage' Intellectual

Part 4:  The New York Times as Apartheid's Apologists

Part 5:  The Mahdi Defeats Gen. Charles Gordon

Part 6:  Viewing Africa Through Western Writings

Part 7:  Time Magazine Denigrates Congo Nationalism

Part 8:  Why Africans Are Not Tribesmen


The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist image of Africa

Published by The Black Star Publishing Co.
P.O. Box 64
New York, N.Y., 10025

To order the book call (212) 481-7745 or visit  The Hearts of Darkness


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