Skip to content Skip to navigation


You are here: Home » Content » Getting the Whole Story From "The Egyptian Red Book": General Charles Gordon in Khartoum



What is a lens?

Definition of a lens


A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

Tags are descriptors added by lens makers to help label content, attaching a vocabulary that is meaningful in the context of the lens.

This content is ...

Endorsed by Endorsed (What does "Endorsed by" mean?)

This content has been endorsed by the organizations listed. Click each link for a list of all content endorsed by the organization.

Recently Viewed

This feature requires Javascript to be enabled.

Getting the Whole Story From "The Egyptian Red Book": General Charles Gordon in Khartoum

Module by: David Getman, Paula Sanders. E-mail the authors

Summary: In this module, we unravel the story contained in "The Egyptian Red Book," which uses cartoons and quotations from authorities to criticize the British government's handling of General Charles Gordon while under siege in Khartoum in 1884-1885. We discuss research methods used by historians, including examining the original source for key details; identifying significant words to use in catalog and index searches; using newspapers, political papers, and other primary source materials; and comparing multiple sources to get the fullest understanding of events.

The Story

The Egyptian Red Book, which is collected in the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA), serves as a kind of supplement to the sad story of the demise of General Charles Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan in 1885. The "Red Book" brings together satirical cartoons with a chronological presentation of quotations--primarily from debates in the British Parliament, but also articles from newspapers, letters and dispatches from the field and other related materials. The work is in effect a case against Britain's Gladstone Government, which, in the opinion of the authors, failed to provide Gordon with adequate support in the task he was sent to perform as military officer in Sudan.* In this module, we will explore how to uncover the full story behind seemingly mysterious document. Before we begin with our analysis of some divergent accounts of these historical events, we would like to provide you with the basic story so that our discussion of how to perform historical research will make more sense.


*We would like to note here that our spelling of Sudan differs from that used by the publishers of the Egyptian Red Book. Their use of "Soudan" seems to have been derived from the nineteenth-century French spelling of the word.
Figure 1: CIA, "The Sudan." 2000. From the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.

Historical Background

In the 1820's, Egyptian and British forces invaded Sudan, the African region lying just south of Egypt, designating it a subject state of Egypt. By the mid-nineteennth- century, the British interest in Sudan had increased markedly due to its strategic location for their trade routes to India and the threat of a growing French influence in Africa. The combination of increasing Egyptian and European control over Sudan sparked the emergence in 1882 of a man known as the Mahdi, meaning "the expected one" in local tradition. The Mahdi, a man named Mohammad Ahmed, was expected to liberate the Islamic world from the oppression of foreign occupation. Ahmed called upon all of the true believers of Islam to stand up and resist foreign oppression, who then rose up and engaged the local authorities throughout the region. Although the British had not officially colonized Egypt or taken possession of the region, they were in occupation of it and all but controlled the Egyptian government at this time. Bloody battles ensued and the Mahdi was victorious against both the British and Egyptian armies sent to defeat him. In light of their failures, British and Egyptian officials decided to abandon the region and evacuate the remaining civilians living there. In January of 1884, General Gordon was assigned this task and sent to the city of Khartoum for the purpose of facilitating the evacuation of some fifteen-thousand Egyptians and Europeans remaining in, but wishing to leave, the region of Sudan.

Upon his arrival in Khartoum in January of 1884, General Gordon took upon himself the additional duty of attempting to establish a stable government in Sudan rather than simply rounding up the evacuees and departing, apparently counter to his military orders. Unable to establish a such stability or to convince the Mahdi to accept a position of administrative power, General Gordon was faced with the choice of defending his position at Khartoum or surrendering the city entirely to the Mahdi. Gordon chose to fight it out. The Mahdists began the siege on Khartoum in early March of 1884; it ended in January of 1885.

As the siege continued through the spring, Gordon regularly notified his Government of his situation and his needs. Gordon wrote that with a few thousand troops the Mahdi could be easily crushed, but no troops were sent. The General maintained his defensive position at Khartoum through the summer and fall, receiving supplies by steam ships sent down the Nile fro Egypt. It is believed that public opinion in Sudan began to sway toward sympathy with the Mahdi over the many months of the siege. Gordon repeatedly wrote that he feared the treason of those he had been protecting from the Mahdi as much as the man himself. In the end it was from the inside that the gates of the city were opened to the Mahdi in January of 1885, only a few days before the long-awaited arrival of the regiment of relief finally sent by the British Government to save Gordon. The British troops were greeted at the gates of Khartoum by the declaration of the Mahdi's victory: the head of their General hoisted upon a pike at the city's gates. Some in Britain viewed Gordon as a marty; others contended that he disobeyed superiors and brought his fate on himself in the vain quest for glory.


It is never possible to know everything about any historical event, no matter how extensive your research . However, it is possible to develop a balanced perspective on those events if we are thorough in gathering our information and use a variety of reliable sources. In this module we will attempt to recreate the story represented in the "Egyptian Red Book," that of General Gordon and his trials in the Sudan. We will demonstrate how to use different types of resources available at the typical academic library (as an example, we will use Rice University's Fondren Library). We will examine primary source materials--original documents such as letters, government reports, newspaper articles, books, videos, recordings and other sources that reveal how observers viewed an event. We will also look at secondary sources, accounts by people who were not first-hand witnesses to events, but which describe and analyze events based on primary source materials and other secondary works. By analyzing a range of sources, we hope to gain a perspective on the political views represented by our work and how they relate to the actual historical events they represent, and to come to a more complete, objective understanding of the events depicted in the "Red Book." We will use the following process:

  • Examine the original source. Our first step will be to gather enough information from our primary source, the digitized copy of the original Egyptian Red Book, to provide a basis for our research.
  • Search for a variety of sources. To get a sense of the research landscape, we will gather information about the primary characters by searching the library catalog for resources that present different sides of the story.
  • Compare primary source materials. Once we have a practical understanding of the people, places and events in the work, we will be able to compare contemporary perspectives on them. At this point we will peruse primary sources in addition to "The Egyptian Red Book," such as parliamentary debates, newspaper articles, dispatches and letters.

Excavating the Story from the Red Book

Our first cartoon, entitled "The Egyptian Puzzle," makes a bold statement and provides a few clues for us.

Figure 2 (redcar1.jpg)
The interspersed text in the cartoon reads "The too late Govt. in Egypt." There are words scattered throughout, such as "war, GOM, Sec. for Foreign Affairs, Mahdi, the Nile," among others. The design of the cartoon references hieroglyphics, thus satirically locating the scene of the conflict in Egypt.

The preface elaborates the meaning of these terms a bit.

Figure 3: PREFACE
Figure 3 (redcar2.jpg)
“I CONSIDER that every moment's delay in preparing an expedition diminishes Gordon's chances of escape. I think that the Government will ultimately, but too late, send a relieving force, not because Mr Gladstone wishes it, but because public indignation will compel him, nolens volens, to do so; and, little as the Prime Minister may value Gordon, the Prime Minister cares a great deal for Mr Gladstone. The danger to Gordon is owing to the dawdling policy of the Government, which never carries out to-day what it can put off till to-morrow. The more pressure is brought to bear upon Mr Gladstone to compel him at once to commence preparations for an expedition, the better chance for Gordon's life. Every day wasted is one more nail in the coffin of himself and garrison.” (The late COLONEL FRED. BURNABY, 16th May 1884.) This quotation sets up the basic situation. It appears that the "Liberal Government," in relation to its "Egyptian policy," may be "too late" to save "Gordon" from deadly danger. A "Mr. Gladstone" appears to have some sort of leadership role in the Government, one favored by the "Prime Minister" over the needs of Gordon, who is in possession of a "garrison," indicating his affiliation with the military. The "16th May 1884" is an active date in this story, the date this letter was written by the now "late Colonel Fred. Burnaby," but a date at which time the Government was not yet "too late."

If the first cartoon in our work represents the Liberal government as "too late," then we may assume that Gordon met a sad fate. Our story would appear to center on Gordon and his adventures in Egypt. But we don't know Gordon's first name, and it's not immediately clear what this pamphlet is all about. The essential terms for a search for materials on this subject will be "Gordon" and "Egypt". Let's take a look at what the library catalog can locate with these terms alone.

Searching the Library Catalog

When you begin a research project, the library catalog is often the first place to turn. (Other key tools include periodical indexes, which index the contents of journals and newspapers, and reference tools such as dictionaries and encyclopedias.) We will use Fondren Library's WebCat, but a similar process will work for other library catalogs. For a more in-depth tutorial, visit our WebCat module.

Once you pull up the basic search page for the catalog, enter "gordon" and "egypt" into the text box, check the keyword option and select "Search Everything." You will find several entries; one in particular seems very promising.

Figure 4: "Gordon at Khartoum"
Figure 4 (redcar3.jpg)

We find several relevant terms here, including "English occupation of Egypt." Select the view option to see the entire entry. Scroll down a bit and you will find a very helpful link to a subject heading that seems to describe Gordon.

Figure 5: Personal subject: Gordon, Charles George, 1833-1885.
Figure 5 (redcar4.jpg)
Given our hunch that Britain was "too late" to save Gordon, it would make sense that he died in 1885. If this is our man, this link should bring up other books about him. Select this link and let's take a look at the options it presents.

Among the entries we find the terms Mahdi, Egypt, Eminent Victorians (Gordon's death took place during the Victorian period in Britain), and great deaths, among other related terms. Although we cannot absolutely guarantee that this is the Gordon referred to in our work, it certainly seems to be a promising avenue for further research.

It should be noted that building a bibliography is usually not as simple as entering two terms into a subject search. The point we would like to make here is that carefully considering the information you have, even if it is very scant, can be rewarding.

Among these entries we have enough of a variety to put together a reasonably balanced bibliography of the events we are considering.

Evaluating sources and assembling a balanced bibliography

The goal here will be to collect a number of works on our subject that approach it from different perspectives so that we can produce the most well-informed, insightful research. In this way we will will be exposed to more sides of the story than, say, that represented by The Egyptian Red Book itself. To begin with, let's take a look at the subject headings of the books we found through our subject search for "gordon" and "egypt". Here is a look at the subject headings of the first listing, "Sword of the prophet : the Mahdi of Sudan and the death of General Gordon" by Fergus Nicoll.

Figure 6: Subject headings for "Sword of the prophet : the Mahdi of Sudan and the death of General Gordon" by Fergus Nicoll
Figure 6 (redcar5.jpg)
Notice that, of the four subject headings listed, three are related to the history of Sudan. We know that the events described in the Red Book were somewhat contested in Great Britain; it is in fact a critique of the Government's version of the story. Adding the perspective of the impact of the events in Sudan and their relation to Sudanese history could provide illuminating insights on this debate. Compare these headings with one of the biographies on Gordon, "Never to be taken alive : a biography of General Gordon" by Roy MacGregor-Hastie.
Figure 7: Subject headings for "Never to be taken alive : a biography of General Gordon" by Roy MacGregor-Hastie
Figure 7 (redcar6.jpg)
Although Sudanese history appears in the headings, this entry is also included in the British military and colonial category. We might assume that the story this work tells will be from a more Euro-centric perspective.

Titles can also be illuminating in our sorting through material. Consider "Gordon: martyr and misfit" by Anthony Nutting.

Figure 8: Catalog record for "Gordon: martyr and misfit" by Anthony Nutting
Figure 8 (redcar7.jpg)
This work is listed with only one subject heading, Gordon's name. The title, however, suggests a critique of the man himself with the word "misfit" while attaching a larger significance to his death with the word "martyr". This work promises the possibility of both a more critical account of a central figure to our story and a more profound perspective on his death.

Lastly, we find an entry that offers a very different kind of perspective on our story.

Figure 9: Catalog record for Robin Maugham's "The last encounter"
Figure 9 (redcar8.jpg)
Notice the addition of the word Fiction to our Personal subject heading. It might be interesting to see how novelists have interpreted our story, although a novel from 1972 wouldn't really count as historical evidence. (However, a novel about Gordon from the 1880s would likely be a fascinating primary source document.)

Except for Wilfrid Scawen Blunt's Gordon at Khartoum, all of the above books are secondary source materials. Once you have identified potentially relevant books, locate them in the stacks and scan their tables of contents and indices to determine how useful they will be. You will likely find other relevant books close by. The methods we are describing here are only a few of the techniques that you will need in selecting works to include in your bibliography, but they should assist you in working more efficiently. As we hope that the remainder of this module will demonstrate, the story is never complete and always told from a particular perspective of the authors of the sources we choose. At the very least, the above practice can be used in any number of research situations to familiarize yourself with the events in question so that you may better understand the variety of perspectives of them.

Looking for the Story in the London Times

Newspaper provide a key source of primary source materials, since they offer a day-to-day account of history from the journalistic perspective of those who experienced it. The London Times has been the daily newspaper of record in England since the 1780s. Here we will be performing a basic search of the Times archives so that we might gain the perspective of the average British citizen while the events themselves were unfolding. In order to use the Times archive, your institution must have a subscription to it and you must either be on campus or connected to your network via VPN or proxy server. (See Accessing Networked Resources" for more information.) For instance, from the home page for Fondren Library select the Online News option under the Collections heading, then select the Europe option and scroll down to the entry you see below. You will see that a large number of newspapers are listed from all over the world.

Figure 10
Figure 10 (redcar9.jpg)
Notice the link that offers articles from 1785-1985 through the Times Digital Archive link. Our period is included within these dates, so this is where we will begin.

To begin, select the option that searches the entire content of the article just below the text box.

Figure 11
Figure 11 (redcar10.jpg)
This way we will be searching the entire archive for our key terms, rather than just the headlines, leaving no stone unturned.

We will be asking the search engine to locate articles that contain all of the keywords that we enter into the text box. By simply entering "Gordon" we are offered 243,551 articles. We would like to cast a wide net, but not that wide. We are going to have to limit our search to get what we are after. Let's look again at "The Egyptian Red Book" to hone our research strategy.

On page 7 we see that the first entry is dated September 1882, the month "Mr. Gladstone's Government invade[d] Egypt." The last entry is dated 26th January, 1885, the day of General Gordon's death. Let us say, then, that the type of story we are looking for would not have been published before 1882 and, being a daily paper, not for too many years after the death of Gordon in 1885. We can narrow our search results, then, by restricting our search to 1880-1890.

We notice on the first page of "The Egyptian Red Book" that Sudan is spelled "Soudan." If that is the common spelling of the region at the time, our search will turn up very little if we enter today's spelling. "Khartoum," the capital of Sudan, can also be spelled Khartum. We may find more results if we use the spelling preferred by the writers of the late nineteenth century in searching their daily papers.

Notice that we can either search for all the words together by including the word "and" between each of our keywords, or look for every article that contains at least one of our keywords by entering the word "or" between each keyword. We will use "and" to limit our results and make sure that all of our words are in every article. (Most search engines default to "and" if no specific parameters are given.)

Let's begin where "The Egyptian Red Book" begins and look for a Times response to the invasion of Egypt in September 1882. As a keyword, "egypt" alone will be too broad. We will include the term "mahdi," the person or group the British seem to be going to Egypt to fight. We are offered 934 articles. Notice, however, that we can choose what sort of articles we want to look at.

Figure 12: View Times Search Results by Category
Figure 12 (redcar11.png)
Let's begin with News.

Our list begins in the 1880's. The first article to jump right out is entitled "Egypt," written in February of 1882.

Figure 13: Search result from Times of London database
Figure 13 (redcar12.png)
Selecting Article will bring up the specific article on the page with each of our keywords marked in purple. Scrolling through the article we come across the following passage.
Figure 14: "Egypt." The Times of London. February 14, 1882, p. 4.
Figure 14 (redcar13.png)
The article says that "Egypt, in fact, is in the hands of one man, Arabi Bey. The new Ministry is formed by him and by him only..... The people treat him with superstitious respect. Some hold him to be a direct descendent of the Prophet; others treat him as one inspired; a few think he may be El-Mahdi, the sacred Iman so long expected, who will restore Islam to its pristine glory." From this we get a better idea of who this Mahdi is and how he figures into our story. The "Red Book" reports that on 22nd Nov., 1883: "Hicks whole army destroyed. 13,000 massacred." On November 23, 1883, the Times published the following article:
Figure 15
Figure 15 (redcar15.png)
The article reports that the Mahdi annihilated Hicks Pasha and his army of 11,000 men in Sudan.
Figure 16: "The Defeat Of Hicks Pasha." The Times, Nov 23, 1883.
Figure 16 (redcar16.png)
We are able to follow the entire story as it plays out by comparing the Times' accounts of events in Sudan with the way "The Egyptian Red Book" presents the same events. Let's just skip to the end of this tale by seeing how the Times responded to the death of Gordon. We will use the keywords Khartoum and Gordon to find our article. We find scrolling through the articles that the Times did not publish news of Gordon's death until February 11, 1885.
Figure 17: "The War In The Soudan. Reported Death Of General Gordon., Rescue Of Sir C. Wilson." The Times, Feb 11, 1885.
Figure 17 (redcar17.png)
Further down we find an obituary for General Gordon of over nine thousand words, detailing his life and career.
Figure 18: "General Gordon." The Times, Feb 12, 1885
Figure 18 (redcar18.png)

In the same way we just explored news articles for our story we could also peruse editorials and commentary to find out what the editors were expressing about these events. These articles are only one resource among many for historians who wish to investigate the impact of historical events on the people who lived through them.

Placing the Quotes in the "Red Book" in Context

Taken out of context, even the most innocuous of statements can be read as slanderous, vulgar, obnoxious, hysterically funny or deeply offensive. It is always important to understand the context of a speaker's statements before assuming their intended meaning. When dealing with a work with both a political and comedic agenda, such as the Red Book, it is especially important. The editors of the Red Book openly invite their readers to check up on their quotes and even offer a few resources on page five, advising that "The entries in 'The Egyptian Red Book' can be authenticated by reference to the Official Blue Books and Hansard's Parliamentary Debates." Why would a work of satire provide references for its quotations?

Figure 19: Page 5 of "The Egyptian Red Book"
Figure 19 (cont1.png)
Let's have a look for ourselves at the context of these quotes and their potential meanings.

Hansard's Parliamentary Debates

Records of British parliamentary debates are commonly known as Hansard's, after the name of the company which produced the publication in the nineteenth century. Early records of the debates are not exact transcripts of the speeches, but are still valuable sources for historical research. For a more complete treatment of this resource, please visit our Parliamentary Papers module. When we search the library catalog, we find that Hansard's Parliamentary Debatesis available both in the stacks and on microform.

Figure 20
Figure 20 (han1.png)
In this section we will locate a specific quote in the print version of Hansard's. If you would like to skip right to a brief tutorial on the microform and learn how to locate and view your quote in the microform format, visit our microform module.

We have a particularly contestable quote from Mr. Gladstone on page sixteen of the Red Book: "The G. O. M. says:—“It is not a fact that General Gordon has requested Her Majesty's Consular Agent to leave Khartoum. It is not a fact that that measure was essential to their safety, and it is not a fact that General Gordon stated that the only means of leaving Khartoum would be by Equatorial Africa and the Congo. [It is a fact that the G. O. M.'s fact's were not facts.]"

Figure 21: "The Egyptian Red Book," p. 16
Figure 21 (cont2.png)
Now, let's find the original quotation in Hansard's to see everything that was said.

Figure 22: Hansard's Parliamentary Debates on the shelf
Figure 22 (pardep.png)
Once you have located the shelves you will notice that several hundred years of parliamentary debates can take up quite a bit of space. Our quote, dated 24 April 1884, is located in the third series, volume CCCLXXXVII.
Figure 23: Title page to Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 1884
Figure 23 (pardep1.png)
You will notice that the table of contents is divided by both date and topic. The quotes from our Red Book come primarily from the Questions section, which is divided by subject matter.
Figure 24
Figure 24 (pardep2.png)
Scanning the page you will notice that Egypt is discussed in several places, the Sudan specifically on page 467.
Figure 25: Questions in Parliamentary Debates, including "EGYPT (EVENTS IN THE SUDAN)--BERBER AND KHARTOUM"
Figure 25 (pardep3.png)
Under the heading "Events in the Sudan" we find a Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett inquiring about a telegram from Gen. Gordon, which he quotes from here: "General Gordon expresses his utmost indignation at the manner in which he has been abandoned by the English government, and states his resolution henceforth to cut himself entirely adrift from those who have deserted him, on whom will rest the bloodguiltiness for all lives hereafter lost in the Soudan."
Figure 26
Figure 26 (pardep4.png)
It would seem from this telegram that Gen. Gordon certainly seems to feel abandoned by his Government. However, we find Mr. Gladstone encouraging his colleagues to take into consideration the entire correspondence with Gordon and not just pieces of it out of context: "MR. GLADSTONE: With regard to the particulars enumerated in this Question, none of them are accurately stated. Although, no doubt, they are the result of the best information at the hon. Member's command. He asks whether it is a fact that General Gordon has requested Her Majesty's Consular Agent and Colonel Stewart to leave Khartoum. This is not a fact. Then he asks whether General Gordon gave as a reason for that that measure was essential for their safety. That is not a fact; and it is not a fact that General Gordon stated that the only means of leaving Khartoum would be by Equatorial Africa and the Congo. This Question not being accurately framed, I would prefer to leave the matter there and refer the hon. Member to telegrams which will be faithfully given to the House in the course of a very few days.... The hon. Member should observe... that while we have reason to believe...that General Gordon is not in receipt of some of our papers, and, indeed, of important telegrams of ours, on the other hand we have no reason to know that we are in receipt of all the telegrams that he has sent. For that reason, perhaps, it is that certain telegrams... have to the Government an isolated appearance, and do not carry with them the full and precise significantion of the documents now in our hands. I would, therefore, prefer that the hon. Member should wait for a short time until he can form his own opinion of the purport of the telegram, in which General Gordon certainly left it quite open to Colonel Stewart and the Consular Agent to leave Khartoum."
Figure 27
Figure 27 (pardep5.png)
Figure 28
Figure 28 (pardep6.png)
Even though Mr. Gladstone seems to be backpeddling a bit, his point is well taken: without the context, the message is incomplete.

As you compare different sources, consider questions such as:

  • What kind of language is used? For instance, The Egyptian Red Book says that Gordon was "assassinated", while The London Times uses words such as "stabbed" and "killed" (Red Book 28).
  • What is the tone? Note the acerbic side comments in The Egyptian Red Book, such as "Hicks whole army destroyed. 13,000 massacred. [The Do-Nothing Government slumber on, as their Chief has a cold in his head.]" (6).
  • How might contemporary readers have viewed these sources? We can glean the attitudes of some commentators towards the satirists who produced the "Red Book" by examining the reviews of the Gladstone Almanack printed on the back cover of the "Red Book". We can also search for published reviews of the pamphlet, look for annotations in margins, and attempt to find journals and other private documents that might contain commentary on this work.

The important thing to remember here is that every quote has a context. Political satire often benefits from the wide range of applicability of someone's statement once it is taken out of its context. As historians, it is crucial to our work that we discover and maintain the intended meaning of each statement we include in our descriptions. It can be as tempting for the historian as it is for the satirist to allow a statement to stand out of its context if it fits with our desired narrative. Locating the context of the quotes in a work such as the Red Book can be as illuminating of our own responsibilities as for the necessity of the rigors of our methodology.

Content actions

Download module as:

Add module to:

My Favorites (?)

'My Favorites' is a special kind of lens which you can use to bookmark modules and collections. 'My Favorites' can only be seen by you, and collections saved in 'My Favorites' can remember the last module you were on. You need an account to use 'My Favorites'.

| A lens I own (?)

Definition of a lens


A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

Tags are descriptors added by lens makers to help label content, attaching a vocabulary that is meaningful in the context of the lens.

| External bookmarks