Eminent Victorians

Eminent Victorians
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第94章

Nor was the adoption of that policy by the English Government by any means out of the question. For, in the meantime, events had been taking place in the Eastern Sudan, in the neighbourhood of the Red Sea port of Suakin, which were to have a decisive effect upon the prospects of Khartoum. General Baker, the brother of Sir Samuel Baker, attempting to relieve the beleaguered garrisons of Sinkat and Tokar, had rashly attacked the forces of Osman Digna, had been defeated, and obliged to retire. Sinkat and Tokar had then fallen into the hands of the Mahdi's general. There was a great outcry in England, and a wave of warlike feeling passed over the country. Lord Wolseley at once drew up a memorandum advocating the annexation of the Sudan. In the House of Commons even Liberals began to demand vengeance and military action, whereupon the Government dispatched Sir Gerald Graham with a considerable British force to Suakin. Sir Gerald Graham advanced, and in the battles of El Teb and Tamai inflicted two bloody defeats upon the Mahdi's forces. It almost seemed as if the Government was now committed to a policy of interference and conquest; as if the imperialist section of the Cabinet were at last to have their way. The dispatch of Sir Gerald Graham coincided with Gordon's sudden demand for British and Indian troops with which to 'smash up the Mahdi'. The business, he assured Sir Evelyn Baring, in a stream of telegrams, could very easily be done. It made him sick, he said, to see himself held in check and the people of the Sudan tyrannised over by 'a feeble lot of stinking Dervishes'. Let Zobeir at once be sent down to him, and all would be well.

The original Sultans of the country had unfortunately proved disap-pointing. Their place should be taken by Zobeir. After the Mahdi had been smashed up, Zobeir should rule the Sudan as a subsidised vassal of England, on a similar footing to that of the Amir of Afghanistan. The plan was perhaps feasible; but it was clearly incompatible with the policy of evacuation, as it had been hitherto laid down by the English Government. Should they reverse that policy? Should they appoint Zobeir, reinforce Sir Gerald Graham, and smash up the Mahdi? They could not make up their minds. So far as Zobeir was concerned, there were two counterbalancing considerations; on the one hand, Evelyn Baring now declared that he was in favour of the appointment; but, on the other hand, would English public opinion consent to a man, described by Gordon himself as 'the greatest slave-hunter who ever existed', being given an English subsidy and the control of the Sudan? While the Cabinet was wavering, Gordon took a fatal step. The delay was intolerable, and one evening, in a rage, he revealed his desire for Zobeir-- which had hitherto been kept a profound official secret-- to Mr Power, the English Consul at Khartoum, and the special correspondent of "The Times." Perhaps he calculated that the public announcement of his wishes would oblige the Government to yield to them; if so, he was completely mistaken, for the result was the very reverse. The country, already startled by the proclamation in favour of slavery, could not swallow Zobeir. The Anti-Slavery Society set on foot a violent agitation, opinion in the House of Commons suddenly stiffened, and the Cabinet, by a substantial majority, decided that Zobeir should remain in Cairo. The imperialist wave had risen high, but it had not risen high enough; and now it was rapidly subsiding. The Government's next action was decisive. Sir Gerald Graham and his British Army were withdrawn from the Sudan.

The critical fortnight during which these events took place was the first fortnight of March. By the close of it, Gordon's position had undergone a rapid and terrible change. Not only did he find himself deprived, by the decision of the Government, both of the hope of Zobeir's assistance and of the prospect of smashing up the Mahdi with the aid of British troops; the military movements in the Eastern Sudan produced, at the very same moment, a yet more fatal consequence. The adherents of the Mahdi had been maddened, they had not been crushed, by Sir Gerald Graham's victories. When, immediately afterwards, the English withdrew to Suakin, from which they never again emerged, the inference seemed obvious; they had been defeated, and their power was at an end. The warlike tribes to the north and the northeast of Khartoum had long been wavering. They now hesitated no longer, and joined the Mahdi. From that moment-- it was less than a month from Gordon's arrival at Khartoum-- the situation of the town was desperate. The line of communications was cut. Though it still might be possible for occasional native messengers, or for a few individuals on an armed steamer, to win their way down the river into Egypt, the removal of a large number of persons--the loyal inhabitants or the Egyptian garrison-- was henceforward an impossibility. The whole scheme of the Gordon mission had irremediably collapsed; worse still, Gordon himself, so far from having effected the evacuation of the Sudan, was surrounded by the enemy. 'The question now is,' Sir Evelyn Baring told Lord Granville, on March 24th, 'how to get General Gordon and Colonel Stewart away from Khartoum.'

The actual condition of the town, however, was not, from a military point of view, so serious as Colonel Coetlogon, in the first moments of panic after the Hicks disaster, had supposed.

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