Chinese Gordon Meets Cecil Rhodes, 1882

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 130-131:

Desperate to resolve the Basutoland quagmire, the Cape government recruited the services of General Charles Gordon, one of the foremost heroes of the Victorian age. A decorated veteran of the Crimean War and commander of the Chinese army that had crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1863-4, Gordon had spent six years in Khartoum during the 1870s serving as governor of Equatoria province in southern Sudan. Gordon saw himself as God’s instrument and believed he possessed mesmeric power over primitive people. The British political establishment regarded him as half mad – ‘inspired and mad’, according to Gladstone. Despite his formidable record, on his return to London he was packed off to Mauritius, in his words to supervise ‘the barracks and drains’ there. He was thus keen for a new adventure.

After helping to reorganise the Cape’s colonial army, Gordon ventured to Basutoland in 1882, arranging a series of pitsos with Sotho chiefs. Rhodes too ventured to Basutoland in 1882. He had agreed to serve on an official mission set up to evaluate claims for compensation from ‘loyal’ Sotho. In a memorable fragment of imperial history, Rhodes met General Gordon at a magistrate’s headquarters at Thlotsi Heights, north of Maseru, and struck up a warm friendship with him.

They often went for long walks together. Gordon, twenty years older than Rhodes, chided the younger man for his independent opinions. ‘You always contradict me,’ he said on one occasion. ‘I never met such a man for his own opinion. You think your views are always right and everyone else wrong.’ On another occasion, Gordon complained, ‘You are the sort of man who never approves of anything unless you have had the organising of it yourself.’

Gordon told Rhodes the story of how, after he had subdued the Taiping rebellion, the Chinese government had offered him a roomful of gold.

‘What did you do?’ asked Rhodes.

‘Refused it, of course,’ replied Gordon. ‘What would you have done?’

‘I would have taken it,’ said Rhodes, ‘and as many roomfuls as they would give me. It is no use for us to have big ideas if we have not got the money to carry them out.’

Gordon was sufficiently impressed with Rhodes to ask him to work with him in Basutoland, but Rhodes declined. ‘There are very few men in the world to whom I would have made such an offer. Very few men, I can tell you; but of course you will have your way. I never met a man as strong for his opinion; you think your views are always right.’

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Filed under Britain, China, economics, migration, military, nationalism, South Africa, war

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