The Victorian age was notable for the appearance of gentleman soldiers of fortune in the imperial world and there could be no more exotic and exceptional example of that than the author of this book, Rudolf Slatin. The son of a Viennese merchant, he went to Egypt to work as a bookseller’s assistant in Cairo in the early 1870s. He travelled extensively through Egypt and the Sudan and made the acquaintance of the remarkable general, Charles Gordon. After a period of Austrian military service, Slatin returned to Africa at Gordon’s invitation. He arrived in early 1879 and after a meteoric rise in career fortunes he secured, in 1881, the governor-generalship of Darfur with the rank of ‘bey.’ He then engaged in an extended war with the Mahdists, with considerable initial success, but after the annihilation of Hicks Pasha’s force eventually surrendered to Mahdists in 1883. Slatin, who had converted to Islam, was taken to the now besieged Khartoum to induce Gordon to capitulate. This failed and the city and country fell, Gordon’s severed head was displayed before him and Slatin entered into a period of eleven years captivity in the hands of the Khalifa. He was treated cruelly and indulgently by turns—sometimes employed upon essential services, sometimes a prisoner in the literal sense. In 1895, he eventually escaped and reached Aswan in Egypt after a perilous, 1,000 km journey across the desert. Slatin was appointed ‘Pasha’ by the Khedive and a host of honours were heaped upon him by the British and others. Subsequently he rejoined the Egyptian Army and was present for the final defeat of the Mahdists at Omdurman. This book, written by Slatin immediately after his escape, is a remarkable account of endurance and fortitude and provides us with a unique insight into events rarely reported by European witnesses.
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Gordon Pasha had sent five steamers to Metemmeh some time ago, under Khashm el Mus and Abdel Hamid Wad Mohammed, in order to await the arrival of the English, and bring some of them, with the necessary supplies, to Khartum as soon as possible. No doubt he was expecting their arrival with the greatest anxiety. He had staked everything on this; and no one knew what had become of them.<br>
At the beginning of the month, Gordon had allowed several of the families to leave Khartum. Up to that time, he could not bear to forcibly drive them out of the town; and, in consequence, he had been obliged to make a daily distribution of hundreds of okes of biscuit and dhurra amongst these destitute people; and for that he had, no doubt, God’s reward, but he thereby ruined himself and his valuable men. Everyone was crying out for bread, and the stores were almost empty! He now did all he could to induce the people to leave the town. Had he only done so two or three months earlier, there would have been ample supplies to last the troops a long time; but Gordon, thinking that help was coming so soon to him, to the troops, and to the inhabitants, did not provide for possible detentions. Did he think that it was out of the question for an English expedition to be delayed?<br>
Six days after the fall of Omdurman, loud weeping and wailing filled our camp; since I had left Darfur I had not heard anything like it. The Mahdi’s doctrine forbade the display of sorrow and grief for those who died, or were killed, because they had entered into the joys of Paradise. Something very unusual must therefore have happened to make the people dare to transgress the Mahdi’s regulations. My guards, who were old soldiers, were so curious to know the cause that they left me to make inquiries, and, in a few minutes, brought back the startling news, that the English advanced guard had met the combined force of Barabra, Jaalin, Degheim, and Kenana, under Musa Wad Helu at Abu Teleh (Abu Klea), and had utterly defeated them; thousands had fallen, and the few who had survived had returned, many of them wounded. The Degheim and Kenana had been almost annihilated; Musa Wad Helu, and most of the emirs, had fallen.<br>
What news!—my heart was literally thumping with joyous excitement. After all these long years, a crowning victory at last! The Mahdi and Khalifa at once gave orders that all this noise should cease; but for hours the weeping and wailing of the women continued. Instructions were now given to Nur Angara to start off with troops towards Metemmeh; but what good would this do, even if he had had the will, which he had not, what could he do with a few troops when thousands and thousands of wild fanatics had failed? Within the next two or three days, came the news of other defeats at Abu Kru and Kubba (Gubat), and of the erection of a fort on the Nile close to Metemmeh. The Mahdi and his principal emirs now held a consultation.<br>
All the wonderful victories they had gained up to the present were at stake; for those besieging Khartum were terrified and had retired. It was now the question of a few days only, and the Mahdi was done. They must risk everything. Consequently, orders were sent out to the besiegers to collect and make all preparations. Why did the long expected steamers with the English troops not come? Did their commanders not know Khartum, and the lives of all in it, were hanging by a thread? In vain did I, and thousands of others, wait for the shrill whistle of the steamer, and for the booming of the guns announcing that the English had arrived, and were passing the entrenchments made by the Dervishes to oppose them. Yes, in vain! The delay was inexplicable; what could it mean? Had new difficulties arisen?<br>
It was now Sunday, the 25th of January,—a day I shall never forget as long as I live. That evening, when it was dark, the Mahdi and his khalifas crossed over in a boat to where their warriors were all collected ready for the fight. It was known during the day that Khartum would be attacked the next morning; and the Mahdi had now gone to brace up his followers for the fray by preaching to them the glories of Jehad, and urging them to fight till death. Pray Heaven Gordon may have got the news, and made his preparations to resist in time!<br>
On this occasion, the Mahdi and his khalifas had most strictly enjoined their followers to restrain their feelings, and receive the last injunctions in silence, instead of with the usual shouts and acclamations, which might awaken the suspicions of the exhausted and hungry garrison. His solemn harangue over, the Mahdi recrossed, and returned to the camp at dawn, leaving with the storming party only Khalifa Sherif, who had begged to be allowed to join in the holy battle.<br>
That night was for me the most excitingly anxious one in my life. If only the attack were repulsed, Khartum would be saved; otherwise, all would be lost. Utterly exhausted, I was just dropping off to sleep at early dawn, when I was startled by the deafening discharge of thousands of rifles and guns; this lasted for a few minutes, then only occasional rifle-shots were heard, and now all was quiet again. It was scarcely light, and I could barely distinguish objects. Could this possibly be the great attack on Khartum? A wild discharge of fire-arms and cannon, and in a few minutes complete stillness?<br>
The sun was now rising red over the horizon; what would this day bring forth? Excited and agitated, I awaited the result with intense impatience. Soon shouts of rejoicing and victory were heard in the distance; and my guards ran off to find out the news. In a few minutes, they were back again, excitedly relating how Khartum had been taken by storm, and was now in the hands of the Mahdists. Was it possible the news was false? I crawled out of my tent, and scanned the camp; a great crowd had collected before the quarters of the Mahdi and khalifa, which were not far off; then there was a movement in the direction of my tent; and I could see plainly they were coming towards me. In front, marched three black soldiers; one named Shatta, formerly belonging to Ahmed Bey Dafalla’s slave bodyguard, carried in his hands a bloody cloth in which something was wrapped up, and behind him followed a crowd of people weeping. The slaves had now approached my tent, and stood before me with insulting gestures; Shatta undid the cloth and showed me the head of General Gordon!<br>
The blood rushed to my head, and my heart seemed to stop beating; but, with a tremendous effort of self-control, I gazed silently at this ghastly spectacle. His blue eyes were half-opened; the mouth was perfectly natural; the hair of his head, and his short whiskers, were almost quite white.<br>
“Is not this the head of your uncle the unbeliever?” said Shatta, holding the head up before me.<br>
“What of it?” said I, quietly. “A brave soldier who fell at his post; happy is he to have fallen; his sufferings are over.”<br>
“Ha, ha!” said Shatta, “so you still praise the unbeliever; but you will soon see the result;” and, leaving me, he went off to the Mahdi, bearing his terrible token of victory; behind him followed the crowd, still weeping.<br>
I re-entered my tent. I was now utterly broken-hearted: Khartum fallen, and Gordon dead! And this was the end of the brave soldier who had fallen at his post,—the end of a man whose courage and utter disregard of fear were remarkable, and whose personal characteristics had given him a celebrity in the world which was quite exceptional.