In the heart of the city of Melbourne is a memorial which is surely one of the most remarkable historical anachronisms in the whole of Australia. This is a statue located on the corner of Spring and Macarthur streets, just a short distance south of Victoria’s Parliament House, venerating Major General Charles George Gordon of the British Army—a figure who had never been to Melbourne (or anywhere else in Australia) and had absolutely no associations with this country in his lifetime.
Although rarely even heard about these days, at the time of his death in 1885 Gordon was hailed as ‘the most heroic of modern Englishmen’—a description reflecting his already established fame across the British empire, based almost entirely upon his role two decades earlier in putting down the Taiping rebellion in China (considered one of the bloodiest civil wars in history) and for his work in suppressing the slave trade as governor-general in Sudan in the latter half of the 1870s.
Gordon’s end came after he was sent back to Sudan in 1884 with instructions from London to disentangle the British government from the north Africa region. He had been expressly ordered to organise the evacuation of all British military personnel and civilians from the Sudanese capital at Khartoum, in the face of a campaign by a Moslem fundamentalist leader called the Mahdi, who was determined to establish an Islamic state by expelling all non-Moslems and even Moslems regarded as apostates.
Instead of following orders, Gordon hunkered down inside Khartoum and allowed himself to be besieged along with a force of around 11,000 Egyptian troops. Brazenly hoping that he could inveigle the imperial authorities in London to come to his rescue, it was a gamble he lost on 26 January when the Mahdi’s followers captured the city, killing Gordon, and massacring or enslaving the hapless troops he had detained under his command—ironically just two days before a British relief column managed to reach within striking distance of Khartoum.
Gordon as Governor-General of Sudan; 1893 painting by George William Joy of “Gordon’s last stand”
What followed was uproar across the empire, with loud lamentations at the demise of the supposedly noble Gordon. The ruckus was heard even in Australia, with 50,000 Victorians subscribing to the fund to erect a memorial to their hero in Melbourne. In New South Wales the response was even more outlandish, with the colonial government in Sydney offering a military contingent to help in re-establishing British authority in Sudan—an offer which was accepted by London and resulted in Australia’s first military expedition overseas.
The NSW contingent was already a thing of the past by the time that Victoria’s statue was ready to be unveiled in June 1889, an event described by Melbourne’s Age newspaper as ‘rather the canonising of a saint than the crowning of a hero’. By then Sydney’s Bulletin was referring to the statue’s subject as ‘the raving crank of Khartoum’ and predicting that Melbourne’s statue would be ‘sold for old metal’ once Gordon was ‘estimated at his true value as a bloodthirsty fanatic’.
Gordon’s historical significance has indeed been re-evaluated over time, nowhere moreso than in the old empire’s heart of London. A bronze statue of the general by Hamo Thornycroft which served as the original model for Melbourne’s memorial was initially erected in Trafalgar Square in 1888, some eight months before Victoria’s replica was unveiled. By 1943 it had been removed and stored away during the Second World War, and when re-erected a decade later it was not in its original hallowed location but in the more out-of- the-way Victoria Embankment Gardens at Whitehall.
Melbourne’s memorial statue to Gordon; London’s more restrained original in its current location
Although it is tempting to dismiss Gordon’s statue in Melbourne as a quaint ‘imperial artifact’ of no particular relevance to contemporary Australia, there is one ground on which the memorial is deserving of retention. With a history rich in instances of Australian governments rushing to involve themselves in other people’s conflicts for the past 130-odd years, the Gordon memorial stands as a cautionary reminder of how rarely Australians have properly understood the reasons why they were asked to contribute their lives and treasure in pursuit of the wars in which politicians have sought to involve them.