Red Book, White Masks: British Pharaohs and the Nile Expedition

Red Book, White Masks: British Pharaohs and the Nile Expedition

The Egyptian Red Book.jpg

Images of the Egyptian Red Book are available at the online Travelers in the Middle East Archive.

In February 1884, General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon arrived in Khartoum.  Gordon had been Governor General of the Sudan from 1876-1879.  Since that time, the Egyptian army had suffered heavy defeats by the forces of the self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad.  The British government (which effectively controlled Egypt at this period, although it remained in name an Ottoman province), after much debate, decided to evacuate Egyptian forces from the Sudan.  Gordon had returned, in theory, to oversee this evacuation.  In fact, he intended to try to defeat the Mahdi.  He made appeals for help in this endeavour to William Gladstone’s government.  These were rejected.  By April, Gordon and his forces were under seige at Khartoum.  A few months later, Gladstone belatedly agreed to send an expedition to relieve the city.  This finally arrived in the environs of Khartoum in January 1885, two days after the city had fallen and Gordon been killed.

This is very much to cut a long story short.  (Those interested in pursuing the subject further may wish to consult one of the dozens of memoirs written by those who participated.)  The Nile, or ‘Gordon Relief’, Expedition of 1884-85 was the subject of vigorous public debate in Britain.  At stake was the image of an imperialist popular hero, Gordon, whose death was mythologised and romanticised in art and literature.  Also at stake was British imperial pride.  The Nile Expedition proceeded in classic colonial fashion: British and Egyptian soldiers with guns faced local fighters with swords and spears, who had been told by their messianic leader that he could make them impervious to bullets.  Khartoum fell nevertheless, and in the following decades the Sudan became a battleground for the assertation of British prestige in north-eastern Africa.

The Nile Expedition and the fall of Khartoum can contribute to discussions of the ideology of colonialism in many ways.  What, for example, of the 1966 film Khartoum, starring Charlton Heston as an unlikely Gordon, and – incredibly – Laurence Olivier in blackface as a still more unlikely Mahdi?  “His stab at a Sudanese accent sounds like Sebastian, the singing Caribbean crab from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, pretending to be a Russian spy” (Alex von Tunzelmann in The Guardian, 12 November 2009).

One contemporary piece of commentary on the Nile Expedition, however, defies a straightforwardly Orientalist reading.  Many in Britain blamed Prime Minister Gladstone for the débâcle at Khartoum: both for having sent Gordon in the first place, without a more substantial force, and for having delayed in sending the Relief Expedition.  The political cartoonist George Roland Halkett (1855-1918) published a series of illustrated pamphlets against Gladstone and his policies: The Egyptian Red Book in 1885, and continuing with The Irish Green Book (1888) on the Home Rule question.  He also produced A Diary of the Gladstone Government (1885) and The Coming(?) Gladstone (1892).  These short pamphlets were issued by publisher William Blackwood & Sons, of Edinburgh and London.  They sold well, in their tens of thousands.

In A Diary of the Gladstone Government, Halkett comically depicts the Liberal Gladstone being fished out of the Nile – and the jaws of a crocodile – by the Tories (Conservatives).  In the background is the Sphinx.

Old Gladdy.jpg

Gladstone’s handling of Egyptian affairs has left him floundering.

In The Egyptian Red Book, Halkett adopts Egyptian imagery with even greater enthusiasm.  The pamphlet opens with an ‘Egyptian Puzzle’: on first glance, an ancient Egyptian scene, complete with hieroglyphic captions.  Large Roman letters scattered across the picture spell out the phrase ‘The too late Govt in Egypt’.  Lingering on the image, we find that the ‘hieroglyphs’ are actually cunningly concealed English words and phrases.

The Egyptian Puzzle Annotated.jpg

Egyptian though the overall effect may be, there is not a single Egyptian figure in this scene.  The Mahdi stands in front of his Sudanese army, who are depicted as ‘Nubians’ according to traditional Pharonic convention: dressed in animal skins, a disordered mass in contrast to the regularly-spaced and highly stylised ‘Egyptians’.  The ‘Egyptians’ are all British.  Gladstone, the so-called ‘grand old man’ appears in several places: sitting, weak and ineffective, borne upon the shoulders of others, and with his head superimposed on a snail, as a kind of sphinx.  General Gordon, in military hat with feathers, mustache visible in profile, stands as a strong, triumphant pharaoh on his chariot.  Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain, bespectacled, is labelled as ‘Brummagem’ (i.e. from Birmingham, his parliamentary seat).  The Earl of Derby, Colonial Secretary, reclines like an odalisque under a map of New Guinea, which he was blamed for having failed to annex when Britain had the chance.  The Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs is a mummy.  The soldiers of the Nile Expedition appear on Egyptian papyrus boats, flying the Union Jack.

The scene is cleverly constructed.  The field is filled in with ancient Egyptian motifs (crocodile, vulture, monkey, cartouches), but there are modern touches: a German eagle (for German New Guinea), an hourglass, camel, snails, a hanged man, a fortification upon which the Mahdi stands.  As befits a political cartoon, the symbolism is simple and easy to read.  Gladstone is a snail-sphinx (because he was too slow to save Gordon – get it?).  On the title page of the Red Book, ‘Indecision’ is represented as a camel (because camels are stubborn).  None of this imagery is subtle.

Sleeping Beauties.jpg

Not all the subsequent cartoons  in The Egyptian Red Book have an Egyptian theme.  The four which do, like the ‘Egyptian Puzzle’, represent British politicians as ancient Egyptians.  One modern Egyptian appears: a bearded man in a long robe and turban, leaning on a spear, in front of a reimagined Abu Simbel.  The colossal statues bear the faces of the ‘Sleeping Beauties’ of the Gladstone government, including Gladstone himself, and the Foreign Secretary, the Earl Granville.  The partially-destroyed statue is labelled ‘Notice – J. Bright Resigned’.  John Bright had stepped down from the Gladstone cabinet in 1882 in protest at the British bombardment of Alexandria.  A frieze of fake hieroglyphs reads ‘We have slept for 1000 years’.  Pharaoh Gladstone’s seat again bears the ‘hieroglyphs’ ‘G.O.M.’ for ‘Grand Old Man’.  (Gladstone’s opponent, Benjamin Disraeli, said that the letters stood instead for ‘God’s Only Mistake’.)  A smaller, faceless, figure above the temple door is captioned ‘Khedive’.

Egyptian Policy.jpg

In the next Egyptian scenes, Gladstone and Granville labour to bring the ship of ‘Egyptian Policy’ across either a Nile cataract or a stony desert.  The Sphinx (with Granville’s face) and two pyramids are in the background.  One of the major challenges facing the Nile Expedition was taking their boats through the cataracts, which they achieved by portage and the expert boating skills of a group of Canadian Mohawks.  General Wolsely, who led the Nile Expedition, is depicted bent under the weight of a sack of useless supplies, many of which have names indiciative of the situation in which he found himself: pickles, tooth picks, kid gloves, napkin rings, and ‘Gladstone jam’.

Nile Picnic.jpg

The final Egyptian cartoon presents us with a ‘Mummy Government’.  A ‘hieroglyphic’ frieze names towns and the sites of critical battles in the Sudan.  The first Mummy is of course Gladstone himself, clutching a hatchet.  Queen Victoria’s fondness for horse racing is lampooned on her bandages, with horseshoes, bets (‘£. S. D.’, i.e. pounds, shillings and pence) and odds (‘2 to 1’).  She carries horsewhips folded across her chest, instead of the pharaonic crook and flail.  The next in line is Sir William Harcourt, the Home Secretary.  His mummy bears some of the very few readable hieroglyphs in The Red Book: the word miw, ‘cat’.  Is this an intentional jibe at cat-like qualities (laziness? cunning?) or simply serendipity?  Behind Harcourt is Joseph Chamberlain: the screw manufacturer from Birmingham is appropriately decorated with small screws, and labelled ‘Brum’.  The Secretary of State for War, the Marquess of Hartington, has ‘hieroglyphs’ composed of guns, cannon and swords.  The Earl of Derby holds a copy of a ‘New Guinea Blue Book’, which Halkett may have planned, but which was never produced.  Last in the line of mummies is Earl Granville, holding a white feather, symbol of cowardice.

Such Painted Puppets.jpg

Other illustrations in Halkett’s Red Book parody famous images from Christian iconography or Classical and Neoclassical art, such as Raphael’s The Three Graces.  Egyptian art had passed into a visual repertoire which an educated British public could be expected to recognise.  The Irish Red Book continues this tradition, with images of Members of Parliament as Roman Senators, but – aside from the occasional harp or shamrock – does not go in for local colour in the way its Egyptian companion does.

As I have already indicated, Halkett’s satirical commentary on the Nile Expedition cannot be read in a straightforwardly Orientalist sense, although its context is certainly that of British colonialism and increasing tourism in Egypt.  It is not even truly about Egypt.  Its text consists mostly of excerpts from parliamentary debates, written reports and quotations from British writers such as Shakespeare and Pope.  Rather, images of Egyptian antiquities are used to communicate a message about contemporary British politicians as ‘pharaohs’ and ‘mummies’: monolithic, conservative, unmoving, intransigent, despotic.  By showing them semi-clothed, in exotic regalia, it also makes them ridiculous.  The exception, of course, is General Gordon, a heroic Pharaoh on a chariot.

Rachel Mairs



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