Antique roadshow

Imperial Vanities: the Adventures of the Baker Brothers and Gordon of Khartoum

Brian Thompson <em>

It is safe to assume that Tony Blair and his myriad spin-doctors and think-tank advisers know little about the history of Exeter Hall, the evangelical meeting house in London's Strand that represented a 19th-century constituency of humanitarian protest more latterly encompassed by Oxfam, Save the Children, Amnesty International and Index on Censorship. The spirit of Exeter Hall still lives on at Friends Meeting House on Euston Road and at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, but the chief spokesman for this 19th-century tradition is now the Reverend Blair himself. Without him knowing much about it, his neo-imperial campaign for Africa draws on the rich legacy of the Anti-Slavery Society and a legion of other campaigning institutions that characterised the chequered history of British imperialism, and provided it with its high moral purpose.

In his new book, Imperial Vanities, Brian Thompson tells the story of Britain's imperial adventure for the umpteenth time by examining the lives of three soldierly figures who spanned the 19th century, and who ended up in the headwaters of the Nile as participants in the great debacle of the Sudan in the 1880s. What makes his book interesting, and of some contemporary relevance, is his emphasis on the political backdrop to their imperial activities, which, according to Thompson's argument, was created by the "relentless agitation" emanating from Exeter Hall and the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823. The aim of the society was to abolish slavery, not just in the British empire, but throughout the world. It "became the conscience of the whole country".

Yet as Thompson points out, there was a downside to the members' largely pacifistic programme: "Such a moral crusade called in the end, whether the pious realised it or not, for guns." The missionary societies and the gunboats of the Royal Navy worked hand in glove to stop the slave trade and to bring Christian "civilisation" to benighted Africa, and that mission has informed British policy, sustained by public opinion, from that day to this. Humanitarian intervention in Sierra Leone today and concerns about the politics of Zimbabwe are based on a powerful and long-standing preoccupation with world affairs provoked and sustained by moral outrage. It is a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon.

This is the argument in the background of Thompson's book, but the foreground is occupied by the exotic lives of a trio of Victorian adventurers. Samuel Baker was an eccentric colonist and explorer who married a Hungarian slave girl, Florence, acquired in the Balkans. His brother, Valentine Baker, was an uptight cavalry officer who was disgraced after an attempted rape in a railway carriage. The third member of the trio was Charles "Chinese" Gordon, a gay Christian fundamentalist who was famously killed in Khartoum by the Islamic forces of Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahdi, the Osama Bin Laden of his day.

The characters bump into each other at different locations over the years, in Jamaica, Cyprus or Aden, but their eventual destiny is the Sudan. Thompson's choice of these particular heroes enables him to weave together a whole series of imperial episodes, including the war against King Moshoeshoe in Basutoland in 1852, the war in the Crimea, the looting of the Summer Palace in Peking, the occupation of Ceylon and Mauritius, the search for the source of the Nile, as well as the eventual denouement in the Sudan, where both Samuel Baker and Charles Gordon had attempted to eliminate the slave trade. Thompson's aim, not always achieved, is to create a great tapestry of empire in which the reader gets some idea of the sheer scale and complexity of this vast global operation.

Absorbed in his portraits of the officer class, Thompson is uninterested in the native societies that the British seized, and he does not dwell on the details of conquest. No mention is made of the human cost of the conquest to the people of the Punjab. The great Ceylon rebellion of 1848, to which the Baker brothers and their friend Laurence Oliphant must have been witnesses, gets a paragraph but nothing more.

Thompson has written an old-fashioned history that will be popular in the Home Counties and among aficionados of the Antiques Roadshow. It concentrates on arms and the men, and has no truck with economics or sociology. All the principal characters were wealthy, privileged officers whose lives were spent hovering around the court of the Prince of Wales. They appear to have had inherited private incomes, and some owned colonial estates or plantations, but Thompson provides us with few details. At least one of them, Oliphant, was borderline insane, ending up as a Christian Zionist helping Russian families to emigrate to Jerusalem in the 1880s. Gordon, expecting a martyr's death in Khartoum, was clearly certifiable. Charles Dilke told the cabinet that they were dealing with "a wild man under the influence of Central Africa, which acts upon the sanest men like strong drink".

One of the Baker brothers (Sam) died in his bed; the other (Val) died far from home, after having a heart attack on a steamer in the wake of his disastrous defeat by the Mahdi's men at El Teb. But General Gordon was killed on cue at Khartoum in January 1885, just before the arrival of the rescue expedition sent out to save him. The attempt to eliminate the slave trade in the Sudan, urged on by the congregations at Exeter Hall, had unleashed a far more formidable enemy, in the shape of militant Islam. The forces of Christianity were now to be its victim. Thompson perceives the death of Gordon as the apogee of empire, and he may well be right. From then on, it was downhill all the way.

Richard Gott is researching a book on imperial rebellions