6. Purity and Conquest in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan
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168 six Purity and Conquest in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Janice Boddy There is a scene in the film Topsy-Turvy1 —about the musical partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan—in which London actors dining at the Savoy ponder the news that General Charles Gordon is dead. The year is 1885. The men are indignant and perturbed. Gordon, ardent Christian and campaigner against the slave trade, hero to his countrymen, and governor of Sudan in Ottoman Egypt’s employ, was killed by followers of the Mahdi, a charismatic Muslim holy man, while besieged by them at Khartoum. Several times the Mahdi had sought Gordon’s conversion, to no avail. Gordon’s death two days before a British rescue mission reached the town was a brutal blow to imperial pride. The struggle between Gordon and the Mahdi would frame relations between British officials and Muslim Sudanese for decades to come. More, it personified the encounter between civilization and savagery, science and superstition , Christianity and what politicians and the press called ‘‘the false religion’’ of Islam, polarities that so energized the late Victorian age. Through the lens of Victorian popular culture—poetry, novels, fiction for boys—the empire appeared a modern Camelot, defended by Christian gentlemen who were stoic, entrepreneurial, just. Here Gordon became a mythic figure, the Purity and Conquest in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan 169 archetype of a superior race sent to battle ‘‘heathens’’ on the fringe of the settled world, a martyr for Empire and Christendom both. The young Winston Churchill phrased it thus: That one man, a European among Africans, a Christian among Mohammedans , should by his genius have inspired the efforts of 7,000 soldiers of inferior race, and by his courage have sustained the hearts of 30,000 inhabitants of notorious timidity, and with such materials and encumbrances have offered a vigorous resistance to the increasing attacks of an enemy who, though cruel, would yet accept surrender . . . is an event perhaps without parallel in history. (Churchill [1899] 1987: 57) For more than a decade the Mahdists held Sudan. Then, in 1898, Kitchener led an Anglo-Egyptian force to reconquer the region and occupy Khartoum .2 Upon hearing of Kitchener’s victory, Queen Victoria telegraphed, ‘‘Surely he is avenged!’’ (Magnus 1958: 133). Journalist G. H. Steevens wrote, ‘‘When civilisation fights with barbarism it must fight with civilised weapons,’’ and ‘‘the deadliest weapon against Mahdism’’ was a railway, built to speed imperial troops through the desert, along the Nile, and into the obdurate heart of Islamic Africa ‘‘with machine-like precision’’ (Steevens 1898: vii, 22). And with goods. For the railway also brought Victorian commodity culture —products and the ideas they conveyed. Churchill, a cavalryman in the campaign and war correspondent for the Morning Post, described how troops encamped at the advancing railhead were sustained: Every morning in the remote nothingness there appeared a black speck growing larger and clearer, until with a whistle and a welcome clatter, amid the aching silence of ages, the ‘‘material’’ train arrived. . . . At noon came another speck, developing in a similar manner into a supply train . . . [carrying water] . . . and the letters, newspapers, sausages, jam, whiskey, soda-water, and cigarettes which enable the Briton to conquer the world without discomfort. ([1899] 1987: 175) Not mentioned but surely also delivered was soap—an amenity of conquest that bore a heavy semantic load. Anne McClintock (1995: 207) notes that at the start of the nineteenth century, soap was scarce in Britain ‘‘and washing a cursory activity at best,’’ but by century’s end it was being mass-produced and held a privileged place among manufactured goods. Ideas about cleanliness condensed a range of bourgeois values, among them monogamy (clean sex), capitalism (clean profit), Christianity (being cleansed of sin), class distinction, rationality, racial purity. More, a close practical connection obtained between Victorian preoccupations with hygiene and evolutionary thought. Washing bodies, clothes, and homes—work done mainly by women—joined sexual purity rites such as race and class endogamy as techniques, in Foucault’s terms, for ‘‘maximizing life’’ and ensuring the ‘‘longevity, progeniture and descent of the classes that ‘ruled’ ’’ (Foucault 1990: 123; see also Davin 1997). Soap had become both an instru- Dirt, Undress, and Difference 170 ment and a symbol of bourgeois civilization, figuratively marking off the ‘‘cultivated ’’ and ‘‘developed’’ from the ‘‘primitive,’’ ‘‘barbarous,’’ and ‘‘unwashed.’’ Yet Victorian ideas about the healthy, vigorous, racially clean bourgeois body did not emerge in a Europe focused solely on itself. Rather, as Ann Stoler (1995: 7...


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