Since ancient times, statues have served as barometers of power: They go up when the fortunes of a regime run high, and when empires tumble they too can fall. What do you do with a defunct icon? The Greeks and the Romans used to recarve images, turning one emperor into another, or change
pedestal captions to suit new circumstances. French revolutionaries toppled a statue of Louis XV in today’s Place de la Concorde, melted it down and replaced it with a guillotine. More recently, in Budapest, the bronze and stone corpses of the Communist regime were set up in a sculpture park just outside town, aestheticized and touristified. One wonders what happened to that statue of Saddam Hussein, pulled down with such symbolic pomp–and careful staging–in Baghdad’s Firdaus Square in 2003.
The fall of the British Empire, which could once treat about a quarter of the world as its sculpture garden, has produced statue anxieties of its own, particularly in the imperial capital. Postcolonial migration has transformed London into one of the world’s most diverse cities, yet images of the old empire’s heroes still stand throughout the city center. At best, they are irrelevant. London Mayor Ken Livingstone has called for the Trafalgar Square images of Gen. Sir Charles Napier (conqueror of Sindh in 1843) and Gen. Sir Henry Havelock (who led the relief of Lucknow in the 1857 Indian Mutiny) to be replaced by figures “that ordinary Londoners would know.” At worst, they are reminders of the black deeds of Britain’s imperial past. Livingstone has unsuccessfully lobbied to position a bronze of Nelson Mandela in the square as a monument to the “peaceful transition” from British imperial dominance “to a multiracial and multicultural world.”
If Napier and Havelock were shifted to the Thames Embankment, as Livingstone has suggested, they would find themselves reunited with another figure that once stood in Trafalgar Square. Gen. Charles George Gordon’s statue was moved during World War II to make way for the exhibition of a Lancaster bomber. Had he remained, he might have attracted more controversy than his comrades; he would certainly be better known. One of the most dynamic if eccentric Victorian imperial heroes, Gordon achieved fame in China, fighting the Taiping rebels in the 1860s; but he entered posterity in Sudan, where he was killed in 1885 by the army of a charismatic rebel who had proclaimed himself the Mahdi, or Muslim messiah. (Some may recognize Gordon in the form of Charlton Heston, who played him in the 1966 movie Khartoum, opposite Laurence Olivier, in fierce brownface, as the Mahdi.)
Gordon’s last adventure coupled imperial bluster with humanitarian lobbying, pitted British supporters of overseas intervention against advocates of withdrawal and set European power against Muslim revolutionaries. Sound familiar? Dominic Green would like you to think so. These exploits form a connecting thread through Three Empires on the Nile, Green’s imaginative retelling of how Britain gained supremacy in Egypt and Sudan during the last decades of the nineteenth century.
His story begins with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Though the brainchild of a Frenchman, the canal proved vital to British interests by providing a rapid route to India, Britain’s most valuable imperial possession. It had the added benefit of instantly increasing the strategic and commercial importance of Egypt in British eyes. But the tremendous costs of its construction plunged the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail, into unrecoverable debt. In 1875 Ismail sold his controlling interest in the canal to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, giving Britain a substantial stake in Egypt’s fortunes. The sale did not, however, stave off Ismail’s bankruptcy or the establishment of a joint Anglo-French commission to supervise his finances and his government.