Empire & Decolonisation

Islands of Britishness: Siege Stories and Imperial Memory

The British Empire may have declined and fallen, but in Britain’s modern culture wars the ghosts of its old garrisons are still being mustered to defend its memory. Recent campaigns over imperial monuments, placenames, and statues have demanded that Britain’s public spaces should change to reflect the nation’s changing values, rejecting the racism and imperialism built into the foundations of this memorial architecture. In the conservative backlash against these ideas, one prominent strand has been a nostalgic selective reading of these histories in order to present a more palatable narrative to defend, especially narratives of military heroism. But these modern debates have some surprising precedents which demonstrate how gratifying defensive visions of the ‘imperial mission’ have long been entangled with notions of national identity – as the post-war episode of General Charles Gordon’s exile from Trafalgar Square illustrates.

Gordon had been betrayed twice, according to his defenders. First, in 1885, the Liberal government of William Gladstone had failed to relieve him during the siege of Khartoum, leading to a death at the hands of Mahdist rebels which turned him into an imperial icon. Now, in 1948, the general’s statue was being unceremoniously evicted from its pride of place at the centre of Trafalgar Square to make way for the new fountains dedicated to the First World War admirals Beatty and Jellicoe. Gordon had been removed on a supposedly temporary basis in 1943 to make way for a Lancaster bomber installed as part of the Wings For Victory fundraising drive, but controversy was now sparked by the announcement that he would not be reinstalled. Out of office and evidently out of temper at this reversal, Winston Churchill protested in the House of Commons that Gordon had been ‘not only a military commander’ but emblematic of ‘very many cherished ideals’. What were these ideals? In my article for HWJ 93, ‘“All England Was Present at that Siege”: Imperial Defences and Island Stories in British Culture’, I explore this question by tracing how siege stories like Khartoum became interwoven with Britain’s older island stories, offering a gratifying and morally-palatable vision of Britain’s imperial mission which still resonates today.

‘National Gallery & Gordons Statue’ postcard, n.d. c. 1930

For Gordon’s Victorian admirers, one of the great morals of his story had been the imperative to never retreat from imperial commitments, a lesson inspired by his refusal to leave Khartoum and warning that Britain would suffer ‘indelible disgrace’ if it abandoned the Sudan. It was a lesson invoked repeatedly in works like G.W. Joy’s famous painting General Gordon’s Last Stand, and Churchill’s own history The River War, which vividly depicted Gordon’s lonely vigil on the palace rooftop scanning the horizon with a telescope for relief that never came. But if Gordon had been ‘alone’ in Khartoum, as contemporaries imagined, he had not been alone in history. In fact, Gordon and his advocates had been expertly playing upon existing narratives about colonial sieges which had flourished in British culture since the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and which represented the defence of imperial outposts as a unifying cross-class endeavour inextricably linked to the defence of the ‘island fortress’ Britain itself.

Sieges attained this status on one level because of their dramatic human stories. When Indian sepoy troops and local populations rebelled against their East India Company rulers in 1857, British civilians as well as soldiers were besieged in hastily assembled outposts for weeks or months as relief forces struggled to reach them. In failed defences like Cawnpore (now Kanpur), this civilian element lent an additional tragedy to the garrison’s fall for contemporaries, with the deaths of women and children prompting widespread calls for vengeance. At nearby Lucknow, accounts of the six-month defence often emphasised the civilian contribution, with their bookshelves and expensive furniture piled up into barricades, schoolboys being drilled in rifle fire, and upper-class ladies taking on unfamiliar nursing and domestic duties. While repulsing a rebel attack, one young merchant recalled his nerves giving way to an adrenaline-fuelled bloodthirst: ‘I no longer thought of myself, but only of the number I could kill.’ Accounts like these offered civilian audiences the vicarious thrill of participating in colonial warfare along with patriotic morals about the latent martial ability of all Britons.

At the same time, declarations that the garrison were ‘all in it together’ were undermined in reality over the long months by increasingly bitter recriminations about the hoarding of food, medicine, and shelter by senior civilians and officers. Malnutrition and scurvy were rife in the lower ranks. Racial hierarchies were also exacerbated, with suspicion and persecution of loyal Indian troops, and the advancing relief columns indiscriminately executing rebels and civilians alike. Anxiety over the potential ‘treachery’ of colonised peoples and the need for swift pre-emptive action to prevent ‘another Cawnpore’ were among the key lessons drawn by colonial Britons from the 1857 sieges. Siege stories bolstered the siege mentalities of colonial societies and were deployed to justify repressive violence of the kind unleashed in Morant Bay in 1865 or Amritsar in 1919.

It was on the home front, however, that these complex personal stories were amalgamated into a triumphalist national story which would make imperial sieges the defining military set-piece for generations of Victorians. Distance and uncertainty encouraged a heightened vision of the ‘Mutiny’, with parallels drawn between Lucknow and the seventeenth-century siege of Derry, or England’s repulse of invasion threats from the Spanish Armada and Napoleon. The ‘spirit of Lucknow’ was hailed in editorials, speeches, and sermons as a manifestation of the nation’s traditional insular Protestant identity, with the garrison imagined as a microcosm of Britain reflecting its various nationalities, classes, and patriotic virtues. As such, their endurance and eventual relief could be proclaimed by The Times to be Providential evidence of ‘the essential power of British character’ and Britain’s right to rule India. Even critics of imperial policy like the radical Reynolds’s Newspaper paid tribute to the defenders, suggesting the degree to which the siege formed a temporary solvent for political and social divisions.

This vision would be insistently revived across the later Victorian decades as expansive policies led to endemic imperial wars in which outbreaks, sieges, and relief columns formed the typical first act. Focusing on sympathetic embattled garrisons worked to short-circuit any debate over these conflicts and rallied opinion around an immediate threat. My article examines Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, but the righteous spirit of 1857 was also invoked to contextualise defences ranging from Burma, China, and west Africa to Afghanistan and Sudan – where headlines proclaimed Gordon’s defence to be ‘AN EGYPTIAN LUCKNOW’. Telling and retelling famous siege stories helped to frame popular understandings of the empire by justifying its violence as a defensive necessity, and by representing these besieged islands of Britishness as sites to be defended as tenaciously as the island homeland itself – there must be no retreat and no surrender.

As Churchill’s objections would suggest, even by 1948 this vision of Britain’s imperial mission still held a nostalgic appeal for many. But his intervention was shoehorned in at the end of an afternoon session during which the Commons had debated imperial issues of far more immediate concern, from the evacuation of Palestine to the Kenyan independence struggle. The Minister for Works Charles Key was sympathetic but brief: he would welcome suggestions for another suitable site, but Gordon’s statue would not return to Trafalgar Square. In the end, the general was reshuffled to a quieter spot in Victoria Embankment Gardens. He was still standing for those who wished to visit him, however, and was overlooked significantly across the road by the new Ministry of Defence. Like this relocated, faded icon, Victorian imperial sieges have retained their evocative power for nostalgists across the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, with cultural depictions like the 1964 film Zulu ensuring that Rorke’s Drift, in particular, continues to hold a prominent place in the popular memory of empire. Invoked everywhere from sports journalism to anti-immigration rhetoric, local history memorialisation, and culture wars debates, these old imperial siege narratives continue to influence Britain’s new island stories.

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