Siege of Khartoum Currency
Posted on 7/16/2019
In the late 19th century, the British empire spanned the globe. With colonies, protectorates and/or territories on every continent, including Antarctica, it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. To maintain control of this vast empire, the British crown was in a near constant state of warfare, frequently sending troops overseas to quell uprisings and protect English holdings.
In 1882, the English launched a military campaign in Africa that established Egypt (which included Sudan at the time) as a de facto British protectorate. Even before England had successfully brought Egypt under its heel, a revolution was fomenting in Sudan. The Sudanese people, many of whom longed to be independent, found a leader in Muhammad Ahmad, who was proclaimed to be a redeemer, or “Mahdi,” of Islam in 1881. By 1883, Muhammad Ahmad led a revolutionary force, called the Mahdist, that was able to defeat an Egyptian army at El-Obeid and capture a vast amount of arms and land in Sudan.
The success of the Mahdist revolution, particularly the victory at El-Obeid, led some in Britain to believe intervention was necessary. One such person was General Charles George Gordon, a popular war hero in Britain and former Governor-General of Sudan. As a devout Christian, Gordon believed it was Britain's God-given responsibility to maintain control of the entire region and crush the Mahdist revolt. However, Prime Minister William Gladstone and War Secretary Lord Hartington, objected to military intervention and instead wished to evacuate the British and Egyptian garrisons, and establish a self-governing state in North Sudan, leaving the Mahdists to their own devices.
Instead of sending an anti-interventionist, Gladstone and Hartington were pressured by the British public, the press and even Queen Victoria to send a war-hawk: General Charles Gordon. With the stated purpose of organizing an evacuation, Gordon departed for Sudan on January 18, 1884.
Upon arriving in Sudan, Gordon set about trying to halfheartedly fulfill the vague instructions given to him by the Crown. Instead of making evacuation a top priority, Gordon focused on building an army to defeat the Mahdi. Before long, he realized that he could not put together a force large enough to defeat the revolt, and so he withdrew to the city of Khartoum and prepared for a siege.
To win over support of the population, Gordon legalized slavery, which he had abolished himself only a few years earlier while serving as Governor-General. This move, while popular in Khartoum, further angered the already impatient British administration back home. Gordon, perhaps realizing that the chances of a relief force being sent were growing ever more unlikely, decided to strengthen the defenses around Khartoum.
In April 1884, the tribes of northern Khartoum rose up in support of the Mahdi and virtually cut off the city, beginning the Siege of Khartoum. Later that month, General Gordon issued a series of currency to keep the local economy moving. In a letter dated April 26, Gordon explained that he issued £2,500 worth of notes redeemable in six months in order to pay the garrison. He reassures the administration back home by stating that he owes “officers silver [and] men copper. You will not be asked to pay for them.” Rather than requesting funds from the Crown, Gordon found a shortcut by issuing his own cash.
The British Administration of Sudan printed four different issues of notes during the siege of Khartoum. The first two issues can be found in nine different denominations; from 5 to 5,000 Piastres (see the "Standard Catalog of World Paper Money: Specialized (12th Edition)," Sudan #S101-S111). The notes’ text is in Arabic and uses a system where different shapes surrounding the serial number signifies the amount (See images below).
Another variety among the earlier Siege of Khartoum notes is the signature. At first, Gordon hand-signed all notes himself but, as more notes were issued and Gordon’s time became more consumed with the siege, they resorted to hectographic printing for the signature (See comparison of S106a and S106b below). Hectographic printing involves using a gelatin to absorb ink from an original to transfer to a copy.
|Sudan / British Administration, Pick# S106a, 1884 500 Piastres, front
graded PMG 63 Choice Uncirculated NET
Click image to enlarge.
|Sudan / British Administration, Pick# S106b, 1884 500 Piastres, front
graded PMG 62 Uncirculated
Click image to enlarge.
Two more issues of notes were printed, also in 1884, one using the British Pound rather than Egyptian Piastre and another that had an ornate border added to the design. However, unlike the earlier issues, these two types (Pick# S112 and S113) are considered much rarer and have not been graded by PMG.
Unfortunately for Gordon, the cash he raised was not enough to protect Khartoum from falling to the Mahdist army. After a nearly 10-month siege, the city finally fell in January of 1885. After a night assault, Mahdist soldiers flooded the city, surrounded Gordon’s headquarters, and eventually killed the general (there is still debate about how exactly Gordon fell, but we do know he was killed in action). In Britain, General Charles Gordon was hailed as a hero and a martyr. This eventually led the British to send an army in 1896 led by Horatio Herbert Kitchener to reconquer Sudan and avenge Gordon’s death. Just as Charles Gordon lives on as a popular figure during Britain’s Age of Imperialism, the notes he issued survive in numismatic collections and serve as important pieces of evidence from the past.
- Bass, J. (2007) "Of Madness and Empire: The Rhetor as 'Fool' in the Khartoum Siege Journals of Charles Gordon, 1884," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 93:4, 449-469, DOI: 10.1080/00335630701594004
- Judd, D. (1985) "Gordon of Khartoum: the Making of an Imperial Martyr." History Today, 35, 19–25.
- Nicoll, F. (2010). “Truest History, Struck Off at White Heat”: The Politics of Editing Gordon’s Khartoum Journals. Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History, 38(1), 21–46. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/10.1080/03086530903538160