Kitchener's boat needs you to get her back in shape
She led the British flotilla at the Battle of Omdurman, and she's been a haven for expatriate gin drinkers. Now the rusting Melik has become an unlikely symbol of Anglo-Sudanese co-operation.Plot Summary for Khartoum (1966)
Photo: The Melik was tossed ashore after the Nile flooded in 1987 and is now a lopsided home for a Bengali worker (Nick Ray)
The mighty gunboat deployed by General Kitchener at the Battle of Omdurman may soon sail again, more than a century after it blasted its way up the Nile to crush rebellion in Sudan.
For the past 20 years, the 145ft Melik has been slowly rusting on the muddy bank of the Blue Nile at Khartoum. But after years of being lobbied for its preservation the Sudanese authorities have now agreed in principle to the establishment of a joint Anglo-Sudanese charity whose task will be to restore the ancient battleship.
"We are hopeful in the next month that we will be able to get this show on the road," says Anthony Harvey, secretary of the Melik Society, a British-based group that has campaigned for 12 years to save the boat. "There is no reason why the Melik should not be fully restored and able to go back in the water."
In some ways, the Melik is an unlikely symbol of Anglo-Sudanese co-operation. The gunboat was a Victorian weapon of high technology and fearsome power, intended to terrorise the Sudanese rebels and to kill as many as possible.
It was built in Chiswick in 1896, then shipped in pieces to Egypt, taken by rail across the Nubian Desert and reassembled at Abadieh on the Nile. From there it led a flotilla of heavily armed gunboats, a vital element in Kitchener's reconquest of Khartoum in 1898.
Thirteen years earlier, Sudanese warriors led by the messianic Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad had rebelled against Egyptian-Turkish rule, besieged Khartoum and killed the Governor-General, General Charles George Gordon.
With most of Sudan under the Mahdi's control, Britain decided to bring the rebellious Sudanese to heel. General Sir Herbert Kitchener, in the name of the Egyptian Khedive, set out to avenge the defeat and subdue Sudan with 8,000 British regulars, a mixed force of 17,000 Sudanese and Egyptian troops and a fleet of gunboats equipped with 12-pounder guns, howitzers and Maxim guns.
Searchlights were mounted on the Melik's roof to ward off a feared attack at night by the Mahdist forces.
The Melik, commanded by General Gordon's nephew, Major W. S. "Monkey" Gordon, was also the first battleship to carry a film correspondent: Frederick Villiers, of the Illustrated London News, brought a cine camera with him - which broke before a single inch of footage was shot. The ensuing battle, however, was reported by Winston Churchill, then a young journalist riding with the 21st Lancers.
Against the British force, the Mahdi's successor (the Khalifa), Abdullah al-Taashi, deployed 50,000 holy warriors, known as Ansar but sometimes referred to as Dervishes, mostly armed with spears, muskets and ancient rifles. The Khalifa had two machine guns; Kitchener's troops had 55.
In the course of the engagement, the 21st Lancers mounted one of the last cavalry charges in history, earning three Victoria Crosses. But the battle was essentially won by modern military methods and brutal firepower, including the Melik's ferocious battery of guns. The Ansar, with their chain-mail armour and crocodile-skin shields, were no match for the Maxim guns, which could fire 500 rounds a minute.
Churchill wrote that the Battle of Omdurman was "the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a foreign power had been destroyed."
At least 10,000 Ansar died; many more were wounded and taken prisoner. Only 48 were killed on the British side.
The Melik transported Kitchener (who was soon to be ennobled as Lord Kitchener of Khartoum) in triumph from the field of Omdurman to the governor's destroyed palace in Khartoum. The Mahdist forces were finally defeated the following year, and the Khalifa was killed at the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat.
In 1926, the Melik was moored to the riverbank at Khartoum and became the clubhouse for the Blue Nile Sailing Club. From her deck, refurbished as a comfortable bar, expatriates would gather to drink pink gins and watch the sailing races on the Nile. She emerged briefly from retirement in 1938 to play a starring role in the Alexander Korda film The Four Feathers.
Understandably, the citizens of Sudan had less fond feelings for the old warship: what British people saw as a souvenir of imperial glory, many Sudanese viewed as a remnant of colonial oppression. In the 1960s, the Melik's steel hull began to corrode. In 1987, the Nile burst its banks, ripped the ship from her moorings and tossed her on to the shore.
Today the gunboat sits in a bed of dried mud and sand in a grove of mahogany trees, its decks tipped at an angle, the roof collapsing. A Bengali worker now eats and sleeps in what were once its panelled staterooms, beneath a rotting roof invaded by creepers.
The bow-gun used to such effect during the Battle of Omdurman remains intact, as does the wheel in the disintegrating wheelhouse, but the bar is crumbling. Pink gin is forbidden in Sudan, a Muslim country.
The Blue Nile Sailing Club survives, but lacks the funds needed to maintain the ship. "An important source of revenue for the club dried up when alcohol was banned," Mr Harvey says.
The Melik Society was established in 1994, with the present Earl Kitchener as patron, to try to preserve and restore the ship. Tortuous negotiations involved Britain, various Sudanese government bodies, including the Sudanese Ministry of Culture and Ancient Monuments Service, and the Blue Nile Sailing Club, which insists that it still owns the boat.
Ian Cliff, the British Ambassador to Sudan, says: "We would like to see restoration of the vessel, to see it sailing again on the Nile, which is perfectly possible."
Sudan is facing escalating violence in Darfur, political instability and widespread poverty, so if the Melik is to be saved, the money will have to come from charitable donations.
The Melik Society recently commissioned Fraser Nash, the marine engineers, to carry out a survey of the ship. The engineers concluded that, just as the Melik was assembled in pieces in 1896, so it could be deconstructed, by unbolting its sections, before being repaired and reassembled.
"It will not cost a vast amount of money," says Mr Harvey, pointing out that the Khartoum shipyard is just a few hundred yards away on the other side of the Nile.
The refurbished Melik would have to earn her keep, as a floating tourist attraction, perhaps providing battlefield tours by river to nearby Omdurman.
Jabril Mafuz, a shipworker from Bengal, has now taken up permanent residence inside the immobilised ship. He takes the wheel and looks out across the glittering waters of the Nile through a broken and rotted window. His expression is proudly proprietorial.
General Kitchener must once have stood in the same place as he steamed upriver, loaded down with guns and imperial hubris.
"Very good ship," says Mr Mafuz, affectionately patting the wheel-house. "Very comfortable. But not in rainy season. Would you like a cup of tea?"
11 The months Gordon held out in Khartoum before he was routed and killed in 1885
13 The years it took before the British could avenge Gordon's death
1896 The year in which the Melik was built in Chiswick, England
25,000 The total number of men by which Kitchener was outnumbered at the Battle of Omdurman
500 The number of rounds a minute the Melik's Maxim guns fired
Source: The Melik Society
English General Charles George Gordon, a devout Christian, is appointed military governor of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan by Prime Minister Gladstone. Ordered to evacuate Egyptians from the Sudan, General Gordon stays on to protect the people of Khartoum, who are under threat of being conquered by a Muslim army. His Christian faith and military command are challenged by Mohammed Ahmed el Mahdi, "the Expected One," the head of the Muslim forces.
[Summary written by Jon C. Hopwood http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060588/plotsummary]