13 September 1884
Like today, the Middle East during the late nineteenth century experienced an Islamist uprising, kindled by a revival of religious fervour, oppressive political regimes, and resentment towards growing Western influence in the region. In 1881, a Sudanese fanatic, Muhammad Ahmad, proclaimed he was the Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam, with a mission to revitalize the Faith, restore unity to the Muslim community, and prepare for Judgement Day. He then started a military campaign against the Egyptian-controlled, Sudanese government. Needless to say, this did not go over well with the Khedive, or viceroy, of Egypt. Ostensibly a subject of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople, the semi-autonomous Khedive, Tewfik Pasha, owed his throne thanks largely to Britain who had come to his aid when a military coup, which almost toppled his regime, threatened British control of the Suez Canal, the Empire’s vital link to India.
But British Prime Minister Gladstone, concerned about the cost of providing military aid, was unwilling to help the Khedive suppress the Mahdi. Instead his government advised Tewfik Pasha to evacuate his soldiers and civilians from the Sudan, and form a defensive perimeter on the Egyptian-Sudanese border. This the Khedive agreed to do. The British government asked Major-General “Chinese” Gordon to go to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, to facilitate the Egyptian withdrawal.
On the surface Gordon appeared ideal for the job. A deeply religious man, Gordon was a veteran of many campaigns, including the Crimean War. In the 1860s, he had served with distinction in China, rising to command with British approval the Imperial Chinese forces that suppressed the Taiping Rebellion–hence his nickname “Chinese.” Subsequently, with the support of the British government, he had worked for the Egyptian Khedive, and had for a time been his Governor General of Sudan. During this interlude Gordon suppressed the Sudanese slave trade.
However, according to the senior British representative in Cairo, “a more unfortunate choice could scarcely have been made that that of General Gordon” who he described as “hot-headed, impulsive, and swayed by his emotions.” Gordon arrived in Khartoum from London in February 1884, after he had stopped off in Cairo and had been reappointed Sudan’s governor general by the Khedive. But after sending a few hundred sick Egyptian soldiers, women and children down the Nile to safety, evacuation plans were abandoned. Convinced that the Mahdi threatened Egyptian and British interests, and had to be stopped, Gordon put the Egyptian garrison and Sudanese civilians to work building earthwork defences to repell the Islamist forces. By March 1884, Khartoum was besieged by the Mahdi’s army of some 50,000 men. Gordon appealed home for aid to a reluctant government that didn’t want to get involved.
Pressured by British public opinion that had been stirred by an imperialist press that portrayed Gordon as a dashing and romantic figure, Gladstone’s government buckled. A relief force under the command of General Garnet Wolseley was dispatched to Khartoum in late 1884. Wolseley was as renowned as Gordon, having served in India, China, and Egypt. Parenthetically, he was also the army officer caracaturized by Gilbert and Sullivan in the song “I am the model of a modern Major-General,” in their play Pirates of Penzance.
Most importantly for this story, Wolseley had campaigned in Canada, having commanded the Red River Expedition in 1870 that put down the rebellion of Louis Riel in what became Manitoba. Remembering the prowess of native and Métis canoers, Wolseley contacted Canada’s Governor General, Lord Lansdowne, through the Colonial Office asking for 300 voyageurs from Caughnawaga [Kahnawake], St Regis [Akwesasne] and Manitoba. Their non-combatant, six-month tour of duty was to act as steersmen for his Nile Expedition, transporting soldiers down the Nile to Khartoum. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald agreed to the request on the proviso that all expenses would be paid by the British government.
Despite insistence from the Colonial Office that the British Army wanted native voyageurs, the Canadian government argued that the day of the voyageur was over, and that white raftsmen who drove logs down the Ottawa River had better navigational skills that native boatsmen. Of the 386 officers and men who volunteered for the Nile Expedition, roughly half were hired from the lumber shanty towns of Ottawa-Hull. Another 56 Mohawks came from the Caughnawaga and St Regis areas. A further 92 men heeded the call from the Winnipeg area, of whom roughly one third were Manitoba Ojibwas, led by Chief William Prince. Many were veterans of the Red River campaign. The remainder came from Trois Rivières, Sherbrooke and Peterborough. Roughly half of the men spoke French, one-third English, with the remainder speaking native languages. The majority of the volunteers were experienced boatsmen, though according to one account about a dozen from Winnipeg appeared “to be more at home driving a quill [pen] than handling an oar.”
The appeal for volunteers met widespread public support. Imperialist sentiment in Canada was strong. There was a keen desire, especially among English-speaking Canadians, to prove to Britain that Canada was not just some far-flung outpost but was willing to do its part for Queen and Empire.
It took less than a month after Wolseley’s appeal to assemble the Canadian Nile contingent under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Denison of the Governor General’s Body Guard, a unit of the Canadian militia. Denison, only 37 years of age, was a veteran of the Red River Expedition. He was also well known to Wolseley, having been his aide-de-camp during that campaign. Other senior officers included Major William Kennedy of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles (another Red River veteran), Captain Telmont Aumond of the Governor General’s Foot Guards, and Captain Alexander MacRae of London’s 7th Battalion. Surgeon-Major John Neilson (another Red River veteran) provided medical care, while Abbé Arthur Bouchard, who had been a missionary in Sudan, accompanied the contingent as chaplain.
The Ottawa contingent assembled on Saturday, 13 September 1884 at the office of T.J. Lambert, the recruiting agent, on Wellington Street at 11am. The sidewalk in front of the office building quickly became so crowded with men and well-wishers that the throng spilled onto the grounds of Parliament Hill across the street. There, a photographer from Notman’s studio took photographs of the men in front of the main entrance to the Centre Block. Also present to entertain the crowd and to provide a fitting send-off to the Ottawa volunteers was the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards that played a selection of popular tunes, including En roulant ma boule roulant, Home Sweet Home, The Girl I Left Behind, and Auld Lang Syne. At about noon, the men fell in and marched to the Union Depot in LeBreton Flats. A large crowd assembled at the train station to see them off, including most of the area’s lumber mill workers. A special CPR train took the men to Montreal where they joined up with the other contingents, and boarded the 2,500 ton steamer Ocean King for Alexandria.
The expedition was well organized. Each volunteer received a rigorous medical exam. Pay was set at $40 per month plus rations. Each man also received a $2.25 per day allowance from the date of their engagement to their departure date, as well as free passage to and from their destination. Additionally, the volunteers each received a kit consisting of a blanket, towel, smock, home-spun trousers and a jersey, woolen undershirt and drawers, two pairs of socks, a pair of knee-high moccasins, a flannel belt, a grey, wide-brim, soft hat, a canvas bag, and a tumpline to help carry things. Oddly, an optician from London, England offered to supply 450 pairs of spectacles free of charge. A Montreal evangelical group also provided a bible to every man. The men were given an advance of $10 and could make arrangements for any part of their pay to be sent to another person. Most arranged for three quarters of their pay to be sent to wives or parents. In addition to transporting the men, the Ocean King also shipped a birch bark canoe for the personal use of General Wolseley on the Nile.
Needless to say given the background of the men, a potent mixture of French Canadians, Irish, Scots, English, Métis and native peoples, most used to hard drinking and rough living in the lumber camps and the bush, it was a rowdy bunch. A reporter from the Montreal Gazette recounted a brawl that broke out aboard ship on the day the volunteers arrived from Ottawa after “a French Canadian struck an Indian.” He commented that was nothing to distinguish between the so-called “quiet and orderly Winnipeggers from the Ottawaites in the melee.” They were undoubtedly brought to heel by Captains Aumont and MacRae who were described as “two of the toughest customers.” On the day of departure, Sunday 14 September, the Governor General and Lady Lansdowne, and the Minister of the Militia and Defence, Adolphe-Philippe Caron, saw the Nile Voyageurs off to Egypt. Although the Ocean King had apparently been well provisioned, the Governor General sent beans, cabbages and apples to supplement the men’s rations.
The Canadian contingent arrived in Alexandria in early October, and quickly made their way up the Nile on a steamer to the main British base at Wadi Halfa. There, the voyageurs were divided into detachments and located at the six cataracts, or rapids, that needed to be traversed before the British forces could reach Khartoum. The boats, converted Royal Navy whalers, were 32 feet long, with a 7 foot beam, and a depth of 3 ½ feet. The voyageurs didn’t think much of them. The complained that they were made of inferior wood and had keels; flat bottoms would have been better given the circumstances. Despite the boats’ shortcomings, the men provided invaluable service to the British relief force, working long, grueling days in the desert heat to transport the troops through the treacherous Nile rapids. Despite their success, some British officers were shocked by the Canadians’ lack of discipline and deference to authority. This undoubtedly was due to the fact that the men were civilians, not soldiers, even if they were led by military men.
In early 1885, knowing that Gordon could not hold out much longer, Wolseley split his forces. While one detachment continued to make its way down the Nile to Khartoum, another was sent on a desperate trek across the desert to cut off the “Great Bend” in the river. By this point the number of Canadians supporting the mission had been greatly reduced. With their six-month tour of duty about to expire, most had started home in order to make it back for the logging season; a fifty percent increase in pay was insufficient inducement to stay. A rump of about 75 men re-enlisted to assist the British forces down the remainder of the Nile to Khartoum. Fortunately, the rapids were less severe by this point, and with a smaller number of troops to transport the diminished Canadian contingent was equal to the task.
Wolseley’s Nile Expedition ended in failure. The British relief forces arrived in Khartoum two days after the Mahdi’s forces had stormed Khartoum. General Gordon had been killed in the fighting, his head cut off and sent to the Mahdi, reportedly against the Muslim leader’s wishes. Apparently, the Mahdi and Gordon had great respect for each other, with each trying to convert the other. As for the besieged residents of Khartoum, some 10,000 soldiers and civilians were massacred. After successfully engaging a force of Sudanese fighters at nearby Kirbekan, the British relief column was ordered back to Egypt, with the Canadians again assisting the British forces through the Nile rapids, this time down river.
The bulk of the Nile Voyageurs returned to Canada through Halifax in early March 1885 aboard the Allan steamer the Hanoverian. The Ottawa contingent arrived home by train on 7 March. Much of the city’s population came out to greet them. The Frontenac Snowshoe Club lined the train platform to welcome them. After greeting their friends and families, the men paraded downtown led by two musical bands. A celebratory lunch followed. Ottawa residents eagerly snapped up pictures of their heroes. Twenty-five cents bought engravings of General Gordon or General Wolseley, while one dollar purchased a picture of the Nile contingent. The British Parliament later passed a motion of thanks to the Canadian voyageurs for their contribution to the Nile Expedition.
Of the 386 Nile voyageurs, twelve perished from drowning, disease, or accident on the expedition. Of these, M. Brennan and William Doyle were from Ottawa. Today, the Nile Voyageurs, Canada’s first foray on the international scene, have been largely forgotten. A memorial plaque to the Voyageurs was erected in 1966 in Ottawa at Kichissippi Lookout close to the Champlain Bridge. The names of the Nile voyageurs who perished are also recorded in the South Africa-Nile Expedition Book of Remebrance located in the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.
Boileau, John, 2004. “Voyagers on the Nile,” Legion Magazine, 1 January.
Canada, Government of, 2011. “The Nile Expedition, 1884-85,” Canadian Military History Gateway.
Daily Citizen, (The), 1884. “Nile Boatman,” Ottawa, 13 September.
————————, “Off to Egypt,” 15 September.
————————, 1885. “Safe Voyage,” 5 March.
Gazette, (The), 1884. “The Canadian Contingent,” Montreal, 15 September.
————————. “Off for Alexandria,” 16 September.
———————–. “Home Again,” 5 March.
MacLaren, Roy, 1978. Canadians on the Nile, 1882-1898, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Michel, Anthony, 2004. “To Represent the Country in Egypt: Aboriginality, Britishness, Anglophone Canadian Identities, and the Nile Voyageur Contingent, 1884-1885,” Social History.
Plummer, Kevin, 2015. “Ascending the Nile,” Torontoist, 21 February.
The Canadian Voyageurs in front of the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, 1884, author unknown, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN No. 3623770.
Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.