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Voyageurs On The Nile

The Nile Voyageurs negotiate the river’s second cataract in November 1884.

For nearly 400 Canadians it was a winter like no other. Instead of the snow and sub-zero temperatures of their native land, they faced the soaring heat and sun-scorched desert of the Sudan in far-off sub-Saharan Africa. It was the winter of 1884-85, and the Canadians were there because they were skilled in handling small boats on rough river waters.

The boatmen and lumbermen–many of them Indians–were attached to British General Sir Garnet Wolseley’s Nile expedition. Their job was to help rescue Major-General Charles Gordon who was besieged at the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, located on the Nile approximately 2,000 kilometres south of Cairo, Egypt. The expedition marked the first time that a Canadian contingent served overseas.

The Canadians, known at the time as the Nile Voyageurs, were hired to operate the boats that would carry the relieving force of British soldiers up the longest river in the world. Tough and reliable, these men were hired as a result of Wolseley’s experiences in Canada during the Red River Rebellion of 1870. That was when Wolseley led an expedition against Métis leader Louis Riel’s insurrection at Fort Garry, Manitoba.

For that historic journey, a large number of guides, Indians and voyageurs were hired to assist with the transportation of Wolseley’s 1,400-man force. The difficult part of the expedition began on the shores of Lake Superior, near the present-day city of Thunder Bay, Ont. It ended 13 weeks and 1,050 kilometres later at Fort Garry. The men travelled in boats measuring nine metres in length, and along the way they encountered a difficult chain of raging, rock-strewn rivers and numerous lakes. They also endured almost 50 backbreaking portages through thick forests and swampy muskeg.

Wolseley travelled at the head of his force; often in a birch bark canoe manned by Iroquois whom he considered “the most daring and skilful of the Canadian voyageurs.”

Riel had fled to the United States by the time the expedition reached Fort Garry in late August of 1870. Wolseley returned to England a minor hero and his soldiers resumed their peacetime existence until circumstances in a remote area of Africa drew many of them together again.

* * *

The Mahdi, a Muslim religious leader, had united various Sudanese tribes under his leadership and soon was in control of most of the country. Major-General Gordon, sent to evacuate Egyptian soldiers and officials, only removed a few hundred to safety before being besieged at Khartoum in March 1884.

The British government procrastinated over what to do, although the public overwhelmingly clamoured for a relief expedition. Wolseley, now the army’s adjutant-general, urged the same action. Time was short, but he had a plan to reach Khartoum via the Nile, which the government finally approved.

Although the straight-line distance from Cairo to Khartoum is almost 2,000 kilometres, it is much further “as the Nile flows or the camel walks.” Wolseley’s army had to move up the Nile and around its six major cataracts (long rapids), through inhospitable desert containing several thousand hostile tribesmen. His solution drew on his great admiration of the skills, stamina and adaptability of Canadian voyageurs. “I would propose,” he stated, “to send all the dismounted portion of the force up the Nile to Khartoum in boats, as we sent the little expeditionary force from Lake Superior to Fort Garry on the Red River in 1870.”

Wolseley’s idea was immediately denounced from several quarters, but the general remained firm. Among his key subordinates in Egypt were several who had served with him in Canada, one of whom supervised building 800 boats in England for Egypt. The finished product, a modified Royal Navy whaler, measured almost 10 metres long, two metres wide and three-quarters of a metre deep, and was equipped with 12 oars, two masts and a removable rudder. It could carry 12 men with enough food and ammunition for 100 days, and often carried up to an additional four tons. But just as important as the boats was the question of who would man them.

* * *

The telegram received on Aug. 21, 1884 from the British Colonial Office to Lord Lansdowne, the Governor General, proposing “to engage 300 good voyageurs from Caugnawaga, Saint Regis, and Manitoba as steersmen in boats for Nile expedition,” started the recruitment of Canadians for Wolseley’s rescue operation. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald had no objections, providing Britain absorbed all costs.

By 1884, the voyageurs of old had largely disappeared; the men who now possessed the required skills were raftsmen engaged in the great annual log drives on rivers like the Ottawa, Gatineau and Saguenay. Lord Lansdowne described them as “excessively hardy and unequalled in their knowledge of river navigation.”

An Ottawa lumber broker undertook most of the recruiting and general administration of raising the force. One hundred and seventy-one men came from a recruiting office in Ottawa, while 91 came from Winnipeg. Caugnawaga produced 56 while Trois-Rivières, Que., Peterborough, Ont., and Sherbrooke, Que., raised 39, 15 and six, respectively. The ages of the boatmen varied from several 18-year-olds to the oldest at 64. They were about half English- and half French-speaking, while over 100 were Indians or Métis. The monthly wages were $40 for ordinary boatmen and $75 for foremen.

In Manitoba, 45-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel William Kennedy was responsible for enlistment. A member of the 90th Winnipeg Battalion of Rifles, he was a Red River veteran and a prominent lawyer and politician. Although he recruited some useful men, he also accepted several Winnipeg businessmen who were “hopelessly inefficient” as boatmen.

Several serving Canadian military personnel accompanied the expedition to command and administer the Canadians. The commanding officer was another Red River veteran, Major Frederick Denison, 37, of the Governor General’s Body Guard. Denison, a Toronto lawyer and alderman, was promoted lieutenant-colonel for the expedition.

Kennedy, senior in rank to Denison, inserted himself into the contingent with the support of a large number of Manitoba Ojibwas. He dropped a rank to major, and was appointed paymaster.

With several French-Canadians among the boatmen, it was felt there must be at least one French-Canadian officer, and Captain Telmont Aumond of the Governor General’s Foot Guards of Ottawa was chosen. He and Captain Alexander MacRae of London’s 7th Battalion, Fusiliers, had wide experience in boat work. The Governor General’s military secretary described them as “two of the toughest customers, but I believe they are both well suited to the work.”

Another Red River veteran, Surgeon-Major John Neilson, medical officer of B Battery, Regiment of Canadian Artillery, became the contingent’s doctor, accompanied by Hospital Sergeant Gaston Labat from the same unit. With numerous Roman Catholics among the men, a Canadian priest, Abbé Arthur Bouchard, a former missionary in the Sudan, became chaplain. In all, 379 “generally suitable” boatmen and seven officers were recruited.

The contingent sailed from Montreal on Sept. 14, 1884, bound for Alexandria in far away Egypt. The raising of the force was a remarkable feat; recruited and dispatched in 24 days from receiving the Colonial Office telegram.

The contingent arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, on Oct. 7, 1884. Prior to its arrival, the contingent recorded its first loss, a Manitoba Ojibwa named Richard Henderson who was buried at sea after succumbing to an illness. From Alexandria, the force journeyed south up the Nile to Wadi Halfa, nicknamed Bloody Halfway by British troops because of its location halfway between Alexandria and Khartoum. On Oct. 26, the Canadians joined Wolseley, who noted they were “a rough-looking lot.”

Chief William Prince of the Manitoba Ojibwa–another Red River veteran–was a foreman. His descendants continued to render distinguished service in their country’s wars, including Sergeant Tommy Prince, who fought in World War II and in the Korean War, winning the Military Medal and the American Silver Star for his bravery.

After Wadi Halfa, the real tough work began. It was backbreaking labour 13 to 14 hours a day, wrestling the heavily laden whalers through increasingly rough waters. But with the arrival of the Canadians, the pace picked up; their experience in handling small boats proved its worth over the earlier “amateur fumblings” of the British soldiers.

Louis Duguay, 33, of Trois-Rivières, wrote home, “If you had seen us Canadiens, you would have been really proud of it…. It was extraordinary to see the rapidity with which the expedition travels since the Canadiens have arrived.”

The first hurdle–the second cataract–on the journey south was overcome within 10 days of the voyageurs’ appearance by a combination of rowing, sailing and towing. The Canadians also experienced their first fatality on the Nile when Louis Capitaine, 28, a Caughnawaga Mohawk and father of three, drowned Oct. 30.

As the expedition slowly worked its way upriver through November, a typical day saw six soldiers rowing each boat, with a voyageur at the helm or bow. When strong currents were encountered, the men either bulled through or pulled the boat by ropes from the shore, with the helmsman and bowman left on board. Strong rapids required several crews to haul each boat through, slowing down the pace.

In mid-November, still hundreds of kilometres from Khartoum, a message from Gordon stated he could hold out for only another 40 days. Wolseley figured he could make it in time, but knew it was going to be very close.

Working under the scorching sun, Canadian boatmen and British soldiers did their best, knowing the Empire’s reputation, as well as people’s lives, depended on their efforts. But it was all too painfully slow.

To speed things up, the voyageurs were divided into small groups and stationed at the roughest spots, where they got to know the characteristics of that particular part of the Nile. This worked extremely well, and according to the official history of the campaign, “was greatly preferred by the men themselves, as they were far more comfortable in fixed camps…than when perpetually on the move.”

Christmas Day was spent far from Khartoum, well past the “40 days” of Gordon’s message. Foreman Alexis de Coteau–also from Trois-Rivières–was the expedition’s oldest voyageur. He shared a Christmas drink with one of Wolseley’s officers from the Red River, and in the old man’s opinion, the Nile was nothing like Canadian rivers, but was “a bad, bad river!”

And the “bad, bad” river took its toll. By the end of December, seven more voyageurs had died: five by drowning and two by disease. Another problem also loomed on the horizon: the Canadians’ six-month contracts ended on March 9. To encourage re-enlistment, an additional $20 a month was offered–more than twice what they earned by logging. But throughout January 1885 only 89 voyageurs re-enlisted, others wanting to return to Canada for springtime logging.

Meanwhile, Wolseley sent a large force 280 kilometres across the desert by camel, in a shortcut avoiding a great 650-kilometre bend in the Nile. With several of the most difficult parts of the meandering river behind them, this lessened the need for as many Canadians. Accordingly, those who did not re-engage departed in late January under Aumond.

On the return journey, two of the Ottawa voyageurs fell off a train and were killed. The contingent left Alexandria in early February and arrived home to an enthusiastic reception. The Ottawa group marched through city streets lined with cheering spectators to the drill hall for a welcome dinner on March 6.

The Ottawa Free Press, in typical Victorian fashion, wrote: “Hurrah stout hearts, well and bravely have you done your duty, though at times it has been hard and perilous. Cheerfully and fearlessly have you faced the danger, and overcome it! Welcome home, an honour to your cherished country which proudly salutes you and totally delights to honour you.”

Although the returning Canadians had accomplished much, many of their comrades were still struggling on the Nile. The adventure was far from over.

As Wolseley’s 2,400-man desert column set out across the sands, the remaining voyageurs under Denison continued to work the boats with the 3,000-man river column, encountering one of the roughest stretches of water. On Feb. 5, a messenger arrived with the news Khartoum had fallen on Jan. 26, two days before the desert column reached the city’s outskirts in its futile race across the arid wilderness. Gordon was killed in the onslaught, his severed head displayed in the Mahdi’s camp.

The elaborate expedition, had failed. The British government now directed Wolseley “to smash up the Mahdi.” To do this, he decided to wait until cooler fall weather while reorganizing his forces. Meanwhile, the river column continued its struggle as seasonal falling waters made the river more difficult. What’s more, the victory at Khartoum encouraged the Sudanese to attack the column.

However, the Battle of Kirbekan was over in a few hours. The lightly armed Sudanese were simply no match for the disciplined firepower of the British Army. The non-combatant voyageurs were instructed to remain behind as the troops advanced, but “a few managed to get away and went up and saw the fight,” as foreman Alex McLaurin reported in the Ottawa Free Press.

When Wolseley recalled the river column, the skill of the Canadians came into play as never before; the boats had to run the river. Orders directed, “In difficult rapids special arrangements will be made for taking each boat through with Canadian pilots.” One section, 30 days in ascending, took only nine to descend. On March 8, the river column reached Wolseley at Korti. With a long summer pause before he started his fall campaign, he allowed any Canadians who wanted to go home to do so.

The Nile Voyageurs decided unanimously to return and, on March 13, left for Alexandria. When they sailed for England on April 17, Kennedy led them as Denison was hospitalized with typhoid fever. Disease had also claimed four more Canadian lives since the beginning of the year.

In London, several voyageurs were diagnosed with smallpox, including Kennedy who died on May 3, 1885 the last of 16 Canadians to lose their lives. The smallpox prevented an inspection by the Queen, but she sent a message stating how pleased she was by the “energy and devotion they had shown in the arduous duties performed by them on the Nile.”

On May 15, the boatmen sailed for Montreal. Canada’s first overseas mission was over.

Although Wolseley failed to rescue Gordon, it was not for lack of effort on the part of the Canadians. He acknowledged as much in his report of the expedition: “The Dominion of Canada supplied us with a most useful body of boatmen. Their skill in the management of boats in difficult and dangerous waters was of the utmost use to us in our long ascent of the Nile. Men and officers showed a high military and patriotic spirit, making light of difficulties and working with that energy and determination which have always characterized Her Majesty’s Canadian Forces.”


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