British adventurer — Butler advised Wolseley to enlist Canadian voyageurs for Nile campaign

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s original instructions to General Charles “Chinese” Gordon were “not for the purpose of conquering the Soudan (sic) or to persuade its chiefs to submit themselves to the English Government. He went for the double purpose of evacuating the country by extricating the Egyptian garrisons and reconstructing it by giving back to these chiefs their ancestral powers, withdrawn or suspended during the period of Egyptian occupation.”

In fact, the British government was reluctant to become involved in the Sudan. The result was that Sir Evelyn Baring, the British representative in Egypt, persuaded the Egyptian government to evacuate its garrisons from the Sudan, a task given to Gordon.

Gordon arrived at Khartoum on the morning of February 18, 1884, and was greeted as a saviour by the local population. But once in Khartoum, Gordon diverged from his original orders and came to believe his mission was to defend Khartoum and defeat the Sudanese rebels led by the Mahdi “Guided One” Muhammad Ahmad. He vowed to “smash up the Mahdi.”

A deeply-religious man — some contemporaries and historians claim he was a fanatical Christian — Gordon upon his arrival in Khartoum proclaimed, “I come without soldiers, but with God on my side to redress the evils of the Soudan (sic). I will not fight with any weapons but justice.”

His opinions on the Sudan were published in the Times in January 1884, much to the chagrin of Gladstone.

In another message which made no friends in Parliament, Gordon alleged the British government had not made Britain a great nation. “England was made by adventurers (such as himself); not by its Government; and I believe it will only hold its place by adventurers.”

Other actions by Gordon enhanced Gladstone’s frustration, such as not evacuating the city and setting up an administration under his rule. Gordon also re-established the slave trade, which he earlier abolished as the governor of the Sudan, to gain allies among the city’s Arab population, some of whom were former slavetraders. Permitting slavery to again flourish may have been an expedient move by Gordon, but it enraged the anti-slavery movement in England as well as the British Parliament.

The major problem for Gordon was that the Mahdi’s army held much of the surrounding countryside and was preparing to besiege Khartoum and its garrison of 7,000 Egyptian and loyal Sudanese troops. Khartoum had a favourable defensive position, since it was situated where the main Nile River joins with the Blue Nile and White Nile, and as such was surrounded on three sides by water, but Gordon lacked sufficient troops and supplies to survive a protracted siege.

Once the siege began, Gordon’s  decision to revive the slave trade was quickly forgotten. He was only remembered as a national hero and his plight in Khartoum rallied the British press as well as Queen Victoria to lobby for his rescue. In the face of great criticism, Gladstone ordered Gordon to return to England, but Gordon refused to abandon Khartoum. A reluctant Gladstone bowed to public pressure and in July 1884 agreed to send an expedition to Khartoum led by General Lord Garnet Wolseley, who as a colonel had commanded the Red River Expedition in 1870.

Wolseley was instructed to: “Go as far as may be necessary to Gen. Gordon and Col. Stewart. Get them, and bring them back.” 

Colonel John D.H. Stewart had prepared the original report on the Mahdi’s military threat to the Sudan for the British government in 1882, and was appointed by the government as Gordon’s assistant. Stewart led an attempt to break the blockade aboard the steamer Abbas in September 1884, along with the British consul Frank Powers of the Times and other residents of Khartoum, which ran aground somewhere between Abu Hamad and Meroë. All the passengers and crew were killed by the Mahdi’s troops.

Wolseley took several months to organize the campaign, including preparing the flotilla of boats ordered to proceed up the Nile River to rescue Gordon. 

An official announcement said: “The preparations which have been in progress for some weeks for the expedition up the Nile, resemble in a great degree those adopted in 1870 for the Red River expedition, which gave Wolseley the experience which no other officer possesses.”

At the time, Wolseley said the difficulties of navigating the Nile were less arduous than the water journey he undertook with British regulars and Canadian militia to the Red River Settlement in 1870.

On August 4, 1884, Butler was instructed by Wolseley to act in all haste to prepare the boats and necessary supplies for shipment to Egypt. To build the 400 boats, firms across England and Scotland were enlisted. By August 12, Butler reported the “Nile whaler” boats and supplies were ready. 

“The boat before loading seemed fairly furnished with her two masts and sails and awning, twelve oars, two boat-hooks or ‘hotchers,’ six poles for propelling over shallows and rapids, and three stout rollers for helping the boat over land,” according to the report on the testing of the vessel under Butler’s supervision. 

“When 86 boxes of supplies each about two feet square, were brought up on a wagon, followed by a half-ton vat of stores and utensils, and about 600 pounds of dead weight to represent the ammunition, it seemed an impossible task to get the cargo on board. However, after an hour’s labour, with a great deal of coaxing and contriving, the whole of the burden was comfortably stowed away in the bottom of the boat, and space was still found for a dozen men to sit and navigate the craft, besides finding room among the packages for their rifles and all other necessities of the journey.”

Sir Samuel Baker, a former governor of the Sudan and a famous African explorer, didn’t think much of Wolseley’s decision. “If 400 rowing boats are actually to be constructed in England,” he told the press, “for a Nile expedition, and the troops are to depend solely upon such a conveyance from Cairo to Khartoum, I can only say, ‘God help them!’”

Later as the flotilla advanced up the Nile, some of the “real voyageurs” complained about the flimsiness of the boats, which they felt were not adapted to the task for which they were constructed. They said “it was a great mistake to build them with keels, this fault rendering them unmanageable at times when they should be under complete control.”

In a story on the boats by George Eliot published in Blackwood’s Edinborough Magazine, January-June 1885, he also claimed it would have been wiser to employ flat-bottomed boats as the keels of the Nile whalers were constantly being hung up on rocks. 

Barges used on the Red River at the time were all flat-bottomed, allowing them to be more easily moved when they went aground on sandbars and shoals, which were also common on the Nile River. 

On the other hand,  Canadian Mohawk Chief Louis Jackson from Kahnawake — the author of Our Caughnawagas in Egypt (1885), which was a narrative of the accomplishments of his reserve’s 56 voyageurs in the expedition — said the boats would have been useless in Canada, but “they could not be improved upon for the Nile service on account of the nature of the river.” It was an opinion shared by Butler, who oversaw the design of the boats.

Chief Jackson said a keel was necessary to shoot the Nile rapids, commenting that a flat-bottom boat would have easily become hung up on rocks. 

Another report said the British troops praised the “skill and bravery” of the voyageurs, whom they said ascended the Nile cataracts like it was “mere child’s play.”

Sir William Francis Butler, who had been Wolseley’s agent in Red River in 1870, had urged the British commander to enlist the aid of Canadian voyageurs in the Nile campaign.

The matter of who would control each boat was resolved when Canadian Governor-general Lord Lansdowne received a telegram from Wolseley on August 20, 1884, asking for 400 voyageurs to be recruited as steersmen, although only 386 men actually went to Egypt (David Bercusson and J.L. Granatstein, Dictionary of Canadian Military History). 

Initially, Canada’s governor-general said “the shortness of time at our disposal would render it difficult to select men from so distant a part of the Dominion as  Manitoba.” But Wolseley and the Colonial Office in an August 28 telegram insisted that at least 50 Manitoba boatmen be included among the Canadian contingent. 

William Nassau Kennedy was placed in charge of recruiting Manitobans for the Nile expedition. He was the founder and commander of the 90th Battalion of Winnipeg Rifles,  Western Canada’s only large militia unit. Originally, Kennedy had been a lieutenant in the Ontario Rifles participating in Wolseley’s Red River Expedition. He elected to stay in Manitoba after the expedition ended, while the majority of the militiamen returned to Eastern Canada.

Advertisements appearing in the Manitoba Free Press and Winnipeg Sun from August 26 to September 6 asked for “50 men to accompany the Gordon Relief Expedition in Egypt to take charge of small boats on the rapids of the Nile.”

The only qualification was that they “must be good boatmen.”

Kennedy managed to attract a dozen Ojibway from St. Peter’s Settlement headed by Chief William Prince as well as 25 voyageurs from Rat Portage. By August 29, he reported to Wolseley that he had filled his requirement of 50 men. Among the recruits were a number of men without the experience requested in the ads, such as Major Daniel McMillan, his second in command of the Winnipeg Rifles, and a number of businessmen and professionals from Winnipeg, including eight lawyers. Alfred McKean, another man without experience, was made a foreman as was Kennedy’s brother James C. Kennedy. 

Within a short period of time, Kennedy had added another 42 men to the Manitoba contingent, many of whom were virtually useless to Wolseley’s plan.

Baker was quoted in newspapers as saying some in the Canadian contingent were “young Englishmen, young lawyers, clerks and ne’er-do-wells who know no more about boating or portaging than actual war.”

English newspapers were equally critical of the Canadian contingent, claiming  that if they were bona fide raftsmen, they certainly would be of immense service to the expedition, but many were “wholly ignorant of that craft, and it is feared they will be baggage rather than boatmen,” according to a September 8, 1884, report in the Sun.

The newspaper said it was a “grand mistake to go outside the voyageur class for recruits.”

Captain Egerton Denison wrote his brother Lieutenant John Denison on January 27, 1885, that the men Kennedy “engaged in Manitoba being the ones who caused all letters etc. in papers about inexperienced Voyageurs.”

In a letter to Manitoba Senator John Christian Schultz in Ottawa, dated April 9, 1885, Kennedy said only 10 of the men in the Manitoba contingent were not “professional boatmen,” but they were “among the best of the force ...”

Kennedy wrote Schultz that he praised the Manitobans to others, “because there exists in some quarters to belittle the prairie province, and not give our men their proper place in the expedition.”

While Kennedy wrote of only a few inexperienced boatmen, Lieutenant-Colonel Coleridge Grove said 45 of the Canadian contingent were unsuitable, with most of the bad boatmen belonging to the 22-man “Manitoba gang” under the command of Lieutenant Alfred McKeand of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles.

“The Manitoba men have given me more trouble than all the rest together,” Denison wrote to Lord Melgund on October 17, 1884. “I may say one gang (McKeand’s) doing it all; Foreman Kennedy’s gang of Manitoba Indians are good men and give no trouble, and the other two gangs are pretty good men. McKeand’s gang should never have been engaged, and if I had known as much about them at Québec as I do now, I would have asked permission to send them home again. Engaging such men as boatmen is an imposition on the British government and one on me also. I can understand a few slipping in by mistake, but not a whole gang.”

Months later, when summing up the usefulness of the non-voyageurs, a British regimental officer wrote to the Army and Navy Gazette that it was his bad fortune “to get hold of eight of this gang, and the result was, which might have been expected, they ran my boats on every rock they could manage; made me track mile after mile of rapid which I afterwards found Indians and voyageurs sailed and rowed through. I started with eight boats, and they managed to smash two to pieces.

“One day one of these bright individuals, after managing his boat so badly in a rapid that he smashed her rudder, came up to me and said that it was all the fault of my men, and that he would go no further.”

The officer claimed about 40 per cent of the Canadians were not voyageurs.”

Yet as the campaign progressed, the alleged “bad” boatmen gained valuable experience and significantly improved in their ability.

Even Butler admitted all the men were not suitable for the expedition. In his book, The Campaign of the Cataracts, Butler wrote that 80 per cent of the men were “good hard-working boatmen,” with half “expert voyageurs.” He said the best of the lot were the "French-Canadians, Iroquois from Lachine, and Swampy Indians (Ojibway from St. Peter’s in Manitoba) and half-breeds (Métis) from Winnipeg.”

Furthermore, Butler wrote that the best evidence of the voyageurs’ prowess came during the actual campaign. He said the “real voyageurs” brought in “their boats with scarcely any damage; the imitation ones were easily to be discovered in the amount of repair their craft required” after a day’s travel on the Nile River.

“Could we have obtained a couple hundred more of this class of real voyageurs, our gain in time would have been very great,” added Butler.

As it turned out, time was the deciding factor for the outcome of the campaign to relieve Gordon at Khartoum. 

In Egypt, the doctor of the contingent wrote a report to the Canadian minister of militia, claiming “the Canadian contingent is even better constituted than would have at first been thought, and I have been able to convince myself of this by conversing with the heads of the expedition and the men themselves.”

But while still in Canada, Major Frederick C. Denison, the commander of the contingent, was enraged at Kennedy for his recruitments and refused to have the Manitoban as part of the expedition. It also didn’t help that Kennedy held the rank of militia lieutenant-colonel, while Denison was only a militia major. Denison told Lord Melgund, the secretary to Canadian Governor General Lord Lansdowne, that if Kennedy was allowed to participate, the public would think the Winnipegger was in command due to his loftier rank.

But Kennedy, a mayor of Winnipeg in 1875 and 1876, had friends in high places, including Senator Schultz, a powerful political ally in Ottawa. As well, he was a well-respected member of the Winnipeg establishment. Chief Prince, who commanded much-needed boatmen from St. Peter’s, requested that Kennedy be allowed to go as a “boss.” As a result of the intense lobbying on Kennedy’s behalf, Denison agreed to his participation, although only as a foreman with no military rank.

(Next week: part 3)