British adventurer — Butler joins voyageurs in attempt to conquer the Nile to rescue Gordon

by Bruce Cherney (part 3)

Lord Melgund wrote to his superior, Canadian Governor General Lord Lansdowne, about Colonel Frederick Denison’s reluctant approval of William Nassau Kennedy’s participation in the Nile campaign. But the secretary to Lord Lansdowne warned Kennedy, the “only pay he would receive was that as a foreman but he decided to accept none whatever & therefore accompanies the expedition as an unpaid foreman to the Manitoba contingent.” 

Lord Melgund’s intervention had smoothed over the animosity between Canadian contingent commander Denison and Winnipegger Kennedy, removing one less item of contention threatening to disrupt the expedition to the Sudan. 

He felt Kennedy, the well-respected former mayor of Winnipeg in 1875 and 1876, was essential to the Manitoba contribution to the campaign. “I am of opinion that if he had not been allowed to accompany the expedition the usefulness of the Manitoba portion of the force would have been much impaired,” Lord Melgund told Lord Lansdowne.

The overall authority of Denison, a militia officer from Ontario, was further resolved when Kennedy, the commander of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles, dropped in rank from lieutenant-colonel to major and Denison was made a brevet lieutenant-colonel — he received a new commission, but retained the pay of a major in the British Army. 

The British government had also imposed a quota on Canadian officers, which meant adding Kennedy to the roster would have exceeded the permitted total of six. 

Still, when Kennedy arrived in Egypt, his earlier association with Wolseley during the Red River Expedition benefited him and he was named the paymaster of the Canadian contingent. 

The selection of Denison, who had served as Wolseley’s orderly officer during the journey to the Red River Settlement in 1870, was apparently made at the suggestion of retired British officer, Deputy-Commissary-General M.B. Irvine, a veteran of the 1870 expedition (The Nile Voyageurs by C.P. Stacy). 

The Manitoba contingent was made up of “about thirty Indians and a certain number of men of a better class who have (been) employed in surveying but are accustomed to boat work,” according to Melgund’s report to Lansdowne.

A September 4, 1884, article in the Sun, which listed the successful recruits, said there had been 200 applicants from Manitoba, although only 92 were selected for the expedition. 

In his April 9, 1885, letter to Senator Dr. John Christian Schultz in Ottawa, Kennedy said there were 94 men from Manitoba. The difference in  his total from the official tally may have been the result of two Winnipeg riverboat captains participating in the campaign.

Specifically hired by Lord Melgund at the request of the British were four experienced stern-wheel steamboat captains selected by C.S. Drummond of the Northwest Navigation Company in Winnipeg. Drummond chose captains William  Robinson and John Segers, who were his employees, as well as A.P. Russell and Jerry Webber from the United States. The four captains were “old Red River navigators,” whose job in Africa was to captain steamers on the Nile for the British. For this task, they were paid the princely sum of $150 each per month. 

Russell and Robinson were from Winnipeg, while Segers and Webber were former Winnipeggers residing in St. Paul and employed by Norman Kittson’s Minnesota-based steamboat line. The two U.S.-based captains operated on the Mississippi in the winter and on the Red in the summer.

The importance of the riverboat captains to the campaign was revealed by Russell in a March 25, 1885, reprint in the Sun of a St. Paul Globe interview. While visiting London on the way home to Canada, Russell said the British government paid all their expenses and “treated us like nabobs,” as “they were so pleased ... with our services that nothing seemed good enough for us.”

As a further reward, the captains were given first-class tickets for their ocean passage home. On the other hand, returning voyageurs complained of poor food and accommodations while aboard ship on their homebound journey. There had even been reports of a mutiny by the voyageurs returning to Canada due to the unfavourable conditions, but such rumours were later proven to be false. The men had vigorously and vocally complained, but they did not mutiny.

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald insisted the British undertake the full cost of the expedition to avoid a political backlash in Québec, whose residents didn’t appreciate Canadian involvement in a far-off expedition in support of the British Empire. As a result, Wolseley was given approval by London to offer the “volunteers” $40 each a month, while the 18 foremen received $75 a month. All men received a suit of clothes, free travel to and from Egypt and rations. 

An additional condition imposed on Canadian participation was that the men were not to wear British uniforms (the dark-gray so-called Canadian “bush” wear of hats, smocks and trousers provided to them were a type of uniform — the 18 foremen’s clothes were a lighter shade of gray), bear no arms and  take no part in skirmishes with the enemy. Only the six Canadian officers wore red tunics, which earned British soldiers the nickname Red Coats, and had official military status.

Technically, the voyageurs were “civilians” in the employ of Her Majesty’s British Army. The Canadian government took no part in the organization of the contingent, which fell entirely to Governor General Lansdowne, although it was a task primarily undertaken by a small staff  headed by Lord Melgund. Any compensation for the families of men who perished during the campaign was solely  at the discretion of the British government.

The junior members of Winnipeg’s legal profession gave a farewell banquet at the Grand Union Hotel for the eight law students who had volunteered for the Manitoba contingent.

Isaac Campbell proposed a toast to the so-called “voyageurs.”

The Sun reported the “voyageurs then individually responded, expressing their high appreciation of the honour done them, and their regret at leaving the ‘boys.’ They promised to awaken the old Pharaohs who slept in their musty graves on the banks of the Nile, and cause them to ask; ‘What manner of men are these?’ They would be informed they were ‘voyageurs from Winnipeg, and don’t you forget it.’”

None of the Canadians were true voyageurs, as the era of such boatmen had passed with the advent of steamboats and the Canadian Pacific Railway taking over the interior routes formerly the domain of York boats and large freight canoes. But many of the men employed were experienced boatmen well-versed in the voyageur tradition. Still, the most numerous  at 159 were not “voyageurs,” but “shantymen,” the skilled raftsmen who floated logs down the Ottawa River to lumber mills — six men from Sherbrooke and 15 from Peterborough also worked as “shantymen” in the Ottawa region.

Other experienced boatmen used in the Nile expedition were Kroo tribesmen from West Africa, as well as Nile rivermen.

When the Manitoba contingent departed from Winnipeg, it also brought along a “six-fathom canoe,” specially made for Wolseley that was to be manned by hand-picked “Indians, men who accompanied Lord Wolseley on the Red River Expedition.”

Just 24 days had elapsed since the governor general received the original telegram, and the contingent was ready to sail to Egypt. 

Among the Canadians was Abbé Arthur Bouchard, the contingent’s chaplain and a former Roman Catholic missionary to Sudan, who spoke Arabic. Militia officer and commander of the contingent, 37-year-old Denison was bilingual, which was a necessity when dealing with the French-speaking Métis and Québec voyageurs. 

The Canadians departed Montreal aboard the Ocean King, which was to sail to Alexandria, Egypt, with stops at Trois-Rivières and Québec City to pick up more voyageurs bound for Africa. In Québec City, the men were greeted by Governor General Lord Lansdowne, who said in English and French  that he hoped “he would be able to welcome back every man before him after having faithfully performed their part of the mission on which they were now sent.”

While the Ocean King lay at anchor outside Sydney, Nova Scotia, to  take on coal, two men of the Manitoba contingent and one from Ottawa jumped ship and could not be found ashore, so the ship left port without the deserters.

En route to Alexandria, Kennedy wrote his son Charley: “The boys seem to be all pleased and satisfied, although some of them grumble a little about the ‘grub.’ On the way I saw some whales, porpoises, a shark, flying fish, etc. One whale particularly seemed to be about 100 feet long, and looked like a large flat-boat bottom side up ... We average about 250 miles per day, or 11 knots per hour.”

Just before they landed at Alexandria on October 7, 1884, the men were told by Surgeon-Major John Neilson what to expect in Egypt. Actually, the surgeon said the greatest danger awaiting the men was not the perils of a hostile desert climate, treacherous rapids, lurking crocodiles and deadly diseases — real threats — but “intemperance.” He claimed that if temperance was “necessary in our healthy climate (in Canada), I affirm that it is a thousand times more urgent to be abstemious in hot regions like those of the Nile in particular.” The hard-living and hard-drinking lifestyle that the men were accustomed to was apparently the reason for the warning. 

When Wolseley greeted the Canadians in Egypt, he affectionately called them “a rough looking lot.”

Butler was given the rank of temporary major-general by Wolseley and was assigned to join the Canadians and British soldiers toiling to bring the boats to Khartoum, although overall command of the river expedition was given to Major-General William Earle.

Butler was at Wadi Halfa by October 19 where the tumbling rapids of the Second Cataract — the point from which the convoy began — greeted the boatmen. It took until the end of October before the boats were beyond the cataract.

The Canadians worked from dawn to dusk, sometimes 14 hours a day, to guide the whalers through the Nile’s treacherous cataracts (stretches of very shallow and murky water marked by small islets and numerous rocks and shoals, creating churning whitewater rapids). 

Typically, a voyageur was at the helm guiding each boat, while six British soldiers manned the oars. When it was impossible for the soldiers to row, they disembarked and a voyageur remained aboard to steer the boat as it was being towed using ropes from shore. In particularly bad stretches of rapids, a voyageur was placed in the bow and another in the stern to steady the boat while it was towed. In some cases, up to three or four crews (30 or 40 men) had to pull a single boat through the rapids from shore.

In the later days of the campaign, voyageurs were permanently assigned a section of the river with particularly bad rapids to assist the convoys through, which considerably speeded up the passage of boats.

As he gained more experience, Denison was often sent ahead of the river column to find the best channels for the boats to take.

When Butler first observed the boats loaded to over-capacity, carrying 1,000 pounds more than they were designed for, he said it was the “last straw that broke the camel’s back,” implying under such weight the boats would take too much time to reach Khartoum.

It was only on December 25, 1884, when half the load of each boat was transferred to camels that the pace quickened. With a lesser burden, the boats led by the voyageurs were able to average 16 kilometres a day on the Nile. 

It should be noted that the boats were proceeding upriver against the prevailing current, which made the journey even more difficult. With their experience of navigating under such conditions back home, instead of using the large oars that accompanied the whale boats, the Canadians operating in the bow of a boat traversing rapids favoured canoe paddles they brought to Egypt. The British soldiers at first mocked their “tiny” implement of choice, but soon changed their tune when the voyageurs showed how useful paddles were in overcoming turbulence of the six major cataracts and the smaller rapids in between. The skills learned at home also enabled the Canadians to identify signs of where dangerous rocks were hidden by the extremely muddy water of the cataracts.

“If you had seen us Canadians, you would have been really proud of it ... It was extraordinary to see the rapidity with which the expedition travels since the Canadians have arrived,” said 33-year-old Louis Duguay of Trois-Rivières in a letter home. 

Unfortunately for the Canadians, some of the boats made from Swedish spruce turned out to be rotten, “and their make was such that in a rush of water they would go to pieces,” according to a December 12, 1884, report in the London-based Spectator.

When an official inquiry was launched, the Spectator urged the British government “to prosecute the contractors who supplied the boats, and secure a sentence of penal servitude against them.”

By early November, the Nile cataracts had claimed the lives of two Canadians, although there is no report as to whether the “rotten” boats were involved. One of the men was simply lost overboard during the commotion of battling a nasty stretch of rapids. His body was never recovered, despite attempts by Egyptian swimmers and patrols downstream.

At Gemai, the Nile expedition set up a supply base. While busy at the dockyard, Butler wrote in his book, The Campaign of the Cataracts, “... across the river a strange object caught my sight — strange only in this Nile land for one in other lands it had been a well known friend ... There hugging the back eddy of the muddy Nile a small American birchbark canoe, driven by those quick downstrokes that seem to be the birthright of the Indian voyageur alone, was moving up the further shore: when this strange craft had got well abreast of our dockyard it steered across the swift river and was soon underneath my tent. Out of the canoe with all the slow gravity of his (out) stepped a well remembered figure William Prince (son of Chief Henry Prince who signed Treaty One with the Canadian government in 1871) Chief of the Swampy Indians (Ojibway) from Lake Winnipeg (St. Peter’s) ... after him came seven other Indians and halfbreed voyageurs all from the same distant land.”

Prince became the senior crewman in Butler’s boat (No. 387) until he was overcome with illness and taken to a hospital in Dal. During the 16 days Prince was with the expedition, Butler praised him for his ability to find safe passages through the Nile rapids.

Another man praised by Butler was a 64-year-old voyageur from Montréal named Alexis de Coteau, who for 40 years had made the lengthy spring-time trip by water from Eastern Canada to Lake Winnipeg.

When asked about his career and what he thought of the Nile, de Coteau replied to Butler: “Ah! those were the good days, monsieur, and those were fine rivers — not like this river — the Nile.”

Butler asked what made the Nile different.

“Different monsieur — everything is different. Here you can see no rock until you strike it; then you put the pole down on one side and you find twenty inches of water, then you change it to the other side, and lo! there is no bottom at ten feet (the length of the poles). Ah! it is a bad, bad river.”

Compounding the navigation problems facing the Canadian voyageurs was the seasonal drop in the water level of the Nile, which created difficult channels and exposed more rocks and shoals on which boats could run aground. During the annual Nile flood, the high water allowed some of the cataracts to be safely traversed.

Butler left his column of boats and made his way to the Third Cataract, 320 kilometres south from Gemai where he received a telegram from Wolseley, telling him to stop and await instructions. 

Butler waited overnight, but when he didn’t receive another telegram, proceeded up the Nile.

When Wolseley heard that Butler had disobeyed his order, he sent a stern message to Butler telling him to return and supervise the successful navigation of all the boats between the Second and Third Cataracts.

(Next week: part 4)