"Canadian Nile Contingent", 1884, by James Ashfield,
Library and Archives Canada
"In 1884, Canada, for the first time, took part in a war overseas. Four hundred volunteers, skilled in river navigation, served with distinction in the Nile Expedition. Sixteen of these gave their lives".
-Canadian Book of Remembrance
In the winter of 1884, Canadians were sent overseas on a military mission for the first time. In Africa, Sudan was being administered by the Egyptian government. A Muslim self-proclaimed "Mahdi" named Mohammed Ali had began a revolt, and his influence was growing rapidly. Attempting the supress the Mahdi, the Egyptian army launched an attack against him, but were defeated, suffering losses of troops, stores and equipment. Furthermore, with more and more supporters rising up to follow him, the Mahdi was overrunning large areas of the Sudan. In London, the British government was reluctant to become involved in the problems in Sudan, and decided to evacuate their troops, civil servants and civilians living there.
General Charles Gordon, who had previously held the position of Governor General in Sudan, was re-appointed to this post, and dispatched to the area with orders to supervise an evacuation. He arrived in Sudan in January, 1884, accompanied by his assistant, Colonel John Donald Stewart. In contravention to his orders from London, General Gordon believed that Mahdi had to be defeated, or he would take control of the entire Sudan and parts of Egypt. Gordon arrived in the Sudan city of Khartoum in February, 1884, determined to "smash up the Mahdi", and instead of evacuating the population, he began to administer and reorganize the city. As the forces of the Mahdi began to close in on Khartoum, Gordon evacuated approximately 2,000 women, children and sick. While Prime Minister William Gladstone still insisted on an evacuation, Gordon instead began to fortify the city's defences. He had mines and wire placed around the city, trenches were dug, and several paddle steamers on the Nile River were converted to makeshift gunboats. Gordon requested a regiment of Turkish soldiers be sent to reinforce him, and was denied. He then asked for Indian soldiers, and finally, for a contingent of 200 British regulars. All of these demands were refused, and Gordon prepared to defend Khartoum with 7,000 Egyptian and loyal Sudanese troops.
The seige on Khartoum began in March, 1884, when the Mahdi and thousands of his supporters surrounded the city. In April, tribes north of Khartoum joined the Mahdi, and the telegraph lines to Cairo were severed. Gordon's lines of communications had now been severed, and he would be forced to rely on "couriers" and runners to deliver messages. As the seige wore on, rations were running low, and the troops and civilians in Khartoum were starving. The soldiers morale was at an all time low, and Gordon was distrustful of many of the troops under his command. He had been pleading with London to send reinforcements, but Prime Minister Gladstone refused. Finally, after much pressure from the newspapers, the public, and even Queen Victoria, a relief mission was organized in July. Garnet Wolseley, a British officer who had previous service in Canada, was selected to lead the rescue.
General Wolseley's rescue plan involved transporting 1,500 British troops down the Nile River, and he turned to Canada to provide the pilots for these boats. In England, 800 converted Royal Navy whalers were being constructed, each having a capacity to carry twelve soldiers and enough food and ammunition to last 100 days. From his experiences in Canada's Northwest Rebellion, Wolseley was confident the Voyageurs would be ideal boatsmen for navigating the treacherous river. The British Colonial Office requested the Governor General of Canada to provide 300 voyageurs for the mission, and Canada's Prime Minister John A. MacDonald agreed to the plan as long as the men were paid and employed by the British government. In only 24 days, nearly 400 men were recruited from Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. In the west, Lieutenant-Colonel William Kennedy, of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles, was instrumental in procuring many of the boatmen. In return, he demanded that he be allowed to accompany the Canadian contingent.
The Canadian voyageur contingent consisted of men ranging in age from 18 to 64, and were a mix of both French and English speaking men, including many Indians and Metis. The rate of pay would be $40 per month for boatmen, and $75 per month for foremen, and the men were to wear no uniforms, and carry no arms. A small number of Canadian military officers would command and administer the expedition, which would be led by Toronto's Major Frederick Denison. He was given a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and Kennedy agreed to temporarily be demoted to the rank of Major, so that he would not outrank Denison. Captain Telmont Aumond, a French speaking officer from the Governor General's Foot Guards, was selected to accompany the contingent, along with Captain Alexander MacRae. Surgeon-Major John Neilson, Regiment of Canadian Artillery, was appointed as the contingent's doctor, and he would be assisted by Hospital Sergeant Gaston Labat. Captain Arthur Bouchard, a Catholic priest, was taken on as the Chaplain.
On September 14, 1884, the Canadians sailed from Montreal, arriving in Africa on October 7. During the sea voyage, they suffered their first casualty when one of the boatmen died from disease. The Canadian force joined General Wolesley on October 26, and set out from Wadi Halfa. The Canadians guided the boats for up to 14 hours a day, navigating dangerous rapids and cataracts, and enduring long portages. Despite the best efforts of Wolseley and the voyageurs, by mid-November the boats and troops were still hundreds of miles from Khartoum. They received word from Gordon that his food supplies were dangerously low, and he would only be able to hold out for another 40 days. By December, five Canadian voyageurs had drowned, and the contracts of the boatmen were about to expire. They were offered an additional $20 per month to stay, but only 89 accepted the incentive, with the remainder choosing to return to Canada with Captain Aumond.
Only a few days from Khartoum, Wolseley's relief column receives word that the Mehdi had stormed the city on January 26, slaughtering General Gordon, all of his troops, and nearly 4,000 civilians. Despite the best efforts of the Canadian boatmen to reach Khartoum, the mission was a failure. Prime Minister Gladstone was highly criticized for his delays in organizing a relief, and blamed for the death of Gordon. All of the Canadian voyageurs who participated in the expedition were awarded a British medal for their services, and personally thanked by General Wolseley, and the British Parliament. Although most returned to a heroes welcome in Canada, sixteen of the men, including Lieutenant-Colonel William Kennedy, died. The causes of death included drowning, accidents and disease, with smallpox claiming Kennedy's life.