Nile Expedition 1884-85

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The Nile Expedition

The Nile Expedition, sometimes called the Gordon Relief Expedition (1884–85), was a British mission to relieve Major-General Charles George Gordon at Khartoum, Sudan. Gordon had been sent to the Sudan to help Egyptians evacuate from Sudan after Britain decided to abandon the country in the face of a rebellion led by self-proclaimed Mahdi, Mahommed Ahmed. A contingent of Canadians was recruited to help the British navigate their small boats up the Nile River. The Nile Expedition was the first overseas expedition by Canadians in a British imperial conflict, although the Nile Voyageurs were civilians employees and did not wear uniforms.

The expedition and its background are vividly described in Winston Churchill's book The River War.

Organising the Relief Force

The Expedition was put under the command of General Garnet Wolseley, who had seen service in the Crimean War, Canada, the Gold Coast and southern Africa. 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. The Expedition was composed of two officers and 43 soldiers from each British Light Cavalry Regiment.

Wolseley decided that the best way of reaching Khartoum would be to ascend the Nile River. 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 during his expedition along the Red River to Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) in 1869–1870, Wolseley asked the Governor General of Canada, the Marquess of Lansdowne through the Colonial Office, if it would be possible to recruit a contingent of Canadian voyageurs to help him navigate the Nile. His request was 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.

He requested that they be commanded by Major Frederick C. Denison of the Governor General’s Body Guard, a unit of the Canadian militia, only 37 years of age and who had served as Wolseley’s aide-de-camp during the Red River expedition. When Major William Kennedy of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles (another Red River veteran) learned of the new expedition, he swiftly raised a contingent from Manitoba, but his personal offer to go was refused by British recruiting authorities. Denison, being of an influential Toronto military family and commander of the Canadian voyageurs, did not relish taking as his subordinate an officer senior to himself. The Manitoba volunteers, on the other hand, exhibited such displeasure at the prospect of proceeding overseas without Kennedy that the impasse was avoided by promoting Denison to brevet lieutenant-colonel and allowing Kennedy to go to Egypt in the civilian capacity of foreman.

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. The Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, did not object once he was assured that the voyageurs were volunteers and would be paid by the British. It took less than a month after Wolseley’s appeal to assemble the Canadian Nile contingent under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Denison. Other senior officers included Major Kennedy, 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.

As the traditional role of the fur trading voyageur was waning, most of the men were not voyageurs in actuality. 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. Many of the men recruited from Ontario and Quebec were employed in the timber industries for the transport of log booms down rivers such as the Ottawa, Gatineau, Saguenay and the mighty St Lawrence. They were mostly a mix of log drivers (fr. draveurs) and raftsmen (fr. cageux, raftsmen). Of the 386 officers and men who volunteered for the Nile Expedition, roughly half were hired from the lumber shanty towns of Ottawa-Hull. Eighty-six of the Nile Voyageurs were also First Nations, 56 of whom were Mohawks from the Caughnawaga and St Regis areas. The Manitoban contingent were 92 men who heeded the call from the Winnipeg area, of whom roughly one third were Manitoba Ojibwas (Salteaux), led by Chief William Prince. Many were veterans of the Red River campaign. Some were Winnipeg’s young business and professional élite, who according to one account these dozen or so recruits appeared “to be more at home driving a quill [pen] than handling an oar.” 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.

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. On 15 September 1884, only 24 days after the request was received, 386 men set sail for Egypt. The Canadians became known as the Nile Voyageurs.

The Expedition

On 7 October 1884, the Canadians reached Alexandria and headed south by a combination of shallow draft steam launch and train. Once in Egypt, Denison recruited Kennedy to act as temporary paymaster to the Canadian contingent, whereupon the latter exploited his old friendship with General Wolseley in the interest of having himself appointed permanent paymaster. On 26 October 1884, the Canadians met Wolseley and his force of 5,400 soldiers at the main British base at Wadi Halfa. By November they were at the first of six cataracts and began their work of ascending the rapids. The southern progress of the expedition sped up with the experienced Canadians manning the boats. 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 that Wolseley selected were modified Royal Navy whalers. They were almost ten metres long, two metres wide and three-quarters of a metre deep (were 32 feet long, with a 7 foot beam, and a depth of 3 ½ feet). They were equipped with twelve oars, two masts and a removable rudder. The boats had the capacity for a dozen men along with enough cargo to supply them for a hundred days. 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. Winnipeg’s young business and professional élite, knew next to nothing about the handling of boats. Kennedy accompanied the voyageurs throughout the journey up the Nile, taking every opportunity to favour his Manitobans in the face of Denison’s criticism of their questionable performance as boatmen.

In mid-November, the expedition received word from General Gordon that he could only survive the siege for another forty days. The expedition was attacked by rebels at Abu Klea and Abu Cru, but was able to repel the rebels both times. Progress up the river was slow and often the boats had to be pulled through rapids by rope from shore. At several places the strength of the current necessitated several crews pulling one boat. They settled on a method of stationing the voyageurs at difficult stretches along the river, so that each group would become familiar with a particular stretch of water. Realising that time was running out for General Gordon in Khartoum, Wolseley split his force into two columns. He sent 2,400 men by camel on a 280 km shortcut across the desert to avoid the Great Bend of the Nile and reach the city sooner. The remaining 3,000 soldiers continued up the river.

The Canadians’ six-month contracts were soon to expire and they were asked to re-enlist. Though offered generous inducements, a fifty percent increase in pay was insufficient inducement to stay. A rump of only 86 of the voyageurs, including their commander, Denison, re-enlisted to assist the British forces down the remainder of the Nile to Khartoum. The rest elected to return to Canada, hoping to arrive in time for the spring logging season. This did not halt the expedition, 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.

General Gordon’s last entry in his journal, dated 14 December 1884, read, “Now mark this, if the Expeditionary Force, and I ask for no more than 200 men, does not come in ten days, the town may fall; and I have done my best for the honour of our country. Good bye.”

On 26 January 1885, Khartoum fell to the Mahdist army of 50,000 men. At that time of year the Nile was shallow enough to cross by wading and the Mahdists were able to breach the city’s defences by attacking the poorly-defended approaches from the river. General Gordon was 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 the Fall of Khartoum

Two days later the relief expedition entered the city to find that they were too late. Emboldened by their victory at the Battle of Khartoum, the Mahdists attacked the British column ascending the river at Kirbekan, but were repulsed. However, the British commander General William Earle was killed. After, 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. With the fall of Khartoum, Muhammad Ahmad controlled the whole of Sudan, allowing him to establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. He died less than six months later. His state survived him, but Sudan was re-conquered by the British in a campaign from 1895 to 1898, led by Lord Kitchener.


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. On 17 April 1885, the last of the Canadian contingent set sail from Alexandria for home. 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 to sixteen perished from drowning, disease, or accident on the expedition. Of these, M. Brennan and William Doyle were from Ottawa. On the return voyage to England, Kennedy contracted smallpox and was hospitalized in London where he finally succumbed to the disease. Today, the Nile Voyageurs, Canada’s first foray on the international scene, have been largely forgotten. The names of the Nile voyageurs who perished are also recorded in the South Africa-Nile Expedition Book of Remembrance located in the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, which recognises all of Canada’s war dead. Wolseley wrote a letter to the Canadian Governor General praising the Canadians' service and the British Parliament passed a motion thanking them for their efforts. A collection of records from the expedition was compiled and edited by C.P. Stacey, and published by the Champlain Society in 1959.

A memorial plaque "Nile Voyageurs 1884–85" was erected at Kitchissippi Lookout on Island Park Drive just west of the Champlain Bridge in 1966. Plaque Text: "In 1884 the British Government decided to send a military expedition up the Nile River to relieve Major-General Charles Gordon, who was besieged in Khartoum by Mahdist tribesmen. Appointed to command the relieving force, Viscount Wolseley, who had led the expedition to the Red River in 1870, requested the recruitment of experienced Canadian voyageurs. Almost 400 volunteered, including many superb rivermen, and the largest group came from the Ottawa valley area. Commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick C. Denison, they were largely responsible for the successful navigation of the Nile's difficult cataracts, although sixteen voyageurs died on service. The contingent returned to Canada in 1885."


Wikipedia - Nile Expedition

The Canadian Encyclopedia - Nile Expedition

Historical Plaque - Nile Voyageurs 1884–85

Today in Ottawa History - Nile Voyageurs


  • Boileau, John, 2004. “Voyagers on the Nile,” Legion Magazine, 1 January,
  • Canada, Government of, 2011. “The Nile Expedition, 1884-85,” Canadian Military History Gateway,
  • Churchill, Winston S. (1899). The River War (first edition, two volumes). London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • MacLaren, Roy, 1978. Canadians on the Nile, 1882–1898: being the adventures of the voyageurs on the Khartoum relief expedition and other exploit, 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,
  • Stacey, C.P. (1959). Records of the Nile Voyageurs, 1884-1885: The Canadian Voyageur Contingent in the Gordon Relief Expedition. Toronto: Champlain Society Publications.
  • Daily Citizen, (The), 1884. “Nile Boatman,” Ottawa, 13 September.
  1. ————————, “Off to Egypt,” 15 September.
  2. ————————, 1885. “Safe Voyage,” 5 March.
  • Gazette, (The), 1884. “The Canadian Contingent,” Montreal, 15 September.
  1. ————————. “Off for Alexandria,” 16 September.
  2. ———————–. “Home Again,” 5 March.
  • Manitoba Daily Free Press, 4 May, 24 Oct. 1885.
  • Peterborough Examiner (Peterborough, Ont.), 7 May 1885.
  • Jackson, Louis. 1885. Our Caughnawagas in Egypt : a narrative of what was seen and accomplished by the contingent of North American Indian voyageurs who led the British boat expedition for the relief of Khartoum up the cataracts of the Nile.


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