Manitoba History: From the Red to the Nile: William Nassau Kennedy and the Manitoba Contingent of Voyageurs in the Gordon Relief Expedition, 1884-1885
by Michael Bumsted,
Seventeen years after Confederation, Canada lent major aid for the first time to an international military campaign. It was the first time that a large group of Canadians would be overseas in any military operation. However, they were not employed in the form of troops, or even in an official capacity. Instead, Canadian boatmen and voyageurs were recruited to transport troops up the Nile River for the Gordon Relief Expedition. Of the almost four hundred men, a quarter were from Manitoba and were led by Lt. Colonel William Nassau Kennedy from Winnipeg. This paper tells their story.
The British government had initially become seriously involved with Egypt during the course of the construction of the Suez Canal, which was finally opened late in 1876. Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who was appointed Governor of Equatoria in the southern Sudan by the Egyptian Khedive in 1872, was part of the early, unofficial involvement. Gordon, who had previously served unofficially in China during the Taiping Rebellion as the leader of the Celestial Emperor’s “Celestial Army,” took up his post in February 1874, after obtaining leave from the British army. The Sudan was an administrative nightmare, far from Cairo and full of rebellious tribesmen. For the next few years, Gordon moved in and out of administrative appointments in the Sudan, while the Khedive staggered from one financial disaster to another.  Khedival finances, of course, were greatly strained by the construction of the Suez Canal. The British allowed the appointment of a British controller to “advise” the ministry of finance in Cairo in 1876, and soon found themselves more heavily involved in Egypt, initially in concert with the French, than they had intended.
In 1882 the French withdrew from Egypt rather than face the consequences of a nasty nationalist riot in Alexandria on 11 June, in which fifty Europeans were killed and dozens injured. The British stayed. The British fleet bombarded Alexandria, but now had to face the possibility of the
Egyptian army threatening the Suez Canal, which had quickly established itself as the imperial link to India. The British sent General Garnet Wolseley and an army of 31,000 regulars to protect the canal.  Wolseley was an Anglo-Irishman who had first made his reputation by orchestrating the Anglo-Canadian military takeover of Manitoba in the summer of 1870. He had led an expedition of 500 British regulars and Canadian volunteers, mainly by water, across the wilderness of what is now northwestern Ontario and southeastern Manitoba.  Wolseley had subsequently held a series of colonial military appointments in which he had been quite successful, and he returned to Britain to become quarter-master general in 1880 and adjutant-general in 1882, the same year in which he was satirized as the “very model of a modern Major-General” by Gilbert and Sullivan. Wolseley quickly defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Tell el Kebir in September 1882, and was rewarded with a peerage and a position as the chief military advisor to the secretary of state for war. 
Meanwhile, the situation in the Sudan had become increasingly desperate. In early 1881, a religious leader named Mohammed Ahmed had declared himself the “true Mandi,” the Muslim messiah who was prophecied to appear in the year 1883.  The Mandi gathered the Sudanese tribesmen around him and began preaching “Jihad”—holy war—against all infidels. A British officer named William Hicks was made a general in the Egyptian army and made commander-in-chief in the Sudan, with instructions to rout the Mandi. Instead, “Hicks Pasha” was defeated, and the British found themselves with a serious problem in the Sudan, with the Mandi threatening to invade Egypt. The popular call was for “Chinese Gordon,” the one man who might be able to deal with the problem. The British cabinet was badly divided over policy with Prime Minister Gladstone utterly opposed to military intervention.
The Gordon Mission
In the end, thanks partly to the advice of Lord Wolseley, the cabinet agreed to send Gordon to the Sudan. Exactly what he was instructed to do remained uncertain; the instructions were vague and contradictory. The main question was whether he had been instructed to evacuate the British garrison at Khartoum (as advocated by Wolseley) or merely to investigate and report on the situation there. Gordon, who was as fanatic as the Mandi—although in a Christianrather than Muslim sense—was probably not a good man to send into an explosive situation without precise instructions. Upon his arrival, Gordon began planning both the impossible tasks of the establishment of a stable local government in Khartoum and the evacuation of his garrison (which consisted of six thousand men and ten to fifteen thousand unarmed civilians, mainly women and children). He accomplished neither in the short run. The evacuation would have to involve the march of all these people across five hundred miles of hostile desert. Meanwhile, the Mandi’s supporters began to tighten their occupation of the territory around Khartoum. Gordon was clearly trapped in Khartoum and British public opinion, from the man in the street to the Queen herself, demanded his rescue. Queen Victoria wrote her secretary of war, “Gordon is in danger; you are bound to try and save him ... You have incurred fearful responsibility.” 
Naturally, Lord Wolseley was popularly regarded as the only British soldier who might be able to get Gordon out. He was not regarded quite the same way by the British military authorities. To take a British army to the Sudan would be no easy task. Marching five hundred miles across hostile desert would be no simpler for Wolseley heading south than for Gordon heading north. The only alternative was sailing by boat up sixteen hundred miles of the Nile River. This route was regarded as impossible because of a series of cataracts (or falls) in the upper reaches of the river. Both the War Office and the Admiralty recommended the desert route. From the beginning, however, Wolseley had other plans. He proposed “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 had in 1870 been exceedingly impressed with the almost four hundred Canadian boatmen—voyageurs, Indians, and Métis—. He had employed to man the boats which carried his troops over the rivers, rapids, and forty-seven portages of the five hundred mile river route to Fort Garry. He understood that Gordon’s rescue in 1884 would require the recruitment of another contingent of Canadians to do the job. Wolseley in the summer of 1884 only planned the expedition, but was not yet in charge of it. Yet he pressed on with his scheme to relieve Gordon by river, although a small elite camel corps would march along the riverbank with the boats. Parliament voted the funds for a river relief expedition, and not surprisingly, the government found that no one but Wolseley would do to command it.
Wolseley to the Rescue
One of Wolseley’s first actions when he was given the command was to get the Colonial Secretary Lord Derby to telegraph the Governor-General of Canada (in cypher) on 20 August, noting:
It is proposed to endeavour to engage 300 good voyageurs from Caughnawaga, Saint Regis, and Manitoba as steersmen in boats for Nile expedition—engagement for 6 months with passage to & from Egypt. Will pay of 40 dollars a month with suit of clothes and rations free be sufficient? If this could be done, perhaps you would permit Lord Melgund [later Lord Minto, a governor-general of Canada] to undertake charge of these voyageurs to Egypt, and priest could be attached to party receiving Captain’s pay & allowances ... The voyageurs should arrive at Liverpool not later than the 1st of October, but if possible by the 15th of September. Three officers of Canadian Milita might accompany party. 
Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald readily agreed to the recruitment provided the men were British employees and not connected with Canada. By August, the siege of Khartoum was five months old without any diminution in public interest. Despite the specification of men from Manitoba, the Governor-General initially insisted “the shortness of time at our disposal would render it difficult to select men from so distant a part of the Dominion as Manitoba.”  He and Lord Melgund decided to recruit almost entirely in the east, particularly among “shantymen” working in the timber industry in the Ottawa region. Before the end of the month an advertisement appeared in an Ottawa newspaper. It was headed “IMPORTANT TO BOATMEN,” and it informed its readers that 300 voyageurs and steersmen were to be enlisted for service on the Nile.  Telegrams on 28 August from Wolseley and the Colonial Office insisted that Manitobans be included, and Melgund cabled that same day to an old acquaintance in Winnipeg to ask for assistance in the recruiting of fifty “good men.”  It is worth emphasizing that it was Wolseley, and not the Canadian authorities who insisted that some men be drawn from Manitoba. As far as Canada was concerned, Manitoba could be left right out of the picture.
William Nassau Kennedy and the Recruitment of the Manitoba Contingent
The man suddenly put in charge of the recruitment of a Manitoba contingent of voyageurs was William Nassau Kennedy (1839-1885), the founder and commander of the west’s only large militia contingent, the 90th Battalion of Winnipeg Rifles. Born in Upper Canada, Kennedy had worked as a housepainter before joining the Peterborough Rifles as a private in 1857. He served as a lieutenant in the Red River Expedition of 1870 and elected to stay in Manitoba where he became an active promoter of railway companies, business collaborator of John C. Schultz, and Winnipeg’s second mayor. Kennedy was also Lieutenant Colonel of the Rifles, which would subsequently become a problem.
Kennedy’s only instructions were to sign up “good men,” and he was operating under severe pressures of time. Nevertheless, he cabled Melgund that he could get 50 qualified men. He would consult the Hudson’s Bay Company and advertise at once.  An advertisement thus ran in the Manitoba Daily Free Press and the Winnipeg Sun for the week of 29 August to 6 September which read:
Changes in the nature of the fur trade and transportation within it had rapidly reduced the number of experienced boatmen available, however. Kennedy managed to get some recruits with experience, including a contingent of a dozen Saultaux Indians headed by Chief William Prince and 25 voyageurs from Rat Portage (now Kenora). By 29 August he could report to Wolseley that he had his fifty voyageurs.  Ominously, his cable also indicated that he and his second-in command of the Winnipeg Rifles, Major Daniel McMillan, wished to accompany the party. Moreover, there was enormous enthusiasm within the ranks of Kennedy’s battalion for service in Wolseley’s expedition. He made commitments to a number of young business and professional men from Winnipeg, including eight lawyers, who had no particular experience as boatmen, with a lieutenant of the battalion (Alfred McKeand) as foreman.  He also recruited his brother James C. Kennedy as a foreman. 
Further cables from Ottawa requested a birch bark canoe for Wolseley’s own use, with spare bark and gum, as well as a request that each participant bring his own paddle. Kennedy complied with alacrity.  The birch bark canoe cost $50.00.  Apparently partly to cover his additional commitments, Kennedy requested permission to recruit fifty raftsmen in addition to his voyageurs, and was granted it, providing they were “men who are good at rapids, Other men would be useless.”  By 6 September Kennedy cabled Lord Melgund he had eighty men ready to go.  As Colonel C. P. Stacey points out in the introduction to his documentary collection on the expedition, many of Kennedy’s recruits not only lacked experience but were several social classes above the boatmen recruited in the east. These problems would subsequently cause considerable difficulty on the Nile.
To make matters worse, Kennedy refused to take no for an answer as far as his own participation in the expedition was concerned. The commander of the expedition, Major Frederick C. Denison, refused to have him, writing to Melgund: “As I am only a major would rather not have Kennedy on expedition. General Public would think him in command & our position would be false. He should be allowed his Colonel pay while getting and bring down men he could not even complain.”  Kennedy traveled with his party to Montreal, his overseas participation continually opposed by the Denison family.  According to Lord Melgund:
Lt. Colonel Kennedy (90th Regt Winnipeg) who served in the Red River Expedition also accompanies the party in charge of the men raised in Manitoba. It has been through his influence and energy that this contingent numbering 92 men has been raised, but his appointment as an Officer of the Expedition was impossible as it would have brought the number of Officers above that sanctioned by the Imperial Government. When it became known that he would not be allowed to join the party the disappointment among his men was very great. A deputation headed by “Prince” the Chief of the Indians came to me with the request that Colonel Kennedy might go with them as “Boss.” I agreed to refer the matter to your Excellency and Colonel Kennedy has now with your concurrence been allowed to join the expedition on the distinct understand that he sinks his army rank. Of this arrangement Major Denison approved. I informed Colonel Kennedy that the only pay he could receive was that of a foreman but he decided to accept none whatever & therefore accompanies the expedition as unpaid foreman to the Manitoba Contingent. 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. 
The rank problem was solved when Kennedy “sank” his militia rank and Denison was brevetted a lieutenant colonel. In Egypt, Kennedy would be made acting quartermaster and paymaster of the contingent. This solution did not completely resolve the question of the relationship between Lieutenant-Colonel Denison and Kennedy which continued to be somewhat frosty. The lack of experience of some of Kennedy’s “voyageurs” was a problem that never went away.
Embarkation for Egypt
The eventual Canadian party that embarked for Egypt consisted of 367 voyageurs, their geographical origins as follows:
According to the final British report on the Voyageurs, however, there were three hundred sixty two men, eighteen foremen, and seven officers. The three hundred eighty foremen and men “consisted of thirty six English and Scotch, one hundred fifty eight Canadians, ninety three French Canadians, seventy seven Indians, and sixteen other nationalities.”  Lord Melgund described the Manitoba contingent as “about thirty Indians and a certain number of men of a better class who have employed in surveying but are accustomed to boat work.”  Two of the Manitoba group deserted in Sydney while their ship the Ocean King was refueling, and were replaced by Colonel Denison on the spot.  On the Atlantic passage, Kennedy and Captain Denham entertained the men with duets on violin and flute.  The ship steamed into Alexandria harbour on 7 October, and the next day the men headed for Cairo by train, leaving Kennedy behind to draw some money with which to pay expenses. From Cairo they continued by rail to Assiut, where they boarded a steamer, and were soon sailing up the Nile. The steamer took the Canadians three hundred twenty five miles to Assuan.
A portage railway bypassed the first cataract, and then it was on by steamer to Wady Halfa and the second Cataract, which was a series of falls covering over eight and a half miles of the river. It was at this point that the serious work of the boatmen would begin, and they set to their task almost immediately upon arrival. Kennedy joined the contingent below Shillal, and eventually established his office at Dal, between the second and third Cataracts. He had been serving as acting paymaster since Quebec, but expected to be superseded when the Nile was once reached. Instead, the British authorities did not appoint a paymaster for the voyageurs, and Kennedy was asked by Colonel Denison to continue to serve in the post. Denison reported to Lord Melgund, “I do not object to Col. K. being Paymaster. If he gets into any trouble it will be through being too good natured and easy going—the responsibility is taken off my shoulders through my applying for one I consider.”  Kennedy was now being paid, at the rate of 16/ per day.  He was also used on occasion as a Canadian officer, because of shortages.
The job of being quartermaster general and paymaster was not easy, for the Canadian voyageurs were a civilian part of the British military, and both supplies and money had to be cajoled out of a reluctant system. When the men got sick or injured, they had to be squeezed into military hospitals. Being commanding officer was even more difficult because with a civilian force it was impossible to employ the usual military discipline to keep a contingent—composed chiefly of hard-drinking and brawling timbermen—under firm control. Under the circumstances, Denison and Kennedy appear to have gotten on well enough over the winter mainly by being separated by many miles of river. As we shall see, however, there were some problems and some friction.
The Canadian Assignment and Its Difficulties
If the assignment was a difficult one for Denison and Kennedy, it was virtually impossible for the Canadian boatmen. Even before the boatmen had left Canada, the British press was claiming they could not do the job because they could not stand the heat of the desert.  From the beginning, they were under enormous pressure to get the troops to Khartoum in time to save Gordon, who sent several messages indicating that he could hold out only until early in the New Year. In the end, Wolseley was forced to send a portion of the troops on ahead by land, and the arrival of his men was a few days too late. Because the whole success of the expedition seemed to ride on the backs of the Canadian voyageurs, the British press (out in full force in 1884-5) was highly critical of their efforts. The World newspaper wrote sarcastically that Thames boatmen could have done as well as the Canadians and Colonel Denison took such comments personally.  Letters to newspapers in both Britain and Canada apparently complained that some of the Canadians were actually not experienced boatmen, and several newspaper correspondents commented negatively on the behaviour of some of the contingent. 
Those more experienced in such matters appreciated the skill and the labour of the Canadians. Each Nile boat (or whaler) was about thirty to thirty-two feet long, and six to seven feet wide. Each boat weighed eleven hundredweight, and carried a hundred days reserve rations, arms, and stores weighed three and a half tons more. Many of the boats were initially overloaded as well, and the work went faster when five hundred pounds was ordered removed from the cargo. Normally six men pulled at the oars, with the voyageur at the rudder. When it was impossible to row, all the crew but the bowsman and steersman disembarked, and pulled the boat via a tracking line while walking along the shore. At a bad rapid, up to five crews with up to forty men would be put on the line. Usually bad rapids meant unloading part of the cargo. The work went faster when boatmen were left permanently at each of the rapids rather than accompanying the boats from one rapid to the next. The dangerous bit was allowing too much slack on the towline for the current would then catch the boat and often overturn it throwing the voyageurs into the Nile. In a lecture that Colonel Denison often delivered after his return to Canada, he described one typical boat upset:
The men, two smart active boatmen, coolly climbed over on to the upturned boat. I immediately manned another boat with voyageurs, pulled off for them in an anxious frame of mind; but before we had got half way there, I noticed the men seize a floating box, and pull it to the bottom of the boat, and by the time we reached them they had four or five rescued boxes on the upturned boat. 
The work was dangerous, and six voyageurs were drowned in the course of the expedition, while another thirty were upset by the overturning of their boats.  As well as the dangers from the rushing waters, the voyageurs were also exposed to a whole series of diseases from which they had little immunity. There was much sickness, but few fatalities. One of those who did not make it back to Canada would be Colonel Kennedy.
The “Inexperienced” Boatmen
Although most of the Canadians were quite experienced boatmen, some—especially in the Manitoba contingent—were not. In his final report, Lieutenant-Colonel Coleridge Grove calculated that forty-five of the three hundred sixty two voyageurs were unsuited for the work. He wrote that most of the men varied in capacity but could all handle a boat. They knew nothing of sailing, but could deal with a boat in hard water and were “exceedingly well-behaved, hardy, and uncomplaining.”  Most of the bad boatmen were part of Lieutenant Alfred McKeand’s twenty-two man “Manitoba gang.” Colonel Denison complained about this gang almost from the very beginning, writing Lord Melgund on 17 October:
The Manitoba men have given me more trouble than all the rest together, 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 Quebec 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 on me also. I can understand a few slipping in by mistake, but not a whole gang. 
On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that McKeand and his men got better as they went along, and they did not quit when the going got tough, although they were not placed in the front ranks. They were at one point ordered by the commander not to pass beyond Dal, although Colonel Kennedy protested that this was an insult to him. 
Nor did the Manitobans quit when the terms of their contracts had expired. The Canadian boatmen had signed on in early September for six months, and most of the contingent were anxious to get back to Canada for the spring timbering, particularly since by the time their contracts were coming up it was clear that Gordon had not been saved. Moreover, many were fearful of the African summer. In the end, only six foremen and eighty-three boatmen re-engaged despite a fifty percent increase in pay, and few of these were either French-Canadians or Indians. Colonel Denison stated he would not rehire Lieutenant McKeand and then took him on as an ordinary voyageur, and according to Colonel Stacey, McKeand and his gang were eventually paid at the regular rate. Stacey suggests that Colonel Kennedy probably made this arrangement at Dal without consulting with the commanding officer, and according to Captain T. Aumond, Kennedy did most of the actual work of reengagement. 
No evidence exists that Colonel Denison ever knew about Alfred McKeand’s pay but the Denisons were not happy with what they regarded as Kennedy’s general underhandedness. Captain Egerton Denison, Fred Denison’s younger brother who was also on the expedition, was particularly incensed. He insisted that he was on the General Order to remain in the Sudan, while Kennedy was slated for early return. But Kennedy claimed that fifty of the eighty men re-engaging were part of the Manitoba contingent and argued (according to Denison) “that they would not have gone on had they thought he was not going.  The good captain suspected some sort of political hanky-panky which ended up with Kennedy staying and Denison returning with the bulk of the men. The good captain complained to his brother of Kennedy, “Besides he does not deserve to go on, the men he engaged in Manitoba being the ones who caused all letters etc. in papers about inexperienced Voyageurs.” 
Winding Up and the Death of Kennedy
After the departure of the bulk of the contingent, Colonels Kennedy and Denison remained in Egypt and accompanied their boatmen up river to help transport General Brackenbury’s column to Khartoum. Whether Kennedy’s complaints of sickness at the end of March were related to his final illness is not clear. The two officers did some sightseeing on their return voyage down the Nile. Denison was hospitalized in Cairo with “enteric fever” (typhoid fever) and was delirious for some time. He did not return to England until mid-May. Kennedy had returned to London by the end of April and was immediately admitted to the Highgate Smallpox Hospital. He was still dictating orders about paying the contingent on 1 May, when he wrote to Mr. Colledge “the Crisis not arrived yet, but the doctor says there is some hope.”  That same day, however, he dictated “a memorandum in case of death”. It dealt with his effects and instructed his brother to see his wife Mary to tell her how anxious he was to return to his family and how confident he was in facing death.  He died two days later. The health authorities were not enthusiastic about allowing his body to be returned to Canada for fear that it was still contagious, and Kennedy was therefore buried in Highgate Cemetery, very near to Karl Marx. Because he was not serving Canada but Britain, his wife received a British pension of fifty pounds per annum, plus twelve pounds for each of her children. 
Thus was William Nassau Kennedy an early Canadian casualty in a war overseas, holding an informal non-military appointment working for the British Army. Despite the irregularity and somewhat exotic nature of the whole Khartoum business, most observers could agree that the Canadians had made a good job of their assignment and deserved the applause they received from their contemporaries.
3. G. L. Huyshe, The Red River Expedition (London, 1871).
6. Quoted in Roy McLaren, Canadians on the Nile, 1882-1898: Being the Adventures of the Voyageurs on the Khartoum Relief Expedition and Other Exploits (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1978), p. 35.
8. Lord Derby to Lord Lansdowne, 20 August 1884, in C. P. Stacey, ed., Records of the Nile Voyageurs 1884-1885: The Canadian Voyageur Contingent in the Gordon Relief Expedition (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1959), p. 55.
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