This Week in History


Canadian Voyageurs Navigate the Nile

For the week of Monday, September 12, 2016

On September 14, 1884, about 380 Canadians left Montréal to join a British military expedition in Egypt and the Sudan. The Nile Voyageurs, as they came to be known, successfully navigated the Nile River and were the first Canadian contingent to serve overseas in a military campaign. Although the Nile Expedition is not well known today, at the time it was at the centre of a public discussion about Canada’s role in the British Empire.

The Nile Voyageurs pose in front of Parliament. Ottawa, 1884
© Canada. Patent and Copyright Office / Library and Archives Canada / C-009990

The British invaded Egypt in 1882, seeking greater control over the Suez Canal. At the same time, “the Mahdi,” a self-proclaimed prophet, was leading an armed movement to end Egyptian rule in the Sudan. By 1884, the Mahdi’s forces had besieged the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, which prompted the British to launch a military campaign to relieve the city. Faced with the difficult rapids of the Nile, General Garnet Wolseley, who had spent a decade in Canada, called upon the services of Canadian “voyageurs” to pilot the British boats upriver.

Col. Frederick C. Denison, who led the Nile Voyageurs
© James Ashfield / Library and Archives Canada / C-009997

Sir John A. Macdonald gave his permission to recruit Canadian boatmen, on the understanding that they would be employed as workers, not as soldiers. In only three weeks, a diverse contingent was formed that included men from Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec, nearly one-fifth of whom were Métis, Ojibway, Cree, and Mohawk.

The Nile Voyageurs showed great skill as pilots but the Nile was a challenging waterway and progress was slow. By the end of the six-month contract, the British were still far from Khartoum. Encouraged to re-enlist, most of the Voyageurs chose home and only 89 men signed a second contract. By the time troops reached Khartoum in January 1885, it had fallen to the Mahdi’s forces. The British won a nearby ridge and then pulled troops from the area. In all, 16 Voyageurs died from drowning, sickness, and accidents.

The Voyageurs returned to Canada between February and May 1885. They were thanked for their service by Queen Victoria, General Wolseley, and the British Parliament. Each was awarded an Egypt Medal with a Nile bar, as well as a Khedive’s Star, with some receiving a special Battle of Kirbekan bar.

Canada and the South African War was designated a National Historic Event for being the first Canadian combat mission overseas. Sergeant Thomas Prince, one of the most decorated non-commissioned officers in Canadian military history and a National Historic Person, was a direct descendant of Chief William Prince, one of the leaders of the Nile Voyageurs. To learn more about Canada and the South African War read The Canadian Army in South Africa. To learn more about Sergeant Thomas Prince, read Thomas Prince: Distinguished Soldier of the Devil's Brigade.

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