KAHNAWAKE – Britain’s colonial efforts were certainly not focused entirely on the inhabitants of the Americas in the 1880s. They had issues they were dealing with in other parts of the world as well.
There was unrest in South Africa in those days, and in a bizarre twist of fate, the British Crown called upon the Haudenosaunee, Ojibwe and Metis boatsmen for help in navigating the Nile River to evacuate British soldiers and civilians from Khartoum, Sudan.
The plan was to bring in experienced rivermen to guide 5,000 British troops down the Nile rapids to Khartoum. For this, Britain turned to Canada seeking Voyeurs and canoe-handy Indian allies, 56 of which were Mohawks of Kahnawake, a word which means “at the rapids”.
According to a Historical Overview for the Canadian Military Heritage Project, written by Lorine McGinnis Schulze; “The River Column left Korti on the Nile, December 1884, to traverse the rapids and advance south into the Sudan to relieve Gen. Gordon in Khartoum, who was being attacked by the forces of the Mahdi. General Lord Garnet Wolseley needed men who could overcome the Nile’s cataracts as they moved upriver.
General Lord Garnet Wolseley’s group of 392 Canadian boatmen — the Nile Voyageurs — 56 of whom were Kanienkeha:ka (Mohawk), mostly from the Kahnawake band in Quebec, and 30 of whom were Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) from Manitoba and Northern Ontario. Chief Louis Jackson of Kahnawake recommended the design for the whaler-boats that were used on the voyage and became a river foreman.”
It is pointed out by Kahnawake author Joe Jacobs M.D., in his book “Mohawks on the Nile – Journey of the Warrior Spirit,” he refers to another book written by Chief Jackson and published in 1885, where he proudly recognizes that even the native Egyptian boats men who have navigated the Nile for untold generations, were not up to the task set before them.
In the 1880s followers of the Muslim cleric Mohammed Ahmed, known as the Mahdi, insisted, under penalty of death, that their extremist take in Islam be adopted by everyone in Sudan. Those unwilling were to be put to death. Khartoum had a diverse population of British and local sects and became the last stronghold for those resistant to the Mahdi. That was the background to the evacuation attempt at Khartoum. The urgency was that there was a very large army of Mahdi moving towards Khartoum with a mission of religious assimilation or death to those who refuse.
As it turned out, political sluggishness, the logistics of recruitment of river men and the transport of men and equipment from Canada to Egypt, plus the 19,000 kilometre expedition, took too long and the expedition failed.
The British soldiers and around 4,000 civilians they were sent to rescue had already been killed, two days before the rescuers were to reach Khartoum. With the mission abandoned, they had to retrace their steps up the Nile, traversing the same rapids and braving the same 16 foot, 500 lb. Nile Crocodiles they had battled earlier, all the way back to Egypt.
Research more about this little known piece if military history became known as the Nile Expedition.
NOTE: Mohawks on the Nile; Natives among the Canadian Voyageurs in Egypt 1844-1845. By Carl Ben. Reveals the name of James Deere and other Mohawks who were part of that expedition.