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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

War in a Wilderness

Part 2—The Campaign of the Cataracts

By Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

We've all heard it said that history repeats itself. It doesn't, of course. Life's too complicated for that. But it does come close from time to time. Today, as American planes bomb Osama bin Laden's allies in Afghanistan, we can look back on another "war in a wilderness," a war which brought Orkney boatmen and French-Canadian voyageurs face to face with the army of an earlier warrior-prophet. The story of that war began last month with "The Siege of Khartoum." Now it continues.

November 13, 2001

In the summer of 1884, two men faced each other across the waters of the Nile. One man was besieged within the walls of the ancient city of Khartoum. The other commanded the besieging army. Each was deeply religious. Each was a man of honor. And neither would give way.

The first man—the man besieged in Khartoum—was General Charles Gordon. The commander of the army which encircled him was Muhammad Ahmad, better known as the Mahdi: the One Who is Guided by God, the Long-Expected One. Theirs was more than a minor confrontation in a desert wilderness. It was a focal point in a global collision of two great empires. One of these, the British Empire, was an empire of commerce, fast approaching the high-water mark of its influence and extent. The other was an empire of faith, and that faith was Islam. Once enormously powerful, Islam was everywhere in retreat in the late nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire succumbed to relentless Western pressure and internal strife. The Mahdi was himself fighting to free the people of southern Sudan from the domination of an Egyptian military governor, a governor who had been appointed by the Ottoman sultan.

Ironically, at this critical moment in history, Britain found itself yoked in an uneasy alliance with its former rival, the Ottoman Empire. Anxious to protect its interests in the recently completed Suez canal, Britain was compelled to prop up the tottering Egyptian government. Indeed, Gordon had been sent to the Sudan to supervise the evacuation of Egyptian forces from Khartoum. Now, however, he was a prisoner in the city. Finding himself helpless to assist either the garrison or the inhabitants, he resolved to share their fate.

The British government, reluctant to commit large numbers of troops to a war in a distant land, delayed as long as it could. As the Mahdi's siege continued, however, and as Gordon refused repeated suggestions that he abandon Khartoum, a Gordon Relief Expedition finally got under way.

At the head of the expedition was General Lord Garnet Wolseley. Months earlier, in London, he had seen Gordon off on his mission to the Sudan. It had been an inauspicious setting out. Gordon had arrived in London with almost no money in hand. (He said he'd forgotten to go to the bank.) It was evening, and the banks were closed. But a gentleman couldn't be expected to travel one-third of the way around the world with nothing in his wallet, could he? Wolseley patted his pockets. He found some money, but it wasn't enough. So the bemused peer then ran from one London club to another, begging loose change from startled members "for General Gordon."

Now Wolseley had the job of assembling an expeditionary force to rescue Gordon and relieve the siege of Khartoum. He reached Cairo on the 9th of September. The first batch of whale-boats—double-ended, rudderless craft that could be rowed, sailed or tracked—arrived at Wadi Halfa on the 14th of October. The River Column of the Gordon Relief Expedition was about to get underway.

Happily, Wolseley was no stranger to river operations. He'd put down the Red River rebellion in Canada in 1870, crossing the 600 miles of wilderness waterways from Lake Superior to Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) without losing a man. To a British government eager to avoid a bloody war, this was a very good omen indeed. Better yet, among the officers under Wolseley's command was a man who had accompanied him to Fort Garry, Colonel William Francis Butler. Not only was Butler an enterprising soldier and an imposing figure—he was later described as standing "intellectually…[and] physically head and shoulders above the majority of his comrades"—but he was also a skilled canoeist and boatman, as well as an acclaimed author whose two accounts of his Canadian adventures were Victorian best sellers.

The Nile bore little resemblance to the Winnipeg River, of course, but Butler did his best. And his best was very good. Fortunately, the whale-boats he took up through the Nile cataracts were not unlike the York boats he remembered from his days with the Red River expedition.

Slower than the Northwest Company's Montreal Canoes (canots de maître) on the rivers, and more difficult to portage, York boats had nevertheless proved far better sailers on the big Canadian lakes. They were also much more efficient. The largest York boats could carry a load of 12,000 pounds with a crew of no more than ten. The biggest canoes could manage only half that load, and they required just as large a crew. To the Hudson's Bay Company's directors and their accountants, there was no contest. After all, inland factors had been complaining about the shortcomings of canoes since 1745, when Joseph Isbister wrote plaintively in his journal that "theres no eand to building Cannoes." He therefore resolved "to make triell to build a boat to Drawe as letle watter as a Canno and Carie more goods." Isbister's spelling may have been erratic, but his commercial instincts couldn't be faulted, and shortly thereafter the York boat was born. By 1779 they had replaced canoes on the Albany River. After 1821, they were the mainstay of the Company's entire transportation network, a position they held until, in the words of Richard Glover, the voyageur turned "grease-monkey" and the "racket of gasoline motors" intruded on the silence of the wilderness.

That day lay many years in the future when Butler took charge of his boat brigade on the banks of the Nile, however. On the 25th of October, 1884, the first whale-boats were tracked up through the second cataract. The struggle continued for many weeks, as Orkney boatmen and French-Canadian voyageurs worked to turn British infantrymen into seasoned hands. It wasn't an easy task, though one early-twentieth-century writer insists the troops "bore the privations of their unaccustomed conditions with admirable cheerfulness." Former infantrymen will, I suspect, doubt the truth of this inspiring portrait, but the fact remains that Butler kept his troops hard at it. By Christmas day, 800 men had been rowed (and hauled) upriver to Korti. This was only the beginning of their difficulties, though. The Nile between Korti and Abu Hamed was a blank space on the map, and its cataracts and canyons were all but unknown.

Nonetheless, the River Column pushed on toward Khartoum. "Great difficulties of navigation were encountered," wrote historian George Sydenham Clarke, with quintessential British understatement. And the first month of the new year ended with the column still struggling against the current. Nor was the Nile the only enemy. On the 10th of February the River Column was attacked. Ten men were killed, including Major-General Earle, the column's overall commander. The government's hope of a bloodless war died with him.

Still, the River Column continued to advance. On the 24th of February, the column drew near the end of the blank space on its maps. An end to the "campaign of the cataracts" was in sight, as well. Old soldiers, all veterans of many colonial conflicts, their hands now hardened to the oars, stopped grumbling. The road to Khartoum lay open before them. Gordon would soon be relieved—or so it seemed. Then, 26 miles below Abu Hamed, the column heard the news that had already plunged all England into mourning. Gordon was dead. He had been killed on the 25th of January. Khartoum had fallen to the Mahdi.

The River Column was ordered to return immediately to Korti, and so it did, running back down the river which it had surmounted at such great cost. Soon the voyageurs and Orkneymen were headed home to Canada, while the British soldiers, their oars discarded for more familiar packs, trooped off to "dispel a cloud…on the frontiers of Afghanistan." And the Mahdi? What of the Mahdi? He had won the day, but he had little time to enjoy his victory. He died of typhus in June, at a river town called Omdurman. Thirteen years later, a British expeditionary force under General Horatio Herbert Kitchener won a great victory near the same place, killing eleven thousand of the Mahdi's surviving followers. "It was a sight never to be forgotten," one of Kitchener's officers later wrote, his words simultaneously invoking pride, pity, and awe. "The endless columns of warriors…with countless banners fluttering in the light breeze…. They were simply mown down."

Kitchener then capped this triumph by digging up the Mahdi's bones and throwing them into the Nile. From that day forward the man whom Winston Churchill was later to call "the foremost of the heroes of his race" had the world's greatest river for his monument.

In the same year that brought victory to Kitchener at Omdurman, when the River Column and the campaign of the cataracts were only fading memories, William Francis Butler was appointed Commander-in-Chief of British forces in South Africa, where war between the British and the Boers was all but inevitable. Butler, however, did the unexpected: he declared that such a conflict would be "the greatest calamity that had ever befallen South Africa." And then he did the unthinkable. He tried to block the rush to war. To no one's surprise, he was immediately forced to resign his command. Also to no one's surprise, war followed shortly thereafter.

When the shooting stopped four years later, in 1902, more than 22,000 British soldiers were dead. The Boers had lost another 5,000 fighters, while 26,000 Boer women and children had died of starvation and disease. Nor was this all. The British treasury was poorer by £200 million, as well. Still, the English language was enriched by several new words and expressions: casualty (a tidy euphemism that replaced "butcher's bill," "killed," and "crippled" in military reports and newspaper accounts), commando, and concentration camp. All were to prove very useful in the new century.

Meanwhile, the Nile flowed north unceasingly, washing the bones of the Mahdi with every flood.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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