Water is Water, and Rock is Rock: Canada’s First Overseas Military Contingent

When did Canada first send its inhabitants to war beyond North America? The answer isn’t the First World War or the Boer War, but the Sudan expedition of 1884.

As the effective colonial rulers of Egypt, the British were responsible for Egypt’s outposts in the Sudan. When Muhamed Ahmad, better known as the Mahdi, threatened Egyptian control the British sent their go-to imperial troubleshooter, Charles “Chinese” Gordon to take charge of the situation. Gordon, who got his nickname commanding Chinese troops in suppressing the Taiping rebellion, soon lost control and got himself besieged in Khartoum. Unable to abandon him to his fate, the British were forced to send a rescue expedition commanded by their go-to general for African crises – Sir Garnet Wolseley. Wolseley, whose prim efficiency led both to the mercifully-obsolete phrase “all Sir Garnet” and to Gilbert and Sullivan’s song “I am the very model of a modern Major General,” had made his reputation by managing to burn the capital of the Asante state in West Africa without losing his entire army to disease or ambush (which was a bigger achievement than you might think). Like Gordon, he was an imperial globe-trotter, having served in India during the Rebellion of 1857, Canada in the 1860s, and South Africa right after the Zulu War.

To get to Khartoum he chose to use a tactic that had succeeded in his first major victory, the 1870 Red River expedition against the Manitoba Métis. In that campaign, Canadian voyageurs had moved his troops by boat from Thunder Bay to Manitoba.
There were three problems with this plan. Canadian prime minister John A. MacDonald didn’t want to have to pay to send troops to Africa; so, the British picked up the tab, with the Canadian government only providing a few militia officers to command the boatmen. The voyageurs who had carried the Red River expedition had disappeared as the fur trade declined, replaced by the railroad. The Canadian Pacific line reached Winnipeg in 1882, and when the second Métis rebellion broke out in 1885 Canadian troops went west in rail cars. Instead, Wolseley hired shantymen from Eastern Canada who drove logs downriver from the lumber camps to the sawmills. Finally, and most importantly, the Nile was nothing like Canada’s rivers. Wolseley famously said that “water is water, and rock is rock.” He was totally wrong.

Eventually the shantymen figured out how to navigate the Nile’s cataracts, but Wolseley reached Khartoum two days after the Mahdist troops had sacked the city. Wolseley became a viscount and a member of the knightly Order of St. Patrick, Gordon became a martyr, the Sudan became independent (until the British returned in 1898), and the Canadian boatmen got home in time for the spring season of 1885.


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