Frederick Denison leads Canadians into battle with Mahdist Sudan in 1884.
On the morning of August 25, 1884, when he was about depart for Toronto after a quiet weekend at his summer home in Chippawa, Frederick Charles Denison received a telegram the governor general requesting that he join a small contingent of Canadians on a military expedition to Egypt. As part of a larger British military force led by Denison’s friend and former commanding officer Sir Garnet Wolseley, the contingent was to help rescue Charles Gordon and others under siege from Sudanese rebels in Khartoum.
The cable was not, according to George Taylor Denison III’s account in Soldiering in Canada (1901), clear about whether the offer was to command or accept a subordinate position. So Fred Denison decided to mull over his decision on the journey home and send his reply upon his arrival. He’d once dreamed of fulfilling the military tradition of his ardently imperialist family, but, at this moment in time, the 37-year-old had much to lose. His legal practice was busy and thriving and, as an alderman, he was chairman of the executive committee and rumoured to be next in line for the mayor’s office: he was under no formal obligation, as a Canadian militia officer, to uproot himself to serve with the British regulars.
By the time the steamer from Niagara pulled into Toronto, Fred Denison had drafted a response to decline. But one of his brothers was waiting at the wharf, with a telegram clarifying that Wolseley had specifically requested Denison to command. “Lord Wolseley wants me with him and I must go,” Denison said, underlining his sense of duty and obligation to nation and empire. Tearing up his drafted reply, according to the records of Fred’s brother, George T. Denison, Fred immediately telegraphed his acceptance.
Family tradition weighed heavily on Frederick Denison, as it did on all his brothers. “Imperial citizenship was an extension of their national identity,” historian David Gagan has written of the wealthy Loyalist family, whose members had fought for the British in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the 1837 Rebellion. From a young age, Denison continued the legacy of military service. He joined the Canadian militia in the mid-1860s, when he was still a law student at Osgoode Hall. He, as a 19-year-old, and his older brother George had rushed to the American border as members of the governor general’s body guard during the Fenian Raids of 1866. In 1870, he was among the more than 1,000 British soldiers and Canadian volunteers sent to restore order in Red River. Using small vessels helmed by Canadian and First Nations boatmen, the force travelled from the end of the railway in Port Arthur to Manitoba on the rivers and lakes of the interior. Denison impressed as “able and imaginative,” MacLaren writes, and was appointed an aide-de-camp for Sir Garnet Wolseley, whom he’d first met on the Niagara frontier in 1866.
Afterward, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, Denison sought opportunities for overseas military service to sate his desire for imperial adventure. But his overtures were consistently rebuffed. In 1872, Denison assumed command of the body guard on George’s resignation; then he stepped aside in 1876 to allow George to resume command. He seemed content to remain in the shadow of his more outspoken—and more egotistical—older brother. They entered a law practice together after Fred Denison was called to the bar in 1870, but most of the work of the thriving practice fell on the younger sibling while the ambitious George focused on other activities.
His dreams of imperial military glory seemingly dashed, Fred Denison settled into a comfortable life. He and his large family took residence at his father’s former estate, Rusholme, in the west end of the city in 1873. He assumed a leadership role in public affairs with his election as alderman for St. Stephen’s Ward, in place of his deceased uncle, in early 1878, performing his duties quietly but creditably—such that he appeared destined for the mayor’s office at the next election in early 1885.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, trouble had been brewing in Sudan, North Africa. The religiously devoted son of a Nile boat builder, Muhammad Ahmad ibn ‘Abdullahi, was gaining a following. Proclaiming himself “The Mahdi”—the messiah prophesied in the Muslim faith—Mohmmed Ahmad led increasing numbers of Sudanese tribesmen to declare jihad against infidels everywhere, including their Egyptian rulers in the British-backed Sudan.
(Right: Portrait of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi. From Wikimedia Commons.)
The British watched the unfolding religious and nationalist uprising on the Egyptian frontier with uneasy interest, concerned about the security of the Red Sea coast and the Suez Canal, by then the primary route to India. The British government sent Major-General Charles “Chinese” Gordon who has been described as “quixotic,” “impulsive,” “incorrigible,” and “insubordinate,” but also “very brave.” Gordon was, depending upon one’s interpretation of his vague orders, either to evacuate all British officials and other allies to Wadi Haifa—from where the British would defend the Egyptian border—or to merely assess the situation and report. But before Gordon could take much action at all, in March 1884 the Mahdi’s rebels, several thousand strong, cut the telegraph line and laid siege to Khartoum. In the imperialist ideology of the day, there was a certain romance to the devout evangelical Christian Gordon holed up in a fortress on the edge of empire, beleaguered by thousands of equally devout Muslim nationalists on the very edge of the empire.
By April 1884, Sir Garnet Wolseley was considering plans to rescue Gordon, a friend from their service in the Crimean War. After seeing military action on fronts around the empire, a bombastic and pretentious Wolseley—who’d served as the inspiration of the “very model of a modern Major-General” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance—had risen steadily through the ranks to become adjutant-general and the government’s chief military adviser.
(Left: General Charles George Gordon, 1884. From the Library and Archives Canada [C-00992].)
Given the alternatives of river or desert to reach Khartoum, Wolseley decided that transporting troops and supplies up the Nile presented the best option. The plan was informed by his experience in Canada in 1870, and he suggested recruiting Canadian voyageurs to help navigate the white-water cataracts of the Nile in small whaleboats. As Colonel William Bulter, one of Wolseley’s trusted inner circle and a veteran of the Red River expedition, reasoned: “Water is water, and rock is rock, whether they lie in America or in Africa, and the conditions which they can assume towards each other are much the same all the world over.”
In late August 1884, after finally accepting Wolseley’s advice, the British government cabled Lord Lansdowne, Canada’s governor general, requesting 500 voyageurs from Caughnawaga (now Kahnawake), Saint Regis (now Akwesasne), and Manitoba be engaged for six months of service. The British specified that only a handful of Canadian officers be included to command the civilian boatmen, including Fred Denison.
Although George T. Denison III asserts that Fred hesitated at the invitation, both Gagan, in The Denison Family of Toronto, 1792–1925 (University of Toronto Press, 1973), and O.A. Cooke in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, state that the lawyer accepted the appointment immediately without a second thought. Given the family’s affection for the British Empire, Gagan writes, a Denison would have “had no other choice but to go.”
Denison arrived in Ottawa to find recruitment well underway under the guidance of Viscount Melgund, later a governor general of Canada. (Had it not been for the impending birth of his first child, MacLaren reports, Melgund would have had command of the Canadians; upon his declining, Denison was approached.) Melgund found many suitable boatmen among the shantymen engaged in the lumber industry in the Ottawa region, and among the Iroquois of Kahnawake and Akwesasne.
Meanwhile, in Manitoba a lawyer and militia officer, William Nassau Kennedy, found 45 men for the Canadian contingent. But most were white and in search of adventure, rather than experienced steersmen skilled at reading river conditions and navigating rapids, as Wolseley had intended. Problems arose immediately as Kennedy, a lieutenant colonel in the militia, outranked Major Frederick Denison but insisted on joining the expedition.
The Denison family was steadfastly opposed, preferring that Egerton Denison, Fred’s youngest brother and a captain in the British militia, be included in Kennedy’s place. Canadian authorities disapproved, kicking Egerton off the outbound steamer as it was preparing to leave port. A solution was eventually reached whereby Denison was brevetted lieutenant colonel, and Kennedy volunteered to sink his rank to major and act as the contingent’s paymaster. The relationship between the two remained frigid.
(Right: Portrait of Colonel Frederick C. Denison by James Ashfield, 1884. From the Library and Archives Canada [C-009997].)
The Canadian voyageurs left Quebec aboard the steamer Ocean King on September 15, just three weeks since the governor general had first received the colonial office’s instructions. Given the short timeframe, the number of voyageurs was more than a hundred men shy of the hoped-for 500.
An anonymous poet captured something of the excitement promised by imperial adventure, writing in a September issue of Grip shortly after the contingent’s departure:
They will show the Egyptians a very fine act,
How to drag up a boat through a steep cataract,
And armed with his pike-pole the raftsmen don’t fear
The face of an Arab or care for his spear.
And, if they succeed well perhaps Major Denison
Will get wrote up in history by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
During the three-week voyage, the Canadians entertained themselves, as best they could, with card and table games, tug-of-war competitions and foot races on deck, and staged concerts with musical instruments they’d brought to sing songs in French, English, Gaelic, and First Nations languages. There were also interdenominational church services and lectures, and the opportunity to go ashore for brief leave at Gibraltar. After arriving at Alexandria, Egypt, on October 7, Denison and his men were given the chance to see the ruins at Luxor, Esneh, and Abu Simbel, as they made the 1,481-kilometre journey up-river to Wadi Halfa, located near the Second Cataract, which Wolseley had made his army’s headquarters and waypoint for transporting his 5,000 troops and the necessary arms and supplies upriver.
The leisurely passage by steamer and rail took almost as long as the sea crossing. At stops en route, men explored and Denison secured fresh meat and vegetables to supplement his men’s standard provisions of hartack, corned beef, and lime juice. At one such stop, three voyageurs got into an altercation over some melons and shot a local. Maintaining discipline among his civilian force was a constant challenge for Denison and his officers. Skilled as they were, the Canadians were used to the freedom, hard-drinking, and brawling of lumber camps. Since leaving Canada, a number of the men had drank too much at Gibraltar, or been late in returning from shore leave. Now, after the shooting, Denison’s investigation couldn’t determine the responsible party, but he fined the three men and confiscated all voyageurs’ handguns.
Denison took criticism of the boatmen personally when it appeared in the British press from the beginning, with claims that Thames rivermen would do the job better or that the colonials would wilt in the desert heat. He bemoaned the “lying accounts of my men” and false claims of mutinous behaviour uncritically reprinted in the British press.
Shortly after Denison’s contingent pitched their camp not far from Wadi Halfa—which British troops had nicknamed “Bloody Halfway”—on the afternoon of October 26, Wolseley rode out to their camp that evening to inspect the Canadians and issue their orders. “A rough-looking lot, but I hope I shall get plenty of work out of them,” Wolseley observed in his diary after his brief visit. “They won’t funk this river at all events.” The Canadians presented a gift of a birchbark canoe to the delighted general.
(Right: General Garnet J. Wolseley, 1884. From the Library and Archives Canada [C-009993].)
With reports from Khartoum suggesting that Gordon could, at best, hold out until early in the new year, Woseley was impatient for his army to get upriver. Knowing that the success of the entire campaign rested on the Canadians’ ability to get up the Nile in time, Denison ordered his men to start work at dawn.
Aware of the danger that lay ahead, Fred Denison confided in his brother Egerton, who had come to Egypt at his own expense after arriving at Alexandria a day after the contingent. He had been officially attached to the contingent by Wolseley at Fred’s explicit request. “If I die or am shot,” Fred instructed Egerton, “you are to see that my body is taken back to Canada, no matter what the cost may be, and I am to be buried with my people in the family burying ground on the banks of the Humber.” And he promised to do the same for his brother.
In the shallow-bottomed whaleboats, six men, usually British soldiers, laboured at the oars while a voyageur manned the rudder—and often another took a position in the bow, straining to see rocks and obstructions in water that was much muddier than Canadian waterways. Denison described the labours of their slow ascent of the Nile in one of a series of post-campaign public lectures:
When the boat came to a strong current, the men would pull their best, and with a good way on would get up; but if they failed and were carried back, I have seen them make the attempt a second and third time, straining every nerve and then succeed. If it was impossible to row up, all the crew but the bowman and the man at the rudder would disembark, get out their tracking line, put it over their shoulders, and walk along the bank, tracking the boat, until they reached smooth water again.
If the water were particuarly rough, it could take as many as five crews pulling on the rope to get the boat, still loaded with supplies, through a rapid. If those ashore allowed too much slack on the rope, the boat could be tossed broadsides by the rushing water, capsizing and sending the voyageurs into the Nile.
Denison didn’t merely watch from the shore, busying himself with his administrative duties. Working as hard as his men, Denison spent much of his time on the water in his own birchbark canoe, supervising his men, issuing orders, and helping his foremen troubleshoot. In order to allay the fears of the British soldiers, Denison ensured they saw him navigate difficult rapids himself, exposing himself to the same dangers experienced by his foremen and boatmen. In late December, Fred Denison fell from his boat into the Nile, apparently for the second time, but proved luckier in surviving than the numerous voyageurs who drowned in the river’s rough water over the course of the campaign. In addition to the river’s hazards, the Canadians suffered unfamiliar diseases against which they had no immunity. Denison himself endured bouts of dysentery for much of the campaign.
Despite Denison’s fervour to reach Gordon at Khartoum quickly, their pace was painfully slow over the months, encountering and overcoming rapid after rapid—not just at the larger cataracts, but all the way along. To quicken the pace, the Canadians were spread far apart, with small groups stationed at strategic points to ferry soldiers past the most difficult stretches.
In late December, Wolseley decided to split his force, sending one column 280 kilometres across the desert from Korti to Metemmeh and keeping the other column along the Nile, following a 650-kilometre meandering bend in the river to reach the same destination. Denison was eager to join the Desert Column “in any capacity—or as a spectator—as the senior Canadian present.” He was nevertheless ordered to remain with the River Column under the command of Major-General William Earle.
“The work was very hard and dangerous but I am pleased to be able to report that they always did their work fearlessly cheerfully and well,” Denison said of the majority of his men in a post-campaign report. He was, however, dissatisfied with some of the inexperienced men from Manitoba, who’d proven themselves wholly ill-suited to helming a vessel through whitewater. When, in January 1885, the Canadians neared the end of their contracted service, Denison refused to re-engage any men he deemed to be incompetent.
To the others, Denison offered a 50 per cent pay raise, as well as the promise of sightseeing on the return home to Canada, for a second six-month-long contract. Few accepted. Only 83 voyageurs and six foremen remained with Fred Denison and Kennedy as their officers—the latter at the insistence of the Winnipeg boatmen who stayed behind. The other officers, including Egerton Denison, returned downriver on January 20.
After leaving Korti, located near the Fourth Cataract, the river promised to be calmer for the voyageurs. But if their physical exertions were lessened, the danger they faced greatly increased. Denison was excited by the prospects, writing in a letter home in late January: “I would not miss this part of the campaign for anything. We are now in the enemy’s country.” The deeper they ventured into hostile territory, the more tension developed among the soldiers in the River Column, particularly each morning at daybreak, the Mahdists’ preferred time of attack. Rebels were regularly seen watching the Column’s movements then withdrawing.
(Left: George W. Joy’s depiction of General Gordon’s Last Stand, 1893. From Wikimedia Commons.)
Then, on February 5, the River Column received sudden orders from Wolseley to halt. The general, far ahead with the Desert Column, had received word the day before that Khartoum had fallen, overrun by the Mahdi’s followers on January 26. Gordon had been executed. Wolseley’s original orders, to rescue Gordon, were moot; he wired England for new instructions. Within days, Wolseley was granted permission to act as he felt necessary—eventually instructing him “to smash up the Mahdi”—and on February 8 he ordered the River Column to resume its advance upriver towards Abu Hamed and Berber. Denison ensured he was always at the front of the column, because his troops were increasingly nervous that the fall of Khartoum would embolden the Sudanese rebels to attack.
On the morning of February 10, the River Column’s advance scouts located nearly 2,000 Mahdists entrenching themselves on a ridge overlooking the river gorge near the village of Kirbekan. Beaching their whaleboats, the British regulars, changing from their khaki uniforms to their bright red tunics, marched off to confront the enemy while the 44 voyageurs at the front, as unarmed civilians, were to remain with the boats and supplies. They were issued rifles for their own protection.
With his sense of duty, Denison got himself attached to the staff of the colonel commanding a British artillery battery, and joined in the battle, which he described in his diary:
We reached the hill and had our guns and men in position by 8:30. The enemy commenced firing upon us at once, which we began to return at 9. Shortly after this we heard the main column firing as they turned their position and got to the rear of the 3rd position. We kept up a steady fire until noon, very heavy from 11:30 to 12 for at this time the main column had charged the heights and some of the Mahdi men retreated across our front and across the river.
One of the voyageurs who’d snuck forward to observe the battle later recalled, “Lieutenant-Colonel Denison stood beside the cannon and assisted materially in sending some splendid shots into the enemy’s rank.” Despite his long militia career in Canada, and service in 1866 and 1870, this was the first time Denison had come under fire.
The Sudanese, though untrained and lightly armed, gave stiff resistence before eventually fleeing when the British, with superior firepower and discipline, outflanked them. When the firing stopped after 1 p.m., the Mahdists had lost roughly 600 men. In the only battle the River Column faced, the British suffered 15 fatalities, including General Earle, and more than 50 wounded. Denison, in a letter home, said that he “did not mind [the fighting] in the least,” but wondered if “military glory was gained at too great a cost.”
The River Column, Canadian voyageurs included, reached the southernmost point of its journey—about 40 kilometres from Abu Hamed—on February 24. Still more than 600 kilometres from Khartoum, they were ordered to turn back, stunning both the voyageurs and the British regulars. Wolseley ordered his exhausted troops to withdraw from Sudan, intending to regroup and resupply, and await reinforcements before returning downriver to avenge Gordon in the cooler weather of the fall. When Wolseley requested another contingent of 400 or 500 Canadian boatmen engaged for the fall, Denison immediately wanted to return to lead them.
For the moment, the Canadians still had the heavy work of ferrying the River Column out of hostile territory as quickly as possible. They needed to run the Nile’s rapids in the process, “and in these circumstances the skill of the Canadian overmen became more important to it than ever before,” C.P. Stacey assessed in the introduction to his Records of the Nile Voyageurs (Champlain Society, 1959). “For nine eventful days the safety of the expedition depended entirely upon Denison’s men.” The one advantage was to be moving with the current rather than against it, allowing Denison to cover in two days one 137-kilometre stretch that had taken him 15 days on the outbound journey.
(Right: Boat, with awning, used for the Nile Expedition of 1884-1885. Illustration from Louis Jackson, Our Caughnawagas in Egypt [PDF] .)
They reached safety at Korti, the massive British encampment, on March 8. “Our arrival…was the signal of great stir and bustle,” Denison recorded in his diary. “We were heartily received by everyone and question after question was asked and as readily answered by everyone as to the river route and its success. At 3:30 p.m. we were ordered to parade before General Wolseley which we did and had the pleasure of hearing that great warrior speak and highly compliment the Canadians for the very valuable services tendered, which went to make the expedition so successful.” Denison was delighted by the esteem in which the Canadians’ service was held by both the general and the regular soldiers.
Continuing downriver from Korti to Wadi Halfi and then, between April 8 and 13, on to Cairo, Denison and the last of the Canadians travelled in relative comfort, exhausted after their adventures. While the others visited the pyramids at Giza and then left for home, Denison spent a month in the Citadel Hospital, recuperating from a bout of enteric (typhoid) fever. “Just after I entered I was delirious for some days,” he recorded in his journal of the time. “Ever since I have been getting stronger and for the last four or five days have been allowed carriage exercise, which I have taken advantage of in driving about Cairo.”
By this time, Denison realized that Wolseley, who’d withdrawn his troops from Sudan, would not be resuming the campaign against the Mahdists that autumn, as the eyes of empire turned from avenging Gordon to the growing danger of Russian incursions in Afghanistan. Reading newspapers in his hospital bed, he also learned of the trouble brewing on the Canadian prairies, and the 5,000 troops mobilized to address it.
After a brief sojourn in England, which he spent sightseeing and visiting with Egerton and three other brothers, Denison arrived back in Toronto on June 22. By then, his return was overshadowed by local excitement over the Louis Riel-led North-West Rebellion.
Denison was much sought after as a dinner guest and lecturer for months, and he was made a C.M.G. for his contributions to the campaign. But he soon receded from the limelight, returning to his law practice and politics. Nominated for mayor in 1885 and 1886, Denison withdrew in favour of Alexander Manning both years. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1887 and 1891. Sitting as a Conservative, but independently minded, Fred Denison’s name was touted, at one time, as a possible minister of the militia and defence.
On hearing of Fred Denison’s death from stomach cancer on April 15, 1896—at only 49 years of age—Wolseley expressed his sympathy to George T. Denison III: “I do sincerely feel this loss of an old friend and old comrade, of one for whose family I have always had a real affection and admiration….And now [that he] is gone, and my small group of friends is now one man, and that a good man, the less.” Fred Denison was buried in his family’s private graveyard on a hill overlooking the Humber River.
Sources include: Carl Benn, Mohawks on the Nile: Natives Among the Canadian Voyageurs in Egypt 1884-1885 (Natural Heritage Books, 2009); John Boileau, “Voyageurs on the Nile,” Legion Magazine (January 1, 2004); Michael Bumsted, “From the Red to the Nile,” Manitoba History (Autumn 2001 – Winter 2002); George Taylor Denison III, Soldiering in Canada (1901); Robert Evelyn Denison, A History of the Denison family in Canada, 1792 to 1910 (1910); David Gagan, The Denison Family of Toronto, 1792-1925 (University of Toronto Press, 1973); Roy MacLaren, Canadians on the Nile 1882-1898 (University of British Columbia Press, 1978); Adian Preston, ed., The Relief of Gordon: Lord Wolseley’s Campaign Journal of the Khartoum Relief Expedition (Hutchinson of London, 1967); C.P. Stacey, Records of the Nile Voyageurs (Champlain Society, 1959); and articles from the Globe (April 24, 1885); and Star (March 31, 1990).