PHARAOH: a Canadian Mohawk on the Nile

Of all the larger-than-life character portraits that have entered popular memory from the 1884-5 British Nile campaign – the future Lord Kitchener, a desert spy, disguised as an Arab and carrying a cyanide tablet in case of capture; the wiry and imperturbable General Wolseley, sticking to his plans against the odds; the extraordinary Colonel Fred Burnaby, greatest adventurer of his age, wearing a deerstalker and blasting away at the dervishes with his shotgun – none are more impressive for me than James Deer, known to his people as Sak Arakentiake, shown here in a photograph taken a few years after the campaign and the inspiration for one of the fictional characters in my novel Pharaoh. He was a Canadian Mohawk born on the Tyendinaga Reserve in Ontario and was one of 61 Iroquois invited to join the expedition by Wolseley, who had been so impressed with their boating skills during his 1870 Red River Expedition in western Canada. Originally the Mohawk had been part of the Iroquois Confederacy in what is now New York State, and had fought alongside the British during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 – to many the word ‘Iroquois’ still sends a chill down the spine. But by the 1860s, resettled in Ontario and no longer warriors, the Mohawk had applied their boating skills to the dangerous task of bringing rafts of timber down the Ottawa River from the northern forests. James Deer was one of the few Mohawk who spoke English well enough to act as an interpreter on the expedition, and wrote an account published in 1885 as The Canadian Voyageurs in Egypt; he was still giving talks about the expedition as late as the 1930s. Despite their fearsome reputation the Iroquois on the Nile were non-combatants, not once firing a shot at the enemy, but as boatmen they won the admiration of all who served with them, and were among those who left the Nile holding their heads high knowing they had done their best despite the failure of the expedition to rescue General Gordon in Khartoum.

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