I’ve just returned from a canoeing expedition with my daughter in Algonquin Park, a huge expanse of more than 7,600 square kilometres of forest and lake in central Ontario first mapped by Royal Engineers surveyors in the 1820s and 1830s. At the time, the main interest was in finding a new route from the Ottawa River west to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, but as any modern canoeist will attest that was never going to be feasible – there are too many portages! Instead the region became a focus for logging, much of it to supply the British shipbuilding industry, until that was stemmed by the creation of the park in 1893 and the preservation of large tracts of wilderness that remain today, with abundant populations of bear, moose and other wildlife, much of it only accessible by canoe and portage.
My novel Pharaoh was very much in my mind throughout our trip, and the extraordinary fact that the Nile expedition of 1884 depended on Canadian voyageurs of aboriginal descent who had learned their skills on lakes and rivers very similar to those that my daughter and I were traversing. The backbone of the Canadian contingent in Lord Wolseley’s force was a group of some 60 Iroquoian Mohawks from the Ottawa Valley, men who had specialised in navigating the huge log booms down the river from the dammed-up lakes and rapids that still preserve evidence of their efforts in the eastern part of the park today.
But it was their canoeing skills that had so beguiled Wolseley, fourteen years earlier on the Red River expedition when he had led a force across the Great Lakes and up the Winnipeg River to counter the rebellion of Louis Riel. In his autobiography Wolseley describes making the descent of the Winnipeg river ‘… in a birch bark canoe manned by Iroquois Indians, the most daring and skilful of Canadian voyageurs.’ He was horrified and thrilled when their sternman took them out into the centre of the river before shooting a rapids: ‘ … nothing could have saved us from destruction had that paddle broken when he held on to it in the current – as if it were a fixed iron pillar – to draw the canoe’s head in towards the shore. Nothing pleases or satisfies these Iroquois more than such trials of strength, such victories over dangerous water, which is truly their element.’
It was that exuberance and risk-taking that caught the imagination of the British officers on the Red River expedition, a number of whom were brought together again for the Nile. One of them, Colonel William Francis Butler, was a colourful raconteur of both expeditions, and in his book The Campaign of the Cataracts he describes his excitement at spying an old friend one day on the Nile in November 1884, as he was overseeing the fitting out of the whaleboats for what lay ahead: ‘... hugging the back-eddy of the muddy Nile, a small American birch-bark canoe, driven by those quick down-strokes that seem to be the birthright of the Indian voyageur alone … in it was William Prince, Chief of the Swampy Indians from Lake Winnipeg; fourteen years earlier, on the Red River Expedition in western Canada, he had been the best Indian in my canoe … still keen of eye and steady of hand as when I last saw him standing bowman in a bark canoe among the whirling waters whose echoes were lost in the endless pine woods of the Great Lone Land.’
To Wolseleys’ delight, the voyageurs had brought along a second birchbark canoe from Canada as a present for him, a boat he treasured and later enjoyed paddling on the River Medway in England when he was Commander-in-Chief of the British army. On the Nile, though, the Mohawks were required not to manage the large canoes of the Red River expedition but instead the whaleboats that had been specially built for the task, with a sturdiness better able to withstand enemy fire but a consequent increase in weight and bulk that hugely exacerbated the task of hauling them up the cataracts; nevertheless, had the expedition not been delayed by political diffidence and machinations in London – the dark truth of which forms a backdrop in my novel – they might have made it up the river before the level of the water had fallen, and even reached Gordon in Khartoum before the forces of the Mahdi closed in.
The failure of the river expedition was thus not through any want of skill or effort on the part of the Mohawk boatmen, who returned home with the approbation of Wolseley and his lifelong appreciation. Their contribution should not just be seen in terms of the success or failure of that expedition; Wolseley’s formative experience in Canada in 1870, and the tight band of officers he formed around him then – the so-called ‘Ashanti Ring’, but in reality derived from the Red River expedition – shaped his subsequent campaigning in eastern and southern Africa as well as in the Sudan, influencing the history of that continent in ways that remain with us today.
My daughter and I paddled in from Canoe Lake, famous for its association with Tom Thompson, one of the ‘Group of Seven’ painters, and then portaged our way far into the interior, camping on the ‘pristine wooden islands’ that Butler had so loved in the west of Lake Superior in 1870. Our canoe was made of Kevlar, rather than birchbark, but in all other respects owed everything to the native craft it copied, including the beautiful incurving lines of the bow you can see in the photographs. I first went on a canoeing expedition to Algonquin with my father when I was ten years old, and certainly know what Wolseley meant when he wrote of holding on to the paddle in a current, and Butler on the draw of the ‘Great Lone Land.’