In my novel Pharaoh my Victorian protagonist Major Edward Mayne has a secret purpose for being with the Nile expedition, but he operates in the guise of an intelligence officer whose job is to scout ahead of the river column to spot obstacles and any evidence of enemy activity. He takes his sketchbook with him to record features of the river, and in his spare time back at camp draws scenes of river activity that he sends anonymously to The Illustrated London News for publication.
This is based on reality. Throughout the final months of 1884 and into 1885 The Illustrated London News published many beautiful etchings of the campaign, some of them showing river scenes and credited to ‘an officer of the Nile Expedition.’ It’s a good guess that the man would have been a Royal Engineer like my fictional Major Mayne, highly versed in topographical sketching during his training as a young officer at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham.
These illustrations form a unique visual record because there are very few surviving photographs from the campaign. Although photographers had recorded war since the Crimean campaign in 1854-6 – and then famously during the American Civil War – photography was not yet a widely established tool for the military, and in the British army was largely the preserve of the Royal Engineers. The fragility of film in the field and unwieldiness of early cameras meant that the sketchbook still ruled supreme, particularly for covert intelligence-gathering. The slow acceptance of photography reminds me of my naval captain grandfather’s grumble about the advent of automated position-finding at sea, that the only way a navigator could be truly confident of his position was by sextant and chart and all of the old skills of dead-reckoning, and much the same was undoubtedly said among the old guard at Chatham about the importance of the observer’s eye in sketching and getting a feel for the landscape.
As a boy I was given a bound annual of the Illustrated London News for that year by my maternal grandfather, whose father had himself served in Egypt in the early 1880s with the 6th Dragoon Guards. I pored over those engravings, but never thought they might one day form the basis for a novel! Almost everything I’m passionate about in my novels goes back to a childhood fascination, and as a father myself I’m acutely aware of the need to nurture those fascinations in my daughter, whatever they may be, just as my parents and grandparents did for me.
These illustrations were with me while I was writing the chapters on the river campaign in my novel: