Nile Gunboats

Sketch of Gunboat MelikIn 1896 when Kitchener, the Sirdar (Commander-in-Chief) of the Egyptian Army, set out to reconquer the Sudan in the name of the Khedive of Egypt, eleven years after the death of General Gordon, he knew that he had not only to defeat a great host of dauntless Mahdist warriors, but also to overcome the huge logistical problem of supplying 25,000 men and 10,000 beasts of burden over great distances in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates.

Control of the River Nile was vital. Together with the railway which was to be constructed across the Nubian Desert, the Nile would be the principal supply route from Egypt for an army which, by the eve of the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898, was consuming 37 tons of supplies daily.

Ships of the gunboat flotilla were crucial to the success of the enterprise. In the Dongola campaign of 1896, the first stage of the re-conquest, only four elderly stern wheelers were available. By early 1898 the Flotilla had grown to ten vessels including the new twinscrew armoured gunboats Sheikh, Sultan, and Melik. These were shipped in sections from England, towed up the Nile to Wadi Halfa, then carried by railway to Abadiya. Here, under the supervision of Royal Engineers officers Lieutenant Gorringe and Major ‘Monkey’ Gordon, (a nephew of General Gordon), the sections were unloaded, launched into the river, and assembled.

The Gunboats were mainly commanded by officers of the Royal Navy, including Lieutenant David Beatty, later Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty. However, Melik was commanded by Major Gordon. With their shallow draft, the gunboats, towing barges, could sometimes make only 2 knots against the strong current and thus became known as “Monkey Gordon’s Greyhounds”.

The crews included British, Egyptian and Sudanese service personnel and civilians of many nationalities. The gunboats bristled with weapons – 12½ and 12 pounders, 4-inch howitzers and Maxim machine guns – manned by Royal Marines. Some, including Melik, mounted powerful searchlights which helped to discourage a much feared Mahdist night attack before the Battle of Omdurman. After playing an important role in that decisive action Melik carried the troops to Khartoum for a memorial service for General Gordon.

Melik was perhaps the first warship in history to have a cine camera on board, though no viable film was produced.

Most of the river gunboats remained in service with the Egyptian Army and later the Sudan Defence Force. But gradually, like all old soldiers, they faded away. Today, only Melik and one of General Gordon’s armed steamers, Bordein, survive.

Melik served as the clubhouse of the Blue Nile Sailing Club at Khartoum from 1925 until 1989, when she landed high and dry upon the bank of the Nile during an exceptional flood. The club built new premises and Melik now lies in a sand berth surrounded by an attractive canopy of bougainvilleas. In 1998, being a hundred years old, she became the responsibility of Sudan’s National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums. The Society fully supports the plans for her restoration and is closely involved with the Sudanese authorities.

The Nile Gunboat Flotilla

Commander C Keppel RN

Lt H F Tailbot RN
Lt W H Cowan
Lt C M Staveley RN
El Kaimakam W S Gordon (RE)
Lt J B Sparks RN
El Bimbashi E O Newcombe (RE)
Lt D Beatty RN
El Bimbashi A G Stevenson (RE)
Lt The Hon A Hood RN