The greatest event in our Australian history … is the offer of the Australian Governments to send contingents from the various colonies to take part inthe military operations inthe Soudan, and the acceptance by the Imperial Government of the offer of New South Wales …. (The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, 11 March 1885)
In the early 1880s, a Sudanese uprising for independence from Egypt was gaining ground. The British, who supported the Egyptians, decided to allow the Sudanese self-government, and General Charles Gordon was sent to the city of Khartoum to oversee the withdrawal of the Egyptian Army. However, contrary to his orders Gordon resolved that the Sudanese had to be crushed to ensure the stability of the region. In March 1884 the Sudanese besieged Khartoum; Gordon could have escaped, but remained in the city under siege for almost a year, until it fell in late January 1885. Gordon, the garrison and over 10,000 civilians were massacred. British public opinion forced the reluctant British Government to send an expeditionary force, known as the Suakin Expedition, to Sudan. In an act of patriotism the Acting Premier, Rocks-born lawyer William Bede Daley, offered to send a contingent, making the colonial army of New South Wales the first Australian contingent to fight for the British in an imperial war.
The NSW Contingent of over 900 men and 220 horses, assembled in 15 days, consisted of an infantry battalion and an artillery battery. Sydney’s citizens lined the streets to cheer the soldiers marching down to Bennelong Point, from where they embarked, in March 1885.
‘A’ Battery from Dawes Point was renamed the New South Wales Battery to join the Contingent, and its commanding officer, Col. John Soame Richardson, was appointed the Commanding Officer of the Contingent. Six officers from Dawes Point would later be mentioned in dispatches for their efforts during the conflict.
The Contingent’s infantry battalion was victorious in a skirmish at the village of Tamia, and on burning it, they found that it had been an ammunition dump. Following this the Australians were engaged building a railway and undertaking guard duties. When a camel corps was raised 50 men volunteered, and it was put under the leadership of Lt.-Col. Warner Spalding, another Dawes Point officer. The Camel Corps was involved in another skirmish, in which over 100 Sudanese soldiers were captured or killed.
The NSW Contingent returned to Australia in June 1885 to be welcomed as heroes, and in August 1885 Lt.-Col. Spalding was made a Companion of the Imperial Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for his actions as Commander of the Camel Corps.
General Lord Wolseley, in command of the British Army in the Sudan, was very satisfied with the conduct of the colonial troops and said in his dispatches “The Officers and men of the NSW Contingent were a credit to their colony, and to the master race from which they sprung.”
It is not known how many men from The Rocks enlisted in the Contingent. One, Private John Ferguson, took over the license of the Observer Tavern in George Street and raised a family there after his return. The family ran the pub for almost 40 years, and two of Ferguson’s sons enlisted and were killed in World War I.