The MELIK, a guide-blade gunboat, was ordered by the Admiralty for service with the Egyptian Army in 1896, from the Chiswick shipyard of John I Thornycroft. Construction was rapid, and she was delivered the following year, with two sisters, the SHEIKH and SULTAN, built by Yarrow’s at Poplar, also on the Thames.
All three ran contractor’s trials in Britain, and were then dismantled into carefully marked sections and shipped to Ismailia in Egypt. From there the sections were shipped up the Ismailia Canal to the Nile and then southward to Wadi Halfa on the Sudan frontier. There they were loaded onto railway wagons and conveyed across the Nubian Desert on the newly built Desert Railway to Abu Hamed. In the summer or 1898 they finally reached the point or re-assembly at Abadieh, near Berber. Under the supervision on Major W. S “Monkey” Gordon (a nephew of General Gordon) they were finally re-assembled and launched on the Nile.
The new gunboats joined a flotilla of seven older gunboats, but their formidable firepower gave them a great advantage: 12-pounder (76mm) guns, 5-inch (127mm) howitzers and rifle-calibre Maxim guns. These were manned by NCOs of the Royal Marines and Egyptian Army gunners, but the crews were a remarkable mixture of naval and civilian personnel, including Sudanese, Egyptian, Maltese, Greek and British. The flotilla was commended by a British naval officer, Commander C Keppel RN, while six of the remaining gunboats were commanded by lieutenants, and three by Royal Engineer officers attached to the Egyptian Army. No fewer than three future flag officers commanded Nile gunboats, of which one, David Beatty, became C-in-C Grand Fleet and ultimately First Sea Lord.
Keppel’s gunboat, the ZAFIR, foundered while attempting to ascend the Shabluka Gorge, but the rest of the flotilla passed through the last Cataract and kept pace with the Anglo-Egyptian Army right up to the battle of Omdurman on 2nd September 1898.
The MELIK was almost certainly the first warship to carry a cine-camera in action. It was brought on board by the correspondent of the Illustrated London News, Frederick Villiers, but it broke down, so no cine-film of the battle was shot.
Two days after the battle, on Sunday 4th September, the MELIK transported Kitchener and his staff form Omdurman to the ruined Governor’s Palace in Khartoum.
In 1926 when the Melik was retired from government service and leased to the Blue Nile Sailing Club (BNSC) she had a long career in front of her as its club-house. By the early 1980s rust was seriously corroding her bottom plates. In spite of the efforts of the Club to keep her afloat she was in grave danger of sinking at her moorings. In 1987 she was swept ashore by an exceptional flood – an event that undoubtedly saved her from an ignominious end.
Up until then, apart from in 1938 participating in the Alexander Korda film, The Four Feathers, and the war years when she was used for transport by the Sudan Defence Force, the Melik lay moored to the river bank. Here, for many years as part of the BNSC boat yard, she was a landmark and focal point for many generations of boat owners and their crews. The unmistakable silhouette of her tall funnel, high upper works and long straight-stemmed hull, set against the green of the mahogany trees lining the avenue behind her, providing a welcome sight to all those afloat.