‘Coming a cropper’ on a cranky camel along the River Nile

camel corps

While there’s no question that European colonization of Africa in the second half of the 19th century left permanent scars, it’s easy to forget that many of those who planted flags of various imperialist regimes had a variety of reasons for doing so, and not all were self-serving.

The so-called three “Cs” of colonialism – civilization, commerce, and Christianity – were the driving force, along with grabbing strategic lands to enable various European powers to be positioned in case they came into conflict with one another.

Thomas Pakenham’s sprawling work, The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912, details how Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Portugal carved up Africa with little regard for its inhabitants.

The 738-page book has been out for more than 20 years, yet it remains one of the definitive descriptions of the colonization of Africa.

While Pakenham’s book is full of somber topics such as diplomatic squabbles, political maneuvering and bloody clashes between natives and Europeans, it also has its light moments, delivered in Pakenham’s Anglo-Irish style.

Among the best is his description of Gen. Garnet Wolseley’s effort to relieve Gen. Charles George Gordon, besieged beginning in March 1884 at Khartoum by forces led by a self-proclaimed messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith, Muhammad Ahmad.

Wolseley’s relief expedition consisted of 10,000 men, led by a picked force of 1,600 officers with 2,500 camels, the former described as “the flower of the British army led by the flower of London society – including eleven peers or peers’ sons.”

By mid-November 1884, the camel-borne soldiers were plodding along the banks of the Nile, strung out in groups of 150, stretching 240 miles from Aswan to Wadi Halfa.

Unfortunately, the “flower of the British army” and their beasts of burden weren’t particularly well suited for one another, according to Pakenham:

What confirmed the air of a charade was the outlandish uniform of the new Camel Corps, a hybrid of the seventeenth century and a circus: red jumpers, breeches and bandoliers, sun goggles and white helmets. ‘Fancy a Life Guardsman clothed like a scarecrow with blue goggles on, mounted on a camel, over which he has little control. What a picture!’ was Wolseley’s comment. The camels, too, were a strange collection, raked up at the last minute from as far away as Aden, beasts of all colours and sizes, from the great brown baggagers, each as large as a rhinoceros, to the elegant fawn-coloured racing camels from Arabia. The men found that mounting a frisky camel was exciting work, and they often came a cropper. Wolseley himself fell off, painfully hard, on a piece of gravelly sand, in front of his army. He hated camels. ‘They are so stupid; they begin to howl the moment you put a saddle on them and they smell abominably … ‘

Perhaps not surprisingly, Wolseley’s force arrived too late to save Gordon, who was killed and beheaded by Ahmad’s men in January 1885 amid a general massacre of Khartoum.

(Top: Photograph of two Sikh members of Camel Corps, taken during Nile Expedition to relieve Khartoum in either 1884 or 1885. Source: National Archives, United Kingdom.)

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7 thoughts on “‘Coming a cropper’ on a cranky camel along the River Nile

  1. Sounds like an interesting read, CBC. I’ve been thinking about colonialism- and its lasting impact- lately. Might have to pick up this one…

    Happy New Year and all the best in 2015!

  2. I read and enjoyed the Packenham…and today a kind friend has given me a copy of Hobsbawm’s Age of Empire covering the same period, replacing a copy long since lost, stolen or strayed.
    Knowing Hobsbawm and such levity as you describe would be strictly proscribed….

    • History, thankfully, is full of little bits of levity. If professional historians managed to find time to squeeze in just a little, they might find a few more readers. So-called “popular historians” may not always get it precisely right, but they do understand better than ivory tower types that if no one reads your work because it’s so deadly dull that it puts a houseplant to sleep, it doesn’t matter what new ground you’re breaking.

      Enjoy your long-lost work, and the New Year. And, as always, thanks for stopping by and freshening up this old blog.

  3. That’s a handsome camel in the photograph. For sure, camels are not like horses but they’re not stupid and they have their own peculiar charms.

    Sikhs are always a pleasure to see – regardless of which war.

    • I think I’d howl too if someone tried to put a saddle on me. Sounds pretty smart, actually. And we have about as many Sikhs as camels in my neck of the woods; I really doubt they like being saddled up, either.

  4. Your blog always wakes me up..to remember…to research…to apply myself to the history of an area heretowith unknown to me.
    I love the levity of history…as I do the levity of the law, my profession, my addiction, my pleasure for so many years.

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