This article explores the use of camels for baggage transport by European colonial armies in the nineteenth century. It focuses in particular on two episodes: the Russian winter expedition to Khiva, and the march of the Army of the Indus into Afghanistan, both of which took place in 1839. However sophisticated their weapons and other technology, until at least the 1880s European colonial armies were forced to rely exclusively on baggage animals if they wanted to move around: railways arrived very late in the history of European expansion. In Central Asia this meant rounding up, loading, managing and feeding tens of thousands of camels, which could only be furnished by the pastoral groups who inhabited the region, who in some cases were also the objects of conquest. Camel transport placed certain structural constraints on European conquest in Central Asia: firstly it meant that the forces involved were almost always very small; secondly it prevented the launching of spontaneous or unauthorised campaigns by “men on the spot,” as every advance had to be preceded by the rounding up of the necessary baggage animals, and the creation of a budget to pay for then. Finally, the constraints imposed by camel transport ensured that British and Russian armies would never meet in Central Asia, and that a Russian invasion of India was a chimera.
Anon [Golosov/Ivanin]A Narrative of the Russian Military Expedition to Khiva under General Perofski in 1839. Translated from the Russian for the Foreign Department of the Government of India1867CalcuttaOffice of the Superintendent of Government Printing
CongreveW.A Treatise on the General Principles Powers and Facility of Application of the Congreve Rocket System as Compared with Artillery: Showing the Various Applications of this Weapon both for Sea and Land Service and its Different Uses in the Field and in Sieges1827LondonLongman, Reese, Orme, Brown, and Green
DavisJeffersonReport of the Secretary of War Communicating in Compliance with a Resolution of the Senate of February 2 1857 Information Respecting the Purchase of Camels for the Purposes of Military Transportation1857WashingtonA. O. P. Nicholson
LeviScottOonkGijsbertMultanis and Shikarpuris. Indian Diasporas in Historical PerspectiveGlobal Indian Diasporas: Exploring Trajectories of Migration and Theory2007AmsterdamAmsterdam University Press3163
SuriLala Sohan LalSuriV. S.An outstanding original source of Punjab History Umdat-ut-Tawarikh. Daftar III Parts i-v. Chronicle of the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh 1831-1839 A. D.1961DelhiS. Chand & Co.
Randolf G. S. CooperThe Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India. The Struggle for Control of the South Asian Military Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2003): 284-312; Parker admitted that the Marathas had acquired European artillery by the late 18th century but considered this to be ‘another case of routine mimesis . . . too little and too late’ The Military Revolution: 136.
Dirk H. KolffNaukar Rajput & Sepoy. The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market in Hindustan 1450-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1990): 8-10 187-192; Kim A. Wagner Thuggee. Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2007): 1-12 217-226.
Major-Gen. W. CongreveA Treatise on the General Principles Powers and Facility of Application of the Congreve Rocket System as Compared with Artillery: Showing the Various Applications of this Weapon both for Sea and Land Service and its Different Uses in the Field and in Sieges. (London: Longman, Reese, Orme, Brown, and Green1827): 33 45-47.
Despite its title Niels SteensgaardThe Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century: The East India Companies and the Decline of the Caravan Trade (Chicago: Chicago University Press1973) reveals the surprising resilience of much caravan transport in the face of maritime competition; see further Scott Levi “India Russia and the Transformation of the Central Asian Caravan Trade.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 42/4 (1999): 524-526. The economic importance of the camel for transport over shorter distances in rural Pakistan was still significant in the 1980s: Alan Heston H. Hasnain S. Z. Hussain & R. N. Khan “The Economics of Camel Transport in Pakistan.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 34/1 (Oct. 1985): 121-141.
William H. McNeill“The Eccentricity of Wheels, or Eurasian Transportation in Historical Perspective.”The American Historical Review92/5 (Dec. 1987): 1111-1126. The classic exploration of the revolutionary effect of the development of camel transport (which led to the disappearance of the wheel in the Middle East for a millennium) is Richard W. Bulliet The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge ma: Harvard University Press 1975).
M. Ivanin/D. Golosov“Pokhod v Khivu v 1839 godu otriada russkikh voisk, pod nachal’stvom General-Ad’iutanta Perovskago.”Voennyi Sbornik[vs] (1863) no. 2: 322-323; Anon. [Golosov/Ivanin] A Narrative of the Russian Military Expedition to Khiva under General Perofski in 1839. Translated from the Russian for the Foreign Department of the Government of India (Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing 1867): 95.
A. N. KuropatkinAlzhiriya (St Pb.: Tip. V. A. Poletiki1877): 285-309; The Russians were also interested in the experiments made by the American army in Texas in the 1850s: A. A. Katenin “O pokhodnykh dvizhenii pekhota po stepi” 06/12/1858 Russian State Military Historical Archive (henceforth rgvia) f. 483 op. 1 d. 49 ll. 23-23ob referring to Jefferson Davis Report of the Secretary of War communicating in compliance with a resolution of the Senate of February 2 1857 information respecting the purchase of camels for the purposes of military transportation (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson 1857) which described experiments undertaken by Major Wayne and Lt Porter with camels imported from Asia Minor and North Africa to Texas.
Charles MarvinThe Russian Advance Towards India. Conversations with Skobeleff Ignatieff and other distinguished Russian Generals and Statesmen on the Central Asian Question (London: W. H. Allen & Co1882): 103-104.