May 24, 2012
When I discussed the book I wrote about in a post here this week, I got an unexpected response from several people who thought I couldn’t distinguish a camel from an elephant.
The book was “The Last Camel Charge” by Forrest B. Johnson, which reports on an experiment in which the U.S. Army imported several dozen camels from North Africa in the 1850s to see if they would perform better than horses and mules in the difficult conditions in the American Southwest. In about a half dozen cases in which I started to discuss this book, my companion asked me if I didn’t mean elephants. In all of these cases, they were mixing up the episode Johnson wrote about with the incident in which the King of Siam offered to send elephants to the United States for use as beasts of burden.
Most people who know about that offer heard about it in the musical play or the movie “The King and I,” in which, not surprisingly, it was badly distorted. In the movie and the musical, the King of Siam—Rama IV Mongkut—dictates, in English, a barely literate letter to Abraham Lincoln, offering to send the elephants. In reality, the king — who was fairly fluent in English — wrote such a letter, in his own hand, to Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, James Buchanan.
The king’s idea was that the elephants could be set free in the American wilderness and allowed to breed so that, as the herd grew, the animals could be captured and trained to carry cargo. Transportation being what it was in those days, that letter didn’t reach the White House until Buchanan had left office. So it was Lincoln who responded.
Lincoln, who signed the letter “your good friend,” wrote in part,
“I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.
“Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”
From what I can tell, the portrayal of Mongkut in the stage show and the film was inaccurate in broader ways. While Yul Brynner, who created the role in both cases, represented the king as ignorant and in some ways boorish, Mongkut — a Buddhist monk and eventually an abbott — seems to have been well informed. He studied English, Latin, and astronomy and was an admirer of Jesus of Nazareth if not of Christian theological dogma.
May 22, 2012
Samuel Bishop wanted to cross the Colorado River. Several hundred Mojave warriors objected. The factor that decided the argument: camels.
Forrest B. Johnson tells the story in his history “The Last Camel Charge.” It was April 1859, and Bishop’s friend and business partner — Edward “Ned” Beale — was leading a company of workers building a wagon trail between Arkansas and Los Angeles. The plan was for Bishop and a group of men from his ranch to rendezvous with Beale at the river and deliver supplies. But Bishop found his way blocked by Mojaves, whose people had lived in the region for a great many years. The Mojaves repelled Bishop’s first attempt to cross from California to the Arizona territory. After thinking things over, he hid the supplies, sent most of his men, wagons, and animals back to the ranch, leaving himself with 20 armed young men and 20 camels.
Camels? Six dozen of them had been imported from North Africa by the U.S. Army in an experiment championed by Jefferson Davis when he was a member of Congress and, during the administration of James Buchanan, secretary of war. The object was to determine if camels would be more serviceable than horses and mules in the punishing conditions in the American Southwest.
This experiment was carried on both by the Army and by civilians — namely Beale and Bishop. For the most part, it demonstrated exactly what its proponents expected. Camels could carry hundreds of pounds in excruciating heat without showing signs of fatigue. They would eat mesquite and cactus and almost any other vegetation that crossed their paths, whereas mules and horses required some form of grass. And, of course, camels could go for days without drinking, whereas desert travelers relying on horses and mules were frequently obliged to leave the trail and search for water to keep the animals alive.
Bishop had borrowed the camels from the Army. Now, although he was leading a troupe of civilians, he put them to military use. As he approached the river, he found an estimated 500 Mojave assembled there to deny him a crossing. He assembled his men, mounted on camels in four rows of five each. They galloped — likely at 40 miles per hour — directly into, and through, the ranks of the Mojave. Bishop crossed the river and didn’t lose a man.
In spite of all the evidence that camels were more suited than other animals to travel in the deserts of the Southwest, the experiment didn’t last very long after Bishop’s charge. There was a complex of reasons for that, not the least of which was the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. Among other effects of the war was the departure of Jefferson Davis, camel proponent par excellence, from the federal government. Davis, of course, took up the secession cause and became president of the Confederacy.
In spite of the title of this book, camels aren’t the only subject Johnson covers.
The writer places the camels in the wild milieu that was the American West in those days. For example, he reports extensively on the conflict between the Mormons who had migrated to the Utah Territory to escape from the turmoil they had become embroiled in further east. When they were settling in Utah, they wanted to live on their own terms, and that brought them into conflict with the national government. At one point, while the Beale expeditions and the camel experiment were going on, President Buchanan, perhaps hoping to distract attention from the growing crisis over expansion of slavery into the western territories, declared the Mormons in rebellion against the United States and ordered the Army to deal with them— something, fortunately, that became unnecessary.
The writer also gives vivid accounts of the rigors encountered by folks traveling across country — the weather, the terrain, the hostile and violent people, not all of them natives.