Camels[1] occupy the position of a “peculiar people” among the tribes of the Animal Kingdom. They are said to be the only mammals that cannot swim; beyond this they enjoy the distinction of being the only domestic animals that cannot trace their parentage to any species existing in a wild state. To every other thrall-bound beast, life-harnessed to the yoke or foredoomed to the slaughter-house, belongs the heritage of a romantic past, a higher state, or ever the heavy hand of civilisation had stamped them with its levelling impress. The patient shaft-galled moke[2], toiling painfully along the traffic-choked confluents of the Old Kent-road, may claim distant but undisputed connexion with the wild asses that thunder in scampering, wind-snuffing squadrons over the boundless Asiatic plains; the sluggish beef-cased shorthorn may forget for a moment its heavy respectability in contemplating the taurine monarchs of Chillingham, whose ancestors made the primeval forests of Europe ring with the splintering clatter of their horns. Even the dairy-fed porker, in the fat-swathed evening of a placid life, may dream in dull, meal-clouded fashion of another existence—of gleaming tusk and bristling crest, in a setting of frozen pine-wood or steamy cane-brake. But the camel exists only as a beast of burden, and the days of its servitude stretch back, back into the unremembered dawn of the historical period. Hence all evidence of a former state, all lingering recollections of “happier things,” are lost in the very accumulation of antiquity that weighs upon the hump-backed monster. Imagination is powerless to supply the gap that record presents; none can gaze on the gaunt, ragged, misshapen brute and picture its existence as a lithe, free-wandering child of nature, careering in the joy and pride of life through a world that was young and fresh and unexploited. The camel is old—horribly, mustily old—and it is difficult to conceive that it has ever been anything else. It is born middle-aged and weary of life; no one has ever seen a really young camel, a soft, chubby creature, nibbling one moment at the tender grasses, bounding skywards the next in a paroxysm of sheer delighted frolic. It is significant that there is no separate word in the language for specifying the young camel.[3] Preposterous in form, it has furnished nothing to art beyond its hair as a medium for conveying pigment;[4] to romance it has been equally unproductive. In vain has this blasé quadruped been dragged into the most seductive situations of sacred history. The camels of the royal Sheban caravansary would have maintained their air of listless abstraction had the glories of Solomon’s Court exceeded the estimate ten times instead of twice; the star that was of such import to the wondering Eastern sages was to their lumbering beasts of transport but one of the countless lights that modified the darkness of the march—“and it was nothing more”.[5]

No redeeming feature of picturesque piety or fascinating vice alleviates the depressing personality of this dreary quadruped; the impression conveyed by the average camel is that it might be unspeakably vicious if it chose to exert itself in that direction, but it prefers to chew straw and talk darkly and horribly to its inmost self. “Wicked without being charming”—the flippant verdict of a recent writer on a different personality[6]—fitly describes the moral attitude of this ungainly dweller in the desert, into whose being the dust and sand and mildew of centuries seem to have permeated with deteriorating effect.

(published in The Westminster Gazette, January 28, 1903)

  1. Munro likely observed the creatures for himself at the London Zoo’s “camel house.” In Saki’s satirical dialogue between two civil servants, “Government by Picture-Postcard (A Contribution to the Private History of the Great Administration Communicated by ‘Saki’),” which appeared in The Westminster Gazette two months earlier, one says to the other, “Lansdowne and I are going one day to the Zoological Gardens to study camels on the spot.”  
  2. A donkey (Oxford English Dictionary).  
  3. In fact, a young camel is called a calf.
  4. E. L. Bianchi, in a letter published in The Westminster Gazette on February 2, 1903, corrected Saki: “‘camel’s-hair’ [is] merely the trade term for the hair obtained from squirrel tails, which are imported into this country from Germany and Russia in large quantities for the purpose of making camel’s-hair brushes.”
  5. See 2 Chron. 9, 2 Chron. 3, and Matt. 2, though the quote is from Wordsworth’s “Peter Bell” (written 1798, publ. 1819): “A primrose by a river’s brim / A yellow primrose was to him, / And it was nothing more.”
  6. Hugh Mortimer Cecil, in Pseudo-Philosophy at the End of the Nineteenth Century[,] I. An Irrationalist Trio[:] Kidd—Drummond—Balfour (1897), writing of Henry Drummond’s characterization of God.
“The Bactrian Camel In the Royal Menagery, Tower of London” by William Panormo.
(Wellcome Collection)