In March 1904, the British authorities in the Bombay Presidency received a request from their colonial counterparts in what was then called Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to allow 20 camel attendants to move to the colony in Africa.

“These men will be returned to India after they have instructed Kaffirs in camel management,” one Lieutenant Colonel Flint wrote in a letter to the Commissioner of Sind, which was a part of the Bombay Presidency. “While in Rhodesia, they will be under my charge. The servants to receive Rand 18 a month and free rations. i.e. Native troop long voyage rations, their passages back to India being paid by the Rhodesian government.”

A similar request had been sent, with success, from Rhodesia to India a year earlier. The colonial authorities in Rhodesia were generally not keen on letting Indians into the region, but in cases where they had little choice, they were happy to make exceptions. And this time they had little choice, indeed. An experiment to introduce camels from Punjab into the country had forced them to briefly accept the migration of a class of Indian workers to Rhodesia.

Cattle plague

For centuries, the communities that lived in the areas by Zambezi River were largely pastoralists and agriculturalists with large herds of cattle. The arrival of British settlers brought with it a fresh set of problems for these indigenous Africans, including diseases that did not exist on the continent. Among them was the deadly Rinderpest.

An infectious disease of cattle and domesticated buffalo that had blighted Europe and Asia for centuries, Rinderpest entered modern-day Zimbabwe in 1896 and killed off thousands of cattle owned by both indigenous people as well as white settlers.

“Death by Rinderpest for cattle was a brutal experience and at the very least an unsightly one for cattle owners, because the Rinderpest virus, Morbillivirus, caused a number of painful and visually disturbing symptoms like profusely nasal and eye discharge, bloody faecal discharge and laboured breathing,” Brandon Hokanson wrote in the Gettysburg Historical Journal. “Upon infection, most cattle would die of the disease in a period of six to twelve days. Most importantly, virgin soil epidemics of the virus – land with no prior experience with Rinderpest – were especially devastating because Rinderpest spread easily and rapidly between herds of nonimmune cattle, and in some cases escalated to the level of a panzootic.”

By the end of the 19th century, Rinderpest spread across Africa and devastated the local cattle. The colonial authorities were so worried that they invited German bacteriologist Robert Koch to southern Africa to investigate and find a cure. The scientist, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in 1905, announced the discovery of a vaccine for Rinderpest in February 1897. But, by this time, the cow plague had wreaked havoc in Rhodesia.

Such was the anger at the perceived colonial mismanagement of the situation that it became a spark for the Second Matabele War. The war was fought between 1896 and 1897 and ended with the British South Africa Company defeating indigenous people.

After this war the idea to bring camels to southern Africa gained traction.

The best bet for the region seemed the two-humped Bactrian camel given its harder foot pads, but the authorities chose the one-humped camel instead.

“Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, camels were imported into the Southern Africa region from several countries for a wide range of purposes,” British livestock expert Trevor Wilson wrote in a 2013 article for Botswana Notes and Records. “It is believed that about 3,000 camels were introduced into the Cape Colony, Zambia (Northern Rhodesia), Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) and Namibia, then called German South West Africa.”

Imports from Punjab

The British South Africa Company first imported camels from Sudan and Egypt to Cape Colony. The idea was to test whether these animals were immune to Rinderpest and then see if they could be used to replace oxen.

For Southern Rhodesia, however, the company decided to import camels from Punjab since Lt Col Flint, whose brother-in-law Colonel IAH Pollock was stationed in Multan, had heard about their ruggedness and strength.

“It is thought that these animals, if they can be acclimatised, will be the means of overcoming the present transport difficulties caused by the prevalent cattle disease which sweeps off so many draught oxen,” the Ashbourne News and Dove Valley Record reported on May 8, 1903.

Special arrangements were made to bring the first batch of camels to the colony. “The Administrator of British South Africa has advised the London office that he has authorised the importation into Rhodesia of fifty camels and arrangements have been made with Colonel Flint, Commandant of the British South African Police at Salisbury, to proceed to India and to approve and purchase Punjab camels, which are considered the most suitable, and he will superintend the transport of the animals from India,” the paper said.

Flint hired an Indian veterinary doctor, described as a “salutri”, to travel with 15 camel attendants to Rhodesia. The camels were transported from southern Punjab to Karachi, from where they were put on SS Patiala for Beira, Mozambique. From there, they were herded onto a train to the city of Marandellas (now Marondera) in Southern Rhodesia. Once they reached their destination, the colonial authorities started a camel farm for breeding (two-thirds of the transported camels were female).

As hoped, the camels were immune to the cattle plague and lived up to their reputation of being tough. Flint initially wanted them to become a transport animal in the Rhodesian countryside, filling in the role of oxen, but his colleagues felt they were a better fit for the police.

Indian attendants

By the time Flint wrote to the Sind Commissioner in 1904 to ask for more animals and attendants from India, it was clear that the camels were only going to be used for police duty. The British Indian authorities, for their part, did not have a problem with the export of camels, but there were disagreements within the bureaucracy over the question of a new set of attendants going to Rhodesia.

This was a time when India was still recovering from the plague of 1896 and there were restrictions on the movement of Indian workers to other British colonies.

“The Government of India have not sanctioned the introduction of Indian labour into Rhodesia, but these men can hardly come under the definition of labourer as used in the Emigration Act and the notifications issued under the Epidemic Diseases Act,” an official from the Bombay government with the initials AKS wrote in a note. “In 1899, it was held that men recruited as soldiers did not come within the category of labourers. The men who have now gone to Rhodesia belong to the class of native soldiers, and they will be employed for a short time and under government service.”

The claim that the men were soldiers was disputed by two other British officials. These officials insisted that the men were indeed labourers but not “unskilled”, and did not come under the restrictions on movement placed under the Indian Emigration Act of 1883.

The file was passed on to the Secretary of the Department of Revenue and Agriculture (Emigration) in Calcutta, who gave Flint the approval to take the attendants to Rhodesia. The group of 20 was allowed to go with the second batch of Indian camels.

Very little is known about the brief stay of the Indian attendants in the country, but the camels became a mainstay of the colonial police in places like the capital Salisbury (now Harare). However, that too did not last forever. The use of the animals was phased out long before the nation attained independence in 1980. Now the only place where one can spot a camel in Zimbabwe is the Harare Lion Park, which has a pair of Somali camels.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.