The villainy of camels: Arthur Conan Doyle’s dislike for the ships of the desert


Could you trust a camel? Would you trust a camel? Should you trust a camel?

Sherlock Holmes creator, eminent Victorian and somewhat eccentric gent Arthur Conan Doyle was most definitely not taken with camels.

Camels: “Demoniacal”?
Conan Doyle laid bare his views on camels in an article for the Westminster Gazette on 20 April 1896, entitled Correspondents and Camels (as quoted in the wonderful Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life In Letters, p.371-372):

“[The camel] is the strangest and most deceptive animal in the world. Its appearance is so staid and respectable that you cannot give it credit for the black villainy that lurks within. It approaches you with a mildly interested and superior expressions, like a patrician lady in a Sunday school. You feel that a pair of glasses at the end of a fan is the one thing lacking. Then it puts its lips gently forward, with a far-away look in its eyes, and you have just time to say, ‘the pretty dear is going to kiss me’, when two rows of frightful green teeth clash in front of you, and you give such a backward jump as you could never have hoped at your age to accomplish. When once the veil is dropped, anything more demoniacal than the face of a camel cannot be conceived.”

Conan the Barbarian: Also not a fan of camels
Another Conan was also less than fond of camels, as this clip from Conan the Barbarian illustrates:

Disclaimer: Personally, I celebrate the camel, and have never had any reason to take against them. I merely share Conan Doyle’s words for general interest, and for their amusing turn of phrase. No camel was harmed during the writing of this blog post (and you have to imagine that was a stunt camel in the Conan clip above).

UPDATE 1 (Saturday 15 February 2014): Camels – just plain misunderstood?
Possibly more than any other blog post that I have ever written, this one has resulted in unexpected and fascinating learning and coincidence coming to light…

  • Kate Griffiths-Lambeth points out that Rudyard Kipling “wasn’t a fan of camels either.” Kate has kindly tweeted a link to a Kipling poem entitled Parade-Song of the Camp-Animals, of which she tweets the following:“The camel tune: Can’t! Don’t!Shan’t! Won’t! Pass it along the line! Somebody’s pack has slid from his back, Wish it were only mine!” As I pointed out to Kate, the “Can’t! […] Shan’t!” lines are oddly similar to my opening sentences in this post. Given that I am poetry-deficient in the extreme, this is a very odd coincidence.
  • Jane Watson (aka @jsarahwatshr on Twitter), meanwhile shared the following words in defence of camel with me, via Facebook: “Having spent a fair bit of time around camels during my years in the Middle East, I will agree that they are obstinate, smelly creatures. But this story is sort of touching: Memory of an elephant, loyalty of a dog: camel remembers previous Saudi owner.” Thank you, Jane – what a lovely story to share!
  • Simon Jones points out via Twitter that any disagreeable behaviour on the part of camels in the past could be because “they are probably fed up with people trying to force them through the eyes of needles (which I think is actually a mistranslation).” I asked Simon if he knew the correct translation. Simon ventured the possibility that it could be a mistranslation of the word “rope.” Fortunately, Anne Tynan was also on hand to tweet the full details of this long-standing mix-up: “kamilos – rope; kamelos – camel. Once got mixed up & told someone that it was easier for a camel to thread a needle.” Now that I did not know. Thank you, Anne and thank you, Simon.
  • Anne Tynan has also generously shared not one but two video clips on the camel, the first of which relating to camel races which she witnessed whilst attending a conference in Tunisia. Although Anne clarifies that “Our camel race was at night in the dark & rain: we were dodging camels!”

UPDATE 2 (Sunday 16 February 2014): Biblical camels – anachronistic?
The camel revelations keep coming! The great Jane Watson has kindly tweeted me a link to a fascinating New York Times article entitled Camels Had No Business in Genesis. This piece concerns a new camel-related controversy among scholars of the Bible.

The 20+ mentions of camels in the Bible are “anachronisms,” says the New York Times. The very presence of camels in the Bible reportedly provides “telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.”

The New York Times notes that “the camel’s influence on biblical research was profound, if confusing.” Please head over to the New York Times website to read this latest camel-related development in full. And thank you, Jane, for your services to camel awareness here!

UPDATE 3 (Monday 17 February 2014): A newfound respect for camels?
Helen Amery has been so kind as to share with me a very fetching tweeted picture of a camel, via her Twitter acquaintance @jacquitemperley (who states that she has “a newfound respect for camels.”. Check it out here:

UPDATE 4 (Sunday 23 February 2014): Camels – the topic that keeps on giving!
Further camel-related insights from Jessica Dewell, via her Google+ response to this post:

“This was a fun and unexpected find. The only other time I read about camels was in the book “Salt A World History” where once upon a time camels were used to transport salt from the coast of CA to Nevada (and they were banned there).”

I’m sorry to report that I have not yet read Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History. But I am very intrigued by this camel ban. So, to Jessica (or, indeed, to anyone else out there who has read this book) what was the story behind the camel ban?

Conan Doyle




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