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The Ship of the Desert by A. E. T.


Unlike other ships, this one begins by being a very feeble and helpless little craft indeed. For the first week after its launch on the great sea of life it requires much careful watching on the part of the owners.

Strange as it may sound, in very truth a baby camel is every whit as helpless as a human baby. It can not stand alone; without help it can not so much as take its own food even; while its long neck is at first so flexible and fragile, that unless some one were constantly at hand to watch, the poor little creature would run every risk of dislocating it.

Those who have closely observed camel nature tell us it is never known to play or frolic like lambs or colts, or like most young creatures of the earth, in fact; but that in its babyhood it is as grave and melancholy as in its old age, born apparently with a deep sense of its own ugliness, and a mournful resignation to a long and joyless career.

When it has reached its third year the humpbacked animal is counted old enough to begin its life of labor. The trainers then take it in hand. They teach it to kneel and bear burdens, which gradually they make heavier and heavier, until their charge is supposed to have come to the full strength of camel maturity. This is not until it is about eight years old.

If the camel can rise with the load on its back, this is proof positive that he can carry it throughout the journey, although it sometimes happens, if the journey be only a very short one, the patient beast is loaded so heavily that it must be helped on to its feet by means of bars and levers. In some places camels cry out against this excessive loading in a most piteous and distressing manner—the cry resembling that of a very young child in pain, and being a most dismal sound to hear; but in other parts of the world they will bear their burden, however heavy, without complaining.


An ordinary camel's load is from seven to eight hundred pounds. With this weight on their backs, a train of camels will cross thirty miles of desert during a day. Those used to carry dispatches, having only the light weight of the dispatch-bearer, of course are expected to travel much faster, however, and will easily accomplish two hundred and forty miles in the same length of time.

Ungainly, awkward, repulsive-looking as these creatures are, with their great projecting harelips and their hairy humps, they have the compensation of being most priceless treasures to all those who "dwell in tents" in the vast sandy plains of Egypt, Arabia, and Tartary.

Their stomachs are so formed by nature that they are capable of being converted into a set of water tanks, a number of small cells filled with the purest water being fastened to the sides of each, and when all food fails, it makes little difference to a camel or dromedary—at least for a time.

Their humps are composed of a fatty substance. Day by day the hump diminishes, and the fat is absorbed into the animal's system, furnishing nourishment until food is forth-coming.

Thus, with these stores of water and fuel on board, the "ship" can go on for a fortnight, or even a month, absolutely without eating or drinking, while things that other creatures—unless, perhaps, it be some bird of the ostrich tribe—would never dream of touching, will furnish forth a sumptuous meal for a camel. Off a handful of thorns and briers he can make an excellent breakfast, and I believe he will not disdain anything apparently so untempting as a bit of dry wood.

Provided that at certain periods of the year a short holiday is allowed the camel for pasturing, quite at its leisure, to recruit its strength and fill that store-house on its back with fuel, it will serve its master, on such meagre fare as I have mentioned, for full fifty years. Still, all work and no play is as bad for camels as it is for boys.

Even with plenty of fuel on board, the desert-ship owners are wise enough not to impose too long journeys upon their heavily laden fleets.

A camel's foot is of a peculiar formation. It is wide-spreading, and is provided with fleshy pads or cushions; and if after a certain march rest were not given, the skin would wear off these pads, the flesh become bare, bringing consequences direful indeed. Probably the suffering creature would kneel down, fold its long legs under its body, and stretching out its long neck on the ground, calmly announce in camel language that it would go no further. It is no use whatever to try to make a camel go against his will.

If it once refuses, you have but two ways open to you: you may quietly lie down beside it until it is ready to move, or you may abandon it forever. Other course there is none.

It is a curious fact that, notwithstanding the softness of the camel's foot, it can walk over the sharpest stones, or thorns, or roots of trees without the least danger of wounding itself, and that what this strange beast most dreads is wet and marshy ground.

We read that "the instant it places its feet upon anything like mud, it slips and slides, and generally, after staggering about like a drunken man, falls heavily on its side."

The use of the camel to the various peoples of the East is almost incalculable. Many an Arab finds his chief sustenance in the cheese, butter, and milk of the mother camel. The flesh of young camels is also often eaten.

The Roman Emperor Heliogabalus is said to have reckoned camel's feet one of the daintiest dainties of his sumptuous banquets, and he considered a portion of tender camel roast a thing to be by no means despised. To this day, indeed, camel's hump cut into slices and dissolved in tea is counted a relish by the Tartar tribes.

Camel's skin is made into straps and sandals, while brushes and ropes, cloth and tents, sacks and carpets, are made entirely from camel's hair.

Every year toward the beginning of summer the camel sheds its hair, every bristle of which vanishes before the new hair begins to grow. For three weeks this bare condition lasts. His camelship looks as if he had been shaved without mercy from the tip of his tail to the top of his head, and during this shaven season he is extremely sensitive to the cold or wet, shaking in every limb if a drop of rain falls, shivering painfully in the chilliness of the night air.

By-and-by the new hair begins to grow—fine, soft, curly wool that gradually becomes long, thick, soft fur; and after this, the rain may rain as much as it likes, the night air may be as chilly as it will, the camel will not care a grain. In that armor of nature's providing he will not shiver or shake any more.

The hair of a camel, on an average, will weigh about ten pounds. It is said to be sometimes finer than silk, and longer than the wool of a sheep. In the course of my reading, a short time ago, I met with an account of a camel market in a town of Tartary especially noted for its trade in that species of live stock.

In the centre of Blue Town, it seems, there is a large square, where the animals are ranged in long rows together, their front feet raised upon mud elevations constructed expressly for the purpose, the object of which is to show off the size and height of the ungainly creatures.

The confusion and noise of this market are described as something frightful and "indescribable," with the continual chattering of the buyers and sellers disputing noisily over their bargains, in addition to the wild shrieking of the camels, whose noses are pulled roughly to make them show off their agility in rising and kneeling.

Nature has given the camel, you must remember, no means of defense except its prolonged piercing cry, and a horrible sneeze of its own, whereby the object of its hatred is sometimes covered with a mass of filth from its mouth.

It can not bite its tormentor, and—at least the Tartar camel—seldom kicks, or if it does, as seldom does any harm with that fleshy foot of which I have told you already.

Can you wonder, then, that the air of Blue Town is made hideous with the shrieking of the camels as, to test their strength, they are made to kneel while one thing after another is piled on their backs, and made to rise under each new burden, until they can rise no longer?

"Sometimes while the camel is kneeling a man gets upon its hind-heels, and holds on by the long hair of its hump; if the camel can rise then, it is considered an animal of superior power"—according to the writer above quoted.

"The trade in camels is entirely conducted by proxy; the seller and the buyer never settle the matter between themselves. They select different persons to sell their goods, who propose, discuss, and fix the price, the one looking to the interests of the seller, the other to those of the purchaser. These 'sale-speakers' exercise no other trade. They go from market to market, to promote business, as they say. They have generally a great knowledge of cattle, have much fluency of tongue, and are, above all, endowed with a knavery beyond all shame. They dispute by turns furiously and argumentatively as to the merits and defects of the animal, but as soon as it comes to be a question of price, the tongue is laid aside as a medium, and the conversation proceeds altogether in signs."