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Use of camels by South African Police - First mention

The first document about the use of camels in South Africa in the National Archives is Dated 1901 and refers to a shipment of six dromedaris camels from Suez, due at Durban on 7 May 1901, en route to Cape Town. The document asks that the Port Officials secure the freight and see to transhipment.

This was not the first reference to camels. Already in 1861, there was a memorial from Robert Moffat Junior requesting aid for the purchase of camels. There is no evidence that there was any action on this request. Then there is an 1893 reference to "Major Leonard's book on the "Camel".

A valuable source in the tracing the early history of the camel by the South African Police, is an unpublished report by Const. (Sgt.?) J.G.S. (Jack) Hauser the in the police archives (J.G.S. Hauser, 29-9-1988, unpublished doucument, police archives). Const. (Sgt.?) Hauser quotes from personal experience and the history as related to him by Saali Salomon, the Egyptian, who came with the first four police camels to South Africa, as part of a circus from Egypt (Hauser, 29-9-1988). There appears to have been an earlier shipment of six camels, as quoted in the document above, but these camels were apparently send to South West Africa.


The Circus and other uses!

According to Hauser, the four circus camels, accompanied by their handler, Saali Salomon, an Egyptian, arrived in South Africa in 1902 with an unnamed Circus. The horses in the circus did not like the smell of the camels, and would "pull, kick and bite each other and who ever tries to hold them". The circus got rid of ther camels by selling them to a Paarl farmer, who thought he could use the camels for ploughing. This didn't work, and the camels was then sold to a farmer and shopkeeper at Swartmodder near Upington, who had a contract to supply a mail service between Rietfontein and Swartmodder. He tried to harness the camels to a Scotch cart, but this wasn't very successful.

A successful use at last!

The camels were then sold to the Cape Mounted Police for patroling the German and Bechuanaland Protectorate borders in the Kalahari. (now Namibian and Botswana borders). This is never stated explicitly, but one gets the impression that Saali Salomon moved with the camels from buyer to buyer. Be this as it may, Saali ended up at the Rietfontein Police Station where he was responsible amongst others, for piercing the nostrils and making and fitting the nose studs used to steer the camels.

This indistinct photograph shows a camel patrol in the days of the Cape Mounted Police. The terrain could well be somewhere in the Nossob river, or around Witdraai. If any-body can help with a more positive indetification, please e-mail me. The photograph is taken with kind permission, from the thesis of Superintendent Small at the Police Museum.


early-camel-train

Early camel train in terrain that could be the Nossob
River or near Witdraai. This could be the patrol referred to
by Lawrence Green, in his book, To the River's End. (p. ##)


A major problem with much of the camel related material in the police archives, and many photographs in books, is that the people and the places are not always identified. I have made whatever identification is possible, and request your help. Please e-mail me at info@abbott-infotech.co.za if you can confirm or correct any of the info!

Hauser mentions that the Cape Police also had the services of Knobby Clark, who had served in the camel corps in Egypt under Lord Kitchener, and perhaps because of his expertise and that of Saali Salomon, the the camel patrols were so successful, that in 1904 a further four camels were imported from Egypt, for riding and breeding purposes.

Five years after the formation of the South African Police in 1915, from an amalgamation of the previous Colonial and Republican police forces, namely in December 1920, the camel breeding stock was transfered from the Rietfontein Police Station to the Witdraai Police Station.

Transfer of breeding camels from Rietfontein to Witdraai

With the breeding camels to Witdraai, went "three of our best coloured constables", "to do the breaking in and training. These men were Piet Titties, Arrie Bok and a black constable Johannes Diedericks". (My parents remember Johannes Dierericks as a large Ovambo, who brough them a present of a milk from one of his prized cows, shortly after they arrived at Witdraai." Diedericks had by then retired and was living at or near Rietfontein). According to Hauser, Johannes Diedericks served with the old German Police before joining the South African Police. During the transfer of breeding stock from Rietfontein to Witdraai, Saali Sampson was retired because of arthritis of the leg joints.

early-camel-train

Unknown policeman on camel, probably at
Rietfontein, camel held by Johannes Diedericks,
an Ovambo and ex-member of the German camel police.


The story of Witdraai itself is on this link. Perhaps Witdraai was exceptionally suited to the breeding of camels, or perhaps its staff knew just how to handle their grumpy charges, or perhaps it was a combination of these two factors, but the Police Station at Witdraai was so successful, that already in 1922, there is a document in the archives "South African Police: 1) Exchange of camels 2) Free gifts of camels 3) Sale of camels. And again in 1929 "Disposal by Police of surplus camels".

The end is near!

In 1948 the camel breeding stock at Hoffmeyer in Namibia (then South West Africa) was transferred to Witdraai. This was the first signs of the end of the use of camels as transport by the South African Police. On 6 July 1951, about a year before my birth, the last Police Camels at Witdraai was sold by public auction.

The large camel pens or "kraals", which consisted of camel thorn trunks, of up to 400 mm in diameter and about 3 metres in length, which had been buried on end in the sand, was removed by the farmers, a few at a time, together with the camels they had bought. For many years there-after, one could still see the dark areas where the kraals had been. It would be interesting to see if the special grass that the authors claim can be seen as marking old cattle kraals in Botswana, is also visible on the camel kraals.

kalahari-witdraai-kamele

Possibly Rietfontein, Definitely not Witdraai.
Can you identify the photograph? Please e-mail me!


Today, many of the descendants of the original Rietfointein, Hoffmeyer and Witdraai camels are found all over South Africa and probabaly also in the adjacent Namibia and Botswana. It appears that camels are still used by police in parts of Botswana. If some-one can confirm this, please e-mail me at info@abbott-infotech.co.za!

More information

Tour South Africa.com

Kalahari dunes info

Witdraai - Camel Breeding

Kalahari pans

From Gondwanaland to Kalahari

Kalahari Bushmen (Komani San, Saasi, !Kabee language)