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Camels and Colonial Armies: The Logistics of Warfare in Central Asia in the Early 19th Century

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This article explores the use of camels for baggage transport by European colonial armies in the nineteenth century. It focuses in particular on two episodes: the Russian winter expedition to Khiva, and the march of the Army of the Indus into Afghanistan, both of which took place in 1839. However sophisticated their weapons and other technology, until at least the 1880s European colonial armies were forced to rely exclusively on baggage animals if they wanted to move around: railways arrived very late in the history of European expansion. In Central Asia this meant rounding up, loading, managing and feeding tens of thousands of camels, which could only be furnished by the pastoral groups who inhabited the region, who in some cases were also the objects of conquest. Camel transport placed certain structural constraints on European conquest in Central Asia: firstly it meant that the forces involved were almost always very small; secondly it prevented the launching of spontaneous or unauthorised campaigns by “men on the spot,” as every advance had to be preceded by the rounding up of the necessary baggage animals, and the creation of a budget to pay for then. Finally, the constraints imposed by camel transport ensured that British and Russian armies would never meet in Central Asia, and that a Russian invasion of India was a chimera.

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