Shot by Australia’s first camel

The first camel in Australia shot its owner, the English explorer John Horrocks.

Australian camel
Jjron, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Camels have a long and interesting history in Australia – they are uniquely well suited to travelling the vast deserts of the continent’s interior and also led directly to the introduction of Islam to Australia. That story’s for another time; today I’m going to begin at the beginning. The very first camel in Australia, Harry, shot and killed his owner.

John Ainsworth Horrocks arrived in South Australia on his 21st birthday in 1839. Within a year he had founded a town (Penwortham, named after the hall in which he was born). By 1846 he had hatched a plan to head into the interior on a search for arable farmland – and for this expedition, he took a camel.

Harry the camel was apparently the only survivor of the first experimental shipment of camels to Australia. The logic behind his presence was solid: camels could handle desert conditions better than mules or donkeys, so they would make the perfect pack animal for Australia’s arid climate. So when Horrocks set off north, he took Harry with him.

The expedition began well. Horrocks and company found a pass through the Flinders Ranges – it’s now known as Horrocks Pass – and were well on the way towards territories new to the Europeans. (The local Aboriginal Australians of the Arabana, Kokatha, and Kuyani peoples, of course, had been there for several dozen millennia already.) All this good fortune changed on September 1, 1846.

Horrocks saw a bird and wanted to shoot it. His shotgun was loaded with the wrong kind of shot for birds, so he got his pack camel to sit down and began to change out the ammunition. As he was doing so, Harry the Camel pushed to one side. The camel’s pack snagged on the shotgun trigger. Horrocks, in the firing line, lost a finger, part of his cheek, and several teeth to the shot.

He didn’t die immediately; other members of his party managed to get him back down south before he succumbed to his wounds. And Harry? On Horrocks’ instructions, he too was shot dead.

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