Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Don Jules Camou | Ye Olde Checkerboard Technique

Full-page article on Don Jules Camou (1932)
Five years ago, I ran across a news article that claimed that modern camouflage was originated in the 19th century by a French general named Jacques Camou (1792-1868). At first, I thought it was a joke. The coincidence of the person’s name and the Modern-era military term (which did not come into common use until 1914) was bizarre.

But I have now found a more detailed news article from 1932 that provides an account of the life of Don Jules Camou (not Jacques Camou), described as a major landowner (“a dictator, almost”) in the Mexican state of Sonora. Written by Oren Arnold, the article is titled INVENTED CAMOUFLAGE A CENTURY AGO TO SAVE HIS RANCH FROM THE APACHES: Fooling the enemy with paint was not originated by modern war strategists after all—for wily Jules Camou used it against his Indian foes in 1832 (Arizona Daily Star, May 22, 1932).

Accompanying the article are several surprisingly clear photographs of the then surviving structures on the Camou estate, located in Sonora, 250 miles south of the Mexican-American border. When the article came out, it was claimed that “more than 100 alleged heirs” were “still squabbling over his estate, and romantic yarns about him are becoming a vital part of Sonoran folklore.” Reportedly, part of the interest was due to the possibility of ore deposits, and, less credible, the rumor that a cache of gold was hidden somewhere on the property. “The courts at Hermosillo, the capital city of Sonora,” the article notes, “are crowded with matters concerning the Jules Camou estate.”

Jules Camou’s purported use of camouflage took place in 1832. His cattle ranch was huge; according to the article, “a horseman can travel in a straight line for two days” and never leave the estate. Each year he raised as many as 16,000 head of cattle, the success of which required dependable access to water. He decided to construct a dam with which to form a 400-acre lake. But he was plagued by frequent attacks by neighboring Apaches, who regarded him as an intruder.

In order to construct the dam, Camou first devised a large ranch fortress, with a cylindrical stone tower at each end. When attacked, the workers could flee to the towers, and fire at the attackers from above through five-inch square-shaped portholes. But the portholes themselves were a target. It was Camou’s innovation to make the portholes hard to see by randomly locating them within a surface pattern of painted squares. As a result, the article claims, “where any one Indian might before have seen four or five targets, he now could see only a confusing picture of colored squares.”

Did Camou actually do this? It seems that he did, but even so, it’s unlikely that he was the first. A comparable checkerboard pattern (to conceal the location of gun ports) had long been used by ships at sea. In an earlier posting about camouflage and checkerboards, we referenced the aforementioned Jacques Camou, who appears to have had no connection to Mexico. In Paris, there is a street called rue Camou, named in his honor.

In the article on Jules (not Jacques), historian John McPhee is quoted as saying—

…Jules Camou originated what we now call “camouflage.” I don’t know whether he named it or not, but it is at least a coincidence that the names—Camou and camou-flage—should be so similar, isn’t it?

Related to this is an earlier news article with the headline GERMAN CONSUL MADE TO PAY HEAVY RANSOM: Sonora Rebels Abuse Max Muller and Extort $10,000 From Him, in the Los Angeles Call (April 4, 1913). The article tells the story of the threat to wealthy residents of Sonora, who are in danger of being kidnapped and held for ransom. One of the victims was Max Muller, who was vice president of the Bank of Sonora and the German consul at Hermosillo. After paying the ransom and being released, Muller fled to safety in Los Angeles, where other Sonorans had already fled. The article adds—

Among the refugees now here [in LA] are thirty-two wealthy members of the Camou family, headed by Fermin Camou and Albert Camou. This family owns practically all of the state of Sonora, and is rated as worth more than three million dollars.