Afghan Camelmen South Australian History

The Afghan Camelmen.

Although the number of Afghans coming to Australia was small (no more than 3000) compared with other ethnic groups, their contribution to this country has been much greater than most people realise. Afghans have made a substantial contribution to South Australia and Australia but history has almost ignored them, and the role they played opening up inland Australia.

Without the Afghans much of the development of the outback would have been very difficult if not impossible. Whole communities, towns, mining establishments, pastoral properties and some well known explorations in the interior have been made successful because of their contributions.

With their camels, who received more publicity than their owners, these cameleers opened up the outback, helped with the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line and Railways, erected fences, acted as guides for several major expeditions, and supplied almost every inland mine or station with its goods and services. These 'pilots of the desert' made a vital contribution to Australia.

The first Afghans arrived in South Australia in 1838 when Joseph Bruce brought out eighteen of them, one of whom died on 1 February 1840. When Bruce himself died, the men were handed over to John Gleeson, who also had imported some of them. The first camel arrived at Port Adelaide in 1840 but was shot in 1846 after it caused the death of explorer John Horrocks. As early as 1858 it was suggested that camels should be imported into the colony and that a depot should be established for their 'propagation and acclimation'. It led to the formation of the Camel Troop Carrying Company Ltd which unsuccessfully petitioned the government for financial aid in October 1858.

In 1862 Samuel Stuckey went to Karachi to bring out camels. He was unsuccessful that time, as was McKay from Mount Deception in 1864-5. However in 1866 Stuckey succeeded in bringing out more than a hundred camels and, as nobody knew how to handle camels, 31 Afghan cameleers as well.

Although these, and later camel men, came from different ethnic groups and from vastly different places such as Baluchistan, Kashmir, Sind, Rajastan, Egypt, Persia, Turkey and Punjab, they were collectively known as Afghans. Most of the men and their camels were first brought to Thomas Elder's station Umberatana, but after a few months most were transferred to Beltana where a camel breeding program was started. Soon the camels and their drivers were transporting materials and supplies to Elder's stations at Blanchewater and Murnpeowie.

In early 1870 the Afghans went on strike and most left Beltana and moved to Blinman. In 1873 Mahomet Saleh, an Afghan cameleer, left Beltana for Western Australia with explorer P.E. Warburton. William Christie Gosse was assisted by three Afghans in his attempt to find a way from the Finke River to Perth. Two years later he assisted Ernest Giles on one of his expeditions. J.W. Lewis, surveying the country north east of Lake Eyre in 1874 and 1875 used camels. Later Thomas Elder's teams carried desperately needed supplies for the starving diggers at Milparinka.

One early arrival was Haji Mulla Merban from Kandahar, Afghanistan. He came to Port Darwin and acted as leader among the Afghan camel drivers working for the Overland Telegraph Line. After a three year visit to India and Afghanistan he eventually settled in Adelaide. He married a European woman and acted as a peace maker between his countrymen, once settling a dispute between Abdul Wade and Gunny Khan, two wealthy camel owners. With the completion of the Adelaide Mosque in Gilbert Street in 1888 he also became the spiritual leader of the Afghan community in South Australia. He was buried at Coolgardie in 1897.

Many of these Afghans did extremely well in their chosen business. Abdul Wade had four hundred camels and sixty men working for him. Fuzzly Ahmed worked the Port Augusta - Oodnadatta line for many years before moving to Broken Hill. Faiz Mahomet, who arrived at the age of 22, settled in Marree where he operated as a Fowarding Agent and General Carrier. In 1892 he moved to Western Australia and worked from the Coolgardie gold fields with his brother Tagh Mahomet.

On 10 January 1896, while Faiz Mahomet was at the Murchison gold field, Tagh Mahomet was shot in the Coolgardie mosque by Goulham Mahomet. The case was reported in most newspapers both in Western Australia and South Australia. The Express and Telegraph called it 'Cold-Blooded Murder, Shot in a Mosque, Killed Whilst at Prayers'. Headlines like these were bound to attract attention.

Port Augusta Dispatch September 1888.

Wherever these Afghan cameleers settled, they lived in a separate part of town. Consequently many inland towns had three distinct sections, one for the Europeans, one for the Aborigines and a third section for the Afghans. Their areas became known as Afghan or Ghan Town. There was contact between the Aboriginal and Afghan groups but almost no contact between the Europeans and these two groups. Examples of this are well illustrated in Farina and Marree where even the cemeteries are divided along these lines.

Marree, with its high concentration of Afghans, was soon referred to as Little Asia. It also became the centre for inland transport with camel strings leaving regularly for the Birdsville, Oodnadatta and Strzelecki tracks, Broken Hill, the Northern Territory and the Western Australian gold fields. They often suffered from racial prejudice as a result of their religion, culture or the economic competition they provided for a declining number of jobs.

In 1884 nearly three hundred camels and fifty-six Afghans were landed at Port Augusta. The largest group landed in 1893 when four hundred camels and ninety-four men disembarked. During his election speech at Port Augusta, in March 1893, Alexander Poynton made it clear that he was against the importation of more Afghans and their camels. If elected 'he would put a prohibitive Poll Tax upon them'. A month later it was reported that 94 Afghans had landed at Port Augusta and 'meant business and money getting'. Contemporary opinions about their presence in the outback were not always very kind.

Each Afghan community had its own leader. In Oodnadatta it was Abdul Kadir and in Marree it was Bejah Dervish. Bejah, decorated for his military service, came from Baluchistan and later took part with L.A. Wells in the Calvert Expedition of 1896. In these communities the Afghans continued to live as they had always done, following the Muslim religion and customs. Most Afghans who came to Australia were single or if married left their wives behind as they expected to return wealthy in the not too distant future. Many remained single but others married Aboriginal women. Very few married white women.

Afghans provided almost all goods and services from South Australia to the Northern Territory. On a regular basis they left Marree, and later when the railhead was at Oodnadatta, with their camel teams for Stuart, later renamed Alice Springs. Some of the well known Afghans among them were Hector Mahomet, Peer Mahomet and Charlie Sadadeen.

In 1933 Ernestine Hill wrote, 'Within the high tin walls of the Afghan camps in all towns of the north line, white women are living, the only ones in Australia who have blended to any extent with the alien in our midst. Renouncing the association of the women of their own race, they have forsaken their own religion for the teachings of the Prophet and the life of the cities for the desert trail. Several of these have made the pilgrimage to Mecca'.

In 1880 Sub Inspector B.C. Besley suggested that the police in the north should use camels for the collection of statistics and census forms. His suggestion was taken up and camels were from then on used by all police in the north for all kinds of work. The Marree police used camels to patrol the outback until 1949.

When the camels, who were brought here because they could carry loads of up to 600 pounds over long distances with little food or water over almost any terrain, had outlived their usefulness, they became a pest. Most were shot when found on common land or without a registration disk. In this way hundreds were shot by the police to the delight of the pastoralists. Lasting legacies of the Afghans are the date palms which they planted wherever they went and the Ghan which was named after them.

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Latest Publication

A Pictorial History of
Australia's Muslim Cameleers

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