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Afghan cameleers in Australia

By the mid–1800s, exploration in Australia was at its peak with expeditions setting out almost monthly. The race to map the continent, locate natural resources or find new places to settle moved away from the coast and further into the inhospitable heart of Australia. It was soon obvious that the traditional horses and wagons used for such expeditions were not suitable in this strange and foreign land.

The solution to the problem of finding suitable transport for inland exploration and travel was to bring in camels. As nobody at the time knew how to handle camels, cameleers were recruited to Australia as well. The introduction of camels and the so-called 'Afghan' cameleers proved to be a turning point in the exploration and development of the Australian interior.

Afghan and Decorated Camel

Afghan and Decorated Camel, 1901. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia: B 14739.

For a short period of time from the 1860s to the early 1900s, these cameleers and their 'ships of the desert' became the backbone of the Australian economy. They accompanied exploration parties, carrying supplies and materials where horses and oxen could not. They carted supplies, mail and even water to remote settlements. They transported the supplies, tools and equipment needed for the surveying and construction of some of Australia's earliest, and greatest, infrastructure projects, such as the Overland Telegraph and Trans-Australian Railway.

The first cameleers

In the 1800s, explorers, settlers, ranchers and prospectors sought to unlock the mystery and potential of the vast, inhospitable interior of Australia. Horses, and to a lesser degree donkeys and bullocks, were the traditional beasts of burden on early expeditions into Australia's interior. Many of these expeditions ended in disaster and tragedy. As well as requiring regular watering and large stocks of feed, horses were easily exhausted by the tough and often sandy ground and supposedly 'spooked' by the Australian terrain.

One camel being winched over the side of the boat while a number of Afghans watch.

Unloading camels at Port Augusta, ca.1920. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia: B 68916.

A 'solution to the problem'

As early as 1839, camels were proposed as the solution to the problem of transport while exploring. The first expedition to use a camel was the 1846 Horrocks expedition. 'Harry', as the camel was named by the party, proved the worth of using camels in expeditions. In 1846 a Melbourne newspaper reported that the camels could carry:

from seven to eight hundred pounds weight ... they last out several generations of mules ... the price paid for them does not exceed one half of that paid for mules ... and it is proved that these 'ships of the deserts' of Arabia are equally adaptable to our climate.

Other small successes followed and by 1858, many prominent Australians were calling for the introduction of camels, including South Australian Governor, Richard MacDonnell:

I despair of much being achieved even with horses; and I certainly think we have never given explorers fair play in not equipping them with camels or dromedaries and waterskins, which in Africa I found the best methods of carrying liquid.
Governor Richard MacDonnell to Charles Sturt 10 August 1858. Quoted in Mrs Napier Sturt's 'Life of Charles Sturt' (1899).

Purchase and recruitment

At the same time, the Victorian Expedition Committee commissioned George Landell, a well-known horseman who exported to India, to buy camels and recruit cameleers, because 'the camels would be comparatively useless unless accompanied by their native drivers' (from VEE committee minutes, 19 May 1859).

The departure of the Burke and Wills expedition.

The departure of the Burke and Wills expedition, 1881, Lithograph. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: mp010346.

In 1860, 24 camels and three cameleers from arrived in Melbourne to join the Burke and Wills expedition. Although this expedition ended in disaster with the loss of many lives, including those of Burke and Wills, the camels again proved their ability to survive the harsh and dry conditions of the Australian outback.

By the late 1860s, most Australian states were importing camels and cameleers. In 1866, South Australian Samuel Stuckey brought in more than 100 camels and 31 cameleers. Over the next decade, more and more camels and cameleers were brought to Australia as breeding programs and trading routes were established. It is estimated that from 1870 to 1900 alone, more than 2,000 cameleers and 15,000 camels came to Australia.

Servicing infrastructure projects

The cameleers were also instrumental in the success of some of early Australia's most ambitious infrastructure projects. They carried food and supplies to the surveying and construction teams working on the Overland Telegraph, which ran through the heart of the continent between Adelaide and Darwin. Once the project was completed, they continued to carry supplies and mail to the settlements and townships which sprang up along the line.

They also operated supply and equipment trains during the development of the rail link between Port Augusta and Alice Springs, which became known as the Afghan Express, and later the Ghan. The Ghan's emblem is an Afghan on a camel in recognition of their efforts in opening up the inhospitable interior to the rest of Australia.

The cameleers

The Ghan Logo

The Ghan logo. Image courtesy of Great Southern Rail Limited.

The cameleers were collectively known as 'Afghan' cameleers. While some were originally from Afghanistan, others came from countries such as Baluchistan, Kashmir, Sind, Rajastan, Egypt, Persia, Turkey and Punjab, so spoke a variety of languages. Their common bond was their Islamic religion and the fact that they were almost exclusively young or middle-aged men.

Not quite welcome

Almost all of the cameleers who came to Australia during this period faced enormous hardship. While their skills were needed and mostly appreciated, they were largely shunned by the European communities. Indeed, racism and anger towards them was rife.

The Mosque, Marree

The Mosque at Hergott Springs. The pool in the foreground was used by worshippers for washing their feet before entering the Mosque, ca.1884. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia: B 15341.

'Ghan Tours'

The vast majority of cameleers arrived in Australia alone, leaving wives and families behind, to work on three year contracts. They were either given living quarters on a breeding station, such as Thomas Elder's Beltana, or marginalised on the outskirts of towns and settlements. It was not uncommon for outback towns to have three distinct areas—one for Europeans, one for Aboriginals and one for cameleers, which became known as Afghan, or Ghan, towns. This social division was even reflected in the town cemeteries, such as those of Farina and Marree.

But while it was extremely rare for the cameleers to interact with Europeans, there was more acceptance by the local Aboriginal populations. Indeed, some cameleers married local Aboriginal women and had families here.

In the so-called Ghan towns, cameleers would often build a mosque that would not only serve as a place of worship, but as a gathering place that offered the cameleers a sense of community that they could not find elsewhere. The remains of the oldest mosque in Australia, built in 1861, are near Marree (Hergott Springs) in South Australia. This was once one of the country's most important camel junctions and in its heyday was called Little Asia or Little Afghanistan.

Portrait of Saidah Saidel, last of the Afghan camel drivers

Robin Smith, Last of the camel drivers, unknown. Image courtesy of Territory Stories: PH0780/0010.

In some instances, European attitudes to the cameleers focused on their religion. In other cases, it was related to their perceived pride and independence as at the time, Afghanistan was really only known to most Australians as the country that had, unlike British India, resisted the British forces. This perception was further enhanced in the settlers' eyes when cameleers on Beltana station went on strike—one of Australia's first successful strikes.

Relations on the Western Australian goldfields 1890s

As the cameleers became more established, many set up their own competing businesses and enterprises, often resulting in ill-will and sometimes even open conflict. One of the most notable examples of this was on the Western Australian goldfields in the late 1890s. Years of simmering tensions between Afghan cameleers and European bullock teamsters escalated to the point where the cameleers were openly demonised in the press and accused of various acts of aggression, including monopolising and befouling waterholes. This resulted in Hugh Mahon, the local federal Member, raising the issue with Prime Minister Barton in parliament.

A subsequent investigation by police was ordered and the state's Police Commissioner ultimately reported that, while there had been many 'reports and rumours of Afghans polluting the water and taking forcible possession of dams', there was actually 'no evidence obtainable' to support these reports and complaints. In fact, the investigation found that the only trouble 'of a serious nature' was that a cameleer had been shot and wounded by a white teamster for failing to give way.

Camel Train

Camel train laden with chaff for interior stations in the far North with an Afghan camel driver, ca.1911. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia: B 14808.

Providing drought assistance in far western New South Wales, 1900s

But not all white Australians shunned the cameleers. When William Goss became the first European to see Uluru, he named a nearby well, Kamran's Well, after his lead cameleer and a nearby hill, Allanah Hill, after another cameleer. And in 1902, after the devastating Federation Drought, the Attorney-General received a letter from a John Edwards stating that:

It is no exaggeration to say that if it had not been for the Afghan and his CamelsWilcannia, White Cliffs, Tibooburra, Milperinka and other Towns, each centres of considerable population, would have practically ceased to exist.

Contractors and entrepreneurs

As the cameleers became accustomed to the Australian landscape and people, many saw a way to create opportunities for themselves by branching into business on their own or in partnership with Europeans. So successful were they that by the end of the nineteenth century, Muslim merchants and brokers dominated the Australian camel business.

Fuzzly Ahmed and Faiz Mahomet

Some of the most successful of the cameleer entrepreneurs included Fuzzly Ahmed, who worked the Port Augusta–Oodnadatta line for many years before moving to Broken Hill, and Faiz Mahomet, who arrived at the age of 22 and settled in Marree, where he operated as a Forwarding Agent and General Carrier before moving to and setting up an operation in the Coolgardie goldfields with his brother, Tagh Mahomet.

Abdul Wade

Camels and camel merchants at Mt. Garnet, Queensland, ca. 1901

Unknown, Camels and camel merchants at Mt. Garnet, Queensland, ca. 1901 [The man in the suit and hat, holding the camel, is Abdul Wade]. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 13127.

But perhaps the most successful of all the Afghan cameleers was Abdul Wade. Wade arrived in Australia in 1879 and initially worked for Faiz and Tagh Mahomet. In 1893, Wade moved to Bourke, NSW, and began importing camels and recruiting Afghan cameleers for the recently formed Bourke Camel Carrying Co., New South Wales.

In 1895, Wade married widow Emily Ozadelle, with whom he had seven children, and in 1903 purchased Wangamanna station in New South Wales, which he established as a camel breeding and carrying business. At the height of his success, Wade had four hundred camels and sixty men working for him.

Respected by his employees and nicknamed the 'Afghan prince', Wade worked hard at being seen as an equal by his Australian peers. He dressed as a European, educated his children at top private schools and even became a naturalised citizen. But success in Australian society eluded Wade and his attempts at fitting in were ridiculed. At the end of the camel era, Wade sold his station and returned to Afghanistan, where he surrendered his Australian passport.

The end of an era

In the early twentieth century, motorised and rail transport was becoming more common and the need for camels, and cameleers, was slowly dying. Ironically, two of the greatest contributions of the Afghan cameleers, the Ghan railway and Overland Telegraph, were also to herald the start of their demise.

Immigration Restriction Act 1901

Certificate exempting Said Kabool from the Dictation Test, 1916

Certificate exempting Said Kabool from the Dictation Test, 1916. Said Kabool arrived in Australia in 1896 and worked in Coolgardie for seven years. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: NAA: E752, 1916/42, p. 12.

As many of the cameleers were in Australia on three year contracts, they would usually return to their homes and family after each contract, before returning to Australia. Some discovered that they were no longer granted permission to return to Australia. Others found that they now had to sit the dictation test under the Immigration Restriction Act, 1901 (which kept out new cameleers and denied re-entry to those who left), or apply for exemption. Many were denied naturalisation due to their 'Asian' status.

In 1903, a petition on behalf of more than 500 Indians and Afghans in Western Australia was placed before the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The petition made four major complaints against 'certain legislative restrictions' facing the cameleers: they were unable to hold a miner's right on the goldfields; they could not travel interstate for work, 'except under the most stringent conditions'; they were not allowed to re-enter Australia if they left; and they were not able to be naturalised. Nothing was to come of their petition.

Rail and road transport


Feral Camels cover approximately 40% of land area in the NT. Image courtesy of the Northern Territory Government Natural Resources, Environment, The Arts and Sport.

By the 1930s, Australia's inland transport was controlled by rail and, increasingly, road networks. Facing the prospect of no employment and a sometimes hostile government and people, many of the cameleers returned to their homelands, some after decades of living in Australia. Others remained and turned to other trades and means of making a living. Rather than see their camels shot, they released them into the wild, where they have since flourished. In 2007, the estimated feral camel population of Australia was around 1 000 000, approximately half of which were in Western Australia.

The last of the cameleers

By 1940, few cameleers remained. Philip Jones relates the tale of some of the last of the Afghan cameleers in reCollections, the Journal of the National Museum of Australia:

In the Adelaide summer of 1952 a young Bosnian Muslim and his friends, newly arrived immigrants, pushed open the high gate of the Adelaide mosque As Shefik Talanavic entered the mosque courtyard he was confronted by an extraordinary sight. Sitting and lying on benches, shaded from the strong sunshine by vines and fruit trees, were six or seven ancient, turbaned men. The youngest was 87 years old. Most were in their nineties; the oldest was 117 years old. These were the last of Australia's Muslim cameleers... Several had subscribed money during the late 1880s for the construction of the mosque which now, crumbling and decayed, provided their last refuge.

It is only in recent years, with the South Australian Museum's Australian Muslim Cameleers exhibition (developed with support from the Visions of Australia program) and book, that the story and the contribution of these pioneers to Australia's history and development has been told.

Useful links

Look, listen, play

History of cameleers

Cameleers in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Camels in expeditions

Muslims in Australia

Last updated: 3rd September 2009
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd

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