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Australia is well-known for its natural beauty and unique flora and fauna, but perhaps not so much for the Muslim cameleers who helped open routes to its progress. Their fascinating story just begs to be told. By Adline A Ghani.
THE AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK has long been defined by its rich mineral deposits, peculiar animals and an endless, almost lunar, landscape. A piece of its history is just as fascinating, though considerably less well known. About 150 years ago, explorers and pastoralists (livestock tenders) began having camels and their Muslim handlers brought to Australia.
Arriving from the arid hills of Afghanistan and northwest British India (present-day Pakistan), the camel handlers, or ‘cameleers’, were mostly young men in their twenties or thirties. Although they were dubbed ‘Afghans’ by the locals, the men in fact belonged to four main ethnic groups: Pashtun, Baloch, Punjabi and Sindhi. Many left their wives and families behind until their contracts ended. Some later returned to their homelands, while others opted to stay.
Those who remained married Aboriginal or European women and raised their children as Muslims. When the demand for camel-handling started to dwindle in the 1920s, many found work as traders, hawkers and miners. They established their own communities, often on the fringes of outback towns. Though small in size, these close-knit communities had religious teachers and halal butchers, and residents tended vegetable gardens and even date groves. The modest mosques they built from iron or earth served as the centre of their daily prayers and religious festivities.
EXPLORING AUSTRALIA ON CAMELBACK
Although Australia’s landscape is diverse, most of the country is desert or semi-arid. By the mid-19th century, the need had arisen to explore and transport goods across inland Australia. When the dry, scorching conditions proved too difficult for traditional horse and bullock teams, camels were imported. Their introduction occurred in stages. Initially, they delivered wool from remote sheep stations to ports, before returning to the outback with supplies. They were later used to explore largely unchartered outback, such as in the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860, which employed the use of two dozen camels and a number of handlers from Peshawar and Karachi.
Between 1870 and 1900, an estimated 2,000 cameleers and 15,000 camels came to Australia to satisfy the rising demand for trade, exploration and mining. The legendary Burke and Wills expedition reached its destination, but ended tragically on the return trip. Seven men lost their lives, including the two team leaders. It proved, however, that camels and their handlers were indispensable to inland exploration, as Muslim cameleers were a vital part of the six rescue expeditions that were sent in search of Burke, Wills and their team.
Subsequent outback expeditions proved more successful. Muslim cameleers played a vital role looking after the camels, doing the heavy lifting, locating water, hunting small animals and providing safe passage for their teams. Accounts from that time state that European cameleers were frequently outshone by their Muslim counterparts, who were considered superior and more efficient. Their remarkable endurance, in often punishing conditions, enabled them to walk alongside their camels on arduous explorations, tending to convoys of up to 70 animals. Their outlook was also different.
As camels are described as ‘blessed animals’ in the Qur’an, their cameleers considered them as more than simple beasts. So deep was their respect for their camels that Muslim cameleers knew each of them by name. When the automobile emerged as the mode of transportation of choice, many cameleers mercifully released their animals into the outback, rather than to see them killed in mass culling programmes.
DIPLOMACY DOWN UNDER
Since Muslim cameleers often travelled through Aboriginal country, these two different groups of people struck a cordial relationship. Cameleers helped to transport goods for the Aboriginal people, and even employed and trained them to handle camels. The Aboriginal people, for their part, started using camel hair in their traditional crafts and obtained camels of their own. The increased mobility that resulted improved connections between spread-out communities in the sprawling desert.
Aboriginal communities also readily shared valuable knowledge on where to find water and other resources in the desolate outback. As a tiny minority group in colonial Australia, however, Muslim cameleers also faced discrimination. Their European neighbours tolerated the ‘Afghans’, but their interactions steadily grew uneasy with the growth of Australian nationalism. Regulations and policies were introduced that restricted camel grazing and halal butchers, resulting in raised tensions and tit-for-tat reprisals.
Disputes over water increased. This came to a head in a horrifying incident on New Year’s Day, 1915. World War I, which had broken out just six months earlier, saw Ottoman Turkey and Britain on opposing sides. Two ex-cameleers, bearing the Turkish flag, opened fire on a passenger train as it left the town of Broken Hill. The attack and ensuing gun battle killed six people, including the two attackers, who were widely condemned by their local Muslim communities.
The skills of Muslim cameleers helped to unlock the Australian interior, establishing vital supply and communication lines. Yet their important contributions and achievements have been largely overlooked by recorded history. A few generations on, their memory is still alive and well with their descendants. Research by South Australian Museum curator and historian Dr Philip Jones and anthropologist Anna Kenny has also given us valuable insight into the lives and legacy of these men.
Still, so much more remains to be revealed on the men’s role in Australia’s development and heritage. Their story is fortunately being told by the South Australian Museum in an exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, its first time outside Australia. It pays tribute to the cameleers, who were some of the hardiest individuals in Australia’s strenuous formative history. The artefacts on display show the harshness of their lives and the complexity of their relationships, as well as the importance of their faith.
The author is a curator at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM). She worked with Dr Philip Jones, curator at the South Australian Museum and of the exhibition itself, to bring Australia’s Muslim Cameleers to IAMM. Her article is based on press and education materials from these two museums. This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Aquila Style magazine.