The Conquest of the Interior
As pastoralism expanded in the Australian colonies and it became apparent that convict labour could never fulfill the needs of the growing economy, free labour had to be obtained. From 1840 to 1880 European settlement spread from the southeastern lands across the continent. This was the period of exploration of the interior of the country, of the extermination of large numbers of indigenous people, of massive immigration schemes and of a booming wool industry. The demand for wool from Britain’s factories was immense and the ten million pounds weight of wool supplied by Australia in 1840 increased to three hundred million pounds by 1880. Over the same period the number of sheep increased from four million to eighty million. By 1891, on the verge of the economic depression, the Australian colonies were supplying five hundred and forty million pounds weight of wool from a flock of one hundred and seven million sheep.
The Gold Rush of the 1850s added another strand to economic development, that of minerals and interest in exploration for minerals. It also served to deliver a huge increase in population to the colonies. For example, the population of Victoria increased from 97,489 in 1851 to 539,764 by 1861. This led to demand for farms and the development of agriculture. This in turn required the opening up new lands in the interior of the continent.
Early explorations of the southeastern part of the continent, the last of which was that of Major Mitchell through southern NSW and the Western District of Victoria in 1836, opened up vast tracts of land for the squatters and their sheep. The terrain and the climate allowed reliance upon horses. When the drier west and central parts of the continent had to be explored, horses were found to be of limited value. Camels from India were first suggested as suitable in 1837. A few years later at the suggestion of Governor Gawler of South Australia, the Colonial Commissioner in London purchased six camels in Tenerife but only one survived the trip, landing in Adelaide in October 1840. They 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.”
Marvellous Melbourne, rich with the gold of the 1850s, certain of its leading role in the future of Australia, was eager to spread its influence into the far reaches of the continent. In 1858 the Victorian Exploration Committee requested George Landells, who regularly accompanied exported Australian horses to India, to buy camels and recruit camel drivers on his next visit. He bought twenty-four beasts and hired three drivers, Samla, a Hindu and two Muslims, Esan Khan and Dost Mahomet. They arrived in 1860 and were housed at Parliament House and both beasts and men were kept in stables there. The men were hardly regarded at all. It is interesting to note that Manning Clark in his History of Australia reports upon the whole Burke and Wills Expedition and the debacle it became, without mention of the Afghan cameleers at all. The expedition set out with great fanfare in August. Dost Mahomet and Esan Khan “killed their own expedition stock cattle in the al halal manner prescribed by the Qur’an. Though severely ill with dysentery, they diligently performed the five daily Muslim prayers and held to their faith in Allah during the months of waiting at Menindie.” Dost Mahomet was bitten by a camel at this camp, his arm was smashed. He was effectively disabled for life at the age of twenty-three. Despite his appeals to the Victorian Government he was awarded only 200 pounds compensation and was never to see his home again. He also requested that he be paid as promised. He had been told that he would have the same pay as the other members of the exploration team, ten pounds a month. This was not honoured. He and Esan Khan were paid only three pounds a month, increased to four pounds five shillings a month after Landells had resigned from the party. Afghans were not white and not Christian. Dost Mahomet died soon after this refusal and is buried at Menindie.
Although the various exploration parties which went into the interior depended upon the camels and their Muslim drivers, they were scarcely recognised for their contribution. The white leaders of the expeditions received the credit from their peers and their exploits were recorded by white historians. It was Kamran who, with Gosse in July 1873, was the first recorded non-indigenous person to see the great rock, Uluru, named for the then Governor of South Australia Sir Henry Ayers. Gosse at least had the grace to name a “Kamran’s Well” between Uluru and Lake Amadeus for his leading Afghan cameleer and “Allanah Hill” 28 miles southeast of Uluru for the other Muslim on the team.
Saleh, who physically led the Giles Expedition of 1875-76 across the Nullabor Plain and then to Perth and back via Geraldton to South Australia, was given the honour of having “Saleh’s Fish Pond” named for him near Mount Gould on the way back east from Geraldton. A suggestion of the type of intolerant superiority these Muslims had to cope with is indicated. “Saleh faithfully performed his lone daily prayers, regularly teased by the others. Sometimes he would ask Giles the direction of east and the leader would playfully point the other way. On these occasions Saleh was more likely to have been facing closer to Mecca for, from Australia, the Holy City was not eastwards but north-westwards.” Of course Saleh from Afghanistan would have been used to the qiblah facing west and no doubt had prayed in many mosques in Australia. For an experienced cameleer and bushman not to have know his directions or the qiblah rather stretches the imagination. This has the ring of a smart story from Giles rather than truth.
These expeditions were not just brave manly exploits. They had economic motives. Giles was being supported by the major importer of camels Thomas Elder and on this expedition had agreed to survey country near Fowlers Bay for a prospective English squatter, a friend of Elder’s. The expedition that Saleh accompanied some years later in 1886, surveying the Queensland-Northern Territory Border, took prospecting parties with it, hoping to find new mineral wealth.
With camels from Marree and Farina, Moosha Balooch and Guzzie Balooch accompanied the 1894 Horn Expedition, named for the director of the Broken Hill Proprietary Company who financed it. He wanted it to seek out minerals between the Macdonnell Ranges and Oodnadatta and to study new biological, botanical and ethnological material. Another two famous cameleers, Bejah Dervish and Said Ameer accompanied the 1896 Calvert Expedition. Two of the European members managed to get lost and starve to death. The willingness of the Afghans to search for days in terrible conditions and the offer from the major camel owner Faiz Mahomet to send his camels and men to the search, impressed contemporary opinion. Larry Wells, the leader of the expedition, named a landmark in the sandy desert “Bejah Hill” and gave Bejah Dervish his compass. Years later Nora Bejah, daughter-in-law of Bejah, still had that compass. She also recalled that Bejah had been given the name “the Faithful”.
Abdul or “Jack” Dervish, the son of Bejah, was most significant in getting the Madigan Expedition across the Simpson Desert in 1939. This was the last major exploration of the interior. Afghan Muslims had been on all of them since 1860. The second Afghan on this expedition, “Nurie”, Nur Mohamed Moosha, was the son of Moosha Balooch who had accompanied the Horn Expedition over forty years earlier. However things had changed. “By the 1930s the second generation of cameleers ate the same meat as the Europeans. The Muslim faith had diluted and halal-killed meat was no longer a requirement to the younger men.”
The Camel Communications Network
It was the Afghans and their camels who gave access to the vast interior of the continent. They proved themselves during the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line 1870-72. They were used in both the survey and construction work, carrying loads of materials into otherwise impenetrable country. “The workers were able to forge ahead into the arid unknown for they could be assured of regular and reliable service and supply by the camels and cameleers. Horses and bullocks often could not travel the long waterless stretches with any degree of reliability.”
Marree, formerly known as Hergott Springs, was an important centre in the “interstate camel communications network” the first outback “train” in this region. “Several sources state that in 1880, four years before the arrival of the line, Hergott was “a little Asia”, the focus of camel strings that travelled the Queensland Road (later to become known as the Birdsville Track); the Strzelecki Track to Innamincka; the way through Blanchewater eastwards into New South Wales; the track to Charlotte Waters, and so to Alice Springs and other far northern stations on the Overland Telegraph Line. These were the chief routes of the camel communications network, though all-particularly those leading to the east-branched into many side tracks.”
Winifred Stegar, the wife of Ali, a cameleer in Birdsville in the early twentieth century, has left us an account of the scene at one railhead where the Afghans picked up the goods. “Once the mail was cleared the station-master would take off his shirt and, with his one porter, would repair to the goods shed, loaded with cart-note books; consignee notes must match with corresponding loads, and then the load would be allocated to the particular camel train. Not only the shed but the dirt platform would overflow with huge mounds of bundles and cases; the station-master would grow so frantic that his voice at times, would fade almost to nothing as he hurled orders and directions to the camel-men and their native helpers while he endeavoured to collect the consignments in their correct order. The loadings for transit were assigned to different drivers by the station-owners or their managers. Some goods had hundreds of miles to go, and the return trip might take months.” Asked to help the camel-men with their consignment notes and bills of lading, Winifred reports “The trouble really began when I had to make out their freight charges, each man clamouring to tell me his idea of what his freight should be, each load going to a different station with its corresponding mileage, different freights for different goods-it was bedlam.”
When the Coolgardie gold rush occurred in 1894, the cameleers were quick to move in. The goldfields could not have continued without the food and water they transported. In March that year a caravan of six Afghans, forty-seven camels and eleven calves, set out across the desert from Marree to the goldfield. It arrived in July with the camels, carrying between 135 and 270 kilograms each, in good condition. Another fifty-eight camels for Coolgardie arrived by ship in Albany in September. There was some jealousy of the success enjoyed by the Afghans with their camel-carrying businesses. Already by September 1894 “The Bulletin” complained of Fez Mahomet that “there seems to be no limit to his camel carrying operations. He is said to have taken 20,000 sovereigns to Westralia; he has certainly taken thither upwards of 2000 camels. More than half of these are employed on the Coolgardie goldfield.” It also made a bigoted allusion, to Muslim acceptance of polygamy with the claim that “his camel-staff is believed to consist chiefly of brothers-in-law; many wives, many brothers-in-law.” This was not the situation at all but it made for good reading for the Bulletin’s readers at that time. That same article in The Bulletin also describes the situation in 1894. “Afghans at Coolgardie are an exclusive section of the community. They mix not with whites and are encamped outside the town. They never trouble man or beast, but leave their camels for that business. Law prevents their dry-blowing or working quartz-reefs, but even if the statute were repealed tomorrow there would be no mad Afghan rush. Fez and his minions allow the homogeneous white man to find gold, and they gather it by other means.” The Afghans are portrayed as passive, but cunning. Although excluded from mining they make their own gold by exploiting the white miner. Table 1 Statistical information relating to Muslims Western Australia for the year 1898
Coolgardie Fremantle Perth
No. Ministers 1 nil 1
No. Lay Readers or Local Preachers 3 1 3
No. Church Buildings 2 nil nil
No. other buildings used for public worship 5 2 3
Total seating accommodation in Churches and Buildings 300 80 120
Average number attendants at Sunday morning and evening services 80 12 25
Average number attending Divine Service on weekdays 80 12 25
Approximate number of Public Services performed during the year (including weekday services) 1825 1825 1825
No. of marriages nil nil nil
No. of burials nil nil nil
Number of persons admitted to Membership of the Denomination in the District during the Year nil nil nil
Estimated number of adherents in the District adults and children male 300
female nil male 23
female nil male 80
By 1898 there were 300 members of the Muslim community in Coolgardie and 80 on average attended Friday prayer. Indeed as Coolgardie held the main Muslim community in the colony at that time. There was not one Muslim woman amongst them, no marriages were performed and no burials, reflecting a relatively young, celibate and transient population. There appear to have been two mosques in Coolgardie, if that is what was meant by “church buildings” with five other buildings used for public worship. The one “Minister” and three “Lay Readers” might be taken for imam and other less educated prayer leaders. Fremantle had two buildings used for public worship but no main mosque and one lonely “Lay Reader” or prayer leader. Perth had three buildings used for public worship but no mosque at that stage. It claimed one imam and three prayer leaders. The extent of the camel industry in Coolgardie is indicated by the list of camel owners 1898-1899 in Table 2. The predominance of Afghans can be seen through the number of Muslim names on the list of owners. The sudden drop in the number of camels by 1899 is a reflection of the opening of the neighbouring field at Kalgoorlie.
Table 2. A List of Owner of Camels in the Magisterial District of Coolgardie.
Duncan McGregor 12 Ahmad 12 Khram 20
F & T Mahomet 359 F & Tagh Mahomet 444 E. Leaney 1
do do 51 do do 56 Actor Mahomed 7
Abraham do 12 Anwar 72 Dean Mahomed 4
Parley Alline 42 Mahamet Azim 30 Malata Mahomed 30
Frank E. Randell 125 F.E.Randell Co. 142 S. Peer Mahomed 9
Mahomet Raswell 15 Cobb & Co. Ltd 2 G. Mahomed 19
Transport Trading Co of WA 61 Transport Trading Co of WA 60 Mamadriza 17
Gungzar Belooch 16 Geelan 10 Masum 7
Hampton Plains Estate Ltd. 6 Hampton Plains Estate Ltd. 7 Mazoola 3
Maurice Leaney 7 Osman Guny 35 Mohidin 18
Mahomet Hasson 100 Said Nazar 12
Total for 1899 700 Said Hookmat 20 Neemomed 3
Zrim 16 Produce 5
Amer Jon 29 Rahmin 15
Kahan 6 Mahomed Rassool 21
Pain Kahn 18 Abdul Rennie 13
Oom Kahn 13 Sabarizi 9
Sultan Kaka 26 Shak 10
Karam 8 Shacoor 22
Amer Khan 15 Sing 10
Esau Khan 14 Maosa Sing 26
Derri Khan 17 Stura 15
M. Llan 10 Vazir 7
Mizza Khan 32 General Water Supply 79
Paster Khan 7 J.H.Wood 50
Zar Khan 2 Zachan 14
Total for 1898 1649
The working conditions of some of the Afghan camel drivers, even by the standards of the time, were appalling. The Bulletin, which had a less than favourable attitude to non-European labour, was moved in 1899 to support an appeal for “Afghans enslaved by the Bourke (NSW) Camel Carrying Co.” The company was owned by a group of Europeans, mainly pastoralists, who hired their labour in India and Afghanistan. Abdul Wade, an Afghan, was appointed manager in 1895. The men, who had been employed on an agreement which they had not understood, were jailed for refusing to work when ordered to do so by the company. They were to be paid 24 pounds a year. Three-quarters of their wages, held until they completed their six year contract, were to be forfeited if they missed even a day of work. The magistrate told them they could appeal the sentence to a higher court but as they were without funds that was not possible without public support. The poor response to the appeal was, complained this most racist of journals, “perhaps because of the circumstance that the oppressed men happen to be coloured foreigners instead of white Australians.” It at least contributed ten pounds towards the needed one hundred and fifty pounds for the appeal.
Racism rears its head
Camel teams competed with the bullock drivers and horse teamsters. The cameleers were Afghan, the bullockies were European. Clear cases of assault against Afghans, even murder, were dismissed by racist courts. In western Queensland in the 1890s there was a major campaign of racist vilification against the cameleers. Local newspapers declared Afghans as “more detestable than the Chinese” and attacked them for refusing to drink alcohol and for opening their own stores and butcher shops.
The rising union movement in Queensland also had a strong racist rhetoric. Chinese and Afghans were seen as cheap labour, undermining the standard of living of the white man. Unionists did not fight for equal wages for all, apparently seeing economic exploitation as inextricably linked to “racial inferiority”. Afghans, unaware of the greater social issues, for they were socially ostracised by the Europeans, continued to carry wool to railheads for the Queensland pastoralists during the Shearer’s Strike which nearly took the country into civil war, a watershed in the history of Australia. In 1891 the Toowoomba Infantry had to escort Afghans and their camels within Queensland and up to the NSW border as they were in danger from enraged and militant unionists.
In 1892 “Unionist” of Bourke NSW, in a letter to the Bulletin, wrote “the introduction of camels and Afghans is worse than the introduction of Chinese to the masses.” Attacking the “hopeless conservatism” of this position regarding the camel, which The Bulletin steadfastly maintained was the saviour of the outback, the editor had an alternative suggestion. “There is no earthly reason why the Afghan and the camel should go together; the Australian has at least as much intelligence as that imported Asiatic, and he knows enough to make use of that ‘ship of the desert’ without hiring any cheap Mohammedan to help him. But, apparently, he never dreams of making the attempt, and because the Afghan is another cheap labour curse in a land where such curses are already much too plentiful, therefore he wants to abolish him and the animal altogether. The idea of abolishing the man and not the animal has not yet, so far as we are aware, been proposed by anybody.” That was, ultimately, what occurred.
The link between the Afghan and the camel had direct political repercussions. At the November 1893 conference of the Labor Electoral League of New South Wales, the platform which called for “Prohibition by law of the use of camels as beasts of burden, as being inimical to the health and well-being of the residents where such beasts are used” was confirmed. As The Bulletin remarked in its commentary, “The only real reason for its (the camel’s) abolition is that it is run by Asiatics”, but this did not indicate sympathy for or solidarity with the Afghans. “Apart from its obnoxious Asiatic driver, there is just the same reason for abolishing the camel that there is for tearing up the railroads”.
In an article on “The Camel Odious” in 1894 the Bulletin included a comment by a Major Leonard, the author of a book on the camel, that the Afghan is “the dirtiest brute on record”. The very next edition of the magazine had a response from someone who strongly objected to this, pointing to the bravery of the Afghans throughout history and the defeats they had inflicted upon numerous invaders, including the British. The letter, under the heading “The Odious Afghan”, alluded to the number of whites who manage to get along without a bath from New Year to Christmas and to the many “women who have only bathed on their wedding day”. It also mentioned the hospitality of the Afghans in Bourke and to the large number of whites who were happy to take the bounty offered. However even this sympathetic correspondent could not support the notion of Afghan-Australians : “I don’t like the Afghan; he cannot mix with us; in some things he is a bit too good for us; and I think he is better out of the country; but he is more honest and manly than many of those who jeer at him.”
Open hostility was more common in public discourse. F.C.B. Vosper who had drifted to the Coolgardie goldfield and become editor of the Coolgardie Miner, was a strong supporter of the Queensland Shearer’s Strike. He had also been editor of the Australian Republican, a Queensland newspaper. In 1894 he was supported by 2000 miners in his proposal to establish a body to put pressure on the government to have Afghans and other Asians removed from the fields. Nine branches of this Anti-Afghan League were established but died as rapidly as they had grown. In several colonies of the time debates were occurring about the control and possible eradication of the ‘coloured labour’ problem, and from 1897 it became difficult for ‘aliens’ to enter the country.
The 1898 W.A. Royal Commission into Mining took evidence about the presence of Afghans on the goldfields and one witness raised objections which have rung down the years, being raised most recently with regard to Muslim attitudes to Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1990-91. Probyn-Smith, another journalist, in evidence to the WA parliament regarding local Afghans, claimed “Many… were still in sympathy with those Afghans who fought the British during the Second Afghan War. He declared they were traitorous by nature and warned of the peril to Australian lives if a Jihad (Holy War) were to be proclaimed somewhere in the Muslim world.”
A third journalist, the socialist editor of the Barrier Truth in Broken Hill, R.S. Ross wrote an article on “The Afghan Menace” 13 March 1903, well after the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act had introduced the White Australia Policy. He attributed everything from sexual depravity to brutality and gross superstition to these people who were ‘by breed and nature a bird of prey’. There was no apparent awareness leave alone gratitude shown for the contribution made by these isolated and exploited men to the economic development of Australia. In the atmosphere of European Australia, denigration of racial or religious difference was the norm. Similar venom was displayed in Protestant-Catholic disputes in the community at that time, overlain in many cases with anti-Irish racism.
The life of Mahomet Allum, Adelaide’s much loved Afghan herbalist, spanned the history of the Afghan Muslims in Australia. He had sold horses to the British Army in the Second Afghan War and came to the goldfields of WA as a cameleer. He witnessed the opening of the Coolgardie water pipeline in 1903, worked in the Broken Hill mines where he laboured for hours underground in icy cold water. He bore witness to the teachings of Islam on racial difference in racist Australia. One of his letters to the press is reprinted by Brunato in which he challenges the editor. “If any Britisher can prove to me that he is white and I am black, I will unreservedly give him five hundred pounds. In God’s earth we are all his creatures. He brought in the sun and the moon and the stars to function twenty-four hours a day for all of us, and as an indication that He expects us to , every hour of the day to do His work. Why then this invidious distinction, even in the cemetery, between peoples of different races?”
His reputation for charity, six thousand pounds over four years, was explained as “a practical demonstration of the Islamic doctrine that all men are brothers and should be treated as such.” He was not without influence on the non-Muslims around him. Miss Halima Schwerdt of Adelaide, in her contribution “I am proud to be Muslim”, in the publication “Charms of Islam” produced by the very British Muslim community of the Woking Mosque, indicated her debt to him. She wrote “Here in Australia where it is rare to come in general contact with anyone of the Muslim faith, I consider myself extremely lucky when I met Mahomet Allum Herbalist, “Wonder Man” and healer as he has been named by the people in Australia whom he has cured.” Unfortunately his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is marred by a doubtlessly false claim that he “referred to himself as God’s messenger.” Such a claim is a crime in Islamic law and puts the claimant outside the faith of Islam. When he died at his home in Everard Park in 1964 at the age of 106, he had witnessed the decline of the Muslim population and was on the edge of witnessing its revival as the racially exclusive policy died. He had been denied Australian citizenship because he was classified as non-white and when the law changed he made no application. Perhaps he decided that it was not worthwhile.
Attitudes towards the Indians who were arriving in the cities were also rigidly hostile. The justifications for these hostile attitudes, common to racist rationalisation everywhere, associated the Indian and Syrian hawkers with filth, with criminal behaviour and with disease. An article in “The Illustrated Australian News” accuses them of bullying women in outlying farming districts whose husbands were away into buying the products they hawked. It alludes to one of the illustrations accompanying the piece which “show how these gentry are liable to fare if they try that little dodge while any of the men are about.” Part of the illustration shows “a summary ejectment” with a white farmer wielding a whip at a turbaned and fleeing hawker. It mentions their living conditions in Melbourne, where “they herd together in squalid houses in Little Lonsdale-street and one or two other localities.” The comments upon their lifestyle reveal a great degree of ignorance about them. It is considered strange that “they do not eat any meat food unless prepared by one of their own”, an allusion to the need for halal meat. That they ate with their fingers was also considered quite disgusting. “When the dish is cooked, be it meat, rice, curry or what not, the party it is provided for gather round the pot, and discarding the use of knife and fork, proceed to business with their fingers.” Even their sleeping conditions were food for contempt. “Their sleeping place in the house we visited was a hole wretchedly inadequate for the accommodation of the half dozen or more who were packed in it. They lie upon the floor, and with their turbans upon their heads and bands of linen swathed round the lower part of the face, covering the mouth, they resemble a lot of mummies.”
A report “Undesirable Immigrants” written a few years later, noted that the 13 Indians destined for Melbourne and the 77 destined for Sydney from a ship which had just arrived in port, were “a fine looking lot of men” of whom “the majority speak English fluently”. However they were associated with “the Asiatic evil in Melbourne”. In a comparison of the relative filthiness of Mahometans and Hindus, the anonymous author wrote, “Everyone will be gratified to know that the Mahometans, at any rate once a year, indulge in a thorough wash and put on absolutely clean garments. This takes place at the feast of Ramazan, either in February or March.” It went on to urge action by the city authorities, for the general appalling habits of both these Hindus and Mahometans threatened the city with the black death or bubonic plague.
Some 120 hawkers’ licences were issued in 1898 by magistrates in the Victorian centres of Ballarat, Bendigo, Echuca, Geelong, Shepparton, Bairnsdale and St Arnaud. There were more in the city. Three hundred licences were issued to hawkers in the City Court Melbourne alone on hawkers’ annual licensing day 12 December 1900. They seemed to be in large enough numbers to represent a danger to the peace and tranquillity of the colony. The same sorts of opinions as had been expressed in 1891 were found again. The “Hindoo population” was notorious for its “disreputable mode of living” and when hawking in the countryside “, by stealing, quarrelling amongst themselves and menacing women and children, they have become a dangerous nuisance.” Amongst the many evils associated with them was a traffic in hawking licences. “A new arrival can usually buy at the stores of merchants with whom his countrymen deal partially expired licences which he is there and then free to trade upon.”
Another evil was the award of licences to inappropriate individuals, permitted by the fact that the magistrates could not distinguish between them. “When a number of these persons appear in court the magisterial eye takes them in en masse as a dusky nightmare of gibbering, truculent faces, and the difference between Murder Singh and Satan Shah utterly fails to strike one. Thus it is next to impossible at any time to prevent exactly the most objectionable persons from procuring licences.” Lack of education was regarded as one of the root causes of such bad behaviour so, the Leader thought, the Victorian government should consider the South Australian system which meant it would “decline to issue licences as hawkers to Indians who cannot pass an educational test.”