White Christian Civilisation to the East

When the Europeans had penetrated the seas north of Australia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Muslims were seen as the major enemy of Christian civilisation. By 1788, when the British penal colonies were established on the east coast of Australia in Port Jackson and on Norfolk Island, the power of the Muslims was on the wane. The Moguls, the Muslim rulers of India, had been reduced to impotence and the Muslim sultanates of the East Indies, apart from the fiercely independent Aceh, were under Dutch East India Company control.

The older Christian imperialists had also lost their power. The militant anti-Muslim and anti-Protestant Christian Portuguese Empire had declined to a couple of outposts in Timor and in India. The Dutch, along with the spice trade to Europe, were also rapidly waning in significance. Now rivalry between the new powers of Christian Britain and France had become the main arena of action. Although the French had been driven out of India and were concentrating upon Indo-China, they were still seen as a potential threat to British ambitions. This explains the hasty sending of the First Fleet to Botany Bay in 1787 without any preliminary inspection.

No longer independently powerful, the Dutch still held key ports and controlled key waterways on the sea route from Europe to India, China and Northwest America. The outcome of an internal struggle for power in Holland in the 1780s between factions backed by the French on one hand and the British on the other was of vital importance. If the French backed faction won, all of the Dutch bases would come under effective French control. The Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius, in the middle of the ocean on the route to India and China, Dutch ports in southern India and Ceylon and the waterways between the islands of the East Indies could become closed to British shipping. “The plan to settle at Botany Bay (or any better harbour in that region) was thus in part an insurance against a French takeover of the Netherlands and of its trading bases.” Ships could sail in the winds which blow from the west, in the latitude of the forties, and sail south of Australia instead of sailing northwards along the west coast towards the East Indies. Ships could sail up the east coast of Australia, get supplies and repairs in Sydney, then sail on to their trading destination. An indication of the sort of profits involved in some of this trade was given by John Ledyard, who had sailed with Captain Cook. He, “in his brief reference to the fur trade stresses than an outlay of sixpence brought furs worth a hundred dollars in Canton.”

Convicts were not sent to Port Jackson or Norfolk Island for reform or punishment, but rather as a form of cheap labour. “The policy of sending convicts to New South Wales stands recorded upon the rolls of Parliament – it was and it is to improve the colony and make it more useful to the British nation,” stated Mr Justice Forbes in 1827 The labour was needed to set up a restaurant port for British shipping on the route to the fur trade of Nootka Sound off Vancouver, for the whaling trade in the Pacific and for the China tea trade. The sending of convicts to Norfolk Island reflects the great hopes set in its flax and pine trees. Rope, sails and masts for the navy and merchant ships, were strategic resources as important for a naval power as oil in the modern world. Their presence on Norfolk Island may indeed have been a major reason the British chose this part of the world. Lord Sydney, when announcing the decision to send convicts here in 1787 remarked upon the supply of flax which “would be of great consequence to us as a naval power.” He also mentioned the tall trees, valuable for masts, which grow in New Zealand and the islands near Australia.

British shipping companies were already making good use of the vast supply of labour British imperial expansion had delivered to them. Muslim sailors were apparently frequently employed and in January 1796 Norfolk Island acquired several of them at one time. They were classed as Lascars (Indians and Ceylonese) by the Norfolk Island Victualling Book, the record of all those receiving government food assistance. They were abandoned there due to a misfortune related to the shoddy quality of colonial shipbuilding at that time and of course to the racist attitudes of their officers. In September 1795 the colonial-built ship Endeavour left Port Jackson with a companion ship Fancy, intending to touch at New Zealand and Norfolk Island before sailing to India. The Endeavour, with its Muslim sailors and with convicts destined to expand the labour supply on Norfolk Island, began leaking and it was feared it might break-up. It had to run aground at Dusky Bay New Zealand. The sailors found a partly assembled ship on the beach, built by the carpenter of The Britannia while at Dusky Bay in 1793. The crew finished the ship, named it Providence and with Fancy, sailed on to Norfolk Island. Some forty of the convicts from the Endeavour were returned to Norfolk Island and completed their sentences. The excess sailors were dumped with them.

Little was recorded of these exotic arrivals but it is apparent that they were not provided with passage home. Some fifteen years later, according to the Victualling Book, John Hassan a sailor from the Endeavour was on the Island working as a labourer. He was relocated to Port Dalrymple in Tasmania with the remaining settlers in 1813 when this settlement was closed. Another Muslim from Endeavour was Sua (or Saib) Sultan. He had an eleven and a half acre block of land on the island. He and his unnamed wife were transferred from Norfolk Island on the Lady Nelson as third class passengers on 9 November 1809. He was given the name of Jacob on the 1818 stores list for Hobart Town and by then he had a much larger block of land. He was given a 27 acre grant in his new location on the Derwent River near the village of New Norfolk. He apparently did well as The Land and Stock Muster of Van Diemen’s land for 1819 notes that Saib Sulton (sic) possessed 28 acres of pasture and two acres of wheat.

Mahomet Cassan is also listed as coming free on the Endeavour 1795. An alternative spelling of his name is also given on this list as “Cassom”. Another name which crops up on the Stores Lists is that of number 615, Mahomet Cassem. Probably the same as “Cassan” and “Cassom” he appears on the “General Muster of Free Men, Women and Children off and on Stores in His Majesty’s Settlement of Hobart Town 2 October 1818” as “came free”, from Norfolk Island and off the stores. Number 514 on the list is a Memerich Cossam. It is possible that some semi-literate clerk confused by the foreign name mixed up the lists but this may be another individual.

These names disappear from the records, they left no Muslim families, no institutions, no mosques. Perhaps they changed their names, like Saib Sultan, assimilated into the Christian community or returned home after earning sufficient for their passage. It is certain that they would have suffered from considerable religious intolerance. As Muslims and a subject people, despised for their race, they would have lived on the edge of society. Even Christians suffered persecution at that time if they were from the wrong sect. The British Test and Corporation Acts were not repealed until 1828. These Acts, passed under King Charles II, required that any person who wished to hold a position under the Crown or even in a town corporation, had to take Church of England communion. Protestant sects which differed in doctrine from the Established Church were thus humiliated. Roman Catholics were excluded from public office until the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. Even so, until this day, no Catholic can become King or Queen or Regent of Britain.

The men who ‘came free’ might have been despised, but they were not subjected to the horrors of the penal system which the convicts experienced. The system of transportation of convicts was cruel enough, separating them from all they knew for years, perhaps forever. It was however relatively humane compared to the system which followed the Bigge Report of 1823. The administration of NSW was accused of excessive leniency, contributing to the failure of transportation as a deterrent to crime whereas Bigge “wanted to tighten up the transportation system and make punishment more of a deterrent.” Zimran Wriam, an Indian Muslim convict who arrived in Atlantic on the Third Fleet in 1791, missed this most oppressive time. Born in Hyderabad, Zimran was sent to Norfolk Island and in 1813 was removed to Port Dalrymple in Van Diemen’s Land as a third class passenger on the Lady Nelson with John Hassan. He was given a 40 acre land grant to permit him to be economically independent. Unfortunately he did not live long to enjoy it as two currency lads (locally born men) beat him to death.

Other Muslim convicts who arrived in this relatively humane period included a convict from Oman, Nowardin, who said he was born in Muscat. A sailor on a ship visiting London, he had been convicted of a minor offense and in 1815 was sentenced to seven years transportation. He arrived in Sydney on the Fanny on 18 January 1816. Another Muslim, one John Johannes of Bengal, in London on 6 December 1815, was also sentenced to transportation for seven years. He arrived in Sydney on the Almorah on 3 August 1817. A relatively minor offence committed in the Port of London could have disastrous consequences.

In total there were at least eight convicts who arrived in Australia after 1813 who may have been Arab or part Arab. Five came from Oman, one from Bussarah (Iraq), one from Mauritius and one from South Africa. All of these people were Muslims. Unfortunately many of them arrived in the 1830s after the deliberately atrocious convict regime recommended by Commissioner Bigge was being implemented. The Report of the Select Committee on Transportation 1837-38 heard evidence of terrible crimes against humanity being perpetrated in the Australian penal colonies. “Sir Frances Forbes, chief-justice of Australia, stated in a letter to Mr Amos on the subject of transportation that ‘The experience furnished by these penal settlements has proved that transportation is capable of being carried to an extent of suffering such as to render death desirable, and to induce many prisoners to seek it under its most appalling aspects.’” Men murdered their comrades in order to be executed so that they could escape the horrors of living any longer in the places of secondary punishment.

Siedy Abdullah, like Nowardin, was also from Muscat, Oman. Looking for employment no doubt, he had migrated to Mauritius and worked as footman or groom. He was one of several sentenced to ten years transportation in February 1837 for the crime of mutiny. Under the conditions of that time this meant disobedience of an employer or refusal to work. He arrived in Sydney on 26 May 1838 where he subsequently disappeared. On the 26 April another footman and groom, also convicted of mutiny in Mauritius, arrived in Sydney to serve a life sentence. He was Hassan Sheikh of Bombay and he arrived on the Moffat via Hobart. Siedy Maccors Mahomed originally from Bussarah, was another of those sentenced for mutiny in Mauritius and he arrived at the same time as Siedy Abdullah. He completed his ten years and was granted a Certificate of Freedom in 1847.

Mauritius must have offered a hazardous work environment for three years before, in 1834, Bargatta Lascar, also known as Sheikh Burkhit, had been sentenced in that place to fourteen years transportation. He was born in Calcutta in 1798. He arrived in Sydney in July 1834 and was later assigned to work for a Mr J. Philips on his property near Port Macquarie.

Capetown, a key supply port on the British route to the East, and now included within the British Empire, also supplied its convicts to New South Wales. Two men described as ‘of the Malay faith’ arrived in Sydney on the Eden on 11 January 1837. Ajoup, a groom, had been sentenced to fourteen years transportation in Capetown and another named Matthys was sentenced to seven years. Both men were born in 1815. They appear but briefly in records and like those who ‘came free’ to Norfolk Island, disappear without trace.

There may have been a much larger Muslim population of Australia from this early period had a scheme advanced by some NSW pastoralists come to fruition. To help solve the labour shortage they intended to import labourers from India. Evidence was given before an Immigration Committee in 1838 that over a hundred settlers had organised for 1203 Indian labourers to be brought in and between 1837 and 1844 about 500 did arrive. The Colonial Office prohibited this traffic in 1839.

Revolted by the nature of the system of convict transportation, the colonists of NSW agitated for its abandonment. The British Government granted this demand in 1840, but factors other than colonial public opinion may have been responsible. The need for cheap forced labour in other parts of the Empire may have been that reason. “Thus it is arguable that transportation to New South Wales had ceased partly because of agitation in the colony but mainly because of the need to press on with naval and military installations in Britain and Bermuda and Gibraltar. By 1845 the urgent need for advanced bases for steam ships on the Channel coast had more to do with the new policy of making all convicts serve their hard labour sentence in Britain than did the alleged failure of the transportation system in Van Diemen’s Land.

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