Afghan cameleers in Australia

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The "Afghans" or "Ghans" were camel drivers who worked in Outback Australia from the 1860s to the 1930s. They included Pashtun, Baloch, Sindhi ethnic groups from south-central Asia (present-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan), others from the Punjabi, Kashmir and Rajasthan regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They provided vital support to exploration, communications and settlement in the arid interior of the country where the climate was too harsh for horses. They also played a major role in establishing Islam in Australia, building the country's first mosque at Marree in South Australia in 1861, the first permanent mosque in Adelaide (still in use today), and several mosques in Western Australia.

Many of the cameleers and their families later returned to their homelands, but many remained and turned to other trades and ways of making a living. Today, some of their descendants can trace their ancestry back to the early cameleers, many of whom intermarried with local Aboriginal women in outback Australia.



The various colonies of Australia being under the dominion of the British Empire, the early settlers used people from British territories, particularly Asia, as navigators. In 1838, Joseph Bruce and John Gleeson brought out 18 of the first "Afghans", who arrived in South Australia in 1838. The first camel, which became known as "Harry", arrived at Port Adelaide in 1840 and was used in an 1846 expedition by John Horrocks. It proved its worth as a pack animal,[1] but unfortunately caused Horrocks' death by accidental shooting so was later put down.[2][1][3]

Afghans with resting camels, c.1891

In 1858 George Landell, who was known for exporting horses to India, was commissioned by the Victorian Exploration Committee to buy camels and recruit camel drivers.[4] In June 1860 three cameleers arrived in Melbourne with a shipment of 24 camels for the Burke and Wills expedition.[1] In 1866 Samuel Stuckey went to Karachi, and imported more than 100 camels as well as 31 men. In the 1860s, about 3,000 camel drivers came to Australia from Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent, along with more camels.[3]

Although the cameleers came from different ethnic groups and from vastly different places such as Baluchistan, Kashmir, Sind, Egypt, Persia, Turkey and Punjab, they were known collectively as Afghans, later shortened to "Ghans".[3] Ethnic groups included Pashtun, Punjabi, Baloch (or Baluch) and Sindhis (from the region between the southern Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and the Indus River in what is now Pakistan)[5] as well as others from Kashmir, Rajasthan, Egypt, Persia and Turkey.[1]

Use of camels[edit]

Before the building of railways and the widespread adoption of motor vehicles, camels were the primary means of transporting goods in the Outback, where the climate was too harsh for horses and other beasts of burden. From 1850 to 1900, the cameleers played an important part in opening up Central Australia, helping to build the Australian Overland Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Darwin and also the railways. The camels hauled the supplies and their handlers erected fences, acted as guides for several major expeditions, and supplied almost every inland mine or station with its goods and services.[2]

The majority of cameleers arrived in Australia alone, leaving wives and families behind, to work on three-year contracts. Those who were not given living quarters on a station (such as on Thomas Elder's Beltana),[1] generally lived away from white populations, at first in camps, and later in "Ghantowns" near existing settlements. A thriving Afghan community lived at Marree, South Australia (then also known as Hergott Springs) leading to the nicknames "Little Asia" or "Little Afghanistan". When rail reached Oodnadatta, the caravans travelled between there and Alice Springs (formerly known as Stuart).[2] There were caravanserais for the camel caravans travelling from Queensland, New South Wales and Alice Springs.[4] There was more acceptance by the local Aboriginal people, and some cameleers married local Aboriginal women and started families in Australia.[1] However some married European women, and writer Ernestine Hill wrote of white women who had joined the Afghan community and converted to Islam, even making the pilgrimage to Mecca.[2]

In 1873 Mahomet Saleh accompanied explorer Peter Warburton to Western Australia. Three Afghans helped William Christie Gosse to find a way from the Finke River to Perth. Two years later Saleh assisted Ernest Giles on an expedition, and J.W. Lewis used camels when surveying the country north-east of Lake Eyre in 1874 and 1875.[2]

Cameleers with visitors, c.1891

In the 1880s, camels were used by police in northern South Australia for the collection of statistics and census forms as well as other kinds of work, and the Marree police used camels on patrol until 1949.[2] At Finke/Aputula, just over the border in the Northern Territory, the last camel police patrol was in 1953.[6]

In the 1890s, camels were used extensively in the Western Australian Goldfields to transport food, water, machinery and other supplies. In 1898 there were 300 Muslims in Coolgardie.[4]

During the Federation Drought, which devastated eastern Australia from 1895 to 1902, the camels and their drivers were indispensible. John Edwards wrote to the Attorney-General in 1902: "It is no exaggeration to say that if it had not been for the Afghan and his camels, Wilcannia, White Cliffs, Tibooburra, Milperinka and other towns...would have practically ceased to exist".[4]

Success and discrimination[edit]

By the turn of the century, Muslim entrepreneurs dominated the camel business, including Fuzzly Ahmed (Port AugustaOodnadatta, then Broken Hill) and Faiz Mahomet (Marree and Coolgardie). Abdul Wade (also known as Wadi, Wabed, Wahid) was especially successful in New South Wales, and bought and set up the Wangamanna station as a camel breeding and carrying business. He married the widow Emily Ozadelle and they had seven children. Wade worked hard at fitting in and being seen as an equal to his Australian peers, dressing in the European style, educating his children at top private schools and becoming a naturalised citizen. However his attempts were ridiculed and at the end of the camel era, he sold up and returned to Afghanistan.[1] By 1901, there were an estimated 2000–4000 cameleers in Australia. Many of them made regular trips home to deal with family matters.[4]

While outback settlers, farmers and others who had dealings with the Afghans often vouched for them, finding that they held many values in common, prejudice arose and discriminatory legislation was introduced by colonial, state and federal governments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One example was a 1895 law which prevented Afghans from mining on the WA goldfields, after tensions arose between the communities and Afghans were accused of polluting waterholes (although no evidence was ever found for this).[4][1]

Many cameleers were refused naturalisation and found themselves refused entry when they tried to return to Australia after visits home, based on the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. In 1903 a petition was raised about a number of discriminatory practices, but nothing came of it.[1]

Grave of Afghan camel caravanner Zeriph Khan (1871-1903) at Bourke Cemetery, NSW

The last of the cameleers[edit]

Through the 1930s and 1940s, with no employment and sometimes a hostile community, many cameleers returned to their homelands, but others remained and developed trades and other means of making a living. In 1952, a small number of "ancient, turbaned men" , aged from 87 to 117, were to be found at the Adelaide mosque.[1]

It is recorded that the first person to make a deposit, his life savings of ₤29, in the newly-formed Savings Bank of South Australia on 11 March 1848 was "an Afghan shepherd", with his name recorded as "Croppo Sing".[7]

Impact and legacy[edit]

Even though the Afghans' help was greatly appreciated they were also subject to discrimination because of their religion and appearance, and because of the competition they provided to European bullock (ox) teamsters.[1] Many of the European competitors were also cameleers, and in 1903 a European camel train owner in Wilcannia replaced all of his Afghan camel drivers with Europeans.[8]

The passenger train which travels between Adelaide and Darwin is known as "The Ghan" (formerly The Afghan Express) as a reference to the service the Afghans provided to the areas through which the train travels.[9]

After their use was superseded by modern transport, many camels were shot by police, but some cameleers released their camels into the wild rather than allow them to be shot, and a large population of feral camels remains from this time.[2]

Date palms, planted wherever the Afghans went, are another legacy of the cameleers.[2]


A fourth-generation descendant of a Baluch cameleer who settled in Geraldton, Western Australia, set up a sheep station and married an Aboriginal woman, is proud of her heritage on both sides. She says that it was difficult for her ancestor to acquire permanent residence and permission to marry, but the Afghans were honourable men who preferred to marry rather than rape local women.[10]

Marree still has the longest-surviving "Ghantown", and many descendants of the original cameleers still live there.[11]


The Adelaide Mosque (1888-89)
in Little Gilbert Street, Adelaide
Adelaide Mosque historic plaque

At first a special room set aside in someone's house served as places of prayer, but as time went on, the Muslim communities wanted to have dedicated places of worship. At Marree, an important junction of the camel trade, the Afghan cameleers built the earliest mosque in Australia in 1861,[1] a simple mud and tin-roofed building,[4] but this subsequently fell into disuse and was demolished.[12]

Over time, as some members of the Afghan community prospered through trade and camel breeding, they contributed towards the building of the oldest permanent mosque in Australia, the Central Adelaide Mosque in 1888–89.[12]

The Perth Mosque, which dates from 1905,[13] was paid for by fund-raising efforts throughout the WA Muslim community, much of it instigated by the highly educated businessman Mohamed Hasan Musakhan (also known as Hassan Musa Khan). In 1910 there were also mosques in Coolgardie, Mount Malcolm, Leonora, Bummers Creek, Mount Sir Samuel and Mount Magnet (all in WA).[4]

Notable people[edit]

  • In Marree Dervish Bejah (or Bejah Dervish), who had been decorated for his military service, led his community. He came from Baluchistan, and later took part with Lawrence Wells in the Calvert Expedition of 1896.[2] He is commemorated by a plaque in the Jubilee 150 Walkway in Adelaide.
  • Dost Mahomet was a Baloch cameleer who worked the WA goldfields in the late 1890s.
  • Hassan Musa Khan, well-educated and multi-lingual, ran a bookshop, founded the Perth Mosque and later lived in Adelaide.
  • Mahomet Allum (1858–1964), herbalist and philanthropist, who settled in Adelaide and became known as "the wonder man".[4][14]
  • Mullah Abdullah, one of two perpetrators of an attack known as the Battle of Broken Hill in 1915, in which the former cameleers shot four people dead and wounded seven more, before being killed themselves. The other man was Gool Badsha Mahomed, not to be confused with
  • Gool Mohamet or Gul Muhammed (1865–1950), who married Frenchwoman Adrienne Lesire, owned a station and later became Imam at Adelaide Mosque.[15]
  • Abdul Wade, Fuzzly Ahmed and Faiz Mahomet are mentioned above.
  • Hector Mahomet, Peer Mahomet and Charlie Sadadeen were well-known on the Oodnadatta track.[2]
  • Haji Mulla Merban came from Kandahar to Port Darwin in the early days. He became a leader of the camel drivers working for the Overland Telegraph Line, eventually settling in Adelaide. He married a European woman and was known as a peace maker, once settling a dispute between Abdul Wade and Gunny Khan, two wealthy camel owners. He also became the spiritual leader of the Afghan community in SA at the Adelaide Mosque. He was buried at Coolgardie in 1897.[2]
  • In Oodnadatta the leader of the community was Abdul Kadir.[2]

Many other names and useful references are given in the Geni citation (see Further reading).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Afghan cameleers in Australia". 15 August 2014. Archived from the original on 15 August 2014. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "The Afghan camelmen". South Australian History: Flinders Ranges Research. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Faris, Nezar (December 2012). "Contextualisation and Conceptualisation in a multifarious context: Mixed models of leadership" (PDF). Paper presented at ANZAM conference held in Perth in 2012. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Stories: Cameleers and hawkers". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
  5. ^ Westrip, J.; Holroyde, P. (2010). Colonial Cousins: a surprising history of connections between India and Australia. Wakefield Press. p. 175. ISBN 1862548412.
  6. ^ Kelham, Megg (November 2010). "A Museum in Finke: An Aputula Heritage Project" (PDF). See Territory Stories for details of document: 1–97. Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  7. ^ "Our Story". BankSA. Retrieved 19 August 2019.
  8. ^ National Advocate newspaper, 17 April 1903, page 2.
  9. ^ "Afghan Express". Pichi Richi Railway. Retrieved 3 June 2019.
  10. ^ Mohabbat, Besmillah (1 June 2019). "Meet the fourth generation of a Baluch Afghan cameleer". SBS. Retrieved 4 June 2019.
  11. ^ Stevens, Christine (27 July 2011). "Australia's Afghan cameleers". Australian Geographic. Originally published in the Oct-Dec issue, AG#20.
  12. ^ a b "Weekend Notes: Adelaide City Afghan Mosque". Retrieved 8 May 2014.
  13. ^ Westrip, J.; Holroyde, P. (2010). Colonial Cousins: a surprising history of connections between India and Australia. Wakefield Press. p. 193. ISBN 1862548412.
  14. ^ Hankel, Valmai A. (1968). "Allum, Mahomet (1858–1964)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. 7. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 4 June 2019.
  15. ^ "The Gool Mahomet story". Farina Restoration Project. Retrieved 4 June 2019.

Further reading[edit]