Cameleers - Shaping the outback
?I saw one string of sixty camels silently going about their business led by a turbaned Afghan with a gay coloured dress, the rear of the procession brought up by another Afghan riding leisurely along at the rate of say two and a half miles an hour. Unhasty, yet unresting, these grotesque animals pursue their way, each following in the footsteps of the other - no whips, no jangle of harness, no objection to the dust - just plod, plod, plod along, their brown skins and knotted excrescences harmonising perfectly with the sombre foliage, the burnt and baked up bushes, the grotesquely stunted trees.?
(An account of 1895 by an anonymous writer)
The cameleers or 'handlers' came from Egypt, Persia and Turkey though most, hailed from northern India and what today is Pakistan. But the men were all, almost always incorrectly, called Afghans or simply "Ghans." they played a vital role in pioneering transport and communication routes across outback Australia's vast expanses
In June 1860, the first three Afghans with 124 camels arrived in Melbourne; they were Dost Mohamed and Hassan Khan both Pashtun people and Baloch from Balochistan.
European exploration and settlement of inland Australia depended heavily on the expertise of these cameleers. During the late 19th century their network of transport routes opened up the arid interior.
More efficient than bullock or horse teamsters, the cameleers were in great demand. They helped construct the Overland Telegraph Line and inland railways, took part in exploration expeditions, and supplied mining towns and pastoral stations.
The cameleers small Muslim communities were a feature of Australian outback towns for more than 50 years. Areas where the Afghans would settle were called ?Ghan Towns? and, tin mosques, palm trees and camel stables, marked these towns.
Cameleers would build Masjids that would not only serve as a place of worship, but as a gathering place that offered them a sense of community that they could not find elsewhere.
Ghan towns" are mostly found in South Australia in Port Augusta, Maree, Beltana, Farina and Oodnadatta.
In some instances, European attitudes to the cameleers focused on their religion and in other cases, it was related to their pride and independence as, at the time, Afghanistan was only known to most Australians as the country that had, unlike British India, resisted British rule.
They were not allowed to bring their women with them consequently some, who remained in the country married native Australian Aboriginal women. Laws in Australia at the time did not permit marriage with european women. Excellent research entitled The Afghans and the Aborigines by Philip Jones of the South Australian Museum describes the relationships between the cameleers and the aborigines.
[Alice Springs owes its existence to the hardy camel and the equally hardy cameleers. It was founded in the early 1870s as a repeater station for the Darwin-to-Adelaide Overland Telegraph Line ? which was also built by men who depended on dromedaries for supplies and equipment. Plodding camels not only helped establish "The Alice," they brought it music: The first piano arrived in the 1880s, the story goes, strapped to the back of a camel. Aptly, the city holds a state legislative district, The Sadadeen primary school and a major thoroughfare all named after cameleer Saleh "Charlie" Sadadeen, who came to Alice Springs with his team in 1890. "Children were enthralled with his distinctive, flowing robes and intrigued with the long-stemmed pipe he smoked," reports the Alice Springs Centralian Advocate.]
[Men like Sadadeen came to Australia on two to three-year contracts but often lived out their lives in the country, writes American geographer Tom McKnight in The Camel in Australia. While a handful became wealthy, deploying "thousands of camels organized into the backbone of corporate business," most toiled from dawn to well past dusk for low pay, and lived near outback towns in little communities distinguished by the "tin minarets of their hastily constructed mosques." Wherever the cameleers settled, writes McKnight, "they would soon construct a place of worship. In every case the mosque was a focal point of community life in Ghan Town."]
Philip Jones and Anna Kenny, wrote a book called Australia's Muslim Cameleers about the cameleers from Afghanistan, a wonderful pictorial history of these men, their religious and cultural life, and their relations with Indigenous and European Australians. This book contains a biographical listing of more than 1200 cameleers. Many of the images and artefacts in this fascinating account being published for the first time.
This book may be ordered through Flinders Rangers Research The largest site for South Australian and Northern Territory Historical Information.
Today Australia is one of the major camel exporters to the Middle East
In 1921 the semi-retired Cameleer Saleh (Charlie) Sadadeen leased the block which now houses the Council`s Civic Centre. Sadadeen was born in the Punjab, northwest India, and arrived in Alice Springs in 1890 after ten years in Australia and previous service in the British Army as a Cameleer. Two tall date palms outside the Council Civic Centre were planted in 1916 by Walter Smith who worked with the cameleers bringing supplies from the railhead at Oodnadatta. In front of the palms is a monument and seat, built in the 1980`s, dedicated to the Cameleers. The park was rededicated in 2001.
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.
Throughout the outback, there are many lone graves of cameleers, often buried with their camels.
Alice Springs Memorial Cemetery
This cemetery is the resting place of many pioneers, including the remarkable Eddie Connellan and his family (a row of white marble headstones), famous Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, Harold Bell Lasseter, who died trying to find a lost gold reef and Miss Olive Pink an early anthropologist. There is also a special section devoted to the early ?Afghan? cameleers and their descendants who were a vital part of the early exploration and settlement of Central Australia. They are buried facing Mecca.
2,000 Cameleers arrived in Australia. For more information on any one of them please ask.
Photo below; Loading camels at Marree, about 1901