05 May 2020
Afghan Cameleers of the Outback (pre-paid envelope)
Afghan Cameleers of the outback postage paid envelope
The Afghan Cameleers of the outback postage paid envelope (PPE) features images of Afghan handlers and their camels on the envelope and in the postage paid area.
From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, thousands of Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, India and modern-day Pakistan were brought to Australia to tend the camel trains that helped open up the country’s vast arid interior. On 9 June 1860, 24 camels and three cameleers arrived at Port Melbourne to join the pioneering Burke and Wills expedition. By 1901 there were an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 cameleers, generally known as “Afghans”, in the county. The camel trains accompanied exploratory expeditions and were vital in almost every major inland development project. They hauled poles, wire and boulders for the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line and carried sleepers and supplies to the men building the desert railways. The first mosque in Australia was built in Marree, South Australia, probably in the 1860s, and Australia’s oldest permanent mosque, in Adelaide, was established in the 1880s by the Afghan cameleer community. Today, the many descendants of the original Afghan cameleers take great pride in their resourceful pioneering forebears.
Afghan Cameleers of the outback postal numismatic cover
The Afghan Cameleers of the outback postal numismatic cover features a pictorial envelope with an image of Afghan handlers and their camels in the postage paid area and a coin from the Royal Australian Mint. The envelope is postmarked – First day of issue | 5 May 2020 | Marree SA 5733
PNC Issue: 2020 Issue 06, limited to 6,500
- Issue date: 2020
- Mint: Royal Australian Mint
- Metal: CuNi
- Denomination: 50c
- Weight: 15.55g
- Diameter: 31.51mm
- Finish: Uncirculated
- Designer: L Ashe
Afghan cameleers in Australia
Afghan cameleers in Australia, also known as “Afghans” or “Ghans”, were camel drivers who worked in Outback Australia from the 1860s to the 1930s. Small groups of cameleers were shipped in and out of Australia at three-year intervals, to service the Australian inland pastoral industry by carting goods and transporting wool bales by camel trains. They were commonly referred to as “Afghans”, even though they originated mainly from British India, and others from Afghanistan, Egypt and Turkey. The majority of cameleers, including Indian cameleers, were Muslim, while a sizeable minority were Sikhs from the Punjab region. They set up camel-breeding stations and rest-house outposts, known as caravanserai, throughout inland Australia, creating a permanent link between the coastal cities and the remote cattle and sheep grazing stations until about the 1930s, when they were largely replaced by the automobile. They included members of the Pashtun, Baloch, and 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 people 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 Central Adelaide Mosque (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, many people 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, but unfortunately caused Horrocks’ death by accidental shooting so was later put down.
Camels had been used successfully in desert exploration in other parts of the world, but by 1859 only seven camels had been imported into Australia. In 1858 George James Landells, who was known for exporting horses to India, was commissioned by the Victorian Exploration Committee to buy camels and recruit camel drivers. Eight cameleers arrived in Melbourne from Karachi on the ship Chinsurah on 9 June 1860 with a shipment of 24 camels for the Burke and Wills expedition. These were used in the Burke and Wills expeditions. 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.
Although the cameleers came from different ethnic groups and a range of regions – mostly Baluchistan, Kashmir, Sind and Punjab (parts of present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, north-western India and eastern Iran), with a few from Egypt and Turkey, they were known collectively as Afghans, later shortened to “Ghans”. 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) as well as others (fewer in number) from Kashmir, Rajasthan, Egypt, Persia and Turkey. Most practised Islam, and many blended this with local their customs, in particular the Pashtun code of honour.
Use of camels
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.
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), 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). There were caravanserais for the camel caravans travelling from Queensland, New South Wales and Alice Springs. There was more acceptance by the local Aboriginal people, and some cameleers married local Aboriginal women and started families in Australia. 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.
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.
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. At Finke/Aputula, just over the border in the Northern Territory, the last camel police patrol was in 1953.
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.
During the Federation Drought, which devastated eastern Australia from 1895 to 1902, the camels and their drivers were indispensable. 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”.
Success and discrimination
By the turn of the century, Muslim entrepreneurs dominated the camel business, including Fuzzly Ahmed (Port Augusta–Oodnadatta, 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. By 1901, there were an estimated 2000–4000 cameleers in Australia. Many of them made regular trips home to deal with family matters.
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).
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.
The last of the cameleers
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,” supposedly as old as 117, were to be found at the Adelaide mosque.
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”.
Impact and legacy
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. 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.
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.
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.
Date palms, planted wherever the Afghans went, are another legacy of the cameleers. Another, understudied, legacy of the cameleers is the traces of Sufism introduced across Australia, evident in the remaining artefacts, particularly prayer beads, some books, and letters.
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.
Marree still has the longest-surviving “Ghantown”, and many descendants of the original cameleers still live there.
There is a memorial at Whitmore Square, Adelaide which pays homage to the city’s Afghan Camel Drivers, although as of 2018 it did not have any signs explaining its purpose or the meaning of the scripts on the memorial.
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, a simple mud and tin-roofed building, but this subsequently fell into disuse and was demolished.
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.
The Perth Mosque, which dates from 1905, 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).