Have you ever felt out of place before? Like an alien in foreign lands? How hard would you try to assimilate? Or would you not assimilate at all? Would you stick to your traditions and values?
These are questions that these Aussies faced in the middle of the nineteenth century when they came to Australia. But wait… they don’t look white or European, so how are they Aussie? Well they’re actually Muslims and they’re pretty much essential to the development and growth of Australia. They’re called Cameleers or ‘Camel men’.
So who are these Camel men? How did they get here? And where are they today? Well let’s find out…
THE COLONISATION OF AUSTRALIA
In order to talk about Camel men in Australia, we need to talk about Australia first and how it came to be. You see, in the nineteenth century, the British Empire had added the enormous island of Australia to its collection of colonies. The British originally wanted it to be a penal colony where they would send all of their convicts to serve their sentence on the harsh frontier territory. However, unlike the indigenous inhabitants of Australia, the new European arrivals would find out just how harsh and unforgiving the land would be.
Australia was an untouched land and the demand for growth and expansion of frontier in an attempt to establish an economy in balance with a range of physical environments.
The Europeans needed as many labourers as they could get their hands on and considering
Australia was far from Europe, they couldn’t hire much white labour. But Australia was close to Asia and part of the Pacific, so they introduced cheap labour from Asia. By the nineteenth century, the British had soaked up much of India and Afghanistan into its vast colonial empire. So the Early settlers thought that it would be a great idea to bring Afghans and their camels over to Australia, especially because horses had proven unsuccessful.
One thing to note about the Afghans that came to Australia is that they weren’t really all Afghans. You see, the Camels were purchased from British ruled India and the Camel men were mostly Afghani nomads, herders, livestock breeders and traders who had migrated to India. So some camel men were Indian but nonetheless white settlers labelled camel men Afghans.
THE FIRST CAMEL TO BE USED IN EXPLORATION IN AUSTRALIA
The first Muslim cameleer arrived on 9 June 1860 at Port Melbourne to participate in the Burke and Wills exploration Expedition. They brought them over because, according to the Victorian Exploration Expedition Committee, ‘the camels would be comparatively useless unless accompanied by their native drivers.’ This was Australia’s first major inland expedition using camels and it was a total disaster. Many lives were lost and nearly all the animals that they brought along were dead, all except, the camels. Only the camels were able to survive the harsh conditions of arid Australia and provide critical supplies to outback settlements.
Following this expedition, by the late 1860s and 1870s small groups of cameleers were shipped in and out of Australia. They would cart wool and other goods all across outback Australia. As they gained experience and learned how this new country’s economy worked and what European society needs are, they also saw new business opportunities. The Muslim Cameleers began to forge their own lives in Australia. They began to import their own camels and run their own camel strings. By the 1890s the camel business in Australia was dominated by Muslim merchants and brokers. Muslim settlements developed around inland rail heads and next thing you know Mosques were erected in remote places as well as in the hearts of Australian cities.
INTEGRATION INTO AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY
The Afghan cameleers were devout Muslims which is why they immediately built these rough outback shelters as the firsts Mosques of Australia just to pray in. They were called ‘Bush Mosques’ and they were popping up everywhere along these cameleer tracks. Islam served as a moral and legal code for the Afghan cameleers and their adherence to the faith greatly alienated them from predominately European-Christian communities, and to a large degree, from Aboriginal communities. The Europeans on the expeditions saw more reason to view these camelmen as very different from themselves when they observed the religious customs of these men. The Muslims held prayers five times a day, causing what seemed to be unnecessary delays for the whole expedition. They would also only eat meat from Halal slaughtered animals, which posed enormous practical problems.
In one journal from Ernest Giles, a white explorer, it mentioned that a cameleer by the name of Mahomet Sahleh, would run up to emu’s that they shot for food and recite quran on them before slaughtering them. He also added that Sahleh was mocked for his adherence to his religion by other white colonists. However, despite the constant ridicule and religious intolerance, the cameleers clung onto their daily prayers, their fasts and prohibitions.
WHERE ARE THEY TODAY?
So if the Cameleers had established themselves pretty much all across Australia, then where did they all go? Well, in 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act along with the White Australia policy made it increasingly difficult for the cameleers to enter Australia. And by the late 1920s, motor transport had penetrated the bush and overtook the need for cameleers. In successfully laying the foundations of the outback’s transport and communication network, the cameleers ironically worked towards their own demise.
By this time however, the cameleers had become wealthy old men and went on to return back to their own countries as retirees. Others turned to other trades while others retreated to the charities of the Mosques they helped build. Their camels were let loose into the Australian outback free to roam the lands. Many of their later descendants have since largely forgotten their traditions and Afghan origins and have fused into the Australian social fabric.
CONTRIBUTION TO AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY
The Muslims Cameleers that came to Australia, came to this land looking for work and for some opportunities. In the process, they laid the foundations for the future Muslim and non-Muslim generations to come to this land and forge new lives. To many during their time they were seen as weird alien looking foreigners, but today they are rightfully recognised as pioneers. May Allah reward them for their hard work and adherence to their faiths despite the challenges. Ameen.