Cameleers and hawkers

The first Muslims to settle in Australia for any length of time arrived in the 19th century to tend the camel trains that helped open the continent's vast interior. In 1858 George Landell, well-known exporter of horses to India, was commissioned by the Victorian Exploration Committee to buy camels and recruit camel drivers. Twenty-four camels and three drivers, two of whom were Muslim, arrived in Melbourne in 1860 to join the Burke and Wills expedition.

Bejah Dervish in Marree, South Australia, c.1947

Bejah Dervish, who was honoured for his role in the 1896 Calvert expedition, in Marree, South Australia, c. 1947

NAA: M914, SOUTH AUSTRALIA 3510

In the decades that followed, many more camels and drivers were brought into the country. By 1901 there were estimated to be between 2000 and 4000 'cameleers' in Australia. This first generation of Muslims journeyed from India and Afghanistan, although they were generally referred to as 'Afghans'.

Some lived the adventure of a lifetime, saved their money, and returned to their homelands, but many remained behind. Often they lived two lives, making regular trips home to deal with family matters. Nabbi Bux, for example, was absent from Australia from 1896–98 and again from 1912–17. In 1924, he departed once more, but despite extending the certificate exempting him from the dictation test (CEDT) until 1933 he never seems to have returned.

Photos of Nabbi Bux to accompany his application for a certificate exempting him from the Dictation Test, c.1924

Photos of Nabbi Bux to accompany his application for a certificate exempting him from the Dictation Test, c. 1924

NAA: E752, 1924/24, p.9

> See Returning in Fragments

The cameleers laboured across the continent, carting produce, water, mail and equipment at a time when roads and railways were still limited in their reach. The indomitable camels and their equally hardy keepers were crucial to momentous projects such as the construction of the Overland Telegraph, for which they carried supplies and materials used in surveying and construction work. They also accompanied a number of exploration parties into the little-known interior. These early Muslims contributed greatly to the development of rural and remote Australia.

Afghans and their camels in inland Australia

Afghans and their camels in inland Australia

NAA: A6180, 25/5/78/62

Marree, also known as Hergott Springs, was a famous rest station at the centre of the camel communication network. Camel teams travelling from one state or colony to another converged at the dusty station on the busy railway head, where goods were loaded and offloaded.

Typical house in 'Ghan' town, Marree, South Australia, c.1947

Typical house in 'Ghan' town, Marree, South Australia, c. 1947

NAA: M914, SOUTH AUSTRALIA 3504

The cameleers generally lived away from white populations, at first in makeshift camel camps, and later in 'Ghantowns' on the edges of existing settlements. In its heyday, Marree supported a thriving Afghan community, separated by the railway line from the European population. Some people called Marree, 'Little Asia' or 'Little Afghanistan'. The ramshackle, tin-roofed house pictured here served as a caravanserai, or resting place, for the camel caravans converging along tracks from Queensland, New South Wales and Alice Springs.

Tension on the goldfields

Camels were indispensable on the Western Australian goldfields in the 1890s. Carrying food, water, machinery and other supplies, they helped keep the towns of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie alive. In 1898 there were 300 Muslims in Coolgardie, a young transient population providing essential services.

At the request of customs officials, local police interviewed residents of Kalgoorlie and Port Hedland to verify Said Kabool's claims concerning his residence in Australia.

Certificate exempting Said Kabool from the Dictation Test, 1916. Said Kabool arrived in Australia in 1896 and worked in Coolgardie for seven years.

NAA: E752, 1916/42, p.12

However, the presence of the camel men also fostered racist fears and economic jealousies. Bullock teamsters and other goldfield workers saw Afghans as cheap labour and unwanted competition, especially in the transport industry. The cameleers were demonised in the press, and accused of various acts of aggression, including monopolising waterholes.

In 1901, Hugh Mahon, the federal Member for Coolgardie, questioned Prime Minister Barton about reports that Afghan camel drivers 'frequently take forcible possession of wells', often polluting them 'by washing their clothes and persons therein'. In the light of such 'serious breaches of the peace', Mahon asked whether Afghans 'now residing in Western Australia' would be deported.

Question by Hugh Mahon, Member for Coolgardie, to the Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, 28 June 1901

Question by Hugh Mahon, Member for Coolgardie, to the Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, 28 June 1901

NAA: A6, 1901/1910, p.6

Mahon's question set off a chain of correspondence between the Prime Minister, the Premier of Western Australia, and the state's Police Commissioner. The Commissioner noted that while 'reports and rumours of Afghans polluting the water and taking forcible possession of dams' had been received on various occasions, 'no evidence was obtainable' to substantiate the claims. The only occurrence 'of a serious nature' that had come to their attention was when an Afghan was shot and wounded by a white teamster named Kelly for failing to give way.

Report by Fred Hare, Commissioner of Police, for the Under-Secretary, Premier's Department, Western Australia, 1 August 1901

Report by Fred Hare, Commissioner of Police, for the Under-Secretary, Premier's Department, Western Australia, 1 August 1901

NAA: A6, 1901/1910, p.10

But while tensions were acute on the goldfields, others were grateful for the cameleers' efforts during the Federation Drought, which had devastated eastern Australia from 1895 to 1902. 'It is no exaggeration to say that if it had not been for the Afghan and his Camels,' John Edwards wrote to the Attorney-General in 1902, 'Wilcannia, White Cliffs, Tibooburra, Milperinka and other Towns, each centres of considerable population, would have practically ceased to exist.'

Letter from John R Edwards to Commonwealth Attorney-General, 14 October 1902

Letter from John R Edwards to Commonwealth Attorney-General, 14 October 1902

NAA: A9, A1902/75/13, p.2

Outback settlers, farmers, surveyors and other authorities who had business dealings with camel men discovered there were values they all held in common – a strong work ethic, respect for the law, basic decency, love of family, respect for the elderly and a determination to survive in a harsh environment. These people often vouched for the Afghans in their dealings with government.

Legal restrictions

Growing prejudice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was also reflected in discriminatory legislation, introduced by colonial, state and federal governments. After 1895, for example, Afghans were prevented from mining on the Western Australian goldfields.

In 1903, a group of Indians resident in Perth put their grievances before the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. Petitioning him on behalf of the 500 Indians and Afghans living in Western Australia, they asked the Viceroy to make enquiries into 'certain legislative restrictions' that were making their lives increasingly difficult. There were four major complaints:

  • they were barred from holding a Miner's Right on the Western Australian goldfields
  • travel from state to state in search of work was not allowed 'except under the most stringent conditions'
  • they were denied re-entry to Australia after a visit overseas
  • they were unable to be naturalised.

With the development of railways taking away their 'means of livelihood', the camel drivers found themselves in an increasingly desperate situation.

Petition on behalf of Indians and Afghans resident in Western Australia to Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, 19 January 1903

Petition on behalf of Indians and Afghans resident in Western Australia to Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, 19 January 1903

NAA: A1, 1903/5781, pp.10–12

Enquiries were duly made and the Australian Government was asked for its comments. In response, it was noted that the issue of Miner's Rights was a state matter. Similarly, it was asserted, the Commonwealth had undertaken to ensure that 'trade, commerce and intercourse' between the states was 'absolutely free'. Any restrictions on interstate travel must therefore have been the result of state legislation.

Letter from the Prime Minister to the Governor-General, October 1903

Letter from the Prime Minister to the Governor-General responding to the issues raised by Indians and Afghans in Western Australia, October 1903

NAA: A1, 1903/5781, pp.6–8

The government's reply also insisted that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 allowed legally domiciled non-Europeans to re-enter the country, and naturalisation was technically possible under Western Australian law. Government officials did not, however, explain that very few certificates of domicile were issued up until the early months of 1903, nor did they draw attention to the fact that the Naturalization Act 1903 was about to come into force, explicitly denying naturalisation to most non-Europeans.

>See Becoming Australian in Fragments

Hawkers

In the wake of the camel men came Indian hawkers and merchants. Arriving from Karachi, Peshawar, Baluchistan, the Punjab and Bengal, hawkers travelled across the Australian countryside, offering their merchandise for sale to remote settlers. They were supplied by wholesale merchants, who opened small shops in the towns and cities.

Certificate exempting Acubar Deen, an Indian hawker, from the Dictation Test upon his return to Australia, 3 March 1908

Certificate exempting Acubar Deen, an Indian hawker, from the Dictation Test upon his return to Australia, 3 March 1908

NAA: B13, 1908/4495, p.8

Hawking was popular with the younger Indian men, because they could start with very little capital, travelling on foot until they could afford a horse and cart. Older men met them when they arrived, sold them goods, and provided advice. The tradition of hawking or peddling was common throughout rural India, and readily found a place among Australia's widely dispersed population.

Licence for a hawker trading on foot, issued to Acuba Deen, 10 September 1901

Licence for a hawker trading on foot, issued to Acubar Deen, 10 September 1901

NAA: B13, 1908/4495, p.14

The Punjabi and Kashmiri grandfathers of author Hanifa Deen were among those who arrived in the late 19th century. As young men they hawked in Victoria's Latrobe Valley and around Western Australia. In the 1920s, her father also worked as a hawker in the Latrobe Valley.

> See Five generations in Stories

Newly arrived hawkers were linked in 'a peculiar chain of mutual dependency' with their more established countrymen:

Larger Australian warehouses sold goods on credit to small-scale Indian wholesalers. They in turn supplied their countrymen with goods to hawk around the countryside – again on credit. The hawkers sold work shirts and trousers, boots, fabric, dishcloths, safety pins sewing needles and sweets and a hundred other lines to their customers in the country – all on credit. In those days it might take as long as six months, or even a year, for a farmer or his farmhands to pay off a bill of 6s. 6d (Hanifa Deen, Caravanserai, p. 23).

Some farmers made the hawkers camp at a distance from their homesteads, and never allowed them inside their homes. Others forged lasting friendships with the men who travelled along the dusty roads with their horse and cart, and perhaps a pet dog for company. Sometimes the hawkers would slaughter chickens or sheep for the farmer. They killed the halal way, according to Islamic law, but the farmers either never knew, or never minded. In return for this service the men would usually receive their portions for free.

Licences

One hundred and twenty hawkers' licences were issued by magistrates in 1898 in Victorian towns such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Echuca, Shepparton and Geelong. The hawkers' annual licensing day was a crowded and noisy event, as hawkers waited their turn. In Melbourne alone 300 licences were issued in 1900.

Licence for a hawker trading with pack or draught animals, 11 December 1906

Licence for a hawker trading with pack or draught animals, 11 December 1906

NAA: B13, 1908/4495, p.13

Regulations varied from state to state. In Queensland, after 1903, hawkers' licences were only issued to British subjects. Indians, unlike Afghans, were British subjects and therefore eligible. However, the cost of a licence in Queensland was 10 pounds, 15 shillings compared to one pound in New South Wales. This in itself was an effective deterrent for newly arrived immigrants. Occasionally some informal trading in hawkers' licences took place between Indians, when one hawker left for good and another of his countrymen 'inherited' his licence.

Memorandum by RM Retallack for the Inspector in Charge, Commonwealth Investigation Branch, Brisbane, 1 March 1939

Memorandum by RM Retallack for the Inspector in Charge, Commonwealth Investigation Branch, Brisbane, reporting on the issue of hawkers' licences in Queensland, 1 March 1939

NAA: A659, 1939/1/6201, p.31

Hawkers were sometimes maligned in the press, with suggestions that they menaced women and children on lonely homesteads. Parliamentary debates in 1901 and 1903 referred disparagingly to the practice of hawking, and criticised Syrian hawkers for 'forcing poor women to buy their goods'. 'Syrians' was often used as a generic term for hawkers no matter what their ethnic origins, just as all camel men were commonly known as Afghans. Syrians, usually Lebanese Christians, and Jews also engaged in hawking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the 1930s hawking became popular with young men recently arrived from Europe. By then the number of Indian hawkers had declined; they had either died, retired, or risen in the world to become small shop owners or drapers.

Religion

The early cameleers and hawkers were practising Muslims, in spite of living in a Christian society not attuned to the rhythms, customs and religious traditions of their homelands. For most of the year they were solitary travellers lacking the camaraderie and powerful sense of community or ummah that Islam bestows on its followers. There were no grand mosques for them to pray shoulder to shoulder, no special Friday prayers or jumma with an imam to lead the prayer and deliver a sermon. Usually the camel men and hawkers performed their prayers five times daily out in the desert, the empty bushland, or countryside.

The highlights of the year were the celebrations for Eid ul-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting), and Eid ul-Adha, 90 days later. According to Islam, fasting should not be undertaken while travelling, so the men would cease working and join together during Ramadan. At the end of the 30 days, during which no food, water or tobacco could pass their lips from sunrise to sunset, the men would enjoy the Eid-ul-Fitr celebration. On festival days there was no loneliness, just plenty of food, laughter, smiles and stories as they lounged around, feasting and enjoying each other's company.

Importing imams

Further evidence of the strong desire by cameleers and hawkers to maintain an Islamic identity is revealed in their efforts to persuade the Australian Government to permit imams and sheikhs to enter the country to serve their religious needs.

Photograph of Saied Lal Shah, religious leader, submitted with an application for a certificate to allow him to visit Muslims in Melbourne, c.1913

Photograph of Saied Lal Shah, religious leader, submitted with an application for him to visit Muslims in Melbourne, c. 1913

NAA: B13, 1928/22985, p.11

Following representations by the Muslim community in Victoria, the religious teacher Saied Lal Shah was allowed to enter Australia in 1911 for a period of 12 months. The following year, an extension of his certificate was granted to allow local Muslims 'to have the use of his Spiritual and Religious services' during Ramadan. Again in 1913, permission was sought for their 'spiritual advisor and teacher' to return to Victoria from India. SM Jaboor, a Syrian merchant with premises in Lonsdale Street, provided the necessary bond of 100 pounds.

Letter from AH Pritchard, Secretary of the Austral-Indian Society, to the Collector of Customs, Victoria, 8 July 1912

Letter from AH Pritchard, Secretary of the Austral-Indian Society, to the Collector of Customs, Victoria, seeking an extension of Saied Lal Shah's certificate of exemption, 8 July 1912

NAA: B13, 1928/22985, p.53

Bond form submitted by Solomon Murad Jaboor, merchant, to enable the entry to Australia of Saied Lal Shah, 2 July 1913

Bond form submitted by Solomon Murad Jaboor, merchant, to enable the entry to Australia of Saied Lal Shah, 2 July 1913

NAA: B13, 1928/22985, p.10

In such negotiations, AH Pritchard, secretary of the Austral–Indian Society, provided an effective conduit between the Victorian Muslim community and the government. Pritchard wrote long, well-argued petitions to the Minister on behalf of local Muslims, interceding when difficulties were encountered over matters such as re-entry to the country.

Letter from AH Pritchard to Collector of Customs, Victoria, 17 June 1913

Letter from AH Pritchard, Secretary of the Austral-Indian Society, to Collector of Customs, Victoria, 17 June 1913

NAA: B13, 1928/22985, pp.42–3

Lal Shah was allowed to visit Australia a number of times, but authorities were careful to monitor his activities. In 1916, police reported that Lal Shah 'has been employed ministering to the spiritual wants of the Indians during the past twelve months' and 'follows no other occupation'. His comings and goings from Australia were also carefully recorded.

Declaration by SM Jaboor attesting to the identity of Lal Shah, 1 September 1915

Declaration by SM Jaboor attesting to the identity of Lal Shah, 1 September 1915

NAA: B13, 1928/22985, p.29

Report on the activities of Lal Shah from J Gleeson, Detective Inspector, to Collector of Customs, Melbourne, 1 September 1916

Report on the activities of Lal Shah from J Gleeson, Detective Inspector, to Collector of Customs, Melbourne, 1 September 1916 (attached to the bottom of a memorandum from Atlee Hunt, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, to the Collector of Customs, 9 August 1916)

NAA: B13, 1928/22985, p.20

In 1904, Sydney Muslims petitioned the government in support of their own religious leader, Sayid Mahomed Shah Banuri. The 'Mohamedan priest' intended to advance his religious knowledge through studies in his native country, but wanted to be assured he could re-enter Australia on his return. 'The said Sayid preaches religion and morality to Mahomedans residing in Australia', the petitioners explained, 'he follows no other occupation than that of a preacher and thus his regress into the Commonwealth, we humbly believe, does not affect the spirit of the Immigration Restriction Act'. The letter was signed by more than 30 shopkeepers and businessmen.

Photograph of Sayid Mahomed Shah Banuri submitted for attachment to a Certificate of Exemption, c.1904

Photograph of Sayid Mahomed Shah Banuri submitted for identification purposes, c. 1904

NAA: SP42, C1905/3746, p.28

Letter from a number of 'Indians, Syrians and Australians' in Sydney to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 13 January 1904

Letter from a number of 'Indians, Syrians and Australians' in Sydney to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, requesting that Sayid Mahomed Shah Banuri be permitted to return to Australia after his studies abroad, 13 January 1904

NAA: SP42, C1905/3746, pp.17–19

Sayid MS Banuri had only been in Australia for a few years and could not be regarded as domiciled. However, after a series of negotiations and misunderstandings it was agreed that the religious teacher would be permitted a Certificate of Exemption of two years duration on his return.

Many of the camel men and hawkers were only partially literate in their own language. But even the literate needed the Qur'an read and explained, for the sacred book was written in Arabic and translations were not yet in wide use. They needed a religiously educated man who had read the sacred book and the tafsir, or commentaries on the Qur'an, and could discuss the meanings of the different suras (chapters) to remind them of their obligations.

Building mosques

Just like the Muslim diaspora scattered throughout the world today, early Australian Muslims felt an overwhelming need to build their own mosques. At first a special room set aside in someone's house served as a place of prayer. In the more remote areas like Maree and Coolgardie, simple mud and tin-roofed mosques were initially constructed.

Mosque in Marree, South Australia, c.1947

Mosque in Marree, South Australia, c. 1947

NAA: M914, SOUTH AUSTRALIA 3506

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, community leaders in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane went to great efforts to secure land and raise funds for the purpose of building permanent mosques. In 1895 Perth Muslim leaders lobbied the state government for a land grant in line with the grants given to churches and synagogues. When this approach failed, they looked to their own resources, inspired by the construction of the Adelaide Mosque in 1890.

Fundraisers in Western Australia toured the goldfields or the country places where cameleers and hawkers operated, calling on their brother Muslims to rally and donate some of their hard-earned savings for the sake of Islam. Donations were collected throughout the state by leaders like Mohamed Hasan Musakhan, a highly educated Indian born in Karachi. Musakhan owned a Perth newsagency and spoke five 'oriental' languages as well as English – Pashto, Persian, Sindi, Urdu and elementary Arabic. These efforts were successful with the Perth Mosque being constructed in 1905.

In 1910 the Department of External Affairs sought to discover how many 'Mohammedan priests' there were in each state, along with the number of permanent mosques. Replies came in from Customs authorities around the country. In Sydney, it was explained, Mohamed Shah, a local businessman, had been 'selected for the position of Priest owing to his being sufficiently educated and there being no permanent Priest here'.

Report on the number of permanent mosques and 'Mohammedan priests' in Australia, Department of External Affairs, June 1910

'Summary of replies from Customs authorities and Mr Pritchard...', report on the number of permanent mosques and 'Mohammedan priests' in Australia, Department of External Affairs, June 1910

NAA: A1, 1910/3502, p.3

Memorandum from Acting Collector of Customs, Sydney, to Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 8 June 1910

Memorandum from Acting Collector of Customs, Sydney, to Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 8 June 1910

NAA: A1, 1910/3502, p.9

From Western Australia it was reported that, as well as the 'principal Mosque' in Perth, there were mosques in Coolgardie, Mount Malcolm, Leonora, Bummers Creek, Mount Sir Samuel and Mount Magnet. There were two resident priests and about 25 sayeds, or lay preachers, who were 'all working men and conduct these services without any remuneration'.

Memorandum from the Acting Collector of Customs, Fremantle, to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 14 June 1910

Memorandum from the Acting Collector of Customs, Fremantle, to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 14 June 1910

NAA: A1, 1910/3502, p.4

The most comprehensive report was submitted by AH Pritchard of Melbourne who demonstrated his extensive knowledge of the Muslim community in Australia. He noted that while there was no permanent mosque in Melbourne, there was 'a room set apart for praying and religious instructions' in a house in Fitzroy. There was also a 'detached room' off Little Lonsdale Street, 'which was especially built for praying and holding religious ceremonies'.

Letter from AH Pritchard to Atlee Hunt, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 11 June 1910

Letter from AH Pritchard to Atlee Hunt, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 11 June 1910

NAA: A1, 1910/3502, pp.7–8

The end of an era

The camel era ended with the advent of improved roads and trucks. Some men returned 'home' to die. Those who remained in Australia mostly clung to the margins of white society living humble, impecunious lives. They lived out their lives quietly in Ghan towns and old city mosques, where they were looked after and accorded great respect and an Islamic burial by a younger generation of Muslims. Their last years were spent in tiny rooms inside mosque courtyards, where they smoked their hookahs and dreamt of days gone by.

Sources

Michael Cigler, The Afghans in Australia, AE Press, Melbourne, 1986

Hanifa Deen, Caravanserai: Journey among Australian Muslims, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2003

Nahid Kabir, Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations, and Cultural History, Kegan Paul, London, 2004

Nahid Kabir, 'Muslims in Western Australia, 1870–1970', Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, vol. 12, part 5, 2005, pp. 550–65

Christine Stevens, 'Afghan camel drivers: Founders of Islam in Australia', in Mary Lucille Jones (ed.), An Australian Pilgrimage: Muslims in Australia from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, Victoria Press in association with the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 49–62

Christine Stevens, Tin Mosques & Ghantowns: A History of Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989

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