The wonder man
Mahomet Allum was the most famous Afghan of his generation to settle in Australia. Herbalist extraordinaire, philanthropist and enemy of the medical establishment, the handsome Afghan attracted a popular following in his day that numbered in the thousands. Australians around the country, rich and poor alike, knew the name 'Mahomet Allum' and his reputation for 'miracle cures'. A wealthy and flamboyant man, with a flair for self-promotion and publicity, he was unlike any other Afghan or Indian living in Australia at the time – or ever since.
'Afghan who has given away thousands in charity', Smith's Weekly, 12 August 1933
NAA: B741, V/11437, p.1
Mahomet Allum was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan, but precise details of his birth and the date of his arrival in Australia are difficult to ascertain. A letter he wrote in 1923, claims he entered Australia 'when a boy' some 26 years earlier. But in 1951, he reflected on his 65 years in the country. Other sources suggest he may have been born as early as 1858.
It seems likely that Allum arrived sometime in the late 1880s, a young man in his 20s or 30s, eager to make his fortune. He had already had some commercial success, selling horses to the British Army during the Second Afghan War, 1878–80. He may have used the capital he acquired to buy supplies and invest in camels in Australia. Horse trading with the British in Afghanistan might also have honed the business skills that brought him such success in his new home.
Like his fellow Afghans, Allum entered Australia with dreams and aspirations, searching for opportunities and the chance to make good. He possessed the characteristics of an 'adventurer': boldness, enormous self-confidence, vision and charm. The scope and diversity of Allum's career shows a man prepared to take risks to turn a profit. He seems to have been a charismatic man, who genuinely liked people, and was in turn well liked.
Although reports indicate that he neither wrote nor read English and his English signature looks laboured, he spoke English and most likely required no intermediaries in his early dealings. He made his way with his camel teams through Australia's dry remote inland, geographically not unlike the tough inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan. In 1903 he was present, with his string of camels, at the opening of the Perth to Coolgardie pipeline, when Sir John Forrest praised the contribution of the camel men. But the water pipe helped put the cameleers out of business so, like many others, Allum left the goldfields of Western Australia and headed east.
Bryley Street, Coolgardie, 1896
NAA: A1200, L79203
Mahomet Allum's pioneering years are recounted in a testimonial, published under the name of Con Noonan in the SA Turf Review in 1938. It describes in glowing terms how he worked in the Western Australian goldfields, laboured in the mines of Broken Hill, and was well known through inland Queensland and New South Wales.
In Coolgardie, the article notes, this 'sturdy Afghan' was in charge of a team of 100 camels which transported from Perth all of the machinery used on the goldfield. Allum was said to have the 'physique of an athlete' in his younger days, and his generosity was evident even during his time as a miner in Broken Hill: 'As they grew to know Mahomed Allum better they appreciated him more for his goodness of heart, his straightforward dealing with all men, and the practical charity which was becoming so widely known'.
'A patient's gratitude to Mahomed Allum' by Con Noonan, SA Turf Review, 16 June 1938, p. 4
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, p.14
This fulsome praise stands in stark contrast to reports from police in the Cloncurry district where Allum resided in the early 1920s. Constable Spencer had known Allum for about four years, and while he knew 'nothing definitely against his character', the policeman considered Allum a 'rogue' who 'very rarely works'. He also noted his marriage to Annie Baker, a local prostitute.
Report on Mahomet Allum by Constable Gordon Spencer, Cloncurry Station, 30 June 1923
NAA: D596, 1934/7275, p.6
More serious allegations were recorded by Constable Landells, who described Allum's time in Duchess, a small mining town about 100 kilometres from Cloncurry. Allum operated a drapery business there for some years until the building and contents were destroyed by fire 'under suspicious circumstances'. According to the constable's information, Allum was a 'notorious liar', who had been charged with perjury in New South Wales. He was also suspected of being a 'Gambling House Tout' who it would be 'worth watching for Opium'. 'I always looked upon him as a slimy suspicious individual', the constable concluded, 'but I know nothing definite against his character'. Despite all the allegations and innuendo, no convictions were recorded against Mahomet Allum.
Report on Mahomet Allum by Constable WJ Landells, Duchess Station, 15 July 1923
NAA: D596, 1934/7275, p.5
After years of hard physical toil across the Australian outback, Mahomet Allum finally settled in Adelaide in 1928, opening a herbalist's office at 181 Sturt Street. It seems possible that Allum was descended from a line of Kandahar herbalists, skilled in identifying and collecting the herbs for which the area was famous. He may have been influenced by Sufism, the mystic branch of Islam. [Footnote to Christine Stevens, see pp. 198, 288]
'A miraculous cure', advertisement for the herbal medicines of Mahomet Allum
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, p.29
Chinese herbalists had been operating in Australia since the mid-19th century. By the 1920s and 1930s, alternative medical practitioners had won a substantial following, much to the annoyance of the medical establishment. Herbalists, called 'hakims' in India, used plants and herbs to treat a variety of illnesses, including skin complaints, kidney stones, diabetes and asthma. Their treatments were generally cheaper and less invasive than those of conventional doctors. During the Great Depression, many poor and unemployed Australians found relief through herbal remedies.
At the time of Mahomet Allum, herbalists often operated from small shops and were closely watched by state health authorities. None of them, however, were as famous – or as beloved – as the South Australian Afghan.
In 1935, Mahomet Allum boasted that 30,000 satisfied patients had supplied him with testimonials praising his abilities. He offered to pay 500 pounds to charity if any of these endorsements could be proved false. Sceptics were invited to visit his rooms to inspect the letters for themselves. With a claimed 600 consultations daily, it certainly seems possible that the herbalist would have collected thousands of testimonials over his long career.
'Doctor praises Mahomet Allum', advertisement featuring testimonials from Mahomet Allum's grateful patients, c. 1935
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, p.12
'Mahomet Allum – honored in his own country', advertisement detailing the philosophy and abilities of Mahomet Allum, Western Australia, 10 February 1935
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, pp.17–20
Mrs Irene Wagner, for example, had despaired when doctors informed her that her three-year-old son's convulsions were incurable. But the 'wonder man', Mahomet Allum, had instantly recognised the problem. After two months' treatment the boy passed a lead weight, which the grateful mother apparently forwarded to the herbalist with her thanks. Ethel Stevens found conventional treatments offered no relief from her sugar diabetes, but after taking one of Allum's powders she observed 'the action from the bowels was most remarkable'. 'If I continue to improve like this', she added, 'what more could I say than "God bless Mahomet Allum"'.
Copy of a letter from Mrs Irene Wagner to Mahomet Allum, 2 June 1934
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, p.28
Copy of a letter from Ethel M Stevens to Mahomet Allum, 4 March 1935
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, p.27
Allum compiled many of these letters of thanks into glowing newspaper advertisements that praised both his character and his curative powers. Often they included photographs or drawings of Allum, showing a handsome man with black moustache and patrician features, wearing an elegantly wound turban and a European style suit – a mixture of East and West. He most probably dyed his hair as he grew older, but so did most men of his age in India and Afghanistan. The herbalist was certainly a walking advertisement for his remedies, as his own health and longevity were remarkable.
Challenging the doctors
Mahomet Allum was stubborn and not inclined to pass up any opportunity to confront the medical establishment. He believed that much surgery was unnecessary and expensive, needlessly draining the poor. In his advertisements he denounced conventional medicine as 'the profession which seeks to cure by slashing with the knife and by the injection of poisonous serums into the human blood stream'.
In a letter in 1949, Allum congratulated Prime Minister Chifley on his continuing battle to provide free health care in the face of opposition from the British Medical Association. 'I have profound admiration for your strength in this matter', he commented, 'to all my hundreds of patients who come, I tell them all: "Vote for Mr Chifley when the Elections come"'.
Letter from Mahomet Allum to JB Chifley, Prime Minister, 24 March 1949
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, pp.23–6
In contrast to doctors and surgeons who supposedly became rich on the misfortunes of their patients, Allum presented himself as a friend to the poor. 'I am not a rich man, but I do not ask for payment for my services', he proclaimed in 1935, 'How many doctors, much richer than I, work for nothing?' This was part of a broader challenge to the medical profession, published under the title 'Mahomed Allum Fights for Humanity'. This full-page advertisement, published in the Mirror, declared that Allum had evidence thatproved his remedies had been effective where conventional treatments had failed: 'I challenge the members of the medical profession to take up this matter if I have done wrong in exposing their methods and the success of mine.'
'Mahomed Allum fights for humanity', advertisement in the Mirror, 21 September 1935
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, pp.30–1
His credentials were tested that same year, when he was charged with posing as a medical practitioner. Allum assembled a large cast of witnesses to attest to the fact that he had made no such claim, but he was convicted and fined nonetheless. None of this tarnished his reputation in the eyes of his adoring fans. The publicity merely gained him more patients, and he was eulogised as a man who identified with the average working Australian.
'A sign should be written in the sky to tell people of Australia the treasures they have been deprived of and are losing', wrote nurse Clare Peters in 1952, on hearing that Allum was temporarily leaving Australia for India, 'I consider you to be the real Medical man in Australia, I would not go to Doctors (a title forbidden to you) because I dread the use of the knife and drugs'. It was the medical system that was at fault, she argued, 'I would, if I could, appoint you if you would accept it, Medical Superintendent of Australia, with control of all medical treatment and learning from University onwards'.
Letter from Sister Clare Peters to Mahomet Allum, 17 July 1952
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, pp.4–6
Against the odds
Most Afghans of his period lived out their lives quietly in Ghan towns and old city mosques. They either quietly prospered or faded into oblivion after leading for the most part marginal lives. Mahomet Allum escaped this fate by sheer force of personality, an ability to sense commercial opportunities and a remarkable work ethic. In the second half of his career he controlled the manner of his day-to-day living, beholden to no man, and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in a large house in Adelaide, idolised by many of his former patients and recipients of his largesse.
But despite his comforts and public acclaim, Allum remained subject to the restrictions of the White Australia Policy. Unlike many of his compatriots, however, he did not suffer in silence. As in his ongoing battles with the medical profession, Allum was quick to exclaim his annoyance and frustration. In 1923, he declared himself ready to leave the country forever. 'I have not had a fair chance to make a fair living anywhere in Australia', he wrote to the Minister for Home and Territories. 'I am called an Alien, and second a blackfellow', he continued 'all I want is justice from King and Queen, Sovereign and Crown, and yourself'.
Letter from Mr and Mrs Mahomet Allum to the Minister for Home and Territories, 17 May 1923
NAA: D596, 1934/7275, p.4
By 1932, Allum had again endured enough prejudice and abuse. He wrote to Customs officials in Adelaide seeking a 'passport', explaining, 'I am weary of the treatment received by me from the public of South Australia and am in need of a rest'. Despite his efforts in curing '14,000 sick and suffering people', he complained, the press had treated him 'shamefully'.
Letter from Mahomet Allum to the Collector of Customs, Adelaide, 10 August 1932
NAA: D596, 1934/7275, p.3
On returning from an overseas trip in 1934, Allum suffered the indignity of being searched. His complaints did not impress the Collector of Customs in South Australia, who suggested that 'instead of causing him pain of mind', the search was 'actually much appreciated by him as it tends to make him a hero in the eyes of his patients, and consequently swells his receipts'. It was admitted, however, that Allum was 'held in high esteem in Adelaide by a large number of persons, including high officials in the State Government Service'.
Memorandum by Collector of Customs, South Australia, 8 November 1934
NAA: D596, 1934/7275, p.1
Customs Department memorandum providing background information on Mahomet Allum, 1934
NAA: D596, 1934/7275, p.9
Allum's return trips to India were always surrounded by the publicity hype at which the herbalist excelled. Before a trip, he often warned his fans that he was weary of his ongoing battles with the medical establishment and might leave Australia for good. His supporters duly rallied, asking him to reconsider. On one occasion, he was presented with a petition containing 19,000 signatures, 'including those of many leading citizens', urging him to remain. Some months later Allum would return in a blaze of publicity, with yet another set of testimonials. Sometimes these came from medical people in India, who gave him respectful titles like sahib and maulvi, a term used to describe religious scholars.
'Mahomed Allum returns to Australia', Mirror, 3 July 1937
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, pp.32–5
But in Australia he was still an 'alien'. Denied the right to be naturalised – even after living in Australia for 65 years – there is a sense of bitterness revealed in Allum's letter to Prime Minister Menzies in 1951. 'Although I am technically regarded as an Alien', he wrote, 'I still do all I can to serve your country, and will do so until I die, as I am a Mighty Soldier of Allah, and only want to do His will'. Changes to government policy in 1956 allowed Asian residents to be naturalised. But despite having lived most of his life in Australia, Allum did not take up this opportunity. Perhaps it simply came too late.
In his letter to Menzies, Allum also offered his services to treat King George VI. In evidence of his abilities, he enclosed 'just a few testimonials, at random, from the many thousands in my possession, just to show you what has been done for sufferers who have spent all their money on Doctors, with little, no good effect'.
Letter from Mahomet Allum to RG Menzies, Prime Minister, 28 June 1951
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, p.11
Reporting on Allum's offer, FB McCann, Deputy Director of Health in South Australia, noted that he was 'quite a reputable citizen and somewhat of a leader of the Moslem community'. But he was also 'a straight out herbalist without any qualifications' whose claims could hardly be taken seriously. The Prime Minister's Department was duly informed: 'There is no reason to suppose that the well-intentioned herbalist can offer His Majesty any therapeutic agent or discipline not already available to him'.
Memorandum from AJ Metcalfe, Director-General of Health, to the Secretary, Prime Minister's Department, 9 August 1951
NAA: A1658, 1301/1/2, p.7
Allum's letter to Menzies is an example of a man driven to seek approval or validation from the political establishment and the upper social echelons. Perhaps he needed the adoration of his patients as much as they needed his remedies. One of his favourite letters was from Lady Gowrie, the wife of the Governor-General. Lady Gowrie's letter to Allum was always mentioned in his advertisements.
Marriage and religion
Mahomet Allum's first wife Annie Barker deserted him sometime in the early 1920s. But on a visit to India in 1937, he believed he had found a suitable replacement. Miss Ekbal Begam, whom he married in a religious ceremony, was 'a lady of wealth and good character'. He wrote to Edmund Dwyer-Gray, a member of the Tasmanian parliament, asking him to forward a letter to Prime Minister Lyons seeking permission to bring her to Australia. She was, he explained, 'someone who would never ever be likely to become a burden on the State or the Commonwealth'.
Letter from Mahomet Allum to E Dwyer Gray, 9 August 1937
NAA: A761, J349/1/6 Part 1, pp.90–1
Allum was keen to have help and companionship in his latter years. 'As I am elderly man, well past the prime of life', he noted, 'I feel that in my declining years, it is most desirable that an understanding lady of my own colour, creed and nationality should be with me to assist me with the special cooking so necessary for the observance of my Islam faith'.
The request was refused after government inquiries could find no evidence to support Allum's belief that his first wife was deceased. Questions were also raised about Miss Schwerdt, his 33-year-old secretary. Allum was informed that his application would be reconsidered if he could provide evidence of either divorce or death in relation to Annie Barker.
Note by JA Carrodus, Secretary, Department of the Interior, to Frank Strahan, Secretary, Prime Minister's Department, 16 August 1937
NAA: A761, J349/1/6 Part 1, p.87
Memorandum from JA Carrodus, Secretary, Department of the Interior, to Secretary, Prime Minister's Department, 18 August 1937
NAA: A761, J349/1/6 Part 1, p.86
Three years later Allum married Miss Jean Emsley under Muslim rites. She bore him a daughter the following year, when he was in his 70s or 80s. In 1953 his wife died of smallpox in India or Afghanistan, after they had both made their pilgrimage to Mecca. Allum's daughter reportedly blamed him for her mother's death because Allum had refused to have the family vaccinated.
The man who worked so hard to make his fortune early on gave much of his wealth away in the second half of his career. His enemies could perhaps fault him as a 'man of medicine', but his reputation for philanthropy was unchallenged. Patients who could not afford his remedies were treated for free. 'For his advice and aid there is no charge', one of his advertisements declared, 'Those who can afford it may give what they wish'. He also made donations to a variety of worthy causes.
Compassion and charity are key tenets of the Islamic faith – zakat or almsgiving is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Allum's generosity is evidence that he was a devout or, at least, a practising Muslim. In his later years the herbalist also became a hajji, a title of honour indicating that the bearer has made his hajj, or undertaken or pilgrimage to Mecca. This is another of Islam's Five Pillars of faith.
Allum also made donations for religious purposes. He supported the publication of a booklet entitled Islam in Australia: 1863–1932, edited by Musakhan of Western Australia. On the front page is the acknowledgement:
Reprinted as a Gift to Islam by
MAHOMET Allum, Afghan,
the gifted Physician of Kandahar,
Herbalist in Australia,
181 Sturt Street, Adelaide,
Dated – 15th Ramadan, 1350 Hijri,
23rd January 1932
But in typical style Allum could not resist the chance to promote his services. This 96-page book on the history of Islam in Australia devotes 31 pages to testimonials praising Mahomet Allum, 'the wonder man'. In careful terms it is stated that Allum preferred not to use the terms 'miracle' or 'miraculous', ascribing 'his power solely to the Divine Guidance of the Holy Qur'an'. Indeed, his advertisements often sounded like ringing eulogies to his Creator. He was always careful to remind everyone that he was God's servant, and that his skills were God-given. 'God is good,' was one of his favourite sayings.
Most of what we know of this engaging character is through his public persona. Although it is likely that native English speakers wrote his letters and flyers, it is difficult to think of anyone writing his lines or feeding him his cues from the wings. Allum was the master showman and stood centre stage under the spotlight.
The enigmatic Mahomet Allum possessed the remarkable ability to reinvent himself more than once, and to thrive in a society where most of his countrymen lived frugal lives on the edges of society. A procession over a mile long followed his funeral entourage from the mosque to the Centennial Park cemetery when he died in 1964. Somehow this act of public respect seems a fitting end to the life of a remarkable man who refused to be marginalised.
Madelaine Brunato, Mahomet Allum: Afghan Cameldriver, Herbalist and Healer in Australia, Investigator Press, Leabrook, SA, 1972
Christine Stevens, Tin Mosques & Ghantowns: A History of Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989