Afghans and camels in Australia
Australia’s outback is infested with an estimated one million wild camels; descendants of thousands of camels imported, mainly from India, in the 19th century, and were used for transport and construction, before they were replaced by motor cars, trucks and bikes.
While Australian military forces are fighting Afghans in Afghanistan, hundreds – perhaps thousands - of Afghans are living in Australia. Many of them are Australian citizens. Some are descendants of the Afghan “caravanners” who worked in Australia’s outback from the 1860s to the 1930s.
They came from the region between south of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and the Indus River in what is now Pakistan. Afghans played a major part in establishing Islam in this country, building Australia’s first mosque at Marree, in South Australia.
The first Afghan cameleers arrived in Melbourne in June 1860 - eight men with 24 camels specially imported for the Burke and Wills expedition. Afghans without camels had been reported to have reached Australia as early as 1838.
Camels were the normal means of bulk transport in the outback, where the climate was too harsh for horses, before motor cars were invented. Today an estimated million camels run wild in the outback. There’s an abattoir, and some of the more fortunate beasts are broken in and then exported to Arabian countries.
Even though the Afghans' help was greatly appreciated by white Australians, they became victims of racism because of their religion, looks and competition against traditional transport workers. The train from Adelaide to Darwin is known as The Ghan (formerly The Afghan Express) in memory of the Afghan pioneers. In all, some 3000 Afghans settled in Australia.
One pioneer cameleer, Dost Mahomet (c. 1873 – 1909), became famous in his time. He used his camels to transport goods between the ports and remote inland mining and pastoral settlements of the Goldfields, Pilbara and Murchison regions of Western Australia at the end of the 19th century.
One of his great-great-great grandsons, Jacob Mahomet, attended his 150th anniversary celebration for Burke and Wills. Gold was first discovered in Coogardi Coolgardie in 1892 beginning the famous Coolgardie-Kalgoorlie gold rush for surface gold and, later, the extensive underground mining of gold which is still underway.
Camel transport operators quickly established themselves here, many living in a tent settlement at the end of Coolgardie Street. Demand for transport was high, so Dost acquired more camels and found men to work for him.
Over the next decade, Dost carried goods to remote settlements further north. He had drays built to help in haulage. Pastoral stations had been edging northwards following reports from exploring expeditions led by John and Alexander Forrest, Lawrence Wells, David Lindsay and John Wedge.
Many of these expeditions relied on some camel transport Camels were still to be seen loaded with wool bales loping between some of these stations and the rail head until the mid 1930s.
Dost set up a permanent base at Port Hedland in 1906 servicing the Pilbara region. Other Baloch relatives worked in the area alongside other cameleers from Balochistan, Afghanistan and northern India.
Many made journeys back and forth between Western Australia, South Australia, and their birthplaces. By law, all were subject to racial restrictions applying to migration, type of business, occupation, employment and location.
For example, after 1897, on departure, special permission was needed for those wishing to return to Western Australia. Following the Federation of the Australian colonies, continued residence and entry again required legal permits.
European cameleers also worked in the Pilbara, usually hitching wagons behind camel teams, unlike the method of loading individual camels traditionally used by Baloch and Afghan cameleers.
In 1908, not long after Dost settled in Port Hedland, storekeepers at Marble Bar began arranging contracts with some of the camel operators to have their goods transported from the Port Hedland wharves.
Contract rates were lower than the established going rates. Tensions flared. Non contractors
refused to cart for the storekeepers and went “on strike” rallying against “non-union” rates. Two hundred and fifty camels at 32 Mile well were unhobbled and scattered into the scrub.
Camel loads were flung to the ground. The dispute was eventually settled after police and officials from
Perth and the local area intervened and facilitated discussions between the opposing parties. Troubles resurfaced periodically - three years later agreement was reached to almost double cartage rates, but it had been a period of financial stress to the cameleers.
In Coolgardie, Dost formed a lasting relationship with Annie Charlotte Grigo, whom he had met while she was working in her father’s bakery. The bakery was owned by John de Braun, who also owned Perth’s grand Esplanade Hotel.
Annie’s family had migrated from Peak Downs in Queensland, her mother having been born in Denmark, her father in Prussia. Annie's father and brothers opposed the marriage. The pair eloped by camel and took ship to India.
At Lal Bhaker, Dost's birthplace, the two were married by traditional Muslim custom. Annie was 17 years old. Their first child was a son, Mustafa, born in 1896. Annie and Dost then returned to the camel business in Western Australia, leaving Mustafa in the village.
Five children were born in Western Australia - Lillian Rosetta (1898–1970), Hagu (Ada) 1902-1987), Alious Ameer (Arthur) (c.1904-1988), Jenneth (Jean) (1906-), Pathama (Violet) (1908–1983).
The couple led a mobile life working camels through the goldfields and stations of northwest Western
Australia, finally establishing a permanent home in Port Hedland, where they were respected members of a small town of 200 by 1909. Their home was built on the block they bought in Kingsmill St.
In a seeming challenge to Dost's strict Muslim practices, he bought the old brewery opposite the Esplanade Hotel. The eldest two girls attended the local primary school when it opened in 1906, with other children of European, Aboriginal and Chinese origin. Camels were hobbled away from the town.
The family milked goats for milk and butter. Despite earlier family antagonisms, once established at Port Hedland, Dost provided finance to help his wife's sister buy a hotel near the town. He also assisted two of Annie's brothers to become established in business.
Life within the extended family, however, was often difficult..The brothers were heavy drinkers, sometimes violent and not always respectful of Muslim practices.
Dost was short and strong. Wrestling was a sport he engaged in, occasionally with Europeans, but more often with other cameleers. He also had a reputation for having a quick temper and there are reports of physical violence in the home.
Both parents died violently not longer after building their Australian-style home at Port Hedland. The full circumstances of Dost's death in 1909 are unclear. It is known he was killed at home during a long and fierce fight with his two brothers-in-law.
One of them fatally smashed open the back of Dost's skull with a heavy piece of jarrah. The two brothers stood trial in Broome in June 1909 but were acquitted of murder. Dost's relatives attributed his death to Annie's brothers and held Annie at least partially responsible for their acquittal.
Dost was a man of wealth as well as standing when he died. He had left a written will bequeathing his assets to his children and Annie and designating his brother Jorak as executor. Annie complained that Jorak was withholding money from her and that life was very difficult. She finally agreed to Jorak's offer of financial security and a good education for the children on condition that she return to India with the children.
She boarded ship in fear for her life. In Karachi, she took precautions. She contacted the British Resident. She was well remembered by many of Dost's relatives around Karachi, working and joking alongside women in the village. Warned by some of them of threats to her life, she and the children moved one evening to a compound the other side of Karachi, gaining the protection of a trusted relative. Annie slept with a small revolver under her pillow and a watchdog outside.
Three months after landing in Karachi, in August 1910, Annie was stabbed to death in her bed while her two youngest children lay alongside. Two nephews and a third person were charged with murder but were acquitted because of lack of identification.
After the court trial, the five youngest children were returned to Australia under an agreement between the district magistrate at Karachi and the Federal and Western Australian Governments. They were eventually placed in the care of the State. After their deaths, accounts of their parents' assets included camels, property in Port Hedland, monies owing to the estates, and jewellery, but the children did not inherit any of those items.
A tamarind tree still grows in Port Hedland at the site known as One Mile. It’s reputed to have been planted by Dost Mahomet. An abattoir in Caboolture, Queensland, is processing a record number of camels from the Northern Territory and northern South Australia.
The owning company, Meramist, supplies camel meat for human consumption in Europe, the US and Japan.
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