The Forgotten Histories of the Afghan Cameleers

In 2016 Artist Peter Drew traveled across Australia pasting pictures of Afghan cameleers with the title “AUSSIE.”
In 2016 Artist Peter Drew traveled across Australia painting pictures of Afghan cameleers with the title “AUSSIE.” Credit to Peter Drew.

Until now there has not been a book published in this country that records the contribution of the “Afghan camelmen” to the opening up, growth and development of the Australian colonies. Pamela Rajkowski, author of In The Tracks of The Camelmen

30 years have past since historian Pamela Rajkowski first published her book In the Tracks of the Camelmen and the lack of attention that has been paid to the Afghan cameleers by Australian historians is still a serious concern.

The Afghan cameleers, despite their unfortunate obscurity, played an extremely significant role in the foundations of the Australian state and nation. They left a lasting legacy within the infrastructure and society of Australia. Immigrants from colonial India and Afghanistan that created a wide-spanning network of “camel strings” that allowed for the quick trade of goods across Australia also played an important role in “opening up” the Australian outback. Without the Afghans much of Australia might’ve never been explored and discovered. Their transport network from the 1860s to the 1930s allowed for the building of railroads across Australia and facilitated the building of towns across Australia once called the “Ghantowns.” From Farina and Marree in South Australia to Bourke and Broken Hill in New South Wales, the Afghan cameleers left a legacy of tin shacks, interracial families and mosques. In fact, many cities and towns such as Alice Springs and Marree may have never been developed without the help of the cameleers.

In Marree, the cameleers built the first mosque in Australia, creating a community of Indigenous-Afghan Muslims that would precede later Muslims immigrants from the Middle East. This community of mixed Indigenous-Afghans is perhaps the greatest artifact of the presence of the Afghans. Descendants such as Raymond Satour and Azeem Johnny Khan have allowed the Afghans’ legacy to live on by cooking the foods of their ancestors, regularly meeting with other descendants and attempting to maintain the property of their fathers and grandfathers. In some indigenous communities the words nathuwa and chapatti are still used to mean tobacco and flat bread. The Afghans’ interactions with the Indigenous peoples of Australia helped them share aspects of their culture and in many cases granted the Indigenous peoples with sources of employment with many learning how to take care of and ride camels.

The primary reason why the cameleers are no longer know is due to “White Australia policy” of 1901. This policy led to the forced removal of the cameleers from Australia. Fathers were forced to leave behind the Australian families and the camel string business was replaced with railways which they helped build. Over 70 years of history was eventually forgotten and the important place that the Afghans once held in the Australian nation was replaced.

The impact of the Afghans on Australia should not be understated. Their work played a crucial role in the foundation of Australia. Despite this much of the work of the Afghans has been ignored by mainstream Australian society. The average Australian can you tell more about the life of iconic Australian criminal Mark Read than they can tell about the lives of the Afghan cameleers that founded Australia.

These histories are not just important because they teach us about the foundation of Australia but because they challenge the stereotypical image of what an Australian should look like. The cameleers teach us that the Australian nation is much more than what faux-nationalists such as Pauline Hanson and Alan Jones would like us to believe, the Australian nation is and has always been multicultural.

These histories must not be forgotten but instead hailed as proof of the successful, rich and expansive history of multiculturalism in Australia.