Today, Central Australia is home to the world’s largest herd of wild camels. This population is a legacy of the challenges of transporting goods across Australia’s arid inland during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In 1860, three cameleers and approximately twenty camels sailed from Karachi to Melbourne to accompany the Burke and Wills expedition. Between 1870 – 1920, entrepreneurs, realising that camels could cope with conditions inhospitable to horses and bullocks, imported approximately 20,000 camels, accompanied by 2000 – 4000 cameleers. These camels were swiftly put to work and, from the 1870s to the 1940s, camel trains carried goods between towns, homesteads, mining camps, and railheads.
While the cameleers were widely referred to as ‘Afghans’ or ‘Ghans’, the majority were from what is now India and Pakistan, with a smaller subset being from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, or Egypt. A subset of cameleers became successful businessmen. In 1905, Abdul Wade, the founder of Australia’s largest camel operation the Bourke Carrying Company, possessed 600 – 700 camels and was sometimes referred to as ‘the Afghan King’ or ‘Prince of the Afghans’. Wade was active in Queensland, being employed to transport coke to and ore from the mine and smelter site at Mount Garnett and from OK to Mungana.
Cameleers were not encouraged to stay permanently. They were generally employed on three-year contracts and, until the 1920s, were not permitted to bring their wives or children to Australia. Widespread racism presented an additional obstacle, with members of the European population expressing concern that cameleers would serve as a source of cheap labour, spread Islam, and marry European women. Cameleers generally lived separately to the bulk of the population, with cameleers’ camps composed of huts and small houses (often referred to as ‘Ghantowns’) being established on the outskirts of towns and ports. Cloncurry, which was site of Queensland’s largest Ghantown, was home to 200 cameleers and 2000 camels.
While many cameleers returned to their countries of origin, some stayed for longer periods, often marrying and/or fathering children with local women. During the early-twentieth century, permanent settlement became increasingly difficult. From 1901, the White Australia Policy effectively barred the entry of Asian immigrants and made it harder for residents of Asian origin to leave and re-enter the country. The Roads Act 1902 introduced a camel tax, which restricted the ability of cameleers to travel and trade interstate. Finally, The Naturalisation Act 1903 prevented residents of Asian, African, or Pacific Islander origin from obtaining citizenship. While this increasingly hostile environment prompted many ‘Afghan’ cameleers to leave Australia, it was technology and infrastructure which put an end to the camel trains. By the 1940s, they had been rendered obsolete by an increasingly extensive and interconnected rail and road network.
- Sarah Bell. “Australia, Home to the World’s Largest Camel Herd.” BBC News. 19th May 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22522695.
- Converge Heritage + Community. Mount Garnet Processing Facility Tailings Storage Facility 2 Project: Non-Indigenous Cultural Heritage Assessment Consolidated Tin Mines Ltd (Cairns: Converge Heritage + Community, 2015). https://environment.des.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0033/87099/585456-2.pdf.
- Hanifa Deen. “Excavating the Past: Australian Muslims.” The La Trobe Journal 89 (2012): 63 – 80. http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/La-Trobe-Journal-89-Hanifa-Deen.pdf.
- Aron Lewin. “Special Report: The King of the Cameleers: The Rebellious Patriotism of Abdul Wade.” Mojo News. 4th May 2015. https://www.mojonews.com.au/page/special-report-the-king-of-the-cameleers-the-rebellious-patriotism-of-abdul-wade.
- Ewen McPhee. “Cloncurry Afghan Cameleers.” Queensland Museum & Community Collections. 7th November 2012. https://qmmdo.com.au/2012/11/07/cloncurry-afghan-cameleers/.
- Margaret Simpson. “Making a Nation: “Afghans” and their Camels for Australian Inland Transport.” Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. 6th May 2015. https://maas.museum/inside-the-collection/2015/05/06/afghans-and-camels-for-australian-inland-transport/.
- Ben Stubbs. “Islam in the Outback.” Griffith Review 61 (2018). https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/islam-in-the-outback-afghan-cameleers-stubbs/.