Camel Trains in Queensland

Camel Trains in Queensland

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.

Camel team leaving Mount Garnet


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.


Mount Garnet, Reverberatory building with two stacks and camel team (one of three at 70 each) arriving from Lappa

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.

Camel team with Mount Garnet smelters in background


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.



  1. Sarah Bell. “Australia, Home to the World’s Largest Camel Herd.” BBC News. 19th May 2013.
  2. 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).
  3. Hanifa Deen. “Excavating the Past: Australian Muslims.” The La Trobe Journal 89 (2012): 63 – 80.
  4. Aron Lewin. “Special Report: The King of the Cameleers: The Rebellious Patriotism of Abdul Wade.” Mojo News. 4th May 2015.
  5. Ewen McPhee. “Cloncurry Afghan Cameleers.” Queensland Museum & Community Collections. 7th November 2012.
  6. Margaret Simpson. “Making a Nation: “Afghans” and their Camels for Australian Inland Transport.” Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. 6th May 2015.
  7. Ben Stubbs. “Islam in the Outback.” Griffith Review 61 (2018).
Somerset, Cape York

Somerset, Cape York

In 1864, the British and Queensland governments established the settlement of Somerset on the Cape York Peninsula. Named for Lord Somerset, first Lord of the Admiralty, Somerset was intended as a refuge and supply depot for passing ships, a base to establish a connection with Britain via the Torres Strait, and a counter to the presence of a French colony (including a naval station) on New Caledonia. John Jardine was appointed as its first Police Magistrate and Commissioner of Crown Lands. An early sketch of Somerset shows a government residence, a customs house, a police magistrate’s house, marines’ barracks, and a medical superintendent’s house.

Grave of Sana Solia, Wife of Frank Jardine, Somerset Beach, Cape York

In 1864 – 65, John’s sons Francis (Frank) Lascelles Jardine and Alexander (Alick) William Jardine mounted an expedition to drive cattle overland from Rockhampton to Cape York. Despite heavy losses, they were able to establish a cattle station close to Somerset. Cape York’s Jardine River was named in their honour and they were made fellows of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1867, Frank succeeded John as magistrate. The actions of the Jardine brothers also had a darker legacy, as conflict between the expedition’s members and the region’s Indigenous population resulted in a significant Indigenous death toll. In the following thirty years, Cape York’s Indigenous population, which had numbered approximately 3000, was reduced to 300 by a combination of frontier violence, disease, and hunger.

Between 1864 and 1876, Somerset served as a regional centre. Afterwards, its importance rapidly faded, with government functions being transferred to a new settlement on Thursday Island, which also absorbed its role as a port. Nevertheless, Frank remained, and the Jardine family continued to aid seafarers. From the 1870s, Somerset was closely associated with the Torres Strait pearling industry. In addition to pearling, Frank kept beef cattle and founded a coconut planation. In 1873, he married a high-ranking Samoan woman named Sana Solia Sofala, with whom he had four children (Alice Maule Lascelles, Hew Cholmondeley, Bootle Arthur Lascelles, and Elizabeth Sana Hamilton). Succumbing to leprosy in 1919, Frank was buried at Somerset.

Today, only traces of Somerset remain. In 2018, the Somerset Graves Site (in use 1890 – 1962) was added to the Queensland Heritage Register. Its eight graves include those of Frank and three other members of the Jardine family.


  1. J. Farnfield. “Shipwrecks and Pearl Shells: Somerset, Cape York, 1864 – 1877.” In Lectures on North Queensland History: Second Series, edited by B. J. Dalton, 66 – 76. Townsville: James Cook University, 1975.
  2. Margaret Lawrie. “John Jardine and Somerset.” Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 14, no. 8 (1991): 318 – 336.
  3. Steve Mullins. “The Pioneer Legend of Frank Jardine.” PhD diss., Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education, 1982.
  4. Queensland Government. “Jardine River National Park, Heathlands Resources Reserve and Jardine River Resources Reserve: Nature, Culture and History.” 18th January 2019.
  5. Queensland Government. “Somerset Graves Site.” Queensland Heritage Register, 20th January 2016.
  6. Brian Randall. “Queensland Places – Cape York – Early Exploration.” SLQ Blogs, John Oxley Library. 19th June 2013.