Representation & memory
Australia’s Muslim cameleers are well remembered by their descendants, but have been largely forgotten or misrepresented in the historical record. Their pioneering roles are often overlooked, in favour of picturesque, oriental images.
On their arrival in Melbourne during 1860 the first cameleers captured the imagination of notable artists. Their romantic depictions were tinged by 19th-century ‘orientalism’. Later, less flattering newspaper images depicted the cameleers as untrustworthy and cunning.
Ironically, the bureaucratic requirement to photograph and document cameleers returning to Australia after 1901 resulted in some of the most personal images of these men, enabling us to see them as individuals.
During the early 20th century the turbaned cameleers remained popular figures. City visitors were photographed with camels and cameleers. The 1957 film, Back of Beyond, gave Australian audiences their first insight into the way Islam was practised in the outback.
Inevitably, memories of the cameleers have faded. In recent decades events such as the ‘Camel Cup Races’ have evoked the ‘Afghans’ as colourful, but marginal figures. Today, despite the efforts of historians, too little is known of the cameleers’ place in Australia’s history and their key role in our past. Their heritage remains scattered in fragile documents, artefacts and across the inland landscape they knew so well.
The Muslim cameleers briefly captured the public imagination at the time of the Burke and Wills Expedition. Thereafter they became marginal if picturesque characters of the Australian bush, generally anonymous.