Origins and arrival of cameleers
Known in Australia as ‘Afghans’, the cameleers came mainly from the arid hills and plains of Baluchistan, Afghanistan and the north-west of British India (today’s Pakistan). The cameleers belonged to four main ethnic groups: Pashtun, Baluchi, Punjabi, and Sindhi.
Despite cultural and linguistic differences, the cameleers shared ancient skills. In their homelands many led semi-nomadic lives, carrying goods by camel string along centuries-old trade routes through arid and harsh regions of Central Asia.
The cameleers also shared the Islamic religion, which had spread eastwards through Afghanistan and northern India between the 7th and 10th centuries. The Muslim faith blended with local custom, such as the Pashtun code of honour, the Pashtunwali. Islam was a strong bond between cameleers in Australia, despite their different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. A small number of cameleers were of the Sikh religion, but the great majority were Muslim. Many found time for prayer as they travelled through the outback. In their communities Small iron or earth-walled mosques provided a focus for daily prayer, religious festivals, and sociability.
The cameleers spoke a mix of languages in Australia , reflecting their diverse origins. It is likely that Pashto, Dari (Persian), Baluchi, Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu were heard in the streets of Kalgoorlie, Bourke and Marree. Some cameleers were literate, while others relied upon oral tradition, reciting poems or folk-tales at evening campfires and celebrations. Although the language of the Qur’ãn was not widely spoken in Central Asia, the cameleers uttered their prayers in Arabic.
By the late 1850s it seemed clear that camels would provide the best and most efficient means of exploring inland Australia and transporting goods across it. Horse and bullock teams could not cope with the sandy deserts, extreme heat and lack of water.
Several attempts were made to introduce camels. In 1860 organisers of the Burke and Wills Expedition brought 24 camels and their handlers from Peshawar and Karachi. Five years later, South Australian pastoralists Thomas Elder and Samuel Stuckey imported 124 camels and 31 cameleers on a three-year contract to cart wool and supplies. More contracts followed. During the early 1870s these pioneering cameleers played a vital role in exploration and helped construct the Overland Telegraph Line.
European cameleers were not unknown, but the Muslim cameleers were recognised as the best and most efficient. For them the camel was more than a beast of burden; it figures in the Qur’ãn as a ‘blessed animal’. Most cameleers knew each of their camels by name.
At least 2000 cameleers and 20,000 camels arrived in Australia during the period from 1870 to 1920. The 1893 gold discoveries at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie greatly increased demand. A vast network of camel routes spread across the inland.
Most cameleers arrived in Australia as young men, in their 20s or 30s. Many left wives and families at home, returning to them at the end of their contracts. Others stayed on in Australia, and some formed unions with European or Aboriginal women. Today their descendants retain strong links with this distinctive heritage.