Pioneers or aliens?
Entering the Australian outback as a tiny Muslim minority, the cameleers and their distinctive customs were initially accepted by Europeans. But as outsiders in colonial Australia, they also encountered adversity and discrimination.
From the first arrival of the cameleers, tensions developed over access to water and competition with bullock drivers. New laws and custom duties were applied at border crossings between colonies. As Australian nationalism strengthened during the 1890s, ‘anti-Afghan’ movements emerged. Asian immigration became an issue in colonial elections. Regulation of unlicensed halal butchers, introduction of licence fees for camel grazing and for use of public highways increased the strain. Key spokesmen such as Gunny Khan and Mohamed Hasan Musakhan organised petitions to protest against these policies, stressing the cameleers’ contribution to Australia’s development. But despite the inland economy’s reliance upon the cameleers, life became more difficult for them.
After Federation in 1901, negative sentiment toward ‘coloured races’ was expressed in the White Australia policy. Under the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, foreigners entering Australia faced a dictation test intended to bar those of non-English speaking backgrounds. Many foreigners, including the cameleers, had to apply for exemption from the test. Ironically, these exemption forms have become a key source of biographical information relating to the cameleers, otherwise invisible in the historic record. As the camel business declined during the 1920s with the advent of motor transport, many cameleers applied for a three-year exemption from the test. This enabled them to undertake the Hadj pilgrimage to Mecca, a duty of every Muslim, and to see their families in their homelands. Many never returned to Australia. For those who did return, the ground had shifted. By the 1930s the cameleers no longer controlled the key networks of Australia’s inland transportation. They released their camel herds into the desert, rather than see them shot, and lived out their days in bush towns as exotic, picturesque figures from Australia’s frontier past.
Soon after the 1893 discovery of gold at Kalgoorlie, cameleers arrived from Afghanistan, northern India and elsewhere in Australia. They opened up new routes for transporting stores, materials and minerals. Their success soon bred tension, particularly with European carriers. There were increasing calls for ‘Asians’ to be excluded or deported. Against this background, with the opening of the Coolgardie railway line in 1896, the leaders of the Muslim cameleers mounted a clever campaign to win public support.
Britain’s declaration of war against Turkey in November 1914 automatically involved Australia. While many Muslim cameleers considered themselves British subjects, others held allegiance towards the Ottoman Empire. In Broken Hill this factor combined with simmering tensions felt by two cameleers. Mullah Abdullah, a halal butcher for his community, had been prosecuted for breaching health regulations. Gool Mahomed had previously enlisted in the Turkish army. On 1 January 1915 they armed themselves and attacked a train carrying 1200 holiday-makers. At the close of the resultant gun battle, six people, including the two assailants, lay dead.