Afghan cameleers were brought to Australia in the 1860s to manage a mode of transport suited to harsh desert terrain. Camel trains transported wool and stores from Spencer Gulf to the mining area around Mount Remarkable and to pastoral properties. They also supplied materials to the Overland Telegraph Line.

Elder & Co. brought the first ‘Afghans’ to South Australia to work at Beltana station, north of Port Augusta in the Far North. Thirty-one Afghans arrived on the Blackwell at Port Augusta, and on New Year’s Eve 1865 a crowd gathered to witness the extraordinary sight of 124 camels being lifted onto new soil. Although known as Afghans, the cameleers were in fact Pathans from the border of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Generally from poor backgrounds, they came as single men on three-year contracts. There were some 800 Afghan males in Australia by the 1890s.

Cameleers played an important role in the desert explorations of the 1870s and 1890s. The 1872 government-sponsored expedition into central Australia led by William Gosse included the Afghans Kamran, Jemma Khan and Allanah. They explored 132 000km2 of country, and in mid July Gosse and Kamran named Ayers Rock (Uluru) after the premier of South Australia. When climbing the rock, Gosse envied Kamran: ‘He seemed to enjoy the walking about with bare feet, while mine were all blisters, and it was as much as I could do to stand’ (Stevens, p189).

From the late 1880s Afghans began their own carrying businesses and, with the expansion of the railway northwards, began to work from railheads such as Farina, north of Port Augusta. By the early 1890s the brothers Faiz and Tagh Mahomet owned more than 900 camels and employed around 100 fellow Afghans at Marree, the northern-most railhead in central Australia. Two major camel routes radiated from this settlement, north to Oodnadatta and Alice Springs, and northeast to Birdsville and beyond.

The Afghans, who brought Islam to Australia, built mosques in their ‘Ghantowns’ in country regions and in 1888 financed the construction of the first metropolitan mosque in Australia, in Adelaide’s Little Gilbert Street. By 1915 this mosque, which had cost the Afghan community around £3000, had two high minarets, a garden with fig trees, vineyards and a cottage for visitors. Mosques were the focal points for Afghan communities, and during the fast of Ramadan Afghans from throughout the Outback would converge on the Adelaide mosque.

As the transport industry became motorised in the 1920s the Afghan carrying businesses declined; by the 1940s most Ghantowns were dilapidated and deserted. Some cameleers returned to Afghanistan. Most who stayed married into the Aboriginal community, while a few married European women, who henceforth lived as Muslims. The Afghans’ involvement in the transport industry is commemorated by the name of the train that travels between Adelaide and Darwin, ‘The Ghan’.

By June Edwards

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history, edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly and references updated. Uploaded 31 March 2014.

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Image: An elderly man with a beard and turban stands in the central Australian desert
Image: A group of seven men, including an Afghan cameleer and Aboriginal tracker, pose for a photograph. The cameleer is dressed in ornate traditional costume with a turban
Image: One Afghan man rides his camel, while another Afghan stands next to his. The camel with rider is wearing a decorative harness
Image: Members of an exploring expedition pose for a photograph. An Afghan man with turban and western dress stands in the centre of the group
Image: Five Afghan men in traditional attire pose for a photograph
Image: An Afghan man and Australian woman sit on the back of a camel, while two men attempt to make the camel kneel
Image: An Afghan man stands in front of a line of camels laden with large sacks of bulk cargo. Three men in western attire stand at the image centre
Image: A group of Afghan men and their camels stand in a remote area. A small tent is visible in the background

Family Life

Image: A woman in Edwardian dress sits on a verandah with her four children. A corrugated water tank is visible in the background
Image: A group of children in traditional Afghan clothing sit on the verandah of a rural home
Image: A group of Afghan children and an Aboriginal woman sit around a small table, atop which sits a gramophone. A Caucasian woman in Victorian dress operates the gramophone

Places of Worship

Image: Three men crouch near a pool next to a small, thatch-roofed structure in a remote area
Image: Five Afghan men stand in the courtyard of a building. Two ornate columns are visible in the foreground
Image: A man stands outside a building with columns and a flag with star and crescent painted on one wall
Image: A grey stone building bracketed by three minarets
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