Contribute

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.

Add media

Cameleers

Images
Image: An elderly man with a beard and turban stands in the central Australian desert
Afghan cameleer Mahomed Usef, 1935
Courtesy of/Photographer:Charles Pearcy Mountford

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: PRG 1218/34/125B, Public Domain

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
Ernest Giles Exploring Expedition, 1875. The expedition’s Afghan cameleer, Saleh, stands at far left

History SA. South Australian Government Photographic Collection, GN02749A

Image: One Afghan man rides his camel, while another Afghan stands next to his. The camel with rider is wearing a decorative harness
Two Afghan cameleers and their camels, one of which is wearing a traditional decorative harness, c. 1890

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 1423, Public Domain

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
Calvert Expedition members, 1896. Afghan cameleer Bejah Dervish stands at image centre

History SA. South Australian Government Photographic Collection, GN03107

Image: Five Afghan men in traditional attire pose for a photograph
A group of five Afghan camel drivers, c. 1897. This photograph is believed to have been taken at Beltana
Courtesy of/Photographer:Robert Mitchell

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 47474, Public Domain

Image: An Afghan man and Australian woman sit on the back of a camel, while two men attempt to make the camel kneel
An Afghan driver and his Afghan assistant encourage a camel to kneel and allow a woman passenger to disembark, c. 1910

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 59172, Public Domain

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
An Afghan cameleer stands in front of a camel train laden with bags of chaff, c. 1911

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 14808, Public Domain

Image: A group of Afghan men and their camels stand in a remote area. A small tent is visible in the background
A group of Afghan cameleers and their camels photographed at Beltana, 25 January 1870

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 61979, Public Domain

Family Life

Images
Image: A woman in Edwardian dress sits on a verandah with her four children. A corrugated water tank is visible in the background
Adelaide Moosha, wife of Afghan camel merchant Moosha Balooch, with her children at their home, 1909
Courtesy of/Photographer:Alice Mary Hopewell

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 38328, Public Domain

Image: A group of children in traditional Afghan clothing sit on the verandah of a rural home
A group of Afghan children sit on the verandah of a rural South Australian home, c. 1910
Courtesy of/Photographer:Alice Mary Hopewell

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 38364, Public Domain

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
Afghan people with an early make gramophone, c. 1910. This photograph was probably taken at Marree
Courtesy of/Photographer:Alice Mary Hopewell

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 38365, Public Domain

Places of Worship

Images
Image: Three men crouch near a pool next to a small, thatch-roofed structure in a remote area
Mosque at Hergott Springs near Marree, c. 1884. The Mosque was used by Afghan cameleers

Image courtesy State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B15341, Public Domain

Image: Five Afghan men stand in the courtyard of a building. Two ornate columns are visible in the foreground
A group of men stand outside the Mosque at Little Gilbert Street, c. 1937. Afghans financed the Mosque’s construction in 1888
Courtesy of/Photographer:News and Mail photographer

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7286, Public Domain

Image: A man stands outside a building with columns and a flag with star and crescent painted on one wall
Mosque, Little Gilbert Street, 1962. Afghans financed the Mosque’s construction in 1888
Courtesy of/Photographer:Diana Honey

Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 69987. Image not to be reproduced without permission

Image: A grey stone building bracketed by three minarets
The roof and minarets of Little Gilbert Street Mosque, October 2006. Afghans financed the Mosque’s construction in 1888
Courtesy of/Photographer:History SA
Add story