Cameleers, Aboriginals, and Europeans in Coolgardie between 1892 and 1900. (Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)
More than 120 years ago, thousands of camel drivers from Afghanistan and the provinces of modern day Pakistan and India left their homes and families for the unknown shores of Australia.
- Camels were first introduced to Australia in the 1840s from the Canary Islands
- Camel trains moved people and goods through Australia until the introduction of road and rail infrastructure in the 1920s
- The cameleers helped to introduce Islam to Australia and built the first mosque in Marree, SA
Wearing turbans and carrying their Korans, the men were known as cameleers, Afghans, or Ghans.
Their job was to lead camel trains through outback Australia, transporting supplies from cities to regional towns, inland mines, and stations.
They were also guides on expeditions, located water sources, and ensured a safe journey for travellers.
Without their contribution, outback communities would not have been able to survive.
Now the legacy of the Afghan cameleers is being preserved by their descendants who are seeking recognition for their efforts to help build and connect Australia.
A cameleer during the gold rush period in 1897. (Supplied: National Library of Australia, Helen and Alan2011)
An Afghan and Aboriginal history
Among those men who left their homes and families was Goolam Badoola Rind from the Pakistan province of Balochistan.
Mr Rind worked in Western Australia’s Goldfields, transporting supplies.
It was there he met his wife, Wongi-Yamaji woman Marian Martin.
At the time, cameleers were not allowed to bring their families into the country so marriages between Afghan men and Aboriginal women often occurred.
Neither group were welcome in town after dark and were not allowed to share facilities like swimming baths or pubs.
The Afghans were also forced to live on the opposite side of the train tracks in camps away from the white population.
They often enlisted the help of Aboriginal trackers on expeditions, and through their work and common treatment relationships formed.
Goolam and Marian were married at Perth Mosque in 1917, but the marriage was not legally recognised under the policies of the day.
The marriage put them both at risk because it was considered an illegal act.
Marian Martin (top left), Goolam Badoola Rind (top right) and three of their children. (Supplied: Gohar Rind )
Perth man Gohar Rind, the great-grandson of Goolam and Marian, said understanding the significance of the cameleers’ work could help to make Australia more inclusive.
“If those efforts of the cameleers are understood, appreciated and acknowledged, then there would be better cohesion between different communities,” Mr Rind said.
Children at risk
Mr Rind’s great grandmother Marian tragically died giving birth to her fourth child, leaving Goolam alone to raise them.
Indigenous children of mixed heritage were taken into missions and were often never allowed to see their families again, so Mr Rind said his great grandfather took drastic action to keep his young family safe.
Afghan cameleers in traditional attire playing music at a feast in Coolgardie in 1898. (Supplied: National Library of Australia)
“He called his brother and sent them back to India where they grew up, got married, and had kids,” he said.
Goolam stayed in WA until 1935 when he went back to India to be with his children.
In the early 1970s, the Rind family proved their Aboriginality and were allowed to come back to Australia.
Mr Rind said he was proud of his mixed heritage and wanted to see the stories like his ancestors preserved and remembered.
An ancestor of an Indian cameleer has done just that.
Search for final resting place
In 2014, Kam Khurram Bux decided it was time to honour his great grandfather’s memory, Indian cameleer Ameer Bux.
Mr Bux came to Australia in the late 1800s to help his son, Mahomed Bux, with his thriving trade business.
Mohamed was importing camels into Fremantle and at the age of 70 Ameer offered to help take a camel train to the prosperous gold rush town of Coolgardie in the Goldfields region of WA.
The 600-kilometre journey was to take 12 days, but tragically Ameer died of heat exhaustion and dysentery.
His body was buried in an unmarked grave in the Afghan section of Coolgardie cemetery.
Mr Bux decided to properly mark the grave with a headstone.
A religious necklace known as a misbahah or tespih hangs in Coolgardie cemetery in front of Ameer Bux’s grave. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Madison Snow)
Mr Bux said he felt his great grandfather had not rested because no-one from his family had come to visit his grave.
“Nobody had been there since 1897 when he died,” he said.
Mosque murder scandal
Tim Moore, a historian for the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, has spent many hours investigating the long forgotten quirky and sometimes gruesome tales of the cameleers.
City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder historian Tim Moore with a book about Australia’s cameleers. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Madison Snow )
“Here on the Goldfields you’ve got this fabulous community of people, and they’re very exotic,” Mr Moore said.
The cameleers were astute businessmen who managed to amass significant wealth, which Mr Moore said caused conflicts within the community.
Mr Moore said they also established WA’s first mosque, in Coolgardie.
“In 1896, a guy called Tagh Mahomet who was a businessman here in the Goldfields was shot in the back of the head by a guy called Goulam Mahomet,” he said.
“That caused an absolute scandal because Tagh Mahomet was considered one of the best businessmen on the Goldfields.
“A very trustworthy man. It also happened in the mosque which was an absolute no-no.”
Three camels in front of commercial buildings in Coolgardie in the 1890s. (Supplied: National Library of Australia )
Once mechanisation was introduced there was no need for camels anymore.
By the late 1920s, the Afghans began packing up their camps and leaving Australia.
Despite their massive influence on the region there is hardly any evidence of the cameleers’ presence in the Goldfields.
“Once they leave, everything disappears,” Mr Moore said.
“[There were] child’s shoes, a copy of the Koran, and some articles of clothing. Otherwise you wouldn’t actually know there was an Afghan population here during the gold rush period.”
The mosque was also pulled down. The only remnant is a crescent moon at the top of the rotunda on the gazebo in Kalgoorlie’s Hammond Park.
The crescent moon on top of the Hammond Park gazebo in Kalgoorlie came from the mosque in Coolgardie. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Madison Snow )
Although there are thousands of feral camels running wild throughout the state, in Coolgardie there’s only one place you can interact with them.
Noel McKay runs Coolgardie Camel Farm where you will find a makeshift museum inside a big green tin shed, and five friendly camels who are always keen for a scratch and a yarn.
Mr McKay said something that remained as a permanent reminder of the cameleers’ presence in the Goldfields were the wide roads.
Coolgardie Camel Farm proprietor Noel McKay says 35-year-old camel Liberty likes taking life easy. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Madison Snow )
“If you have a heavy load on a camel you can’t turn very sharply,” he said.
“You need a wide turning circle for a heavily-loaded camel, otherwise it might dislocate his shoulders or head.”
Mr McKay said people in the Goldfields owed a lot to the cameleers and their camels.
“Without them there would have been a lot more holes in the cemetery out there,” Mr McKay said.