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‘Afghans’ and Aborigines in Central Australia

Philip Jones, South Australian Museum, 9 November 2009

PHILIP JONES: The Muslim cameleers project was one which was embarked on in the full knowledge that we were not exploring this subject that I’ll be talking about today so it was almost a negative of this paper in a sense, because there is, as I’ll mention in the paper, an argument for suggesting that the Muslim cameleers – otherwise known as the Afghans, and I’ll use that term throughout, even though it’s not strictly accurate – really operated independently of Aboriginal people for a lot of the time. Anyway, I’ll get back to that.

I want to open with a quotation that Tom Gara kindly handed to me this morning from Daisy Bates - we were talking about it yesterday. She’s writing in – I haven’t got a date on this, but probably around 1910 is when she made the record:

The monsters that were shouted at as windenjeri marganaluri – ‘camels around, the monsters are going to eat you’ [that’s the translation of that, from whichever language it is]. These monsters made their appearance and great groups scattered to the four winds, dropping infants and food in their desperate fright. In time the origin of that dreadful creature was solved. Its mother was most certainly the kalaya - emu - and its father the nantu – horse.

So you can see these mythical creatures that arrived in Australia.

Aboriginal people overcame their incredulity at the first sighting of camels just as they overcame their initial surprise at seeing the horse, particularly with riders attached. Camels were often named in language with an emu term, surely relating to the long neck and the rhythmic gait that both animals share. And now, navigating [shows image]. So I wanted to show an image, and I have completely forgotten the name of this German artist who didn’t actually see the Burke and Wills expedition; he did his work secondhand from other impressions. But it is a re-creation of a first meeting, if you like, between Aboriginal people and camels at least, if not necessarily Muslim cameleers, or there’s probably one lurking there, Balooch or someone like that.

It is fair to say that Aboriginal people regarded camels with caution from their very first meeting. But from an Aboriginal perspective, and based particularly on the Pitjantjatjara‘s relationship with them, which is probably a sub-theme of today, during the 1950s and 1960s, there was certainly much to like about the camel from an Aboriginal perspective. And even common ground with the cameleers.

Several things brought the Afghans and the Aborigines together, you might say at a cerebral level untested beyond the level of speculation. The notion that both cultures were at home in the desert, spiritually and in a practical sense; camels were certainly at home, as we can see today, and the foot-walking Afghans, who didn’t ride their camels, who often stopped for small prayer ceremonies during the day or more often at sunset and sunrise, can only have been regarded as, perhaps, more understandable, more amenable to Aboriginal ways of seeing the world. And there were small overlaps and mutual curiosity expressed about material culture.

Aboriginal people were quickly able to use camel hair, for example, for making string, hair belts, and so on, and the Afghans had objects for the Aborigines – baubles for children, and for women, cloth; exotic objects which were on that axis of desire, and even more importantly, probably, the ability to transport material around. We have, for example, from the Lake Eyre Basin, examples of pitjuri and even red ochre being taken north and south along that trunk line of trade on the eastern Lake Eyre Basin.

Something that I wanted to mention was that the first intense exposure of Aboriginal people to camels occurred on the exploring expeditions. This is a photograph [shows image] taken late in that phase, in the Horn exploring expedition of central Australia –MacDonnell Ranges really – in 1894. Here you can see the Aboriginal person as a footnote to the expedition in a literal sense, always inhabiting the lower half of the photograph.

Nevertheless, these people, through the exploration journals, have identities and names. They’re written into the story more often than one would think. The exchange of skills, and even the interchangeability of roles on these expeditions, where everyone, more or less, had to do a little bit of everything – even the Europeans took on some of the cameleering at certain times – but Aboriginal people in particular learnt these skills. I think you can construct a trajectory, whereby you see them being passed on into the 1950s and ’60s.

It’s easy, tempting perhaps, to imagine historical circumstances during the nineteenth century in which an isolated Aboriginal group might possibly – [shows image] another explorer image – have taken camels on, even bred them, possibly; integrating the animals into their travelling mode of life much as the Plains Indians had done with the horse in North America. Why not? And even further, to imagine Aboriginal people providing competition for the Afghans, carrying goods along routes they knew well. We know it didn’t happen like that, but it’s interesting to ask why.

I was going to talk about this image in terms of the way in which Aboriginal people encountered camels for the first time – as an enormous drain on their resources, literally. The water taken out of this rock hole in the Everard Ranges would probably have sustained an Aboriginal group for weeks, and was all gone in an afternoon.

This notion of the two peoples having something for each other, a kind of cooperation, hybridity springs to mind. We can think of other industries, other encounters in economic activity on various frontiers in Australia. Mining in the Pilbara, or near Alice Springs for wolfram [artist] Albert Namatjira taking out a mining lease; manning the whaling boats in Encounter Bay in the 1840s; Aboriginal people -Ngarinngerri people - actually maintaining fish pounds and taking fish to market during the 1860s. Fruit picking in the Riverland [in South Australia]; the Trepang fishers, of course, the relationship with the Trepang fishers.

I think of Dick Cubadji, the Waramungal man of the 1880s, the young man who came down to Adelaide and while in the Adelaide Hospital talked to members of the Country Women’s Association about his wishes to return to his Waramungu country and to take up pastoralism on his own terms, on his own people’s terms, in the 1880s.

Why, perhaps, didn’t this happen with the camel business? It doesn’t happen from the outset, and there’s one key reason, and it’s economic: the price of camels, jealously guarded from the very moment they first arrived in Australia commercially, in 1866. And from then on, until the end of the century and beyond, [it cost] up to 50 pounds or more for a camel. By the time 1920 came around, a T-model Ford cost 200 pounds; you can see that this is big money.

There were court cases in Marree and Oodnadatta [in South Australia], even over the theft of camel bells, let alone camels. Many eyes were on the camels. And the Afghans held onto their chief asset very tightly, controlling them, naming them and accounting for them. The line of accountancy, accounts kept by, often, illiterate people, nevertheless found their way onto paper eventually when it got to head office, which was often in Marree or Port Augusta [in South Australia], but was also sometimes in Karachi [in Pakistan] or Kabul [in Afghanistan] in the late nineteenth century.

The majority of Afghans were only here for two or three years; many of them returned. They had their eye on their return, and the camels were their ticket home, in a sense. The camps and settlements lived in by the Afghans were therefore secondary considerations, provisional structures, incidental to the camel’s welfare. [shows image] This is the Coolgardie camel camp. And in these places – Coolgardie, Oodnadatta, Bourke, Marree – Afghan settlements were well away from the European dwellings – the hotel, for example – and hence closest to the Aboriginal camps. And there is no doubt that some of the unions which occurred between Afghans and Aboriginal women arose from this proximity. It was a matter which exercised the keepers of moral standards in these small railhead towns.

An interesting tension arose between the three populations. The Europeans depended on the Aboriginal people for much of the fetching and carrying, stockwork, et cetera, which these frontier towns required, and they depended on the Afghans for a regular and dependable freight service, particularly to and from the railheads. The Aboriginal people, who had been drawn into the fringe economy and were now eager consumers of many European commodities by the late nineteenth century, relied on the Europeans and the Afghans for work.

But on the other hand, the Afghans, although they did rely on the Europeans for their custom and their contracts, very often restricted these relations to the minimum economic encounter-exchange. A kind of purdah was observed, particularly on religious grounds, so that the Afghan camps in these towns became more or less off limits; not only to Europeans, but to Aboriginal people as well.

You could say that the mysterious, exotic ‘other’ was actually displaced from the Aboriginal to the Afghan in these places. Marree is a classic case, where the railway bisected the town for a century from the 1880s; Europeans living on the side with the major amenities, the pub, et cetera, and Afghans and Aborigines sharing the other side.

From the very beginning, the Afghan cameleers were mostly self-reliant in their working routine. They had no need for Aboriginal labour, or for Europeans for that matter, and it is worth mentioning there seem almost to be no examples of Europeans working for Afghans as cameleers. Teams averaging 30 to 40 camels set off with loading, and four or five cameleers. One cameleer for about eight camels was the norm, in order to provide the manpower to load and unload each evening on a trip north, to Birdsville or to Nappamerrie [in south-west Queensland] and other northern stations, which might take two weeks or more, walking every step of the way. Laden camels were not ridden, except in rare circumstances. Clearly, it was always the decision of the lead cameleer, if not the Afghan contractor, as to who accompanied each string.

There are very few recorded instances of Aboriginal people accompanying Afghan camel strings until the 1890s, it seems. In other words, it took about 20 years of living alongside each other in these railhead towns for working relationships to develop. These were probably entwined to a degree with the relationships that developed between particular Afghan cameleers and Aboriginal women.

The issue of Aboriginal employment in camel teams arose most prominently and controversially in Western Australia during the 1890s. This had less do to with the increasing numbers of Aboriginal people wanting to work with Afghan cameleers than with the rising xenophobia in the white community of the goldfields about the large number of Asiatics. This had already been reflected in the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, the first piece of federal legislation passed in Australia. The chief protector of Western Australian Aborigines, [Auber] Neville, canvassed a number of officials, mainly police, to gauge opinion about this matter from the goldfields to the Kimberly [Ranges, in northern Western Australia]. A typical response, and many are suspiciously similar, was that of Constable MacArthur of Black Range in 1904:

I would respectfully suggest that Afghan camel drivers be forbidden altogether to employ an Aboriginal. As to my mind, there is no doubt that abuses would arise from such employment by Afghans, such as supplying the natives employed with liquor and using the native women simply for immoral purposes.

In Western Australia, legislation restricting Aboriginal employment by Afghan cameleers was eventually passed. From anecdotal evidence surviving in diaries and newspaper accounts, it seems that one of the routes most productive of the Aboriginal involvement, where this photograph was taken [shows image], was that between Oodnadatta and Alice Springs in the period 1910 to 1920 and then through the 1920s, until the motor truck took over and the Alice Springs railhead opened in 1929.

At the peak of camel traffic, it was common enough to encounter four or five camel teams on the track each day, and for at least two or three of these to be accompanied by Aboriginal men and/or women.

For a combination of reasons, this period between 1910 and 1920 seemed to be about the most profitable for cameleers. A newspaper correspondent noted in 1914 that ‘apparently it pays better to have stores carried by camels over 680 miles northwards from Oodnadatta than 350 miles by horse teams southward from Pine Creek’. Camel owners were getting 25 pounds a ton, which would work out at double the cost of flour. He gives numbers of camel caravans on this route and notes that he had encountered, at Barrow Creek, a camel caravan solely in charge of Aboriginals. And he says:

By the way, why are the natives put down to be so useless, when their general usefulness in the handling of stock sticks out so prominently right through the Territory?

There is no doubt that Aboriginal women were on these expeditions. It’s still unclear as to whether they were purely accompanying the Afghans in most cases, or were actually working with their husbands, who were often not mentioned in the accounts or not photographed on these occasions. This is something that still requires research.

There’s little doubt that the Afghan cameleers engaging Aboriginal people paid them much less than their own kin and countrymen would receive. [shows image] Now that photo is in there because it’s probably in the wrong place, but it’s also one that refers to the fact that camels were occasionally let loose and captured by Aboriginal people before this period that I’m talking about. This relates to the Horn Expedition, and it was taken during 1894, not too far from the Finke River.

To return to the payment, Albert Namatjira spoke of doing his one long-distance camel trip for sixpence, and followed that up by suggesting – or [Pastor FW] Albrecht, in talking about this, follows it up by suggesting – that this is probably why he turned to art: he couldn’t make any less money. It was also a way of seeing new country, new people, getting access to new commodities and making their way back to their own people.

I have another section, actually, on the shift to camels and how this occurred, and I’m going to skim over it. It’s just that the main point is that in the case of the Pitjantjatara, and in other cases as well, the Aboriginal people did not receive camels and they did not begin to use them until the camels had really been given up by the Afghans – that is, until the motor truck had come through in the 1920s. Camels suddenly plummeted in value, and in fact, they were regarded as feral animals more or less from this point, and it’s at that point that they become available for Aboriginal people. I talk about the evidence for that, for example, on the Birdsville Track in this critical period from the late ’20s into the early ’30s. These were the camels a few years earlier that had been jealously guarded, accounted for and indeed, often individually named by Afghans in Marree. They’d grazed freely on common land until the motor truck began to displace the camels from the roads. Numbers built up on the commons, then spilled over onto pastoral land; all these camels more or less not engaged had to be nevertheless fed and kept close to the towns.

The upshot was the 1925 Camel Destruction Act under which unlicensed camels could be shot by the town policeman. This resulted in the Afghan cameleers taking their camels to the edge of town to the desert and releasing them, and this is really why we really have the feral problem today.

[shows image] Just the final image, that’s Albert Namitjira actually, working on a camel camp. This final image, which will link with what Nic Peterson is going to be talking about later, this is Pitjantjatjara with camels in the photograph, taken probably near Uluru in the early ’60s. It’s tempting to read into this image a kind of pastoral idyll, once more to grasp at the image of a culture in balance, self-sufficient.

We now know that this wasn’t the case, not just in terms of the damage wrought on the environment and even on Aboriginal society by camels, but by Aboriginal aspirations as well. I refer to the insight provided into this issue by Fred Rose, whose work on this subject is really valuable, the early 1960s study of camels at Angus Downs – well, incidental to his Angus Downs study. Fred Rose speaks of resentment against the Europeans, who took all the trucks which were left behind when the Americans left Central Australia at the end of the war. Aboriginal people had speculated about the fate of these trucks during the war, seeing them build up and accumulate, hoping at least a few would fall into their hands at the end of the war. Instead, they were left with camels. Thank you. [applause]

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks, Philip, that was really interesting. Some of the old people I talk to in Kurunji, they were really delighted when Afghani carters started turning up from Wyndham to take over the transportation of corrugated iron and other building materials to build the stations in the interior, because it used to be them carrying those loads. So, in addition to a commonly observed phenomenon of other Aboriginal people expressing empathy for large mammals in general, including donkeys and horses, that seemed to combine to create quite a deal of affection for … Did you notice that the Central Australian people you talked with [had] that sense of empathy and that sense, a kind of delight with effortless, relatively effortless movement, compared to carting large loads themselves?

PHILIP JONES: Certainly, there is that memory of them, for example, around Birdsville, and the mobility that people had, I think they were prepared to forgive all of the foibles of the beasts, the individual beasts. Some of them had fearsome reputations and there were always horror stories told. The idea of, for example, the Wangkangurru people making their way to ceremonies in the 1930s with camel buggies, and so on, and then having this mobility to move from station to station to get work, where they would normally have been at a tremendous disadvantage, and probably squeezed out of that work.

Date published: 29 July 2010