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Early Muslim Pioneers of Australia

One hundred and fifty years ago a group of Muslim men with their camels revolutionised Australia. Here, I will tell their forgotten story.

Between 1860 and 1920, 2000 men from present day Pakistan, India and Afghanistan went to work in Australia as ‘cameleers’ also described as ‘camel caravaners’. They were mostly Muslims and included Pashtuns, Baluchis, Sindis and Punjabis. In Australia at that time these migrants were all referred to as ‘Afghans’ even though they originated from different places. With them also came 20 000 camels.

Many of the men returned back home to their families after their work was done but about 100 stayed on.

Their legacy is unfortunately forgotten but they made a significant cultural and economic contribution to Australian society. They were also the first to bring Islam and mosques to the Australian cities and small outback settlements.

The Australians realised that the only way to navigate the thousands of miles of harsh arid outback landscape was by the camel, no other animal could endure this feat. The Indian Subcontinent Muslim cameleers were recognised as the best and most efficient camel handlers.


In 1860 as part of the Burke and Wills expedition, 24 camels and their handlers were shipped over from India. The men originated from Peshawar and Karachi. Five years later a further 124 camels and 31 handlers came. They were given three year work contracts.

The camel caravans were used for transport of wool, minerals, water, stores and equipment. Wool was collected from remote outback sheep stations and stores and fencing equipment was delivered. Later supplies for the overland Telegraph lines were carried. Independently the cameleers also navigated new transport routes for example around the goldfields of Western Australia.

The turban wearing cameleers were renowned for their stamina, walking on long treks from sunrise to dusk, coordinating upto 70 camels in a team. Each camel was expertly loaded with supplies upto 600kg, on a specially designed saddle. The handlers specialised in caring for, maintaining and equipping the camels in the most efficient manner. These skills were learnt and honed in their home countries which had a similar terrain and climate.

By 1890 Australia’s camel business was dominated by Muslims, they were merchants and brokers, also learning English in the process. Many travelled back and forth to India and also completed Hajj.

Small Muslim settlements cropped up in the outback and major cities, together with mosques. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and the ‘White Australian Policy’ restricted more workers and their families coming over. However the Muslim outback communities thrived and integrated influencing the local life and culture. They interacted well with the migrated British and indigenous Aborigines.

Around 1920 with the arrival of the motor transport, the need for camels and their handlers declined sharply. But over 60 years the camels and their cameleers had laid the foundations of the uncharted outback’s transport and communications network. Many of the ageing Muslim pioneers went back to their home countries, some had married local women and stayed in Australia with their families. These descendants still have a strong links with their culture and heritage.



Australia’s great explorer Ernest Giles (1835-1897) was greatly assisted by Saleh Mahomed in the 1870s, by organising the camel caravans and maintaining the saddles. There were many other expeditions were the Muslim cameleers contributed e.g. Elder Expedition 1891-92, Horn Scientific Exploration Expedition 1894, Calvert Expedition 1896-97, Strzelecki Expedition 1916 and the Madigan Simpson Desert Expedition 1939.

Many of the details of this article were summarised from the book ‘Australia’s Cameleers. Pioneers of the Island 1860-1920’ by Phillip Jones and Anna Kenny.

In 1923 when the railway was launched, the train which runs from the Adelaide on the south coast of Australia through the outback to Darwin on the north coast, was named ‘The Afghan Express’.

This was in tribute to the cameleers who helped navigate and open up the outback. This name has now been shortened to ‘The Ghan’.



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