There’s some confusion about exactly when the first camels and their handlers arrived in Australia, and for what purpose.

We do know that “Harry” was the first camel to arrive in Australia after landing in Port Adelaide on 12 October, 1840. The animal was shipped from Tenerife, Spain, by the Phillips brothers, Henry Weston and George.

Camels were considered useful for exploring deserts and transporting wool.  They were cheaper to run than horses and didn’t require as much water. They could also travel better in drought and floods.

In 1860, Burke and Wills used camels, primarily to cart water, on their expedition across Australia.  Few camels had been imported into Australia before then, so their use on the expedition was experimental and unique, and proved the animal’s worth in Australia’s arid conditions.

It wasn’t long before camels were being bred and used to cart goods in locations all around Australia.

This early 1900s image of three unidentified men shows how camels earned their nickname at the time, ‘beasts of burden’.(Image: National Library of Australia)

During the mid-to-late1800s and the early 1900s, camels played important roles in the wool industry, the mining industry, the transportation of water and the construction of the Overland Telegraph and the rabbit-proof fence.

When we read about the Overland Telegraph, which connected us to communication with London — do we know that it was actually camels that were instrumental in building that?

When we do read about camels … we don’t hear about the men who were responsible for managing them and working them.

The cameleers also contributed to the war effort.  Cameleers themselves were not allowed to join the army but, because of the love these people had towards Australia, they offered their camels to the Australian army, just to contribute to the First World War.  The fact that the Afghans donated camels to the war effort is never discussed on Anzac Day.

People in Afghanistan aren’t aware of the impact their country people had in Australia.  However, neither are Australians.  If it wasn’t for the contribution they made to exploring this continent Australia wouldn’t be opened up as it is right now.

Afghan cameleer Abdul Wade, pictured around 1901, divided Australians into those who called him a hero and those who saw him as a threat. (Image: State Library of Queensland)

Abdul Wade was a young Afghan entrepreneur who first brought his camel trains to the outback in the 1890s.  He was hailed as a hero. Horses couldn’t access many remote settlements, especially those stricken by flood or drought, and camel trains rode to the rescue time and time again.

But with success came fierce opposition fuelled by prejudice. The camel was not even classed as an animal under Australian law, and, in a climate of colonial misinformation, hyperbole and fear, camel drivers like Wade were shown almost as little respect. Yet all the while, for those in need, the ships of the desert continued to appear on the outback horizon.

He was revered by many in and around Bourke for his business nous and his generosity.

However, he was attacked by other sections of the community, who saw him as a threat to their business interests, and to white Australia.

For example, after flooding in 1890, the Cunnamulla Argus reported that: “When provisions had nearly run out and not even the lightest vehicle could stir on any highways leading to us, the despised Afghan came with his camels through wastes of water and saved us from semi-starvation.”

An 1892 editorial in the Bulletin put forward another view, saying “the imported Asiatic … is another cheap labour curse in a land where such curses are already much too plentiful”.

In 1916, Abdul Wade donated hundreds of his camels to the Australian war effort. Here, men from the Imperial Camel Corp, deployed to fight in World War I, train to ride them.

In an ABC interview about his book “The Ballad of Abdul Wade”, Butta, a NSW-based author and editor, claimed the writing of Henry Lawson” gave a sense of national identity … which still permeates how white Australians thinks about [themselves]”.  However, there are some glaring omissions in that writing.

In 1892, when Lawson was reporting on his time in Bourke, in north-western New South Wales, he “not only ignored the Indigenous people, but [also] the Afghans”,

(Main photo: Cameleer Bejah Dervish leaves on an expedition from Mullewa, WA, in 1896. Camels carried heavy loads over long distances with little need of water. Image: State Library of South Australia)

NOTE: To learn more about Abdul Wade and the Cameleers join us at the City of Canada Bay Museum, 1 Bent Street, Concord on Saturday, 3rd February at 2:00 pm sharp when Ryan Butta will be our guest speaker. Entry is FREE. Please feel free to pass this on to anyone who might be interested


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