Tracing human identities is a unique feature of history writing. Humans dwell in layers of identities and every identity reflects their distinct historical experiences with ideas, places, cultures and religions. In this article, I attempt to trace the identities of 19th-century Baloch cameleers in Australia. I do so by utilising the Foucauldian conceptual framework of genealogy. Foucault conceived genealogy as a tool for writing critical history by using historical material to bring about a “revaluing of values” of the past into the present. This analysis explores how the identities of the descendants of Baloch cameleers emerged out of the struggles, alliances, and exercises of power of their forefathers in 19th-century Australia and how today these identities remain untraced and taken over by misnomers.
In the mid-19th century, the British imperialists in Australia, finding it difficult to explore the outback newly acquired, decided on employing ‘ships of the desert’ for the under-explored colony. Motorised transport being a distant dream and horses and bullocks unsuitable for expeditions in such extreme weather conditions, the colonialists imported camels from their dominion territories such as present-day Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.
Camels had the capacity to journey long distances with heavy loads and less water consumption. When initial attempts to employ camels without trained handlers failed, the Victorian Exploration Expedition Committee (VEEC) brought camel drivers on temporary contracts from these lands to undertake the famous ‘Burke and Wills Expedition.’ These camel handlers predominantly – but not exclusively – were from Baloch clans such as Rinds, Jakhranis, Lasharis and others.
The importation of these camel handlers – drawn from diverse ethnicities and adherents of a distinct religion like Islam for this expedition – marked a turning point in the history of hitherto predominantly Christian Australia. This small Muslim community later went on to be known by the misnomers like “Moslem Australian Cameleers,” “Afghan Cameleers” or “The Ghans.” These turban-wearing cameleers with their exotic looks played a pivotal role in the infrastructural development, mining of natural resources, exploring the unexplored territories and introducing the Aboriginal Australians to the outside world.
Well into the 1860s, there were around 2,000 cameleers and 4,000 camels embarking on regular journeys across the length and breadth of Australia, carrying tons of supplies from cities to regional towns and inland mines, bringing back mined resources to the port cities. The cameleers were brought on contracts varying from 1 to 3 years and their total number fluctuated from time to time. At their height, there were 4,000 cameleers.
These cameleers were Muslims, and as they travelled along the track, make-shift places of worship began erupting, which were then known as ‘bush’ mosques. Among the cameleers, the Baloch ethnic group had a significant representation.
In 1884, Balochs hand-built a mosque in Hergot Springs (Maree, South Australia), which is one of the earliest mosques on Australian soil. There are other mosques, places, railway lines and hills named after Baloch cameleers. For example, Bejah Hills in Western Australia named after Bheja Jhakrani – a prominent cameleer – for his untiring expedition and services to the community. In early 20th century, as the steam engine took over the cameleers’ bread and butter, most Baloch cameleers returned to their countries. But some of them turned to other businesses, like working on Overland Telegraph and Trans-Australian Railway. At the termination of their contracts, some cameleers returned to their homes with new wives and children, and newfound wealth.
Among Baloch cameleers, one of the most interesting stories is of Ghulam Badoola Rind, who after arriving in the South Australian town of Port Augusta as a young teenager in the 1860s, worked as a cameleer on the Ghan Project, a 3,000-km railway connecting Darwin with Adelaide. In the early 1900s, when floods hit the Geraldton area in western Australia, Badoola Rind using his camel saved many Australian lives. As a reward, he was granted citizenship, a rare thing at a time when many cameleers were being deported. In an interview with SBS Dari, Saba Rind, who is a granddaughter of Badoola Rind, narrated the story of the life and struggle of her grandfather. She has shared a picture of the tombstone of her grandmother, which reads, “Mariam Badoola /Marin Martin wife of Goolam Badola Rind 1900-31.”
Cameleers were not allowed to bring their families. Many of them married Aboriginal Australian women, as they were not allowed to marry Europeans
Another important figure in Baloch cameleer history is Bejah Baloch Jakrani. His role in the development of Australia is widely recognised. Dost Muhammad Jakhrani, another Baloch cameleer leader, utilised his animals to supply water and food, and transport gold from Australian mines. He was a wealthy man and owned many camels which operated on Port Hedland. His services to the community are highly regarded. However, he was killed in a family feud, and his murder remained a mystery.
A few Baloch cameleers married Anglo-Saxons or immigrants who had come from central Europe, something strictly restricted by Australian law. A couple of them also married Aboriginal Australian women. Today, their descendants take great pride in tracing their lineage to their grandfathers.
Nanacy Joy Baluch, a progeny of Baloch cameleers, was married to Stephan Baloch; she served as the mayor of Augusta Port from 1981 to 1993 and from 1995 until her death. In 2001, she was awarded the Centenary Medal. She was conferred with multiple other such honours. A local newspaper described her due to her magnanimity as “The Iron Lady.”
However, recent scholarship on cameleers inadvertently reveals that the names by which they are collectively known to the world such as “Australian Afghan Cameleers” are bare misnomers. Studies as Philip Jones and Anna Kenny’s book Australia’s Muslim Cameleers: Pioneers of the Inland, 1860s-1930s, Maria Visconti’s paper “Afghans and their camels in Australia” and the findings of the study of M. Mizanur Rashid and Kathrine Bartsch on the architecture of Adelaide Mosque have cleared many of the misconceptions related to the cameleers’ identities, ways of life, contributions and interactions with Europeans and Aboriginal Australians. Although there was a significant number of Afghans in the camp, the overseas cameleer community was, in fact, comprised of a far more diverse set of origins: Balochs, Afghans, Turks and other dwellers of the Indian Subcontinent and far beyond. Identifying a group as diverse as Australian Muslim cameleers solely as “Afghan Cameleers” either stems from a lack of historical research or, more importantly, from historical inaccuracy.
Baloch cameleers’ identity, notwithstanding misnomers, keeps erupting in historical relics and in the form of their third and fourth-generation descendants identifying themselves as Balochs – more precisely as Rind, Jakhrani and other clans of Balochistan.
However, life for the cameleers in Australia was not an easy one. Most of the time, they were not accepted in Australian society. Cameleers were not allowed to bring their families. Many of them married Aboriginal Australian women, as they were not allowed to marry Europeans. Even their marriages to Aboriginal women were not legalised most of the time, leaving them with the perils of being stigmatised for immorality. They were made to live separately in Ghan towns or camps on the opposite side of the railway track. Well water was not shared with them. Not only they were scary and alien to the natives, but their exotic animals also equally frightened the horses of the Australians. On sighting the approaching camels, horses went astray, turning carts topsy-turvy. The unusual looks and frightening animals of the camel drivers produced a great measure of hostility for them in the native circles, often translating into discrimination. People on seeing approaching caravans would often close doors and hide their children.
Of late, there has been increasing academic interest in the history of these cameleers. Compared with the scope of the subject, miniscule attention has been paid to it. A few things about their lives, interactions, identities and contributions have been dug up, but much remains to be explored. The identities of ethnic groups like Balochs, who played a significant role, have been missed. Partly it has been due to unavailability of a substantive historical record. A major reason for such gaps has also been the inattention of researchers on ethnic identities and the weakness of methodological tools that they have employed in their studies.
More importantly, almost no studies have been conducted on the lives of those Baloch cameleers, who returned to their homes after the termination of their contracts.
With the emerging trends of applying theoretical frameworks such as Michel Foucault’s genealogy, today’s historians are sufficiently equipped to undertake studies on the origins and identities of ethnicities that the cameleers came from. Such strong tools enable us to rigorously study the aftermath of this late 19th-century adventure and its impacts and implications on the lives of Baloch cameleers once they returned to their homes.