King of the Cameleers: The rebellious patriotism of Abdul Wade

The Australian-dominated Imperial Camel Corps was a strange legacy of the Afghan cameleers who were brought to Australia in the 1870s, who opened up the Outback with the aid of a sturdy flock that could cope with the tough conditions.

The camels flourished, but relations between the Afghans and the local community were tense, escalating to widespread discrimination and violent attacks. Out of the melee emerged Abdul Wade, a successful Afghan camel merchant who wanted to give Australia’s military a gift of 500 camels for service in Egypt in WWI.

It was an extraordinary offer that came from deep patriotism, but feeling against Afghans was high.

1) The relationship between the Afghans and Australians

In the 1870s, Australia wanted and needed camels.

Camels, though these days classified as a pest, were once a valuable commodity that made exploration and economic development possible in arid and previously impenetrable regions of Australia.

Coming about fifty years before the development of roads in the 1920’s, camels superseded horses and mules as the preferred mode of transport in the outback. They can run further, carry significantly more, were cheaper and more able to adapt to the dry conditions in Western Australia.

The Victorian Exploration Expedition determined that the camels would be useless without their native drivers so cameleers arrived with the camels.

Between 1870 and 1920, 2000 cameleers and 20,000 camels were imported predominately from Western Asia to Australia. Although they were recruited from a number of regions and identified with a variety of different cultures the cameleers were collectively labelled as Afghans.

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Almost exclusively Muslim, most of the Afghans segregated themselves in ‘Ghantowns’ across Australia – settlements on the fringe of town comprising primarily of huts and small houses. They were reputedly hard workers who, as a community, strived to raise funds so they could build small mosques, Islamic schools and halal butcheries.

Although they arrived in Australia as cameleers, the Afghans quickly made their mark as hawkers, miners and herbalists. They worked closely and formed a kinship with Indigenous Australians. Subsequently, the Afghans left a lasting legacy – according to the 2011 census there are 1,140 people who identify as Aboriginal Muslims.

Despite the important services provided by the Afghans the local population perceived them as a threat.

Gathering in pubs across Australia, the locals would talk about these dark and mysterious men who wore turbans and dressed in “coloured pantaloons and tunics” (Hanifa Deen, Ali Abdul vs. the King). Widespread fear began to circulate that these immigrants would marry the local women, spread diseases and dominate the commercial market by employing cheap labour.

There was also concern over the establishment of mosques and halal butcheries in the townships and fear over the proselytising of Islam.

An ‘anti-Afghan’ movement began to emerge at the beginning of the 20th century and the disquietude of the homogenous population was being voiced in editorials and letters to the editor across the country.

The Kalgoorie Miner, 21 June 1897. Source: Trove, National Library of Australia
The Kalgoorie Miner, 21 June 1897. Source: Trove, National Library of Australia

Author and historian Hanifa Deen points out in her book Ali Abdul vs. The King (UWA Publishing, 2011) that Muslims were also fearful of the ethnocultural hegemonic class in Australia.

“From a ‘Mohammedan’ point of view … Australians were loud and undisciplined, given to swearing and drinking enormous quantities of beer after which they kicked up a ruckus and fell down drunk. They gambled and they smelt because as everyone knew, they hardly ever bathed – or maybe it was because of the swine flesh they enjoyed eating.

Also they were not a very God-fearing people; you often heard them calling out for their lord at the most odd times: ‘Jesus Christ!’ they yelled if they hit their thumb with a hammer or if they got angry with you. Religiously speaking, they were a peculiar lot of kafirs (unbelievers) who worshipped idols in their church

How could you warm to such a race of people? But then you were not in Australia to make friends. Remember the old saying about white foreigners, ‘the Feringhi [white foreigner] in their religion and we in ours’ Stick to your own kind, make as much money as possible and return home a hero!”

Restrictive legislation and epochal events also helped to exacerbate hostilities between the two communities.

The creation of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (the White Australia policy) limited the Afghan’s ability to come to Australia. A camel tax outlined in the 1902 Roads Act restricted movement and trade interstate was viewed as viciously unfair and the 1903 Naturalisation Act disqualified Afghans already in Australia (and natives from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands) from becoming official citizens.

Most of the Muslims residing in Australia fled back to their native country and the ones who stayed were seen in the eyes of both citizens and the law as pariahs.

Further, the onset of The Great War in 1914 created a crisis of identity and allegiance for many of the Muslims living in Australia.

Afghans in Australia. Source: Commonwealth Census and 'Muslims in Australia' by Nahid Kabir
Afghans in Australia. Source: Commonwealth Census and ‘Muslims in Australia’ by Nahid Kabir

Australia was fighting against the Ottoman Empire whose Sultan (and Islamic Caliph at the time) Mehmed V ordered for all Mohammedans aged between 7 and 70 to engage in a holy war against the allied states. In conjunction with this, poor working rights, restrictions regarding migration of family members to Australia and the general hostility disbursed towards the Muslim community caused much exasperation.

The following extract reporting on a speech given at a Muslim group prayer in Shepparton highlights the difficulties that they faced.

Why do Australians call us black-fellows, when we belong to the same Empire, are fellow subjects, and are fighting under the same flag for the King, and our united empire?

We are in this war, giving up our lives the same as Australians, and fighting with equal courage and loyalty. Why, then, do they forbid us to come to Australia?”

Tensions reached a boiling point on New Years Day 1915. Under a Turkish flag, two Afghans, Mullah Abdullah and Badsha Mohamed Gul entered a picnic train carrying 1200 passengers in Broken Hill with a 45 calibre, single shot rifle. They killed four people and wounded seven more before being shot by police.

It is reported that Mr Abdullah was inspired both by the jihadist message and an inability to receive license to slaughter and prepare meat in accordance with Sharia Law.

In response, a mob burned down the Broken Hill German Social Club and intended to attack a mosque in the Ghantown, however they were prevented by soldiers and police.

assengers on the Broken Hill picnic train, c. 1915. Source of caption: The Monthly Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia
Passengers on the Broken Hill picnic train, c. 1915. Source of caption: The Monthly. Source of Image: State Library of South Australia

2) Who was Abdul Wade?

The man in the suit and hat, holding the camel, is Abdul Wade who was a very influential camel merchant in New South Wales and Queensland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Source of photo and caption: State Library of Queensland
The man in the suit and hat, holding the camel, is Abdul Wade who was a very influential camel merchant in New South Wales and Queensland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Source of photo and caption: State Library of Queensland

Abdul Wade was a pioneer of the camel trade in Australia; he was colloquially known as ‘Prince of the Afghans’ and ‘The Afghan King’. Moving from Afghanistan to South Australia in 1879, Mr. Wade quickly earned enough money to buy a flock of eight camels that he loaded and drove around town. He began to converse with other Afghan drivers and by 1893 he was importing camels from Afghanistan. Two years later, Mr. Wade founded and managed the Bourke Carrying Company, which went on to become the biggest camel company in Australia. He owned breeding stations in Wangamana and Artesia and by 1905, it is reported that his company owned between 600 and 700 camels.

A large man “with teeth white enough to make you wish to be an Arab”, he worked hard to fit in, reading voraciously and endeavouring to cultivate a charming and gentlemanly persona. He was also a raconteur who frequented bars, restaurants and clubs as often as possibly.

A tribute to Abdul Wade was written in Broken Hill’s Barrier Miner newspaper.

“Abdul Wade is one whose name at least tens of thousands of people have heard and read a good many times these last few months.

“[He] strikes you at once as one upon whom trouble rests lightly, and one who finds this world a very good place indeed to live in. He talks volubly; and though there are some letters of our alphabet with which he struggles vainly, he expresses himself remarkable well.”

He strongly identified himself as an Australia and in 1902 he was naturalised as an Australian citizen.

Abdul Wade Naturalisation certificate. Source of photo: National Archives of Australia, 2015
Abdul Wade Naturalisation certificate. Source of photo: National Archives of Australia, 2015

In conjunction with his entrepreneurial spirit and desire to assimilate Mr Wade endeavoured to establish some of the Muslim customs and traditions in Australia. He purchased land at 20 Little Gilbert St in Adelaide for, and became the rightful owner of the Adelaide Mosque between 1890 and 1920.

There are anecdotes provided by Christine Stevens in her book Tin Mosques and Ghan Towns and the Mudgee Guardian and North-Western Representative (respectively) which highlight the amusing way within which Mr. Wade observed halal law in Australia.

  • “Before visiting the Gumbalie Hotel, which was situated close to his station … [Mr. Wade] would call ahead to announce his intention of taking lunch there. Upon arrival he would alight from his coach and be presented with a live chicken to kill and bleed in the halal manner. He would then enter the dining room and immediately sit down to a lunch of poultry. Afterwards, ‘with a twinkle in his eye’, he would compliment the hotel owner on ‘the efficiency and expediency of her culinary skills’!”
  •  “The camel king on one occasion had booked a box seat at Bourke for Wanaaring. When he saw … bacon being loaded he gave the driver the option of taking him or the bacon. His fare was £3, the ham freight 3 [sic]. Needless to say, Bill Doyle did not bring home the bacon.”

Despite this, his reportedly rough treatment of camels and poor treatment of Afghan staff members was the cause of some conflict with both the Afghans and the community-at-large. He had a bitter dispute with rival cameleer Gunny Khan over reports that Mr. Wade brought Afghans to Australia with the prospect of jobs, and consequently failed to offer them work. Mr Wade also received no support from the Australian Workers Union. They disallowed wool shearers from using the Bourke Carrying Company for the purpose of freight transport on account of the fact that “the union will not consider Afghans as members [and] … will not allow unionists to work in conjunction with Afghans.”

Nevertheless, camels were in high demand from private companies and the Australian government.

3) Abdul Wade and the Australian Government

In January 1916 the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC) was established and employed to fight in Egypt and Palestine. Four companies were established and, according to the Australian War Memorial, were comprised primarily of tough and troublesome Australian, British and New Zealand soldiers recuperating from battle. The brigade would travel by camel, and upon arriving at the scene, fight on foot as infantrymen.

The effectiveness of the ICC is reflected in this article published in the Geraldton Guardian on the 31st May 1917.

“Their work is arduous and monotonous in the extreme, and consists mainly of conveying water rations, fodder and ammunition to the mounted column that has hurried Johnny Turk over the border of Egypt into his own territory again.

Right well has the job been done, and but for the Camel Transport Corps the campaign would have been impossible. Day after day, week after week, huge trains of camels loaded with war materials, attended by Arab drivers and superintended by the C.T.C., have moved across the blinding, shifting desert.

… Personally, I look on them both as evidence of the wonderful spirit of our men, who, after a year of fighting over one of the most arid deserts of Africa, are able on reaching the other side to behave like big joyous schoolboys seeing only the bright side of life. ”

However, the ICC was initially short on camels. As a highly successful merchant, Abdul Wade saw the opportunity to lend assistance.

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During August of 1914, Mr Wade forwarded a letter to the Minister of Defence Senator George Pearce offering the Commonwealth Government the services of about 500 of his camels. Despite the hardships that he and the Afghans suffered from the unions he also promised the Pastoralist Union of New South Wales two horses for military purposes.

In June of 1916, it is reported that the ICC accepted six of his camels. I could not find reasons why the Australian military did not accept more of his camels or employ more Afghan camel drivers, however it could be speculated from old newspaper articles that this was an opportunity to showcase the superiority of White Australians over the Afghans and Indians in the tasks that they mastered.

What can be confirmed (again following the trail of Trove’s national archives) is that Mr. Wade’s offer was not done purely in order to spruik his own business. Rather, he was devoted to advancing the Australian war effort.

In addition to his donation, he tried to enlist his son to the Australian army. Despite being an Australian citizen for over 40 years, he was unsuccessful on account of his ethnicity.  As Wade wrote in The Scone Advocate.

In the eyes of the Government … I am guilty of the unpardonable sin of having been born in Asia, and although I have spent practically all my life in this country, I am denied the right of an ordinary citizen. I have made money here and if a loyal heart or a willing hand should be required to defend the country mine would be one of the first. But when my son, who is an Australian native, applies for an entrance to a Military College, his application is rejected for no other reason that that of colour. I was prepared, and could afford, to pay all expenses and made personal application to the Minister for Defence, but was told that the blood of an Asiatic flowed through the veins of my son. His mother was a European, the boy was physically and intellectually fit but to my great disappointment my request was refused.

Still, I am loyal to Australia, and the Defence Department has my offer of the use of 500 camels, and some horses, as well as my own personal experience.

… I have suffered a number of hardships under the White Australia policy but am now quite independent. I, of course, would not like to see this beautiful country flooded with cheap labour, but rather than block a man from entering the country, because he happens to be a different colour, I would inquire into his qualifications, and, if he was worthy admit him, with full rights of citizenship.

4) The legacy of Abdul Wade and the Australian Cameleer

Despite his prosperity Mr. Wade could not fight the modernisation of Australia’s infrastructure. The development of roads and cars saw the redundancy of the cameleer as the conveyers in the Outback. Previously a cornerstone for transportation, the camel quickly became a “noxious animal” that should be shot at sight.

Last of the camel drivers / Robin Smith. Source: Northern Territory Library
Last of the camel drivers / Robin Smith. Source: Northern Territory Library

The passing of the Camel Destruction Act in 1925 made it illegal to possess unlicensed camels. This consequently forced Wade to sell his breeding stations. His prized camels were either let into the wild or shot. After his wife Emily Ozadelle died in 1926, Mr Wade forfeited his Australian citizenship and moved back to Afghanistan. His loyalty and generosity was sporadically appreciated in old Australian newspapers, his legacy largely forgotten.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography his children continued to live in Sydney and, remarkably, his son Abdul Hamid fought in the Australian Navy during WW2.

The story of Abdul Wade holds contemporary relevance.

It is important to recognise that Muslim Australians are not just a recent product of multiculturalism. Rather, they have been contributing to Australian society since before federation. Also, in the face of enmity and discrimination, Abdul Wade’s plight shows that Muslim Australians have been clamouring and working vigorously in order to join ‘Team Australia’ for at least a century. Often without success.

As he penned in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1914

Perhaps, some day, Australia will alter things. There are about 400,000,000 Asiatics who are part of the British Empire, and as British subjects we are all supposed to have the same freedom and liberty, which Britannia – so they say – grants to all people.”

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