The Ghan Story ... The Afghans
Between 1860 and 1920 approximately 20,000 camels and between 2000 and 4000 cameleers landed at ports around Australia to support a vast network of camel train routes that spread out across inland Australia. Camels arrived in their hundreds on ships from Karachi and Bombay and excited crowds flocked to the wharves to see the animals unloaded after their long sea trip.
The first camel in Australia was imported from the Canary Islands in 1840 by Mr Horrock. The next major group of 24 camels came out in 1860 for the ill-fated Bourke and Wills expedition. The first time explorer Giles used camels he travelled 220 miles in 8 days without giving water to the camels. He later went from Bunbury Downs to Queen Victoria Springs (W.A) a distance of 325 miles in 17 days and gave one bucket of water to each camel after the twelfth day.
Camel studs were set up in 1866, by Sir Thomas Elder at Beltana Station in South Australia. These studs operated for about fifty years and provided high class breeders. Working camels bred in Australia were of superior quality to those imported. Imports continued until 1907 from Palestine and India as there was a need for large numbers of cheap camels.
Estimates and time scales vary as to how many camels were imported into Australia. Camels were used as draft and riding animals by people pioneering the dry interior. However the Afghans were easily identified by their long camel strings of over 70 camels strung together.
The camels brought into Australia were almost exclusively the one-humped camels ( Camelus dromedarius )which are found in hot desert areas and are highly suited to the climate in Australia. ONly about 20 of the two-humped camels ( Camelus bactrianus ) normally found in cold deserts were imported into Australia.
The very big camel teams in South and Western Australia and the Northern Territory consisted of 70 camels and 4 Afghans. Normally they travelled between 20 and 25 miles a day in the desert country. The teams would collectively carry carry between 16 and 20 tons on their backs. A large bull camel was expected to carry up to 12 hundredweight ( 600kg ), and small camels from 6 to 8 hundred weight ( 300 - 400kg).
The camel was ideally suited to Australia's desert environment; horses and buffaloes died through lack of water. But if camels were to be used, experienced handlers were indispensable and so men, from what was then an undivided India and Kingdom of Afghanistan (today Pakistan, India and Afghanistan) were 'imported' by British entrepreneurs along with the camels – collectively the men were known as "Afghans" or "Ghans".
Cameleers undertook what was needed to be done when a country is being opened up – accompanying exploratory expeditions, carting wool to ports or railheads and barrels of water to drought-ridden areas, and transporting mail, construction materials and stores at a time when railway construction was in its infancy.
Many rest stations opened up across the country where camel teams converged as they moved from one state to another, and centres such as Marree became established, opening lines of supply to isolated communities further inland or further north.
By the mid 1890s, the "Ghans" were becoming a 'problem' resented by those who believed that they threatened the working conditions of white Australians. Along with Chinese goldfield workers and Pacific Islanders employed in the sugar cane industry , the Afghans became targets of anti-Asian sentiment as the colonies approached Federation. This eventually led to the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, known as the White Australia Policy. The Menzies and Holt Governments effectively dismantled this policy between 1949 and 1966 and the Whitlam Government in 1973 passed laws to ensure that race would be totally disregarded as a component for immigration to Australia.
The Afghan cameleers led hard lives in this country, and their wives and children were at first prevented from entering Australia, a restriction not lifted until the late 1920s. Some married and raised families with Anglo-Australian or Indigenous women. Today their descendants take pride in the pioneering role played by their ancestors and kinsmen in Australian history.
Today camels are scattered through the arid interior of Australia with an estimate of 50% in Western Australia, 25% in the lower Northern Territory, and 25% in western Queensland and northern South Australia. Current population estimates vary from 300 - 500 thousand feral camels roaming wild in these arid regions where they thrive compared to other introduced animals.
Image ~ An Afghan camel driver with a camel train loaded with chaff, ca. 1911. Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia. SLSA: B 14808