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A Muslim History of Australia

Alchemiya has two documentaries about the remarkable and little known story of the Muslim Cameleers, without whom Australia’s history would look very different. By Compass and Quran is rich in social, historical and political detail while G’Day Cameleers is a great way to introduce this story to children.

by Valerie Grove

The first line of By Compass and Quran is:

“It’s the last place you’d expect to see them, but the Australian outback is home to the largest herd of wild camels in the world. From several hundred brought to Australia in the late 1800s, they now number over 1 million.”

But how did they get there?

Alchemiya has two documentaries that look at the little known story of the Muslim Cameleers. Without them Australia’s history and development would look quite different. 

By Compass and Quran opens in the town of Maree, where the first ever mosque in Australia was established. In the 1890s, Maree was known as ‘little Asia’ because of “.. its many turbaned inhabitants.” What made Maree so important was that the town became the crossroads and headquarters for the camel train routes across Australia. Although few descendants of the original Muslim Cameleers remain in Maree, a gathering occurs every year that brings their descendants from all across Australia back to the town – the race for the Maree Camel Cup.

By Compass and Quran

After an unsuccessful start with one camel in 1839, the story really begins in 1860, when 24 camels were imported along with three Afghan Cameleers to care for them. Realising just how resilient and useful the camels were, especially when properly looked after, local landowner Thomas Elder imported 101 camels and 31 Cameleers just a few years later in 1866. It was this decision that made traversing and developing the Australian outback possible, opening up trade routes and movement through the interior. At its high point it was thought that there were up to 4000 Muslim Cameleers involved in the camel trade routes. 

The By Compass and Quran team have accessed an amazing collection of drawings and old photographs to illustrate this story as it is being told in the present by historians, experts and those who are descendants of the original Cavaliers. Most remarkable of all is actual film footage of Bejar Dervish (c.1862 – 1957), the ‘.. giant Afghan who steered his life by compass and Quran.” This line is part of a poem called Afghan, written by Australian poet Douglas Stewart, in memoriam to Bejar Dervish. His descendants also feature in this documentary and talk about their memories of him. 

By Compass and Quran

The Cameleers were collectively referred to as the Afghans, but they were actually composed of diverse ethnic groups. Bejar Dervish himself was from Baluchistan as were many others and there were also Pashtuns, Punjabis and Sindhis. Their common bond was their identity as Muslims and wherever they settled they built mosques. 

The personal family stories of some of the descendants of the cameleers are particularly compelling and enlightening, especially in terms of the discriminatory marriage laws of the time. These testimonies paint a vivid picture of the challenging realities faced by the cameleers, especially when put in the context of the appalling racism of newspaper editor Frederick Vosper, who established the Anti-Afghan League. This hostility increased, with tragic results ,and eventually made its way into government immigration policy making naturalisation for ‘Asiatics’ impossible. This turning of the political tide combined with motorisation meant unemployment for the cameleers by the early 1930s. A proposed cull of camels was the last straw, and many cameleers released their beloved animals into the wild to avoid this.

And that is why there are now over a million camels wandering freely in the Australian outback!

By Compass and Quran

Another take on this remarkable story can be seen in G’Day Cameleers. In this lovingly made documentary, a father takes his kids on a pilgrimage through some of the routes used by the cameleers. They stop at some of the now abandoned towns and graveyards and the children themselves tell the story as they go along. It is a sweet and sometimes sad journey that fills out the gap in historical accounts of Australia and its development a little more. The film uses both archive photos and press accounts from the time in a way that is both affecting and educational. It is also very much a road trip that completely succeeds in communicating the beauty, vastness and challenges of the terrain.

It is a very interesting idea to have so much of the experience conveyed by the children although there were times on this long road trip that I really felt for them!  I have no doubt that they really, really enjoyed getting to that hotel at the end of their epic journey!

Despite looking at the same subject, these two documentaries complement each other beautifully. They each tell their version of the story in very different ways and with mostly different material. By Compass and Quran is rich in social, historical and political detail while G’Day Cameleers is a great way to introduce this story to children.

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