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Islam in Indigenous Australia: Historic Relic or C

In a recent letter to the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Aboriginal Muslim Kerry Jones – whose Muslim name is Kaled bin Walid – recounts his eventual conversion to Islam. At the age of six, Kaled was stolen from his family and spent the next 13 years living with different white foster families, where he was ‘forced into Christianity’ (K. Jones 2003). When he was 13 Kaled was informed by one of his foster mothers that because he ‘was a descendent of Ham, one of Noah’s three sons . [he] and other blacks were cursed to be servants to the white race’ (K. Jones 2003). Even as a child Kaled knew ‘deep down in his spirit’ that he was not doomed to serve ‘the white race’. Following his conversion to Islam in adulthood, the Qur’an gave Kaled the words and permission to believe ‘what [he] already knew’ (K. Jones 2003).

When Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam toured Australia in 1998, he was invited by Aboriginal Muslims to visit Redfern. Uthman Danish, one of a group of Aboriginal Muslims who regularly attends the Lakemba mosque, hoped that Farrakhan’s visit would ‘heighten awareness of Aboriginal issues in this country’ (qtd in Jamal 1998). Aboriginal people, many calling Farrakhan ‘brother’ clapped and offered him words of encouragement as they gathered to hear his message outside Aboriginal convert Anthony Mundine’s gymnasium (Jamal 1998). As an outspoken supporter of Indigenous people’s rights, Farrakhan labelled the Federal government hypocrites for promoting Australia as a peaceful, tolerant and multicultural nation while Aborigines are continually ‘castigated not just by words but by the actions of Government’ (qtd in Jamal 1998).

In March 2003 the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Adelaide transformed a hall in its Otherway Centre into a makeshift mosque to provide Afghan refugees and asylum seekers with space to pray and mourn. Since there is no Shi-‘ite mosque in Adelaide up to 200 Afghan Muslims recently gathered each night at the Centre to remember the death of one of their early leaders, Imam Ali Hussain (Pearson 2003). The Ministry’s creation of the temporary mosque and its active support of the asylum seekers during the past three years attests to its commitment to helping displaced Muslim refugees.

These anecdotes are illustrative of the diverse and broad based identification of Indigenous Australians with Islamic traditions and communities. The spectrum of Aboriginal identification with Islam includes fundamentalist and militant anti-Western supporters as well as ecumenical polytheists who adopt Islamic and other religious traditions simultaneously. It also encompasses those who have chosen not to convert to Islam but whose lives have nonetheless been shaped by their or their forebears’ contact with various Muslim communities. In addition, an increasing number of Indigenous individuals and community groups have recently shown great public support for Muslim refugees and asylum seekers.

Today there are an estimated 1000 Indigenous Muslims nationwide (Jopson, 2003). This figure includes recent converts as well as non-practising descendants of followers of Islam, such as Arnhem Land people with ‘Macassan’ ancestry and those descended from the ‘Afghan’ cameleers. This significant trend has been almost entirely overlooked in recent scholarly and public debate but its social, cultural and religious significance extends far beyond 1000 people. Prominent Indigenous figures in sport, academic and public affairs, including Anthony Mundine, Lowitja O’Donoghue and Marcia Langton, have endorsed cross-cultural alliances between Aboriginal and Muslim (and other non-white diasporic) communities. Others less known to the non-Indigenous community such as the members of the Aboriginal Catholic Mission, the Aboriginal Muslim members of the Lakemba mosque in Sydney, and those who have converted to Islam while incarcerated, are all articulating in formal and informal ways the development of their cultural and religious identities. Despite some public acknowledgement of this trend, notably the recent SBS documentary ‘Islam Dreaming’, the majority of (Anglo) Australians remain oblivious to it. This article recovers a lost, invisible and repressed element of Australia’s ‘national’ story.

The anecdotes above illustrate a contemporary network of cross-cultural meeting; this article contextualises this recent trend. Far from being a contemporary phenomenon, Islam in Indigenous Australia has a set of historical precedents. To make this argument I look at Indonesian (‘Macassan’) exchanges with Aboriginal communities in the pre-invasion and colonial eras and at the diverse alliances and partnerships forged by ‘Afghan’ cameleers and Aboriginal people in the early twentieth century. This highly selective focus does not, of course, represent the full diversity of Indigenous/Muslim partnerships, but it enables me to concentrate upon some overarching characteristics common to both these historical moments, which usefully inform our reading of the contemporary process of Islamisication in Indigenous Australia. These themes or ‘through-lines’ are: first, the implicit or explicit role of white oppression in stimulating and consolidating cross-cultural alliances; second, the apparent importance of degrees of cultural convergence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups and, third, the symbolic role of Islam in articulating a political resistance to processes of Westernisation and assimilation. These themes are only provisional. In conclusion, I discuss their limitations and some of the methodological questions thrown up by my research to date.

‘Macassan’ and Aboriginal Alliances
Each year from the early to mid-1600s to 1906 AD1 at least a thousand ‘Macassans’ – from the extreme corner of the island of Celebes (now modern day Indonesia) – voyaged to northern coastal Australia in search of trepang. Otherwise known as bĂȘche-de-mer, sea cucumber or sea slug, trepang was considered a delicacy in China where it was later sold. Early records including navigator and explorer Matthew Flinders’ A Voyage to Terra Australis (1814) commonly refer to the trepang fishermen as ‘Malay’, but a more accurate term is ‘Macassan’ (Macassar was the major port of origin for many of the boats).2 During the three hundred or so years of seasonal contact, the coastal societies of northern Australia, from the Kimberly region, across Arnhem Land and down into the southern Gulf of Carpentaria underwent a dynamic process of transformation (Clarke 315-16). The centuries long encounters between Aboriginal and ‘Macassan’ societies produced both wanted and unwanted social change for coastal Aborigines. After all, Indigenous meetings with foreign ‘Macassan’ communities were formed against the backdrop of imperial incursion and cultural expansion from elsewhere.

Evidence of the considerable restructuring of Indigenous cultural institutions and practices and the complexity of social relationships negotiated with ‘Macassans’ attest to the fact that Indigenous knowledge of people and places extended far beyond local clan estates (Clarke 325). Indigenous kinship terms were often extended to include the outsiders. On Groote Eylandt, ‘Macassan’ elements were incorporated into ceremonies, with the totemic system being modified to include ship and wind totems (Clarke 321). A popular ‘Dreamtime’ story from Groote Eylandt – known as the ship-totem myth – recounts the way Bapa Jago, a ‘Macassan’ trepanger, helped the Inguar Indigenous people turn their white skin brown before sailing back to his own country (n.a.). According to James Urry and Michael Walsh, the Macassarese language became the lingua franca or common trading language used by different Indigenous language groups in Arnhem Land (98). ‘Macassan’ loan words are still evident in northern Aboriginal languages today and many ‘Macassan’ names have been given to areas of land. Ochre paintings of ‘Macassan’ smoke houses (trepang processing sites) a
nd praus (‘Macassan’ boats) can be found in rockshelters in north-east Arnhem Land as well as one of a monkey, apparently seen by Aborigines who joined the crews on their voyage back to Indonesia (Rolls 13,15). The influence of the ‘Macassan’ fishermen has also left a lasting impression on the Aboriginal art of the Arnhem Land region (Tucker 16). P. M. Worsley has identified ‘Macassan’ influences on Indigenous artistic practice with the development of carving in the round (see Clarke 321).

The religious or spiritual influence of ‘Macassans’ on Aborigines from Elcho Island (in north-east Arnhem Land) is evident by their adoption of a ‘Dreaming’ creation figure, Walitha’walitha, also known as Allah (McIntosh, ‘Islam’ 53). According to David Burrumarra, the late leader of the Warramiri clan of Elcho Island, one law united Aborigines and ‘Macassans’ at the beginning of time (McIntosh, ‘Islam’ 55). Each was under the direction of an Arnhem Land based creational being named Birrinydji - who was in the image of an all-powerful boat captain – but Aborigines turned their backs on this law, losing everything and allowing Wurramu (an evil figure) to enter their lives. The foregoing of the law of Birrinydji explains why only ‘Macassans’ (and now Europeans) enjoy the wealth once also shared by Aboriginal people. The Wurramu ceremony – still performed regularly in Arnhem Land today, particularly during funerals – narrates the story of Walitha’walitha (Allah) coming to earth to restore peace and harmony so that everyone can share in the wealth of the land. According to anthropologist Ian McIntosh: ‘[T]he religion of the [‘Macassan’] visitors, that of Islam, became the vehicle of an Aboriginal Dreaming in which there are visions of a return to inter-racial harmony’ (McIntosh, ‘Allah’ 137).

While there is some overlap in meaning between the Indigenous Allah and Islamic understandings of Allah, the two are also quite separate. The dances associated with this being are known to have been performed by ‘Macassans’ in the past, and the words for the songs stem from the Macassarese language, but Walitha’walitha is an Aboriginal creation entity associated with particular Aboriginal territories and clans (McIntosh, ‘Allah’ 137). There is much evidence of Islamic influence in Yolngu belief in Walitha’walitha and in aspects of particular mortuary rituals, but it is not appropriate to say that Aborigines in north-east Arnhem Land were or are followers of Islam (McIntosh, ‘Islam’ 76). ‘Belief in Walitha’walitha is not seen to be the same as belief in the religion of the [‘Macassan’] Other’ (McIntosh, ‘Allah’ 137). Rather, like other aspects of ‘Macassan’ material culture and social institutions utilised by coastal Aborigines, aspects of Islam were creatively adapted to suit their own needs.

The ability of Indigenous communities to maintain their ongoing connections with ‘Macassan’ social, material and spiritual culture is especially pertinent when one considers the strident attempts made by white government officials to prevent these cross-cultural encounters. Prior to its becoming the Commonwealth government’s responsibility in 1911, the South Australian government was in charge of the administration of the Northern Territory. The South Australian government’s ending of the Territory’s ‘Macassan’ trepang industry was justified on the grounds of Aboriginal ‘protection’. However, as in Queensland3 and Western Australia,4 the South Australian government sought to restrict Asian economic endeavours in order to guarantee the material success of white capitalist initiatives. It is very significant that in a letter recommending that the South Australian government regulate the ‘Macassan’ trepang industry to prevent the exploitation of Aborigines, Captain B.R. Douglas crossed out the word ‘the’ and wrote ‘our Aborigines’ (qtd in Macknight 100). This is a clear indication of the white colonial maxim that, like the land, Aborigines were a natural resource to which the British had sole entitlement. Like their Chinese and other Asian counterparts, ‘Macassans’ were routinely accused of debasing Aborigines with alcohol, introducing diseases and exploiting Aboriginal labour. The concern was not so much that Aborigines were being exploited, but that foreign nationals were the beneficiaries of this exploitation. In 1906 the South Australian government ceased issuing licences to the ‘Macassans’ as a way of preventing people of Asian descent from challenging white racial superiority and economic dominance.

The white colonial racism that Indigenous and ‘Macassan’ people encountered resulted in a greater degree of cultural convergence between the two groups. Partial cultural overlap between northern Aboriginal and ‘Macassan’ communities did exist in the pre-invasion era, evident through their sharing of analogous habits. ‘Macassan’ trepangers, for example, like the Aboriginal people they encountered, visited sites according to seasonal variation – each took advantage of particular resources at specific times. Other points of historical convergence between these communities in Australia included the practice of worshipping from the ground, the strict observance of rituals and a lifestyle based around the temporary erection of ‘camps’. Pilgrimage to sites of spiritual significance is also shared by these collectivities. Followers of Islam are expected to travel to Mecca at least once in their lives and Aboriginal people are obliged to observe spiritual connections to sacred sites. In the colonial era, however, the common desire of Aborigines and ‘Macassans’ to avoid the control of white police and other colonial administrators resulted in a cultural convergence that was based on shared political strategies of resistance. Notwithstanding the efforts of white officials to prevent their unions, Aboriginal people continued to meet and trade with the crews of visiting fishing vessels and, in this way, Indigenous people were able to maintain a degree of autonomy and independence in their lives (Yu 65). Despite strident efforts by white colonists to prohibit their sexual liaisons, Indigenous women and ‘Macassan’ fishermen continued to meet in a clandestine way in secluded creeks and bays.

Despite the enforced ending of approximately 300 years of seasonal visits by ‘Macassan’ trepangers to the northern coastline of Australia – ‘a tragic blow to the identity and indeed welfare of the coastal people’ (Saint-Clare qtd in Whykes), Indigenous communities have maintained strong connections with them. Evidence of the enduring social intercourse between ‘Macassans’ and Aborigines exists in much recent cultural production. In recognition of the ancient history of migration and trade between the people of Macassar and the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory and Crocodile Islands, the Milingimbi-Macassar Exchange Program was initiated (by the Australia Council and Asialink). This project sought to build upon these historical ties, and re-establish links between the two communities through a series of artistic exchanges. Six artists from Milingimbi undertook a four-week residency in Macassar, and a reciprocal visit from Macassan artists to Milingimbi followed. The project also included an exhibition and a documentary on the shared history of the ‘Macassan’ trade from each perspective, providing a model for the re-establishment of cultural relations that have existed for hundreds of years (Asialink, ‘Australia-Indonesia’).

The ‘Trepang Project’, initiated by arts worker Andrish Saint-Clare, involved a company of five Macassan performers visiting Elcho Island off the Arnhem Land coast for a month of workshops and community events in 1996. This was followed a year later by a visit of 16 Yolngu cultural practitioners to Ujung Pandang where they visited schools and made television recordings and festival appearances (McRae 18-19). Trepang, an Indigenous opera produced by Saint-Clare in 1997 was one of the outcomes
of the ‘Trepang Project’ initiative. Performed in Yolngu and Macassarese languages, the show used music, song and dance to retell a shared history and celebrate family connections (Palmer). The opera depicted a cross-cultural marriage, with some of the performers being the actual descendants of those in the original marriage ceremony. Mansjur, the male lead in the Macassan cast is a grandson of Otching Daeng Rangka, a Macassan sea captain who abducted and married the great-grandmother of Matjuwi, the senior Yolngu ceremony leader in Trepang (Palmer). The narrative focus of the performance is the romantic ‘love trade’ between the Yolngu girl and the ‘Macassan’ sailor, but the Aboriginal songs performed in Trepang also bespeak a period of conflict and bloodshed that brought intense social turmoil and disruption for the Yolngu. ‘Macassan’ goods brought both benefits and problems for Indigenous communities – knives and alcohol, for instance, proved lethal, especially combined with angry retribution over the abductions of Aboriginal women (Palmer).

‘Afghan’ and Aboriginal Alliances
The first Muslims to settle in Australia permanently were the ‘Afghan’ cameleers of the mid to late nineteenth century.5 Between the 1860s and 1920s, the ‘Afghans’ with their strings of camels provided the most reliable means of cartage and transport in the arid interior. During the many years that ‘Afghan’ camel handlers and vegetable hawkers worked the inland tracks, they observed the habits and customs of local Aborigines and, in many cases, developed trusting relationships with them. After all, there was a considerable degree of cultural convergence or overlap between the Muslim camel drivers and the Aboriginal communities they encountered.

Like their Indigenous counterparts, ‘Afghan’ cameleers were peripatetic. They practised nomadism within discrete areas and were simultaneously both ‘fixed’ and mobile. Other points of cultural convergence between ‘Afghan’ and Aboriginal communities included the practice of revisiting particular areas at certain times. Aboriginal people returned to specific sites for religious observances as well as to gather foodstuffs that were seasonally available, while ‘Afghan’ cameleers made return journeys to mosques and other particular areas along, for instance, the Birdsville, Strzelecki and Oodnadatta Tracks. ‘Afghans’ and desert Aboriginal people shared many other social practices, cultural traits and experiences in their distinct histories of subjugation and usurpation (Rajkowski, Linden 50). Each was accustomed to surviving in a climate of extreme heat and aridity where the occupants had resisted invasion and, more recently, modernisation (Rajkowski, Linden 64). Although Afghanistan was never incorporated into the British Empire the ‘Afghans’ had some experience of British invasion of their homeland. Both came from vigorously determined tribal cultures where the avenging of injustices with violence or murder was understood. Each observed spiritual and sacred sites, eating with the hands was customary, both practised the circumcision of young boys as a rite de passage and observed their obligation to provide food and other resources for newcomers and fellow countrymen.

Other cultural similarities resulted in the suitability of Aboriginal women as wives of the ‘Afghans’. Since few ‘Afghan’ wives, women or children accompanied the men to Australia they had to look for brides among the local women (Stevens, Tin 212). Some white women did marry ‘Afghans – usually those living marginalised lives as deserted wives, widows or sex workers – and were generally viewed with contempt. Many ‘Afghans’ believed that Aboriginal women were more suitable companions or wives than European women (Rajkowski, Linden 51). Indigenous women were accustomed to the basic, demanding life of the bush and more amenable to living in remote Ghan camps as Muslim wives. They helped with the loading of camels and were extremely capable of looking after themselves while their husbands were away for long periods of time carting along bush tracks. Aware that they might face harsh penalties, Aboriginal women who grew up among their extended kin group were used to accepting decisions from the council of elders without protestation. Pamela Rajkowski suggests that ‘Aboriginal women did not protest their lot, due to the way they were raised, which was in many ways similar to the expectations and duties placed on Moslem women’ (Linden 50-51). For Muslim women, obedience was a religious requirement and lack of compliance was likely to attract severe punishment (Stevens, Tin 232). Aboriginal and ‘Afghan’ cultures also functioned with marriages in which the wife was considerably younger than her husband. In Muslim societies a man had to work for years to save enough money to be able to afford and support his young wife and children (or wives – Aboriginal society was also polygamous). In each culture a girl would be betrothed to her husband at a very young age, with the arranged marriage occurring when she reached puberty (Rajkowski, Linden 54-55).

There is evidence that some ‘Afghans’ sexually exploited Aboriginal girls and women (Hercus 40), but other cameleers showed a deep level of commitment to their Aboriginal wives and children. When Nameth Khan’s Arrernte wife died in 1919, for example, he raised their three young children single-handed to avoid their becoming wards of the State. His oldest daughter Miriam married Gool Mohamed, one of the last cameleers in the Alice Springs area (also of ‘Afghan’ and Arrenrte descent), and she still has contact with her late father’s family in Punjab (Stevens, Tin 220). ‘Afghan’ hawker Jack Akbar sought the advice of the local council of elders before marrying Aboriginal woman Lallie Matbar. During his time selling foodstuffs in and camping at Aboriginal camps in Linden (southern WA) in the 1920s, Jack learned much about Aboriginal customs and laws. He appreciated that he required the permission of the elders of the Linden mob to have Lallie as his wife (Rajkowski, Linden 55). After marriage the women would often go to a remote settlement to live in the camelmen’s community where they were quickly drawn into their husbands’ Muslim code and lifestyle. Since the ‘Ghan town’ mosques did not have the required sexually segregated areas, ‘Afghan’ wives – unlike their husbands – did not attend the ‘Ghan town’ mosques for the daily prayer periods (Stevens, ‘Afghan’ 53-54). In other spheres of their lives, however, the women embraced Muslim codes of behaviour – they cooked meat in the halal fashion, fasted for Ramadan, avoided pork and alcohol, dressed modestly and did not leave the home without a female chaperone or their husbands.

According to Christine Stevens, ‘Islam was such a dominant force in her husband’s life and in his family life that there was neither space nor tolerance for a rival theology to co-exist’ (Tin 167). But this claim might be overstated because there is also evidence to suggest that Aboriginal wives embraced aspects of Islam while maintaining a connection not only to their Indigenous spiritual beliefs but Christianity as well. This was especially the case for ‘mixed-race’ Aboriginal girls who were brought up in missions or native settlements (Dadleh 111). By the time the cameleers arrived in the late nineteenth century it is probable that a high proportion of the Aboriginal girls with whom they came into contact were of mixed parentage. It has also been noted that the young women they chose as marriage partners were often so-called ‘half-castes’ because the men preferred lighter skin, perceiving it as more beautiful (Hercus 39-40). As such, the Aboriginal wives of ‘Afghan’ Muslims were more likely to have been taken from their Aboriginal families and brought up on reserves and missions where they were exposed to Christian teachings. Nameth Khan’s ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal wife, for instance, adhered to the strict Muslim lifestyle of her husband while simulta
neously maintaining her faith in the Lutheran religion – a legacy of her upbringing at Hermannsberg mission (Dadleh 111).

The extent to which Aboriginal wives and their ‘Afghan’-Aboriginal children embraced Islam, or their level of exposure to it, often depended on one’s particular family situation. In some cases where the Aboriginal mothers died, ‘Afghan’ husbands raised their children to follow Islam because a Muslim’s ‘own children must be Muslims’ (Stevens, Tin 167). In one family’s case the father, a Muslim camel driver from Baluchistan, sent his four children there (to be raised as Muslims) after his Yamitji wife died in order to prevent their removal (Islam Dreaming). In other instances, according to ‘Afghan’-Aboriginal Ben Murray, the itinerant lifestyle of the ‘Afghan’ cameleers meant that many of them took their family responsibilities lightly, with some ignoring their part-Aboriginal children (Hercus 61). Such attitudes limited the ‘Afghan’-Aboriginal children’s access to their fathers’ Muslim faith.

Often the Aboriginal wives’ adoption of Islam lasted only while they remained with their ‘Afghan’ husbands or partners. Especially in more remote areas, many children of ‘Afghan’-Aboriginal descent tended to follow the lifestyle of their Aboriginal mothers once the (usually much older) ‘Afghan’ fathers had died (Rajkowski, Tracks 168). Despite living by the strict Muslim codes of her husband during their time together, Lallie Matbar never forgot her Wongai people, or her early upbringing. Indeed, her desire to be reunited with them was one of the precipitating factors that led to her eventual separation from her ‘Afghan’ husband Jack Akbar. Another reason Lallie finally left the marriage was because of Jack’s strict and unforgiving attitudes towards one of their daughters (Wilson). Within their home the Akbar children were exposed to the lessons of the Qur’an, were familiar with the teachings of the prophet Mohammet and of his god Allah, and visited the Adelaide mosque during their school holidays. Jack’s attitudes about the roles of wives and mothers, of men and women, were consistent with his traditional Muslim customs, becoming more entrenched as his daughters grew up (Rajkowski, Linden 253). By the mid-1940s when Jack and Lallie’s eldest daughter was fifteen years old, he had arranged for her to marry the middle-aged son of a prominent member of the ‘Afghan’ camelmen’s wider community in the far north of South Australia. The news that Mona was pregnant to a local non-Muslim youth (she deliberately did this to break away from her father) devastated Jack. According to his religion and culture her actions had brought great shame on him and he banished her from the house, forcing her to give her baby up for adoption (Wilson).

The few studies that have considered the history of Aboriginal/’Afghan’ cross-cultural meeting offer mixed accounts of how these groups interrelated with each other. Stevens, for instance, claims that ‘Afghans’ considered themselves far superior to Australian Aborigines:

From their earliest encounters, Australian Afghans considered Aborigines inferior; their simple, very basic life-style, lack of material comforts or possessions . and their seemingly undeveloped religious life indicated to the Afghans an inferiority and lack of status (Tin 152).

According to Miriam Dadleh – whose father came from Peshawar in Pakistan and whose mother was an Arrernte woman from the Northern Territory – despite the fact that a lot of cameleers married Aboriginal women, ‘Afghans were prejudiced against Aboriginal people’ (110). Later in her personal testimony, however, Dadleh qualifies her earlier assertion by noting that it might not have been prejudice per se, but a reluctance to expose their children to non-Muslim ways: ‘I don’t know about prejudice though, a lot of white people’s ways too they didn’t want us to know’ (110).

Racquel Austin-Abdullah, whose family history ties her to the ‘Afghan’ cameleers and the Indigenous Barkindji people (from the Darling River region near Broken Hill), maintains that her family’s oral tradition insists on close relationships between the two groups. She believes that ‘Afghan’ men may have ‘identified with the customs and laws, society and kinship structure of the Aboriginal people’ (qtd in Cordell). This is corroborated by Rajkowski, whose interviewees of ‘Afghan’ descent in Adelaide, Marree and Alice Springs in In the Tracks of the Camelmen (1987) were ‘unanimous in the positive opinion they had of Aborigines’ (169). According to Sallay Mahomet, for instance, the ‘Afghans’ treated the Aborigines well, because ‘their religion taught them that all humans are equal’ (qtd in Rajkowski, Tracks 169).

But such nostalgic accounts might tend to downplay the fact that ‘Afghans’ also often exploited Aboriginal people. Rajkowski admits that feelings of ‘difference’ between ‘Afghans’ and Aborigines could be detected in conversations with her ‘Afghan’ interviewees. ‘Afghans’ clearly perceived Aborigines as a readily exploitable source of labour and, in the case of one cameleer family their Aboriginal workers were not permitted to eat in the house with them (Tracks 169). Another interviewee made a distinction between so-called ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-caste’ Aborigines, further adopting a racist stance – resembling that of white colonists – in her assertion that the latter were more ‘cunning’ (qtd in Rajkowski, Tracks 169). The different versions of ‘Afghan’/Indigenous encounters are illustrative of the complex and ambiguous relationships they shared, but they also demonstrate that ‘Afghans’ were both victimised by, and implicated in, the white colonising mission. The ‘Afghan’ cameleers’ immense contribution to the ‘opening up’ of inland Australia resulted in the further progress and expansion of white ‘settlement’ into the centre of the country and the subsequent displacement of numerous Indigenous communities.

However, ‘Afghan’ cameleers were also the targets of white colonists’ racist campaigns and their administrative expression. Whites found many reasons to object to the presence of the cameleers. The Afghans’ rigorous adherence to their daily prayer periods, fasting and prohibitions, traditional burial practices and faith in Allah contributed to their estrangement from the predominantly white Christian populace. Colonists also resented ‘Afghan’ labour because, like other cheap ‘coloured’ labour, it undermined white wages. There was also jealousy was aroused because neither the bullock drivers nor the horse and donkey teamsters were capable of beating the unparalleled reliability and endurance of the camel. In addition, white colonists variously described ‘Afghans’ as being ‘traitorously disposed’ (qtd in M. L. Jones 64) and ‘traitorous by nature’ (qtd in Stevens, Tin 148). This view of ‘Afghans’ – which has proven to be remarkably tenacious and impacted upon contemporary white Australian views of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers – arose largely as a result of the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 1840s and 1870s. According to Stevens, memories and stories of the two Afghan Wars and the Indian mutiny ‘created mistrust and reinforced paranoiac notions’ amongst colonists (Tin 148). Victims of racial and religious persecution, ‘Afghans’ found refuge among the various ‘Ghan town’ communities dotted throughout the Australian interior.

‘Ghan towns’ were ostensibly separated from the rest of a town because white colonists found the smell of the camels offensive and argued that they frightened the horses; in reality, whites refused to tolerate ‘Afghans’ living in their midst, although it is also the case that the camelmen found it more convenient to remain outside town centres in order to depasture their camels. In Marree the railway line physically and culturally divided the townsfolk, with whites residing to the west of the line, and ‘Afghans’ (and Aborigines) to the east. In Coolgardie too, the camel camp was separate and located on the outskirts of town, ‘for the sight and smell of the Afghans and their camels was to the whites, little better than that of the Aborigines’ (Stevens, Tin 152). Like their ‘Afghan’ counterparts, Aboriginal people were also ostracised from the broader community and were prohibited from living in white townships. Indigenous people too, were subjected not only to the racist attitudes of the wider community but the subsequent institutionalisation of such ideology as policy. For Aborigines and ‘Afghans, common experiences of white racist persecution often resulted in a shared determination to resist their treatment.

Aboriginal communities utilised the services of the ‘Afghans’ to ameliorate the impact of white colonisation on their lives. With their usual sources of food in shortage, Aborigines would buy or barter foodstuffs from ‘Afghan’ cameleers and hawkers, rather than visit the ration stations where they came under the close scrutiny of white police (Rajkowski, Linden 33). This was especially important given the growing number of ‘mixed-race’ or ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal children who were at risk of being taken by white officials to native settlements. If they were unable to pay the ‘Afghans’, Aboriginal boys and men worked for the cameleers, or temporarily loaned them their wives for sexual favours (Stevens, Tin 213). The white colonial administrators objected to ‘Afghans’ employing Aborigines because it rendered them unavailable for white economic endeavours. They also opposed ‘Afghans’ and Aboriginal women engaging in sexual relationships because their ‘mixed-race’ children were an affront to the notion of a pure, ‘White Australia’.

The fact that Aboriginal women and ‘Afghan’ men were able to marry or form close relationships at all testifies to their will and determination to subvert white racist policies and take control of their lives. Discriminatory legislation introduced in Queensland (1897), Western Australia (1905) and South Australia (1911) sought to prevent Aborigines and ‘Asiatics’ (including ‘Afghans’) from ‘cohabitation’. In WA, the amalgamation in 1915 of the Aborigines Department with the Department of Immigration was illustrative of white governmental concern with the impact foreign nationals were having on the local Aboriginal population (Rajkowski, Linden 86). A.O. Neville, Secretary for Immigration and Chief Protector of Aborigines, was especially concerned by the effect ‘Asiatics’ had on the ‘natives’. Neville opposed intercourse or marriage between Asians and Aborigines because such unions and their consequent generations of children interfered with his plan to assimilate all Aborigines into the wider Anglo community (and would remove one of his wards from his control since the woman would take on the nationality of her husband). Neville could not conceive that the relationships between Asians and local Aboriginal women could lead to anything but the ruination of the women. He wrote that: ‘there has been the marriage of indentured Asiatics to native women, resulting in their desertion, destitution and prostitution. Afghan and Aboriginal marriages have led to similar ends’ (qtd in Rajkowski, Linden 90). Neville considered unwed Aboriginal women having illegitimate children to white men more desirable than an Aboriginal woman legally marrying a non-European man who would care for the children
because the former contributed to the process of the biological absorption and social assimilation of Aborigines into the wider community. Rajkowski’s (1995) moving account of the legislative obstacles that ‘half-caste’ Aborigine Lallie Matbar and ‘Afghan’ hawker Jack Akbar overcame in order to remain together provides a chilling reminder of the lengths to which colonial officials went in order to realise their dream of a ‘White Australia’.

Continued in Islam in Indigenous Australia, part 2


1. John Davis’ essay ‘History and the People without Europe’ is a useful reminder that ‘our’ calendar is itself an ideological construction.

2. The shorthand label ‘Macassan’ is somewhat inadequate because the fishing fleets were actually comprised of ethnically diverse crews with Macassans from Macassar (present-day Ujung Pandang in Sulawesi), Bugis, Javanese, Ceramese, Sumbawese and Bajau peoples (Clarke 317). In the paper I use the term ‘Macassan’ in quotation marks to acknowledge its limitation as an all-encompassing term.

3. The implementation in Queensland of the 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act was ostensibly introduced to protect Aboriginal people from being exploited by the Chinese. The Chinese were widely accused of using opium and alcohol to seduce Aboriginal women and girls and of using opium to keep Aboriginal workers in their employ. In reality, however, white attempts to prevent Indigenous/Chinese labour and sexual unions stemmed from white colonial anxieties about an ability to maintain racial superiority, sole possession of the country and economic dominance (see Stephenson 59).

4. Based on the recommendations of Dr Walter Roth (a former Protector from Queensland who had helped facilitate the introduction of its 1897 Act), the Western Australian government introduced the Aborigines Act of 1905. Like the Queensland Act before it, the Western Australian legislation was introduced to prevent sexual contact and labour agreements between Aboriginal and Asian peoples, to remove their progeny to institutions, and to incarcerate Aborigines on reserves.

5. Some of the camelmen came from Afghanistan, others originated from Baluchistan, Punjab, Kashmir and elsewhere. I use the term ‘Afghan’ in inverted commas throughout the paper to indicate that not all of the camelmen originated from Afghanistan.

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