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Book review: Hidden histories of Australia’s cameleers

A historian retraces the links between South Asia and Australia, uncovering a rich and complex legacy.

Photo: Jilbert Ebrahimi/unsplash
Photo: Jilbert Ebrahimi/unsplash

Book review: Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia, by Samia Khatun (University of Queensland Press, 2019)

A decade ago, Bangladeshi-Australian writer and historian Samia Khatun sat on the floor of the 150-year-old mosque in Broken Hill and opened up a thick volume from the bookshelf, labelled a Koran. It was not, in fact, a Koran, but a book of songs, prose, and poetry written in Bengali, her family’s mother tongue. What she discovered inside was so fascinating that Khatun ended up writing a book of her own about it – and in particular, how the book’s origin story also sheds light on the earliest South Asian Australians, who travelled here more than 150 years ago.

Khatun’s book, Australianama, is part personal narrative, part histography, and part academic dissection of the sociocultural forces that have shaped some small corners of Australia – those that tend to be left out by the mainstream narrative. With the songbook – the Kasasol Ambia – as a launchpad, Khatun traces the journeys of South Asians to Australia in the 1800s, mostly to take part in the camel trade, but also in search of adventure, new horizons, and fortune.

Khatun’s research reasserts the historical links between South Asia and Australia, underscoring the vital importance of South Asian trade links, knowledge, and labour to the development of Australia through its early transportation systems. Many hundreds – thousands, even – of South Asians flocked to Australia in the second half of the 19th century to take part in the camel trade, at a time when camels were the only form of transport into the desert interior of Australia. They mostly came from Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan, quickly becoming known collectively as “Afghans”. That’s a long way from Bengal, so how did a Bengali book wind up in Broken Hill?

Khatun began researching and found that the stories and histories of the early South Asians in Australia are all there – but scattered across different sources: historical societies, libraries, oral histories, accounts written up and stored abroad.

Australianama traces Khatun’s journey to India and Bangladesh to try to discover more about the Kasasol Ambia, a book that, in the bazaars of 19th century Dhaka and Calcutta, would have been opened and read aloud, perhaps at a tailor’s shop, while people gathered around. Its classical version of Bengali is so dense and unfamiliar that Khatun had to consult linguist relatives and experts to decode it.

What she discovers is lyrical verse filled with imagery: “I leapt into the sea. Searching for pearls, I began threading a chain,” writes one of the book’s three poets, of his attempts to translate poetry.

Khatun began researching and found that the stories and histories of the early South Asians in Australia are all there – but scattered across different sources: historical societies, libraries, oral histories, accounts written up and stored abroad. Perhaps her most surprising discovery is that oral histories of various Aboriginal languages contain references to South Asians, or “Abiganas” (Afghans), as they are still referred to in the Arabunna language, found near Marree, South Australia, once a major camel hub, and home to many Afghans working in the trade, either as merchants or drivers.

The story of one such merchant, Lahore-born camel merchant Muhammad Bux, stands out, as his own memoirs, written in Urdu, provided a rich source of information. Bux began his life at the bottom of the social hierarchy as a lascar, or low-paid Indian sailor, on British ships. He worked his way up to become a wealthy businessman, owning properties and businesses in Perth and a camel business in Coolgardie, in WA’s goldfields. He travelled regularly between Australia and then-British India. His family later became known as the “Australiawallahs”. Bux invested heavily in the Lahore neighbourhood Australia Chowk, and his son founded Pakistan’s Australasia Bank (since renamed Allied Bank).

Khatun also looked to oral histories from indigenous communities, which yielded details of interactions between Indigenous Australians and South Asians. She points to large archives of Aboriginal language histories tracing back to the seven decades of cameleering, with some of them containing fragments of South Asian songs and phrases. In one case, she works hard to ingratiate herself with the custodians of the Arabunna language by going on a camping trip in the desert of northern South Australia, in an effort to learn more about this shared history.

In doing so, she uncovers small details and events that she fleshes out to tell the wider story: of waves of settlement, of colonial might and ultimate repression, underpinned by the realisation that the camel trade formed the backbone of Australia’s transport routes, and consequently, that South Asians played a pivotal role in its establishment. Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is revealing that these parallel histories exist, and reminding us that there is a wealth of such stories out there just waiting to be told.

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