Ryan Butta says Afghan cameleers were ignored by Henry Lawson, and our national story is the poorer for it – Michmutters

Ryan Butta says Afghan cameleers were ignored by Henry Lawson, and our national story is the poorer for it

It’s a bold move to pick a bone with one of Australia’s best-known and most celebrated writers, but Ryan Butta doesn’t shy away from it.

The writing of Henry Lawson, he says, “gave a sense of national identity … which still permeates how white Australians thinks about [themselves]”.

However, there are some glaring omissions in that writing, argues Butta, a NSW-based author and editor.

In 1892, when Lawson was reporting on his time in Bourke, in north-western New South Wales, he “not only ignored the Indigenous people, but [also] the Afghans”, Butta says.

Yellowing black and white photo of a camel with saddle and man holding its reigns wearing turban and squinting into the sun.
Cameleer Bejah Dervish leaves on an expedition from Mullewa, WA, in 1896. Camels carried heavy loads over long distances with little need of water.(Image: State Library of South Australia)

Butta spent several years researching this history for his book, The Battle of Abdul Wade.

Wade was a young Afghan entrepreneur who first brought his camel trains to the outback in the 1890s.

He was revered by many in and around Bourke for his business nous and his generosity.

Among other things, Wade offered hundreds of his camels to Australia’s war effort at the outbreak of World War I.

However, he was attacked by other sections of the community, who saw him as a threat to their business interests, and to white Australia.

Black and white grainy photo of Henry Lawson with thick mustache and round cap, and jacket, vest and tie, standing.
Henry Lawson, pictured in 1911, was sent to Bourke on assignment for The Bulletin newspaper, and spent about nine months there,(Supplied: Trove)

Wade was not alone in dividing opinions. Newspapers from the time heave with conflicted community sentiment about early camels.

For example, after flooding in 1890, the Cunnamulla Argus reported that: “When provisions had nearly run out and not even the lightest vehicle could stir on any highways leading to us, the despised Afghan came with his camels through wastes of water and saved us from semi-starvation.”

An 1892 editorial in the Bulletin put forward another view, saying “the imported Asiatic … is another cheap labor curse in a land where such curses are already much too plentiful”.

Butta believes it would have been impossible at that time to have missed the Afghans’ “ubiquity” in social, political and business life.

Yet, he says, Lawson wrote about none of it.

“If you know Bourke, you know Australia,” Lawson told a friend in a 1902 letter.

But which version of Australia?

Black and white image of one man holding camel's lead while another man mounts the camel.
In 1916, Abdul Wade donated camels to the Australian war effort. Here, men from the Imperial Camel Corp, deployed to fight in World War I, train to ride them.(Supplied)

How camels came to Australia

There’s some confusion about exactly when the first camels and their handlers arrived in Australia, and for what purpose.

We do know that “Harry” was the first camel to arrive in Australia after landing in Port Adelaide on 12 October, 1840. The animal was shipped from Tenerife, Spain, by the Phillips brothers, Henry Weston and George.


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