The Afghan cameleers of early Australia are an iconic part of our pioneering history.
Bye Khan, who died in Bourke, NSW, aged 107, deserves a starring role in that history, not only for his longevity.
Like most “Afghan’’ cameleers, he would have come to Australia from the north-west regions of India, to train and handle camels to carry goods into the harsh interior of the country.
By 1885, Bourke had a rail service from Dubbo, and two years later the town had its own camel transport company, the Bourke Carrying Company. Abdul Wade was its initial owner, Bye Khan is thought to have come to Australia to take up the position of manager.
His obituary reported that his wife had died before he came to Australia, although another article said she was alive when he left but he later found out she had died. If Khan was indeed 107 when he passed away, he was 45 when he came to Bourke.
“He was a big man, about six foot one inch and 16 stone, and used to look even larger in his turban and loose robes.
“In the last nine years he had worn Australian suits,’’ said an article in The Sun.
Up to 2000 camels were based in a yard just south of the railway station, and from here camel trains of 20-30 beasts with their cameleers would distribute goods and bring wool to the railhead. They were also used at times by Cobb and Co to pull carriages, and distribute mail.
Bourke’s Muslim community, known then as Mohammeden, was thought to have initially worshipped in a room at Bye Khan’s home. Later, a small tin mosque was constructed in Hope Street, Bourke. It was removed to the Bourke cemetery in 1988 for safekeeping and there it sits, still oriented towards Mecca, and close to the graves of those who used it.
The replacement of camels by motorized transport meant that by the time Khan died in 1949 there were only about four Afghans living in the Bourke region, working as gardeners or on properties.
A Mohammeden priest flew from Sydney to conduct Khan’s burial. Khan owned considerable property in Bourke. Two brothers who had also come to Australia had pre-deceased him.
KORVIN, G. 2003a ‘Afghan and South-Asian Pioneers of Australia (1830–1930): a Biographical Study (Part 1)’, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, vol. 51(1):49–90.
Western Herald (Bourke, NSW : 1887 – 1970) Friday 13 June 1947
National Museum of Australia, Learning Resources; https://digital-classroom.nma.gov.au/images/camel-caravan-bourke-new-south-wales-taken-about-1900
The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954) Sunday 15 June 1947