The South Asian Diaspora in Australia


A review of Camels, Ships, Trains: Translation Across the ‘Indian Archipelago’ 1860-1930, by Samia Khatun.

Samia Khatun’s remarkable PhD dissertation, Camels, Ships, Trains: Translation Across the ‘Indian Archipelago’ 1860-1930 examines cross-cultural interactions arising from the little-known but historically significant South Asian presence in Australia in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the title indicates, a key theme of the work is translation. Khatun draws on diverse source materials originally produced in a variety of South Asian and Indigenous Australian languages, in addition to English, and is especially concerned with the colloquial dialects that emerged as a result of cross cultural encounters between speakers of these languages. It is in a sense an extended meditation on the role of linguistic translation in mediating diverse cultural world views. Khatun, following Dipesh Chakrabarty, uses the term translation to refer to the act of writing a linear prose history of peoples for whom conceptions of time are not necessarily bound by “homogenous, secular, calendrical time” (p. 37). Most creatively, Khatun also employs the term translation to refer to movement through space, both metaphorically in terms of the “transportation network that connected the interior of the Australian colonies with British India,” and as mobility across present-day landscapes “as an explicit methodology of research to decipher certain sources” (p. 38). With these three senses of the term translation, Camels, Ships, Trains evinces a rich ethnographic sensibility in documenting South Asian encounters with indigenous Australians and white settlers in the era immediately before and after the inauguration of the “White Australia Policy.”

A handful of earlier historical and anthropological works have approached this topic largely with a view to acknowledging South Asian contributions, and especially those of the so-called “Afghan cameleers” to the project of Australian nation building (p. 59). Khatun takes a broader perspective, situating the South Asian diaspora in Australia within a transnational framework of Indian Ocean circulations. As Khatun tells us, according to the geographical imaginary of Sir Thomas Mitchell, Surveyor General of New South Wales in 1845, the Australian continent and British India, along with the 6000 or so islands of the Dutch East Indies, constituted the “Indian Archipelago.” The geo-political and linguistic barriers to greater contact between British India and the Australian colonies presented by the Dutch East Indies and the Malay world more broadly render Mitchell’s formulation (and Khatun’s perhaps wry appropriation of it) somewhat tenuous. Nonetheless, there is something appropriate about this construction, with the notion of Australia as part of an “Indian Archipelago” inviting us to suspend teleological understandings of the island continent as naturally bounded nation-state, and view it from the perspective of the Indian Ocean voyagers and sojourners who are among Khatun’s main subjects.

The first chapter examines the presence in a mosque in the outback mining town Broken Hill of a 500-page Bengali book printed in 1894 entitled Kachachol Ambia. While local historians in the 1960s mistakenly identified the book as a copy of the Quran, and subsequent Australian scholars working on the ‘Afghan Cameleers’ readily accepted this misidentification, Bangladesh-born Khatun quickly realized that it was not a Quran at all, but a form of performative Bengali verse literature known as puthi. Originally published in 1861, the Kachachol Ambia was reprinted in numerous editions throughout the later nineteenth century by the Battala publishing house in Calcutta. A translation of the Persian Qisas-al-Anbiya or “Stories of the Prophets” into a popular register of Bengali unafraid of loan words from Urdu or Hindi, the Kachachol Ambiya is an example of a genre that was read aloud at gatherings that drew people together from a range of class backgrounds. Although her inferences are necessarily speculative, Khatun brings to life the arteries of the “Indian Archipelago” circulations of Afghan Cameleers and Bengali lascars as she sketches possible routes by which the book may have arrived at Broken Hill.

The second chapter draws primarily on the unpublished Urdu memoir of Khawaja Muhammad Bux, which was initially dictated during his retirement to a munshi (scribe) in Lahore, before being reproduced in calligraphic nastaliq at the behest of Bux’s descendants, and was most recently translated into English by Gabor Korvin and Syed Haider Hassan. Bux’s memoir is noteworthy not only because it relates the details of a remarkable life that spanned the “Indian Archipelago” (and beyond) but as an exceedingly rare example of a primary source offering unmediated access to the subjectivity of an Indian Ocean lascar during the age of steam. Such a source perhaps only exists because Bux was successful in rising above that station to become an export/import merchant dealing in textiles and “Indian novelties” in the West Australian colony, so much so that he was able to sponsor the emigration of numerous family members who assisted him expanding his interests in the 1890s (p. 123).

The best known South Asian migrants to the Australian colonies of the nineteenth century were the so-called “Afghan cameleers,” who were recruited not only from Afghanistan but north-western parts of British India including Baluchistan and the Punjab. With their expertise in camel handling, these men proved instrumental in establishing a viable pastoral industry in the arid interior of the continent. Camel trains supplied remote sheep stations with necessary rations and served as the first link in a transportation network of railways and steamships that conveyed wool to distant markets. Although individual cameleers amassed personal fortunes through shrewd investments in the transportation business, as a whole this community of men remained economically humble and marginal to white settler society while enjoying ambivalent relations with aboriginal communities.

Chapters 3 through 7 explore various dimensions of the cultural encounter between South Asian cameleers and indigenous Australians, in the context of British colonial rule. Paying close attention to indigenous place names, stories, and song-poetry, Khatun examines in Chapter 3 how the arrival of camels, the telegraph and the railway “grafted a colonial communications and transport hub onto an existing cosmopolitan center of Aboriginal trade” rearranging but certainly not obliterating indigenous sacred geographies (pp. 43-44). In Chapter 4, Luise Hercus’ translations of an oral history detailing a meeting between two Arabunna girls and two South Asian camel men provides the entry point for an analysis of gendered relations between these communities, while in Chapter 5 the author’s own experiences of mobility in the Australian outback or “country” are brought to bear on her understanding of “the grammar of Arabunna storytelling” (p. 45). The author’s self-reflexive awareness of the ethics of scholarly research and indigenous history and culture is particularly refreshing in this chapter.

Chapters 6 and 7 examine “the particular species of Muslim marriage conventions that took root along the camel tracks through Australian deserts” (p. 45), comparing it with the dissemination of other species such Acacia farenesia and “Frontier English,” which were spread by the “camel-vector” (p. 238). Khatun offers an interesting critique of earlier Australian scholarship that has understood Muslim marriage institutions too narrowly or rigidly as “bride price” (p. 237), arguing  instead that in the Indian Archipelago the institution of mahar “was being invented anew and therefore up for grabs” (p. 245).

The narrative climax of the dissertation comes with a violent episode that erupted in a mahar dispute between two camel men, and Chapter 7, “In Pursuit of Sher Khan,” gives us glimpses of Khatun’s dramatic prose potential. For instance we are told that, “After firing five shots at Marree railway siding, Sher Khan vanished into the inky night, leaving Moosha Balooch in a pool of blood” (p. 256). If only more historical prose was as evocative and scintillating. In this chapter, Khatun turns to the “complex convention” of the Aboriginal  tracking narrative, both as it appeared in court testimony and in often repeated oral recitations, in this case, as recorded by linguists in the 1960s and 1970s. In a close reading of the English translations of these tracking narratives, Khatun arrives at a fascinating insight into the way that these stories evolved as they were passed from one language group to another, and into the three-way cultural encounter that occurred when Sher Khan’s attempted murder of Moosha Balooch brought  the colonial state into the mahar negotiation.

Camels, Ships, Trains will be of profound interest for scholars of transnational, Australian and British Imperial history, South Asian diaspora, indigenous and translation studies. It makes a welcome addition to the growing body of work on connections between Australia and South Asia. Although it was not perhaps the author’s conscious goal, one also hopes that it will help serve as a corrective to the disturbing note of xenophobia that has recently characterized Australian attitudes towards asylum seekers, many of whom, ironically enough, have recently fled the troubles in Afghanistan for safe havens in the “Indian Archipelago.”

Richard Forster
Department of History
University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

Primary Sources

Bux, Khawaja Muhammad, Gabor Korvin and Syed Haider Hassan. Memoirs of Khawaja Muhammad Bux: Australian Businessman (Translated to English from Urdu). Personal Collection of Gabor Korvin, 2006.
Case File: ‘The King Against Sher Khan, Circuit Court of Port Augusta’, July 1904
no. 5, Archived Files of the Supreme Court of South Australia, Criminal Jurisdiction.
‘Comments on the customs of the Afghans’ in Luise A. Hercus, “Afghan Stories from the Northeast of South Australia,” Aboriginal History 5, 1 (1981): 62.
Hercus, Luise. “Singing and Talking About Red Ochre.” Personal Collection of Luise Hercus, 2009.
Sofiuddin, Kazi. Kachachol Ambia. Kolkatta: Hanifia Press, 1301 BS/1894 AD.

Dissertation Information

University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. 2012. 317pp. Primary Advisor: Penny Russell.


Image: Cooking a meal in Jeparit, Victoria, about 1905. Photo from Museum Victoria Collection.

1 comment
  1. I agree with Dr Foster that Samia’s is one of the best History Dissertations in recent years. She made an excellent job, I barely wait to see it published. For those interested in the remarkable “Memoirs of Khawaja Muhammad Bux”, it will soon be published in my edited version, in 2 or 3 instalments, in Karachi, by the Hamdard Institute’s Journal of Pakistani History.
    Kudos to Samia Khatun!
    Best regards,
    Professor Gabor Korvin
    King Fahd Universiy, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like