Every Australian has heard of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, two white explorers who led the first expedition across the forbidding heart of the vast continent in 1860. Few people know that the pair were accompanied by 24 camels and three Afghan cameleers.
The three were among 2,000 cameleers brought to Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century, along with 15,000 camels.
The men and their beasts played a crucial role in opening up the arid interior, carving routes across the Outback, delivering supplies to remote settlements and helping to build the Overland Telegraph Line, which connected Australia with the rest of the world.
Their contribution to the exploration and development of a - to white men - inhospitable country has largely gone unrecognised. But an exhibition that has just opened at the National Library in Canberra, Pioneers of the Inland: Australia 's Muslim Cameleers 1860s-1930s, may go some way to rectifying that, with previously unseen photographs and artefacts providing new insight into the cameleers' remarkable story.
Most of inland Australia was untrodden by white people in the mid- 19th century. Europeans were keen to settle the interior, but lacked the means. Horses and bullock teams were unsuitable because of a lack of feed and water for them in the Outback. The solution was camels, used in India and Afghanistan to convey goods long distances across similarly parched landscapes.
If camels were to be imported, the men who knew how to train and look after them were needed too. In Australia, the cameleers - largely desert nomads from Afghanistan and northern India, now Pakistan - were known collectively as "Afghans". These men seized the chance to cross the ocean and earn relatively good wages thousands of miles from home. They brought to Australia a new culture and a new religion: Islam. The country's first mosques were built by cameleers, in Adelaide in 1890 and in Perth in 1905.
The Afghans accompanied many of the white explorers, but they did more than guide their baggage-laden camels through the saltbush and spinifex grass. According to Philip Jones, one of the exhibition's curators, expedition diaries show that they also acted as guides and route finders. They, too, deserve the status of explorers.
When the Outback began to be settled, it was with the indispensable assistance of the cameleers and their charges, …