My great great Uncle Tom Palmer got himself into the history books, in this case the Australian Dictionary of Biography, by shooting and killing one of his Warrnambool farm employees.
I’d known about this for years through family history, but it popped up again a few weeks ago, when a cousin on the other side of the family who runs the Mansfield bookshop, recommended The Ballad of Abdul Wade. She told me I’d like it because it was it was about camels and sheep.
It is, but she didn’t know about Tom being in the book and it was a total surprise when I stumbled over the shooting on page 58.
Apparently in 1882, Tom had imported 28 Afghans and north-west Indians to work on his farm, supposedly at that time Australia’s biggest dairy farm. What he didn’t know initially, was that they were from different tribes and almost from the time of their arrival, he kept a revolver under his pillow as a result.
Anyhow there was a huge fight one night and he grabbed his gun and went to their quarters to sort it out. One of them came at him and he fired what he thought were a couple of warning shots. But he killed one of the young Afghans.
Tom went to trial in Warrnambool for manslaughter and I think was lucky to get off, largely because his eyesight was bad and he said he’d had no intention of hurting anyone. A pretty smart legal eagle brother in law* and barrister, was quite an asset too.
Anyhow in The Ballad of Abdul Wade book, Tom was labelled a murderer as were a number of other Australians who had murdered Afghans in the 1880s.
The key to the book though was that Abdul Wade, actually Wahid, was the 16 year old brother of the murdered Afghan and was also working on Tom’s farm.
Tom abandoned the importation of Afghans after the shooting and little more was heard of Abdul for seven or eight years.
But then in 1892, he popped up at Bourke as a successful owner of strings of camels and indentured Afghan cameleers he'd imported, operating as the Bourke Carrying Co. In one year in the late 1890s, he reputedly landed 750 camels at Port Augusta.
However, he and other Afghan camel freight carriers, were in direct competition with what was viewed as more traditional carriers, white men using bullock teams and heavy wagons.
The camel teams and their Afghan operators already had huge runs on the board, from saving inhabitants of Cunnamulla from starving during a big flood, by getting desperately needed food supplies to the town when bullock wagons simply sank to their axles.
As well, if a distant station owner or manager wanted farm supplies brought in and/or wool taken out, the cameleers could predict to the day when they would arrive and depart. Outward freight was often two 80kg bales per camel.
So, while the cameleers were extremely reliable, the bullockies rarely were and could not even operate their teams in flood or drought conditions.
The other important thing was that the Afghans, being Muslims, did not drink alcohol and that made an enormously positive difference to their reliability. Even so, there was nothing to stop dinky di white Australians from buying or breeding camels and getting on the efficient freight system themselves. But very few did. None are recorded in the book anyway.
But Abdul Wahid and his colleagues did well, with Abdul in 1903 buying a grazing property in the Bourke district, 56km east of Wananaaring, where he bred camels to go as far afield as Chillagoe, Mt Garnet, and Mungana in North Queensland, hauling copper ore.
But Abdul went even further in the freight business in 1905, by paying a Sydney importer 7000 pounds for five steam engines. These he shipped to Townsville to even more efficiently ship the copper ore from the Chillagoe area mines. They also obviated the need to pay big sums for camel feed in North Queensland. Poisonous plants there had taken a deadly toll on camels there.
In 1914-15, Abdul offered his Australian camels and his contacts in Afghanistan to the Australian government, for service in the Imperial Camel Corp against the Turks in World War I; the offer was accepted.
Abdul returned to Afghanistan in 1923 and the book’s author was unable to really trace what happened to him there. He was also spotted in London in 1928.
Abdul’s Irish wife Emily (died Sydney 1926) and children remained in Sydney. His son Abdul Hamid (1900 – 1982), served in the Royal Australian Navy in World War II and then became a Sydney taxi driver. Great Great Uncle Tom rather disappeared from the pages of history as well.
I found it interesting to reflect that in the wake of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, we are again accepting thousands of Afghan refugees into Australia. Further I don’t think they are being subjected to the huge racism they were a century or more ago, viz. the successful assimilation of an Afghan women’s soccer team into a Melbourne competition.
* William Henry Gaunt (1830 – 1905).