The Outback and the Afghans
More than a hundred years ago people had very different ideas about the bush, the interior or the outback of South Australia than what we have today. They also had different ideas about the people who lived and worked in the north of the colony and what should be done with them and with the area itself. The Afghans, who had made such an enormous contribution to inland transport and without whose work the opening up of the inland would have taken a lot longer came in for special, and often very negative, attention from reporters. In February 1889 the Adelaide Observer published the following article, with the title, 'A good word for the Interior'.
As the world advances in age and increases in population fresh country will have to be opened out. Europe's surplus will not always have America or India to fall back upon, and the Britisher cannot very well assimilate with the other inhabitants of Asia. Africa offers a fair field of development, but Australia, and more especially the interior, is the country to which in a very few years the eyes of the whole world will be directed. The Afghan, with a keen eye to business, recognises this fact, and he and his camels are constantly on the tramp with merchandise between our far northern townships and the western and southwestern districts of Queensland.
Rubies are discovered in the MacDonnell Ranges. Thither goes the Afghan, hawking every description of goods, acting as storekeepers and assisting in the general search for the riches which lie buried. It is a fact that the Afghans are making large sums of money in the North. There are numbers of them there now, and if we are not wary they will wrest from our grasp that which should virtually be ours as carriers and hawkers of merchandise.
What objects have these swarthy sons of the East in view? Is it purely a love of adventure, the developments of our unknown lands, or the ulterior benefit of the settler, which prompts the hardy Afghan to undergo innumerable vicissitudes and live on almost nothing? I think not. As they sit at the openings of their tents in the cool of the summer evening, on the completion of a long journey, they break out into song. Everything around is still, and as the gentle cadences, together with the deeper outbursts, are wafted along on the wings of the breeze, you are thrilled through and through, and should there be many in the camp the effect is greatly heightened, they keep splendid time, and their part songs are very taking.
Take one and dissect him, look into his very soul, and what will you find there? Love for his adopted country, gratitude for being enabled to amass wealth? No. None of these, he is thinking of his native country of palms and oases, of the time when he can return and live after his heart's content, and thus he gives way to a delirious transport, and religious and love songs are sung in all the rough beauty of his native tongue.
During the last few years, in which the Government have had so much trouble to find work for the unemployed, the Chinaman and Afghan have flourished in the interior. The Transcontinental Railway absorbed the unemployed, whilst they again readily availed themselves of the services of the Chinamen and Afghans who followed close in their wake. However the almond-eyed are not so plentiful there now, and as they are rather sensitive at times, they will not brook much abuse from the European, but clear off to fresh fields. With the Afghan it is different. He seems to have a higher estimation of himself, he is not so touchy, he is here for a purpose, and until that goal for which he aims at is reached, here he will stick.
It seems incredible that mile after mile of such barren country as we have in the interior should be of no use whatever. Experience has shown in other countries that those spots, which appeared the most barren, are in reality the richest, and so I am sanguine enough to believe, will prove the same with our heritage. What we want for the development of the interior is a class of men with pluck, energy and endurance. Men more like the early settlers of over fifty years ago. If the Afghan can do a good thing out of it why not our own countrymen?
It may at once be said there is no analogy, the thing is perfectly absurd, not fit for a white man to live there, but experience proves otherwise, and many people have lived there for years in health and prosperity. A class of immigrants should be brought out yearly, they would prove far better and more remunerative colonists than the Afghans. Even the squatter has a great deal of trouble to get hold of a good man as a shepherd or knockabout hand. In fact the steady old bushman, who has passed years in the interior and accumulated a small independence, who will sit by the hour and regale you to your heart's content with his thrilling experiences of colonial life, is fast dying out, and the bushman of today is a rolling stone, is always on the tramp, and far too independent even if he gets a good place to stay there any length of time.
When the railway reaches the MacDonnell Ranges it will pass through some good country, and people will then realise the fact that there is more in the interior of our continent than they dreamt of. A big trade with Queensland is practically lying dormant; for you may depend upon it when the settlers have to pay such high freights to the Afghans they will only send for those goods, which are imperatively necessary. When our parliament can see its way clear to take a line of railway via Birdsville, Innamincka, or any other spot which should prove most serviceable and remunerative, I think they would be well repaid, especially if cheap cattle trains were run.
Presuming this line completed, the colonist and the traveller will be able to leave either Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide by express, and take a circular trip home again through each capital all by rail. A great deal has been written lately about the renaming of South Australia, and it is to be hoped it will be an accomplished fact. The present name is altogether a misnomer, for we unquestionably possess the greater part of the interior of the continent, but I suppose it will be left for posterity to fossick up a proper name, like Centralia, just as we leave it to them to populate and develop our interior.