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Mirza Khan, the cameleer, trader and librarian who settled in Australia in 1800s


Adding on to the narratives of South Asian migration to Australia, SBS Hindi brings you the story of Mirza Khan, an Afghan cameleer from Calcutta in eastern India, who migrated to Australia in the late 1800s. Researcher and author Samia Khatoun traces the extraordinary journey of this multi-talented adventurer.

Mirza Khan arrived in Australia roughly in 1889 at the age of 22. He arrived here from Calcutta and lived in South Australia.

“History tells us about Afghans trading in camels. Whist many of them came from Afghanistan, some of them were Afghans from Calcutta,” says Samira Khatoun, and Mirza Khan was one such cameleer who came with a shipment of camels from Calcutta.

Mirza Khan was not merely a trader, but he went on to become a bookseller, a librarian and a spiritual leader. He appears in the historical records of Afghanistan. 

As a trader, Mirza Khan didn't only export camels to Australia, but after settling in Australia he began exporting Australian sheep to South Asia.

In 1890 he opened a book shop on Hay Street in Perth and started binding books. By 1895 he was travelling around the camel track in Australia with a free travelling library, with books in various Indian languages.

He advertised for his bookbinding business as "cheaply and neatly executed," according to Khatoun's research.

Book Binding
A representative photo
Getty Images/ozenli

When he was 24, Khan married a white Australian actress by the name of Julia Thorne, but their marriage didn't last long. Their marriage broke up.

Samia has also discovered that Mirza Khan operated a store in Redfern Sydney, before departing Australia at the age of 28. 

The record shows that in 1897 Mirza Khan travelled back to South Asia.

He travelled to and from of Bombay and Calcutta.

“He actually received an Imperial Farmaan (Royal Order) from the king of Afghanistan from Kabul, saying the king of Afghanistan wants a shipment of Australian sheep as they would like to breed sheep in Kabul, in order to produce a particular type of wool.” Ms Khatoun tells SBS Hindi.

This also goes to prove the strong networking among the Afghan traders way back in that era, as Mirza and his family had been residents of Calcutta for 400 years.

Khan purchased 600 sheep in South Australia where he had deep connections in the farming sector. He sent the sheep on a vessel to Calcutta, where their journey continued via the railway, straight to Kabul.

Lamb-marking in Australia - stock photo
Getty Images/ilbusca

Mirza Khan’s story moves on with another twist as Samia Khatoun retells:

"He went on to becoming a spiritual leader among many of the Muslims travelling this Indian Ocean world."

Mirza Khan, the traveller then went to Fiji, before moving back and forth between Australia and Fiji. He began working in sugar cane plantations in Fiji as well as a Mullah, a Muslim religious teacher.

Getty Images/ilbusca

As for the sheep sent to Kabul, listen to the SBS Hindi interview with author and researcher Samia Khatoun, to find out what happened to them.

Listen to the podcast: 

Mirza Khan, the cameleer, trader and librarian who settled in Australia in 1800s
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