The battle of Broken Hill: the story of Australia’s first “Jihad”

An interesting piece of history

There are seevral versions of this historical event.

I have since found this ne which has great photos

The war seemed a very long way away to the citizens of Broken Hill that January 1.

It was the height of the southern summer, and the Australian silver-mining town baked in the outback desert heat, 720 miles from Sydney and half a world away from the mud and blood of the Western Front. The First World War was less than five months old, and only a fool would have accused the hardened miners of Broken Hill of lacking patriotism, but on that first day of 1915 they wanted nothing more than to enjoy a rare holiday with their families and forget about their troubles—not just the war, which Australia had joined alongside Britain on the day it was declared, but also the grim economic times that were closing mines and putting miners out of work.

More than 1,200 men, women and children clambered aboard the makeshift train that would take them a few miles up the line to Silverton for the annual town picnic. But for Broken Hill that New Year’s Day, war was not 12,000 miles away; it was just over a ridge a mile or two along the track, where a couple of Afghans had raised the Turkish flag over an ice cream cart and were preparing to launch a two-man war.

The townspeople saw the men as their train pulled slowly up the hill; some even waved, thinking that the two Muslims touting rifles must be going rabbiting on their day off. But as the distance between the ice cream cart and the excursioners closed to only 30 yards, the Afghans crouched, took aim—and opened fire.

Alma Cowie was one of four Australians killed during the Battle of Broken Hill.

Bullets peppered the side of the train, which consisted of nothing more than flat wagons crudely converted for passenger use with temporary benches. The wagons’ low sides left the picnickers’ upper bodies and heads completely exposed, and at such short range they offered a target too big to miss. Ten passengers were hit before the train driver realized what was happening and pulled out of range; three of those were killed and seven wounded, three of whom were women. The dead were two men, William Shaw and Alf Millard, and a 17-year-old girl named Alma Cowie, who had joined the excursion with her boyfriend on a date.

As the train slowed further along the track, some passengers leaped down and ran for cover, and two headed back to Broken Hill to raise the alarm. Meanwhile, the Afghans took their rifles and and trudged off toward a quartz formation on the horizon. They had chosen it long before as the place where they would make their last stand.

To understand why what is known as the Battle of Broken Hill took place at all means understanding why such an isolated outback town had a Muslim population in the first place, and why at least some of the Afghans in Broken Hill felt utterly alienated from the people that they lived among, and loyal to a country—Turkey—that was not their own.

The answer to the first question is simple: Afghans had been coming to Australia for almost 50 years because Australia had discovered that camels, not horses, were the best form of transportation in the desert in the years before the coming of the truck. The Afghans knew all about working with camels, minded less about the discomfort and smell, and could be paid far less than white Australians to do the dirty work of shifting goods to desert towns across the outback.

Gool Mohammed’s ice cream cart, used by the Afghans to carry weapons and supplies to their chosen ambush spot.

This last point was, of course, a crucial one. Muslim immigrants took jobs that Australians felt were theirs by right, and the local teamsters were highly unionized and made angry by a potent cocktail of fear, racism and hatred. The racism was a product of a deep-rooted sense of white superiority, which crumbled in the face of the Afghans’ competence and toughness; the fear sprang from the way what was loudly proclaimed as “unfair” competition was costing jobs at a time when the economy was shrinking. The simple fact was that most businessmen and farmers cared only that camels could journey through the outback in less than half the time it took a teamster’s wagon, and at a lower price. To make matters worse, the teamsters could not even work alongside the Afghans; their horses were so revolted by the appearance and the odor of the camels that they would frequently bolt on sight of them.

Long before 1914, relations between the Afghans and the teamsters had deteriorated across Australia to the point where it was not uncommon for Muslims to have their camps raided and their camels crippled. Fistfights between the two groups became common on roads leading from the main rail heads and ports. Records show that there were also at least six murders committed in Australia as a result of these disputes—one by a white mob and five by one Afghan—and that as early as 1893 the people of Broken Hill had lodged a formal protest against the “unrestricted immigration” of Afghans into New South Wales. The militant socialist editor of the local Barrier Miner newspaper campaigned for years against their presence in the town, publishing a series of incendiary articles in his attempt to drive the cameleers out of the Barrier mining district.

Add to all that the Afghans’ different ethnicity and religion, and it is scarcely surprising that they soon became what the historian Christine Stevens terms “the untouchables in a white Australia,” never welcome in the outback towns in which they had to make their homes. Instead they formed their own distinct communities—settlements, known colloquially as “ghantowns,” that clung uncomfortably to the edges of white communities, rarely mixing in any way with them, and certainly not spending the little money that they had with white storekeepers. Each ghantown would have its mullah and its halal butcher, and in Broken Hill the same man performed both these functions. His name was Mullah Abdullah, and he was the leader of the two men now making their way across the desert scrub toward the safety of the quartz formation.

The Broken Hill picnic train, packed with 1,200 holidaymakers, that was ambushed on January 1, 1915.

Mullah Abdullah had been born somewhere near the Khyber Pass in 1855. He had had at least some education—he spoke and wrote Dari, the formal language of Afghanistan—and must have received some training at a madrasa school before arriving in Australia in about 1899. “As spiritual head of a group of cameleers,” Stevens writes, “he led the daily prayers, presided at burials, and killed animals al halal for food consumption.”

It was this last part of Mullah Abdullah’s job that had caused him problems. The teamsters were not the only powerful workers’ group in heavily unionized Broken Hill; the butchers, too, had organized. In the last few weeks of 1914, the Afghan had been visited by the chief sanitary inspector and prosecuted not only for slaughtering animals illegally, but also for not belonging to the butchers’ union. It was a second offense. Fined an amount he could not afford to pay, Mullah Abullah was deeply angered and insulted.

Full story & Source


Another piece on this same story


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