With all this controversy over Sheik Hilaly’s views on Australia’s convict heritage, I felt it would be appropriate to share with readers some passages from what must be the first and most authoritative work on the history of Muslims in Australia.
Bilal Cleland served as Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria for many years. Himself a descendant of Irish and English convicts and settlers from the 1st and 3rd Fleets, Cleland has for years been an ardent critic of Hilaly.
Here is Cleland’s research, taken from the chapter entitled “White Christian Settlement to the East”. Footnotes have been excluded. The emphases are mine.
This book was first published in the 1980's, and a summary and annotated version forms the first chapter of the book Muslim Communities In Australia edited by Abdullah Saeed & Shahram Akbarzadeh.
Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf
British shipping companies were already making good use of the vast supply of labour British imperial expansion had delivered to them. Muslim sailors were apparently frequently employed and in January 1796 Norfolk Island acquired several of them at one time. They were classed as Lascars (Indians and Ceylonese) by the Norfolk Island Victualling Book, the record of all those receiving government food assistance. They were abandoned there due to a misfortune related to the shoddy quality of colonial shipbuilding at that time and of course to the racist attitudes of their officers.
In September 1795 the colonial-built ship Endeavour left Port Jackson with a companion ship Fancy, intending to touch at New Zealand and Norfolk Island before sailing to India. The Endeavour, with its Muslim sailors and with convicts destined to expand the labour supply on Norfolk Island, began leaking and it was feared it might break-up. It had to run aground at Dusky Bay New Zealand. The sailors found a partly assembled ship on the beach, built by the carpenter of The Britannia while at Dusky Bay in 1793. The crew finished the ship, named it Providence and with Fancy, sailed on to Norfolk Island. Some forty of the convicts from the Endeavour were returned to Norfolk Island and completed their sentences. The excess sailors were dumped with them.
Little was recorded of these exotic arrivals but it is apparent that they were not provided with passage home. Some fifteen years later, according to the Victualling Book, John Hassan a sailor from the Endeavour was on the Island working as a labourer. He was relocated to Port Dalrymple in Tasmania with the remaining settlers in 1813 when this settlement was closed.
Another Muslim from Endeavour was Sua (or Saib) Sultan. He had an eleven and a half acre block of land on the island. He and his unnamed wife were transferred from Norfolk Island on the Lady Nelson as third class passengers on 9 November 1809. He was given the name of Jacob on the 1818 stores list for Hobart Town and by then he had a much larger block of land. He was given a 27 acre grant in his new location on the Derwent River near the village of New Norfolk. He apparently did well as The Land and Stock Muster of Van Diemen's Land for 1819 notes that “Saib Sulton (sic) possessed 28 acres of pasture and two acres of wheat”.
Mahomet Cassan is also listed as coming free on the Endeavour 1795. An alternative spelling of his name is also given on this list as "Cassom". Another name which crops up on the Stores Lists is that of number 615, Mahomet Cassem. Probably the same as "Cassan" and "Cassom" he appears on the “General Muster of Free Men, Women and Children off and on Stores in His Majesty's Settlement of Hobart Town 2 October 1818” as "came free", from Norfolk Island and off the stores. Number 514 on the list is a Memerich Cossam. It is possible that some semi-literate clerk confused by the foreign name mixed up the lists but this may be another individual.
These names disappear from the records, they left no Muslim families, no institutions, no mosques. Perhaps they changed their names, like Saib Sultan, assimilated into the Christian community or returned home after earning sufficient for their passage. It is certain that they would have suffered from considerable religious intolerance.
As Muslims and a subject people, despised for their race, they would have lived on the edge of society. Even Christians suffered persecution at that time if they were from the wrong sect. The British Test and Corporation Acts were not repealed until 1828. These Acts, passed under King Charles II, required that any person who wished to hold a position under the Crown or even in a town corporation, had to take Church of England communion. Protestant sects which differed in doctrine from the Established Church were thus humiliated. Roman Catholics were excluded from public office until the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. Even so, until this day, no Catholic can become King or Queen or Regent of Britain.
The men who 'came free' might have been despised, but they were not subjected to the horrors of the penal system which the convicts experienced. The system of transportation of convicts was cruel enough, separating them from all they knew for years, perhaps forever. It was however relatively humane compared to the system which followed the Bigge Report of 1823. The administration of NSW was accused of excessive leniency, contributing to the failure of transportation as a deterrent to crime whereas Bigge "wanted to tighten up the transportation system and make punishment more of a deterrent." Zimran Wriam, an Indian Muslim convict who arrived in Atlantic on the Third Fleet in 1791, missed this most oppressive time.
Born in Hyderabad, Zimran was sent to Norfolk Island and in 1813 was removed to Port Dalrymple in Van Diemen's Land as a third class passenger on the Lady Nelson with John Hassan. He was given a 40 acre land grant to permit him to be economically independent. Unfortunately he did not live long to enjoy it as two currency lads (locally born men) beat him to death.
Other Muslim convicts who arrived in this relatively humane period included a convict from Oman, Nowardin, who said he was born in Muscat. A sailor on a ship visiting London, he had been convicted of a minor offense and in 1815 was sentenced to seven years transportation. He arrived in Sydney on the Fanny on 18 January 1816. Another Muslim, one John Johannes of Bengal, in London on 6 December 1815, was also sentenced to transportation for seven years. He arrived in Sydney on the Almorah on 3 August 1817. A relatively minor offence committed in the Port of London could have disastrous consequences.
In total there were at least eight convicts who arrived in Australia after 1813 who may have been Arab or part Arab. Five came from Oman, one from Bussarah (Iraq), one from Mauritius and one from South Africa. All of these people were Muslims.
Siedy Abdullah, like Nowardin, was also from Muscat, Oman. Looking for employment no doubt, he had migrated to Mauritius and worked as footman or groom. He was one of several sentenced to ten years transportation in February 1837 for the crime of mutiny. Under the conditions of that time this meant disobedience of an employer or refusal to work. He arrived in Sydney on 26 May 1838 where he subsequently disappeared. On the 26 April another footman and groom, also convicted of mutiny in Mauritius, arrived in Sydney to serve a life sentence. He was Hassan Sheikh of Bombay and he arrived on the Moffat via Hobart. Siedy Maccors Mahomed originally from Bussarah, was another of those sentenced for mutiny in Mauritius and he arrived at the same time as Siedy Abdullah. He completed his ten years and was granted a Certificate of Freedom in 1847.
Mauritius must have offered a hazardous work environment for three years before, in 1834, Bargatta Lascar, also known as Sheikh Burkhit, had been sentenced in that place to fourteen years transportation. He was born in Calcutta in 1798. He arrived in Sydney in July 1834 and was later assigned to work for a Mr J. Philips on his property near Port Macquarie.
Capetown, a key supply port on the British route to the East, and now included within the British Empire, also supplied its convicts to New South Wales. Two men described as 'of the Malay faith' arrived in Sydney on the Eden on 11 January 1837. Ajoup, a groom, had been sentenced to fourteen years transportation in Capetown and another named Matthys was sentenced to seven years. Both men were born in 1815. They appear but briefly in records and like those who 'came free' to Norfolk Island, disappear without trace.
There may have been a much larger Muslim population of Australia from this early period had a scheme advanced by some NSW pastoralists come to fruition. To help solve the labour shortage they intended to import labourers from India. Evidence was given before an Immigration Committee in 1838 that over a hundred settlers had organised for 1203 Indian labourers to be brought in and between 1837 and 1844 about 500 did arrive. The Colonial Office prohibited this traffic in 1839.
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