By Moya Sharp
Copied & edited by George W Rehder
A TALE OF THE GOLDFIELDS
written by JAMES GRAYSON for the “Nambucca News”
When gold is calling, however tortuous the road, civilised men all the world over (and some women, too) will overcome all apparent impossible obstacles, reaching their objective often in the last stage of endurance. How strange it is, but nevertheless true, that the richest of the Midas ‘ hoards are more often found in places of a nightmare access.
The West Australian Goldfields, for instance, with which this tale is linked, could tell many pitiful stories of suffering and death in that cruel desert land that still its secrets keeps of many who ventured but came not through. Tortured by thirst, chasing the beautiful mirage lakes so real-like. Surely it cannot possibly be that these realistic waters, vast lake areas extending away the miles, beyond, up the shadowy vales, eddying around the distant foothills, with the great fleecy clouds in a blue dome above, and with the white gum-trunks along the hillside so clearly reflected in these inviting pools, can “be but deception—death snares of the badlands. The little waves of deception even are there, rippling the surface of these lakes of grandeur ever beckoning their thirst-parched victims to a desert grave.
And so, my readers, we can easily imagine the spark of hope that flickers in the dying eyes, and the slight flutter to the heart of feeble beats that come when the stricken one first sights these lakes of doom. Many are the graves where lost ones sleep, with no rail to guard or stone to tell who rests there beneath the salt-bush in the water less region of the golden state. Things became so bad at one period in the early days of the Western gold rush, that a police camel corps, as we called them, were continuously scouring the bush, more especially out in the Siberia district. Many were the timely rescues, but often, too often, there were graves to dig.Then for a spell men were
detained in Southern Cross, which was at the time the furthest out civilisation — the jumping off place for the dash across the no-man’s-land of West Australia, 130 miles where no dingoes howled between the Cross and the “Camp of Rest” Coolgardie.
When Bailey and Ford ventured out into the unknown and discovered gold “lumps of it” on the first fringe of what subsequently was proved to be the largest and richest tract of gold-bearing country in the world, the railway line from Northam to the Cross, the out-post mining camp, was in course of completion. From there, however, to Bailey’s new strike was the desert crossing of another 130 miles of dry going. This newly discovered belt extended practically from south to north of the State. On the one square mile of Kalgoorlie, discovered by Paddy Hannan and friends, 25 miles east again from Coolgardie, 450 tons of gold has been smelted.
However, to get on with the story. West Australia was — burning thirst, long dry stages in blistering heat, 115 in the shade at times, and the cradle home of the “bung-eye” fly. Wagon and horse teams, were the first mode of transport from the Cross, and still are used in many parts of the north-west. We had the cycle express and the donkey teams, but had it not been for the camel, things would have been much worse. It was ideal for these ancient ships of the desert, for level sandy going could always be found in a winding way.
An abundance of camel feed, quandong and mulga scrub, enabled the out-back storekeeper to keep up his stock. These beasts of burden have been known to go 9 to 10 days without a “reviver” and to carry at the same time from 4 to 6 hundredweight average to the connected “train” — nose-line to tail. To drive these thousands of camels, quite an army of Afghans were required, by which means the barrier of the desert land was overcome and the richest gold-fields that as yet man has known was thrown open to the world, and to where flocked the mighty hordes of the nations.
Most of these rich mines have petered out now — treasures torn from old mother earth’ so speedily with modern equipment, by the old mining methods the fields would have lived for another half century. At the time of which I speak the appearance of a woman ,in Coolgardie was an event of excitement and of much speculation. So when Rowles and his family one day arrived in the camp there was quite a stir, for this was the pioneer family east of the badlands. The little girl Rowles, whom I had last seen in Western Queensland, was now about 15, and with good looks, tall and well developed. The thousands of dinkum prospectors who were there, most of them having daughters of their own, mothers or sisters back east, admired this “Daughter of the Diggers,” as we named her. She was like a link with our home life. She was looked upon as only a kid by the white population.
Unfortunately, not so by the black, Prince Shah Mahomet. This meeting of the East with West was tragic, the beginning of a feud which covered 16 years of suffering and shame, taking toll of six human lives. At the time the Rowles and family, consisted of his wife and daughter Stella, with two little brothers, Billy was about eleven while Peter was nine years old. They struck camp near where there were three large camel owners in Coolgardie, owning thousands of camels each. They controlled the whole of the goldfields transport trade, so naturally freight rates were high, which same were paid without a murmur, the storekeeper passing it on to the digger. It had to be rich, with tin-dog at 5/- per lb. tin, water 5/-per gallon. These three camel men became very wealthy. The richest of the three, however, was Tagh Mahomet, who with his brother Faiz Mahomet, owned many thousands of these beasts of burden, and in commission on every part of the field. Tagh Mahomet was a cousin of the then Amir of Afghanistan, and was really a prince in his own land, being treated as such in Coolgardie by his fellow countrymen. Thus, with royal blood and plenty of money he was easily the camel transport king of the West.
Then there was Shah Mahomet, another prince of the blood. He was Tagh Mahomet’s nephew, and looked every inch what a prince should be, tall and well proportioned, of commanding bearing, black of beard, and without doubt a splendid specimen of manhood. A man that many a girl might easily have fallen in love with. One did, but with what terrible results! When the Rowles family struck the field, Shah had just turned his 21st year. There had been a full week of feasting and merry-making in the Afghan encampment down on Fly Flat, where there was never less than 100 men under canvas at the one time. On many occasions, however, there might be anything up to 200 as it often happened, numbers of incoming camel trains arrived in Coolgardie at the same time. For the birthday party of this black prince, incoming camel drivers urged their string onwards, some doing double stages. This merry-making, like the joy time of a Ghan Christmas, was kept up night and day for one week. The whole population of the field were free, to come and go. A ton of fruit was distributed among the white crowd in the first two nights. I don’t know how much on the following nights, but there was fruit everywhere which must have cost a fortune. In Afghanistan, from time immemorial, the young women, girls, of 9 and 10 years, take to themselves the responsibility of a husband and home. Perhaps the men there become of age before the 21st milestone on the road of life. However, I know the black Prince at the time of the celebration was 21 years old. It was some three months later that Bob Rowles and family arrived on the camp. The girl was considered by the white population to be little more than a child — the Eastern race, though, look upon woman’s age from a different angle altogether.
So when the bomb burst among us that Shah Mahomet had abducted Stella Rowles, a white girl of only 15, the diggers were stirred to murdering point. How the news spread is unknown, but in less than half an hour more than 5,000 diggers, armed to the teeth, surrounded the camp of Shah Mahomet. “String him up!” was heard on every hand, Police inspector McKinna and Warden Finnerty (both have now passed through golden gates) rushed with all available troopers to the rescue, but they had as much chance of staying the rush as they would have had of stopping a flood. The encampment consisted of many drivers canvas dwellings, with old Prince Tagh Mahomet’s residence — a rather big affair of canvas, hessian, galvanised iron, rusty kerosene tins — squatting in the centre.
The young Prince had shared the “royal palace” with the old chap of money and rank. However, “royalty” counted nothing with the sons of white fathers on this occasion, anyway. It was an ugly situation, the birth of this riot on Fly Speck Flat. Then, when big Paddy McGrath, with his mate Paddy Whelan, arrived on the scene and took charge of things with a mighty shout of “bush law,” the thousands “charged like rushing steers through the “royal” encampment, which they flattened to the ground. The ‘Ghans didn’t show any of the “white feather,” Wrestling is the noble art in Afghanistan, as the bare knuckles act as arbitrator in many British disputes among men. The black Prince was an amateur champion in his own land, and among the hundreds of camel drivers on the field there was only one better man at the game than he that one was a professional named Adgie, whom Mahomet brought specially from ‘Ghan land to wrestle any white man in West Australia.
In a very few moments the scene was as likened to an earthquake visitation. Then somehow it was learned that the young Prince, like a Lochinvar, had mounted his fastest trotting camel, and in the dusk of the evening had carried away the maiden to parts unknown. The broken-hearted Rowles now appealed to the old Prince, who was just as mad with his nephew as the father of the girl was. But what could he do that would avail? However, he put at the immediate service of Rowles and his party any reasonable number of his best riding camels, also Gould Mahomet as interpreter, who could speak half -a-dozen languages fluently. As the father (Rowles) had sworn to shoot the abductor on sight a trooper went along in the name of the law, the girl being under the age of 16. The old Prince issued a mandate to be proclaimed by Gould Mahomet to all Afghans, wherever met, that anyone found harboring Shah Mahomet, who had disgraced his nations honour and offended the Prophet, would be struck off the pay-sheet of the transport king. It was then rumored that an Afghan rider had been seen heading towards the old 90-mile road, early in the night, with what was thought to be a second Ghan riding double, no notice was taken at the time of this every-day sight, so now it was calculated that he was making for some outback Afghan encampment or a cross country dash for some mid-North West sea port, and on this slight clue the chase started without the slightest hope in the world of ever overhauling the runaways. At the time of the abduction I was away from Coolgardie on a flying trip with a mate, Jack Pickering, through the outback country of Murrin Murrin and the Hawk’s Nest 120 miles north-west.
We had said good-bye to little Stella before starting only a week previously. We were now returning, following a compass track which would take us to the little gnamma hole, known as Split Rock. Camels make no hoof-beats, and we came out through a thick patch of mulga right into a small Afghan camp at the Rock, had come right up close before we were noticed (there were no camp dogs on the fields in those days), and I could have sworn that I caught the. whisk of a female’s dress disappearing into a tent. Under similar circumstances the Ghans greet the traveler in a friendly way, but on this occasion we were at a loss to account for the coolness, the lack of welcome. I was struck with some kind of suppressed excitement among them, which they evidently had been discussing upon our arrival. They were civil enough, but seemed anxious. They had been spelling their string for a few days, they said, but were about to move on. We struck the 90-mile road shortly after this arid camped that night at the Flying Pig “specking patch.” Early next morning, when within about 25 miles of Coolgardie on the 90-mile road, we proceeded along, Jack in the lead (poor old Jack- he was a wonderful bushman, but a few years after this he was speared by the natives) suddenly called out, “What’s this coming?’ it must be the advance party of a new gold rush!” We could see a small party of camel riders about a mile distant. “We’ll wait here, Jim,” he advised. “They are coming up fast— we’re in luck, we’ll join the party!” And it was there, with anger and regret that we heard of the pitiful occurrence which sounded to me as a tale of fiction, and I thought of the little kid of the Queensland diggings who, in her trust of men, wanted to show to me where her daddy had all his worldly possessions hidden.
The Rowles party numbered half-a-dozen. Besides Rowles and the trooper, there was Smiler Hales, a writer, no doubt some of you have read his books. Then there was “Rocky Mountain” Bill, a rather, spectacular sort of cuss, a friend of Smiler’s, who claimed to have put up a miner’s timbering record of 6 miles close sets at Cripple Creek, Rocky Mountain, U.S.A. The others were McGrath and Paddy Whelan, with Gould Mahomet. After we had talked the matter over and I had explained what I thought I had seen at Split Rock, Jack Pickering decided to continue on to Coolgardie while I went back to the Rock camp with the party just to ease the father’s mind. McGrath and Whelan turned their faces to the south and accompanied Pickering home. We reached Split Rock long after nightfall, and, as I expected, the Ghans had moved on. We camped well away from where I thought I saw the whisk of a woman’s dress the day previous. As soon as light dawned next morning, while the others were making ready for an early start still onward, the trooper and myself made a thorough investigation, but no girl’s footprints could we find. The policeman was a real bushman and good tracker, and I was pretty good myself in those days. However, I had a strong sense of conviction upon me that the little lass had been there. Gone to destruction at the age of 14 years and 9 months, her father told me. Ularing mining camp lay 22 miles due north. The Split Rock camel party had passed through late the previous day but there was no girl with them. So at last, giving up all hope of finding his daughter, the brokenhearted father agreed to return home, but kept repeating aloud, “What will her mother say to me?”
Things settled more peacefully in a few days. New gold strikes were being reported from every quarter, and old chums scattered, in many cases never to meet again. Old ‘ Uncle Tagh Mahomet confiscated all of the young Prince’s property, and issued a decree forbidding him ever to return to West Australia.
Rowles and his wife’ still stuck to the old camp in the hope that little Stella some day would return. It was not, however, until 12 months after that a letter came one day from the girl, telling that Shah Mahomet had taken her to a place in India and there had legally married her in accordance with Mohammedan custom, and with this slight comfort they had to be content.
As these camel owners were growing wealthy in West Australia and Shah dare not return, the members of his clan plotted for vengeance. Suddenly, the first blow was struck in this tragic feud, which had begun 15 months before. The old Prince, Tagh Mahomet, chief of the local Afghans, was murdered by a member of an awful Indian cult, which the British Raj had failed to stamp out, and one morning, when the whole camp were engaged in worship a strange Ghan, Goulah Mahomet, bowed low behind the kneeling old Prince, pressed a revolver against his ribs and shot him dead. it was Friday January 10, 1896, Then he walked up to the police station and gave himself up, he had fulfilled his mission.
Stella’s family were never to see her again.