Files, forms and fragments

You don't have to be famous or embroiled in controversy to find your way into the National Archives. The lives of ordinary Muslims are documented through a range of Australian Government records. Trying to build a family or business, arriving in the country or visiting relatives overseas – all generated forms and letters that capture details of the aspirations, achievements and difficulties of Muslims in Australia.

Naik Mahomet wanted to visit India
Returning: In 1902 Naik Mahomet applied for a Certificate of Domicile that would allow him to re-enter Australia after visiting India.

Sherif Islam was trying to buy a farm
Becoming Australian: Sherif Islam, an Albanian share farmer living in Queensland, wanted to buy some land. But classified as an 'alien' he was unable to hold property. So in 1939 he applied for naturalisation.

Abdul Hamid wanted to look after his brother's drapery business 
Family reunions: Abdul Aziz Molla wanted to visit India, but could find no-one he trusted to look after his business. In 1912 he applied for permission for his brother to enter Australia temporarily to manage his affairs.

Who was Shadee Khan?
Glimpses of the life of a camel driver in early 20th-century Australia.


Photograph of Naik Mahomet, c. 1902 (NAA: A9, A1902/7/64, p.1)

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 defined as a prohibited immigrant anyone who failed a dictation test of 50 words in any prescribed language. Customs officials were instructed to use this test as an 'absolute bar' to the admission of 'coloured persons'.

Exemptions were allowed for 'any person who satisfies an officer that he has formerly been domiciled in the Commonwealth or in any colony which has become a State'. In some circumstances, certificates of birth or naturalisation could be used to gain re-entry, provided the bearer could prove their identity. But in most cases, non-Europeans intending to travel overseas were required to obtain a Certificate of Domicile.

In the first year or so of the Act's operation, a strict definition of 'domicile' was applied. Customs officials were instructed to consider questions such as whether the applicant had his wife and family with him, and whether he owned land or maintained a permanent business address. Under such a definition, few applications were approved.

Naik Mahomet wished to visit his family in India. He had lived in Australia for eight years, owned property, and was a respected member of his community. To support his application he included a reference from the mayor of Coolgardie, as well as a letter from a business associate who commented, 'I could not have had a more trusty man than you'. But it wasn't enough. The Customs official who forwarded Naik Mahomet's file to the Department of External Affairs admitted that the case deserved consideration, but added 'it will be seen that he has a wife and three children in Karachi and does not even propose to bring them here'. No certificate was issued.

From early 1903, the definition of 'domicile' was relaxed. Applicants had to provide evidence of five years' residence in Australia, and references attesting to their good character. Munshie Kreem Bux benefited from the change in policy. As a hawker who dealt in fancy goods, his only property was his stock and a pack horse worth about £50. His application was, however, approved.

In 1905, the clause relating to proof of domicile was removed from the Immigration Restriction Act. In its place was a more rigorous system which required non-Europeans intending to travel overseas to obtain a certificate exempting them from the dictation test – a CEDT. The certificate was valid for three years, but could be extended on application and payment of an additional fee. Two copies of this certificate were made, complete with photographs and handprints. One was kept by the person travelling, the other remained on file. Upon the traveller's return, the certificates were compared and the identity of the bearer verified. If all seemed in order, the traveller was duly admitted. The new system was a response to concerns about forgery, identity fraud, and illegal entry. While it seemed more complicated, non-Europeans who obtained a CEDT could travel abroad knowing their re-entry was assured.

To prove they were of good character, applicants for a CEDT provided character references from friends or associates. Local police were also asked to report on the applicant's habits and reputation. 'He is in our opinion an honest and industrious man and a good citizen', Richard Bell, a general merchant in the South Australian town of Farina, wrote in support of the Afghan camel driver Said Peroo.

Those non-Europeans who left Australia without a certificate were in a rather more difficult position, particularly if they had been absent for a number of years. In 1912, Melbourne wholesalers Latoof and Callil wrote to the Collector of Customs on behalf of a former client. Dewan Allie Khan had worked as a hawker in Victoria before leaving Australia in 1902, shortly after the Immigration Restriction Act had come into force. Without a CEDT or a Certificate of Domicile, he had to convince the Department of External Affairs that he deserved readmission. Although the local police confirmed that he had held a hawker's licence for 10 or 11 years, and was well regarded by local merchants, the department rejected his application.

As he did regularly, AH Pritchard of the Austral-Indian Society took up the hawker's case. In a long letter to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, he presented Allie Khan's details, pointing out that other hawkers in similar circumstances had been allowed to enter. Additional testimonials were enclosed, including one from Mr Eassie, Fitzroy's Sanitary Inspector. Whether swayed by argument, or simply the pressure of persistent lobbying, the department relented – Dewan Allie Khan was able to return.

Ellum Deen was another Indian hawker who found himself stranded overseas. He left Australia urgently in 1905 to attend to family business, believing that as a British subject he would be able to return. By 1907 he was desperate to come back, writing to AH Pritchard, 'For God sake get the passport for me & send quick'. Nothing seems to have been done at the time, perhaps because, as departmental officials surmised, Mr Pritchard believed that appeals were useless 'in view of the Depts constant refusals'.

AH Pritchard's approach in 1913 was indeed refused, but he persisted, forwarding a detailed declaration from Ellum Deen. When officials questioned claims that the hawker had been eager to return for several years, Pritchard pointed to his own long service as a government interpreter: 'I would not have you ... on any account to mistrust or doubt my statements'. Once again the government reconsidered its position, and after a long wait Ellum Deen finally returned to Australia.

Becoming Australian

Document issued by the Victorian Chief Secretary's Office informing Mahomad Ali (or Eli) that his application for naturalisation had been successful. Resubmitted by the applicant after completing the Oath of Allegiance, October 1902 (A712, 1902/P9014, p.9)

By becoming naturalised, Muslim immigrants might hope to gain many of the rights and privileges of an Australian citizen. But who was allowed to be naturalised?

The 1903 Naturalization Act specifically excluded natives of Australia, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. However, some non-European Muslims had already gained naturalisation through existing colonial legislation.

The 1920 Nationality Act removed the racial restriction, but the government retained the right to refuse an application for naturalisation on any grounds. Applications by Asians continued to be rejected as a matter of policy.

Indians who tried to become naturalised were told it was unnecessary as they were already British subjects. While this gained them some benefits, they were still denied many of the basic rights of citizens, such as the right to vote.

In recognition of their steadfast support for the war effort, the rights of British Indians were examined at the Imperial War Conferences of 1917 and 1918. The Reciprocity Resolution was passed in an attempt to redress inequalities in immigration across the British Empire.

See Family reunions in Fragments

In 1922 Dr Srinivasa Sastri, an Indian delegate to the League of Nations and the 1921 Imperial Conference, visited Australia to review the treatment of resident Indians. Sastri voiced a range of grievances including lack of access to old-age pensions, and denial of the right to vote.

Sastri's advocacy greatly impressed Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Hughes congratulated the Indian statesman on having 'removed for all time those prejudices and misunderstandings which formerly prevented the admission of your countrymen resident in Australia to the enjoyment of the full rights of citizenship'. Eventually, in 1925, the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to grant the vote to anyone who was 'a native of British India'. The following year Indians also gained access to old-age pensions.

European Muslims, such as Albanians, could be naturalised. Though, as Sherif Islam discovered, it was not always a straightforward process. Sherif's first application was rejected because the policeman who interviewed him judged that his grasp of English was inadequate. As an Albanian during World War II, Sherif was classified as an 'enemy alien', but security officers did not object to his naturalisation, noting that he appeared to be 'anti-Italian'.

Having worked to improve his English, and with the support of his local MP, Sherif's case was re-examined. In 1942, after renouncing his Albanian nationality and swearing allegience to the King, Sherif Islam was issued with a Certificate of Naturalisation.

In 1956, Federal Cabinet agreed to a number of modifications to the conditions applying to non-European residents. People who had arrived before Federation were granted the right to gain naturalisation. As the Minister for Immigration, Harold Holt, commented in the Cabinet agendum: 'The refusal of naturalisation to people who are permanent residents achieves no useful purpose and the Government is always likely to be charged with sheer racial discrimination'.

This decision also applied to a number of long-standing residents who had been freed from the necessity of renewing their certificates of exemption in 1947. This created something of an anomaly, which was redressed in 1957 when Cabinet agreed to extend the right to naturalisation to all non-Europeans of good character who had lived in Australia for at least 15 years.

Family reunions

Photographs of Abdul Hamid submitted with an application to allow him to mind the drapery business of his brother Abdul Aziz Molla, c. 1912 (NAA: A1, 1912/9314, p.6)

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 included a clause allowing the wives and children of anyone who was not a prohibited immigrant to enter the country in the company of their husband or parent. However, the clause itself was able to be suspended by proclamation at any time.

In combination with the subsequent clause, which permitted entry to anyone who could prove they were legally domiciled, this should have allowed non-Europeans who arrived in Australia before Federation to bring their families to join them. But only a small number of Certificates of Domicile were issued before the clause relating to wives and children was suspended in March 1903. As a result, few families were able to take advantage of the provision, which was finally removed from the Act in 1905.

The introduction of wives and children was limited because government policy was aimed at reducing the overall numbers of Asians in Australia. In debating the 1905 amendments to the Act, Alfred Deakin argued: 'If we were to throw open the door to an influx of Chinese women and children we should reverse the policy of the Act and undo all the good we have accomplished'. He did, however, admit that cases of hardship would be dealt with fairly.

A further compromise was introduced in 1906, when the wives of long-standing residents of good character were permitted to visit their husbands for periods of up to six months.

In 1910, Abdul Rahman Khan's brother died, leaving 16 year-old Israil an orphan. Abdul Rahman Khan returned to India and adopted the boy, planning to bring him to Australia. His solicitor in Bendigo wrote to the government seeking his admission, noting that there was 'no one in India to bring up and look after the boy'. The request was refused.

In the meantime, Abdul Rahman Khan had married, and so his solicitor tried again, asking under what conditions his wife and son might be allowed into the country. The Department of External Affairs informed him that while his wife could be admitted for a maximum of six months, Israil could not be exempted from the dictation test.

As was often the case in the administration of the White Australia Policy, the legislative flexibility which proved so powerful in restricting immigration also allowed exceptions to made where the government deemed it warranted or convenient. In 1907, Aziz Dean applied for permission for his wife to enter Australia. She was granted a Certificate of Exemption for 12 months, but told to expect no extension. The following year, Aziz Dean asked that his wife be allowed to remain permanently. His application was supported by testimonials from influential supporters, including the Premier of Western Australia. The request was approved.

Authorities were also free to exercise their discretion as to whether relatives could be admitted temporarily to help look after a business. Perooz was a camel owner in Bourke. His character was excellent, and he was said to have '60 working and 20 young camels'. In 1912 he had to visit India to fulfill his obligations as executor of his brother's will, and asked that either his brother Delail or nephew Eurooz, or both, be allowed into the country to mind his affairs.

His application was initially refused. But Perooz's solicitors pressed the matter, explaining the circumstances of Perooz's planned visit overseas. The government finally agreed that one of the relatives would be allowed entry for a period of twelve months, with the option of applying for a further year 'if the work of winding up the estate is not complete'. However, a note on the file indicates that the offer was never taken up.

Other applications were simply rejected. Abdul Aziz Molla ran a drapery business in Perth. He was planning to visit India, and applied to the Collector of Customs to allow his brother, Abdul Hamid, to enter the country to look after the business in his absence. 'I cannot get any of my countrymen suitable whom I could trust', he explained, 'last time when I was away on a similar visit I left a man in charge of my business [the] result was that he acted very dishonestly toward me'.

The authorities gathered further information about Abdul Aziz Molla. While he bore 'a good character', he owned no property. The Collector of Customs in Fremantle considered that his business was 'practically that of a hawker' and recommended that the 'his application should not be entertained'. The Department of External Affairs agreed.

The Indian people's support for the British cause in World War I garnered support for their claims for fair treatment under the immigration laws of British Commonwealth. The Reciprocity Resolution, passed at the Imperial War Conferences of 1917 and 1918, affirmed the right of domiciled Indians to be joined by their wives and minor children.

In October 1918, Gola Singh, who was probably a Sikh, sought entry for his wife from the Collector of Customs in Sydney. A note on his file remarks, 'This is first appln for a wife's admission'. The matter was deferred until 1919, when Cabinet formally agreed to the admission of wives and children under the terms of the Reciprocity Resolution. Gola Singh's application, however, was not deemed to be 'altogether satisfactory', as he had no permanent home and was unable to demonstrate that he had the means to properly support his wife.

Indians seeking to bring their wives and children to Australia were required to show evidence of their ability to maintain a family. They also needed proof of their relationship, furnished by the Indian authorities. The details of these arrangements were still being negotiated in 1921.

The concessions introduced under the Reciprocity Resolution raised questions about the admission of other relatives. By the 1920s, many Indian residents were growing old and wished to retire from business. Could they arrange for an adult son or brother to enter the country and take over the business permanently? This matter was raised by the Diwan Bahadur T Rangachariar, an Indian dignatory visiting Australia for the opening of Parliament House in 1927.

Government officials preferred to assess such requests on a case by case basis, fearing that the Indian population would continue to grow. 'If this concession be extended to brothers, nephews +c', a file note comments, 'these latter would in due course want wives +c +c and their families in due course would want wives +c and the thing would go on "ad infinitum"'.

European Muslims, such as Albanians, did not suffer the same restrictions. Once established, they were free to sponsor relatives to join them in Australia. Suleman Ymer arrived in Australia in 1928, working in Western Australia before taking up cotton growing at Biloela in Queensland. He became naturalised in 1936.

Established as a share farmer with tidy sum in the bank, Suleman Ymer successfully sponsored the immigration of his brother Ramadan in 1937. The following year he was also joined by his cousin, Besim Demir.

By 1938 Suleman Ymer had purchased his own property and was looking forward to £400 profit in the coming season. The process of family reunion continued as he sponsored the arrival of his parents, Suleman and Hanife.

Who was Shadee Khan?

Shadee Khan, c. 1916 (NAA: E752, 1916/8, p.13)

Shadee Khan was a camel driver who arrived in Australia in the late 19th century. Like many of his countrymen, Shadee Khan made regular visits home to the northern provinces of what is now Pakistan. Each time he was required to apply for a certificate that would exempt him from the dictation test on his return to Australia. The surviving records provide a glimpse of his life in this country.

E752, 1916/8 – Certificate of Exemption from Dictation Test – Shadee Khan

In 1916 Shadee Khan was living in Wyndham, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. According to his application for a CEDT, he had been in Wyndham for about seven years, having worked in several towns across the Western Australian goldfields. He had already made three visits to his homeland in the 20 years he had been resident in Australia.

Shadee Khan was required to submit references attesting to his character. The manager of Connor, Doherty & Durack Ltd had known Shadee Khan for six years and considered that he had 'always borne a good character'.

The CEDT issued to Shadee Khan records his age as 45. He was 5'6" tall and 'stout' in build. A print of his hand was taken to help identify him. The certificate also notes that Shadee Khan left Australia on 14 February 1916, returning two years later on 28 June 1918.

E752, 1921/21 – Certificate of Exemption from Dictation Test – Shadee Khan

There are some changes to the details provided by Shadee Khan in his 1921 application for a CEDT. Only one earlier trip overseas is recorded. His birthplace, previously given as Peshawar, is now Lahore. Like many of the camel drivers, Shadee Khan was illiterate, signing documents with an 'x'. His answers probably would have been dictated to a customs officer or other official.

A CEDT was issued to Shadee Khan in July 1921. His hair, previously black, was noted as 'greyish'. His age was uncertain, but estimated at 53. Shadee Khan departed from Darwin on 13 August 1921, and arrived back at Carnarvon on 20 January 1923.

E752, 1925/7 – Certificate of Exemption from Dictation Test – Shadee Khan

Shadee Khan applied for another CEDT in 1925. His statutory declaration, submitted with this application, states he first arrived in Australia in 1897, and lists his places of residence as: Fremantle, Southern Cross, Coolgardie, Menzies, Kookynie, Mt Malcolm, Port Hedland and Wyndham.

Shadee Khan's application was supported by Wyndham's police sergeant who had known him 'for the last eleven or twelve years'. 'He is hardworking and trustworthy', the policeman attested, 'and has never been in any trouble'. Another reference was provided by AH Pearce, a local shopkeeper.

On the CEDT issued on 11 November 1925, Shadee Khan is described as 57 years old, 5'7" in height, and 'stout' in build. His hair is 'dark turning grey'. He departed Australia on 17 November 1925, and returned less than a year later in September 1926.


Shadee Khan seems to have made no other applications for a CEDT. Perhaps he died in Australia. Or he might simply have returned to India with no intention of ever coming back. But, for at least 30 years, Shadee Khan lived and worked in the remote outback of Western Australia. With camels in tow, he laboured to relieve the isolation of a series of small mining towns, earning the trust and respect of local people.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018