This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979
Dervish Bejah (1862?-1957), camel driver, was born in Baluchistan, India (now Pakistan), son of Dervish Bejah. He served in the Indian Army at Kandahar and Karachi under Lord Roberts and eventually attained the rank of sergeant. Bejah arrived by sailing-ship at Fremantle, Western Australia, about 1890.
In 1896 Lawrence Wells, of the South Australian Survey Department, was appointed to lead the Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition through the central deserts of Western Australia from Mullewa to Derby. Perhaps aware of prejudice against 'Afghans', Wells tried to engage a white camel-man. Fortunately, he failed. In May he left Adelaide by sea, with Bejah as the 'Afghan' in charge of camels. Wells's journal records his growing reliance upon Bejah in a cumulation of hardship and danger. The expedition of seven men and twenty camels formed a depot eighteen days east-north-east of Lake Way. From there Wells set out on a 'flying trip' with Bejah, G. L. Jones and seven camels. Twelve days later, he named Bejah Hill. It was Bejah who discovered and tried to destroy poison bush; who was ever ready to gather 'hundred-weights' of herbage for camels tethered in poison country; who shepherded them on scanty feed till midnight, tethered them and refused breakfast because his charges had none; who ran to spelled camels 'talking to and playing with them in a most excited manner'.
When the expedition continued northward, with Charles Wells and Jones on a separate line to the west, Lawrence Wells depended heavily on Bejah. They rode or walked together, scouting for water in terrible country, suffering together, almost perishing, rescuing each other. Wells recorded how, riding by night on dying camels, he entrusted the lead to Bejah, with instructions to steer by a star, while he himself slept in his saddle.
Their close attachment, sketched in Douglas Stewart's poem 'Afghan', continued. They found the bodies of Charles Wells and Jones on 27 May 1897. The journal shows Bejah as a skilful and devoted camel-man, a bushman equal to all emergencies, and a man of loyalty, courage, enterprise and endurance. The expedition ended in June. Bejah was later given a reception at Government House, Adelaide, and was presented with the expedition's compass, inscribed for him.
He then settled at Hergott Springs (Marree), where in 1902 he bought three sections of land. On 15 December 1909 he married a widow, Amelia Jane Shaw; they had one son, Abdul Jubbar (Jack). On the outskirts of the town the 'Afghans' had a big camp, with thousands of camels and a corrugated iron mosque. Bejah's camels and their loads of wool and stores were well known throughout the far north of South Australia until he retired in the 1930s to grow date palms. In 1939 C. T. Madigan invited him to lead the camels on his journey through the Simpson Desert; he sent his son instead. A devout Moslem, Bejah attributed his long good health to his faith. The Shell Company film, Back of Beyond (1954), shows him at prayer. A very tall man, in old age he had a splendid full white beard and wore a gold skull-cap beneath a grey silk turban. Predeceased by his wife, Bejah died in the Port Augusta Hospital on 6 May 1957 and was buried in the local cemetery. Obituaries appeared in The Times and Australian newspapers.
Valmai A. Hankel, 'Bejah, Dervish (1862–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bejah-dervish-5187/text8721, accessed 10 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979