Monga Khan, An Aussie Legend

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In the lead up to the Australian elections, the hostile political landscape, ripe with fear mongering and growing enmity towards multiculturalism, reared its ugly head. At such times when emotions trump rationality, it is best to return to historical narratives to show the role multiculturalism has played. Monga Khan is testament to that.

Monga Khan was said to have been born in British India, when the British Raj controlled the Indian subcontinent, in the village of Batrohan, Punjab (located in the state of modern-day Haryana, India). He arrived in Australia in 1895 and worked as a licensed hawker in Victoria, selling goods such as spices. It is believed that he was one of the large number of merchants and traders who helped develop the social and physical infrastructure, and a market for traded goods. In 1930 he died in the Ararat Hospital (rural Victoria), aged 68. Monga Khan’s photo has been kept for a hundred years in the Australian National Archive, along with his exemption request to the White Australia policy (the bigoted legislation specifically designed to limit non-British migration to Australia).

There are very few facts known about Monga Khan, making him more legend than man. However, shared myths have been created in order for us to reimagine his journey, and these stories in turn can help us understand the journeys of other Australian migrants, including their critical role in developing Australia into the country that it is today. In fact, recently, Peter Drew commissioned artists and writers to collaborate and create for Monga Khan the historical fiction he deserved. These stories, poems, and artworks combine to form ‘The Legend of Monga Khan, an Aussie Folk Hero’. The book has 11 short stories, 11 poems and 24 illustrations provided by 36 contributors from different backgrounds and technical areas.

One of these stories is about Monga Khan trekking through the outback, which he may have done during his time as a cameleer. The writer imagined that Monga Khan grappled with the unforgiving climate and topography. When the red Australian dirt dusted his skin, he remembered his mother land, mirroring a common migrant & TCK experience many of us have undoubtedly felt too:

“For I am forever learning the ways of people

I came here carrying stories

Stored beneath this head wrap

While I ride camel backs

After walking ship decks

that sail over shipwrecks

Between whole worlds

I am a world away

from where I was birthed

But here I will build my stories

And here

I will stay.”

Another writer looked at how the White Australia policy might have affected Monga Khan and the immigrants that came before and after him:

“Ignoring the brown man in a turban

Hawking wares on sidewalks

Drowned out now by dominant ideology

Dismissed as a myth

Like cameleers, rail workers, gold diggers

Monga Khan’s footsteps never set upon flagstone steps

To erase the past

Forget the taste of clove and cardamom spiced streets

The smells of cumin dancing on dust lined roads

Like it was popping in small pans over wood fires

Tasted earthy fenugreek seeds

Combined religions and people like spices to create whole existences

White Australia sought to destroy, dismantle, divide humans into parts

Like blood quantum laws wouldn’t break the very vessels inside these arms

Instead we twisted our histories

Combined your skin with mine

Made something new we can call Australian

Maybe one day...

When we stop going in circles with horse-drawn carts.”

Monga Khan can be considered an unassuming Australian hero, and a rather unconventional one because these shared myths regarding his story have helped many understand the role multiple cultures have played in the development of countries like Australia. Championing such TCK stories will help us continue to build the multicultural and pluralistic society that Monga Khan would have once envisioned in Australia.        

How has your TCK background helped you champion TCK stories to create a more multicultural society? Share your experiences in the comment section—we’d love to hear from you!

Learn more:

Peter Drew speaks about the Legend of Monga Khan and the need for new myths.

The Legend of Monga Khan, an Aussie Folk Hero is Peter Drew’s collection of commissioned stories, poems and artworks on the reimagined legend of Monga Khan.

Monga Khan’s story was highlighted to contextualize the term ‘Afghan Cameleer’ in the broader history of Australian migration.

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