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Local History feature – by the Outback Historian Paul Roe The story of Morbine and Myrtle Perooz

Myrtle and Morbine holding granddaughter Marilyn 1945, and Myrtle Perooz receiving an award from then Bourke Shire President Trevor Randall circa 1984. Photos supplied

Paul Roe

This is the poignant story of a girl caught up in a set of circumstances beyond her control.

Myrtle Dee became the wife of ‘Afghan’ cameleer Morbine Perooz by an arranged marriage.

Her life in Bourke from that point was prescribed by strict Moslem standards and for 54 years she was a woman living between two cultures.

The silent partner in the story is an Indian man who decided to make Bourke his home at a time when the government had adopted the White Australia policy.

Her mother, Sarah lived near the Afghan camp at the western end of Bourke, made up mostly of Indians from the north of their country. They had first come to Bourke around 1890 to build the transport industry, accessing remote areas with their camel trains.

Members of the Horse and Bullock Teamsters Union were threatened by the hard-working cameleers’ capacity to travel over long distances in dry conditions and to undercut their prices. Racist accusations were made in the press and physical confrontations weren’t uncommon around Bourke in the 1890’s.

Strict adherence to the Muslim faith saw the sixty or so ‘Afghans’ as they were known, separated from town in their own camp, avoiding alcohol, wearing their native dress, and practicing their Sufi prayer rituals. Townspeople went down to the camp on weekends to watch the ‘whirling dervishes’ dance. The camel drivers were friendly enough but kept to themselves. The men came single, most working to build capital for their return home.

Morbine Kahn Perooz had served in the British Army on India’s northern frontier, before coming to Australia in 1896. Entrepreneur Abdul Wade persuaded the twenty-three-year-old to join his camel operation in Bourke. Morbine earned his place as a pioneer, leading the first pack team and the first wagon in the district, ranging as far as Thargomindah, Charleville, and the Diamantina country, carrying wool back to the Bourke railhead.

Unlike most of his kinsfolk, Morbine settled in Australia and set about purchasing a wife according to Moslem tradition. Somewhere in 1912, probably desperate for money to maintain her addiction, Myrtle’s mother Sarah appears to have negotiated marriage to her daughter for a price.

Myrtle was called home from the convent to find the 39-year-old Morbine waiting and was shocked when her mother announced that she had to marry him. The young schoolgirl refused and ran away to hide in a culvert near the railway. She waited until dark, but when she returned to the Convent the nuns wouldn’t take her in. The frightened girl thought her mother must have given her a bad name.

Next her mother promised they were going on a holiday. Myrtle was sure she saw Morbine pay for the deal, including their fares. In Nyngan, Sarah arranged things with the priest, convincing him her daughter was fifteen years old. Myrtle questioned her mother and was told it was all above board. She knew she was expected to hold her tongue and that she could do nothing.

And so, 13-year-old Myrtle Mary Dee was married to a Moslem man in Nyngan with Catholic rites. She was certain her mother wouldn’t have got away with it in Bourke where she was known. Her only comment was, ‘That was my life!’

At first, the child-bride lived with her mother in a house nearby her husband. She wasn’t allowed out of sight – her mother or a member of the Afghan community always accompanied her. She was also kept out of their camp, and she concluded, ‘I must have been a pretty bad beggar.’ Their home had a tin mosque in the back yard large enough for half-a-dozen worshippers. Myrtle watched them wash their feet and go in to pray but was never encouraged to join them.

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