RAHS Day Lecture – The Tragic Story of Cassim and Abdullah

Sawpit Gully, near Queanbeyan NSW [Courtesy of The Penny Gaff]

Early in 1861, two young Muslim Indians from the Malabar coast of India, Mahomet Cassim and Mahomet Abdallah, set foot in Australia. Their arrival is shrouded in mystery but they may have been seamen – lascars – who deserted their vessel eager to see this strange new land. Without any means of support and unable to speak English, they gave busked, giving open-air demonstrations of what they knew best, an ancient Indian martial art called kalaripayutt, a strange combination of dance, acrobatics, mock combat (with swords, knives and spears), and personal reflection. Rarely seen outside of India, observers could only describe this weird entertainment as ‘Indian juggling’.

In the spring of 1861, Cassim and Abdallah reached the goldfields of Lambing Flat to entertain the thousands of diggers camped there. After one open-air performance, an Indian man, Casserotti, stepped forward to introduce himself. Able to converse with the two performers and also able to speak English, Casserotti offered to act as their manager, promoter and master of ceremonies as they travelled the bush. Cassim and Abdallah gladly accepted his offer. The trio commenced their travels withs several packhorses as ‘Madhoul & Company, Real Indian Jugglers’.

Two months later, in November 1861, as the trio travelled between Queanbeyan and Braidwood, they camped in the bush near a remote place known as Sawpit Gully. There, Casserotti apparently abandoned his new-found comrades, taking several of their horses and £114 in takings he carried in gold bags.

Some fifteen months later, in January 1863, skeletal remains of a dark-haired man were found on a lonely bush track at Sawpit Gully, not far from where the three men had camped and were last seen together. The remains indicated that the man had been murdered with some sharp instruments, possibly knives or swords, before being robbed. Although the remains were never properly identified, the empty gold bags, clothing and other possessions found with the remains strongly indicated that they belonged to the Indian man who managed the two Indian jugglers as they passed through the area about 15 months earlier. On only circumstantial evidence, a warrant was therefore issued for the arrest of Mahomet Cassim and Mahomet Abdallah.

After a trial lasting less than two days, the pair were found guilty of the murder of an ‘unknown Indian’. Despite an appeal to the Governor of New South Wales and a public outcry that led to a report put before the Legislative Council, Mahomet Cassim was hung in Goulburn Gaol in May 1863. The death sentence placed on his younger comrade, Mahomet Abdallah, was commuted to life imprisonment with hard labour, the first three years in irons. In 1866, his health broken, Mahomet Abdallah was permitted to self-exile himself back to India but died on the voyage home.

Framed for a murder probably neither had committed, my presentation will outline the tragic story of “Cassim and Abdallah”, a story which I and my colleague, Dr William Gilcher, plan to realise as both book and film.

About the speaker: Dr Mark St Leon is a retired university lecturer. He was previously Senior Finance Officer of the Australia Council. In 1991, he launched the Sydney Arts Management Advisory Group (SAMAG), now in its 30th year of continuous, non-profit operation. He was recently appointed a Councillor of the Royal Australian Historical Society. He is the author of the definitive history of Australian circus, Circus: The Australian Story (Melbourne Books, 2011) and has written numerous monographs and articles on the subject.

Details:

  • When: Wednesday 7 April 2021, 1pm – 2pm
  • Where: Streamed online via Zoom
  • Cost: Free