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Today marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Indians in South Africa when 342 Indians arrived aboard the SS Truro on 16 November 1860. This article takes a look at some of the events that precipitated Indian indenture in South Africa.
English settlers had established an unofficial trading station at Port Natal from 1824 and it remained so until about 5,000 Boers, who had migrated northwards from the Cape, arrived at the settlement in 1838. Most took advantage of the fact that Natal had been underpopulated during the rise of the Zulu state system and acquired farms. However, after Dingane's defeat by the Boers in 1838, Africans began returning to Natal and their numbers increased from 10,000 in 1838 to over 50,000 by 1843. Trekkers were unable to exert control over African land and labour and consequently did little or no farming.
The British, fearing that the Boers would seek the protection of a foreign power and thus threaten her hegemony in the region, annexed Natal in 1843. This caused an exodus of Boers from Natal and there were only 67 families by 1847. British settlers were gradually attracted to Natal whose white population increased from around 8,000 in 1857 to 17,821 in 1869. Settlers tried a variety of crops but turned to sugar which accounted for 61% of the total gross value of arable farming in 1875.
The scarcity of cheap labour was a major problem as Africans had access to land and were unwilling to enter into a subservient labour relationship. Some lived on locations established by colonial officials who utilised the existing distribution of power in Zulu society to achieve control. Others lived on Protestant missions where converts to Christianity responded with great vigour to market incentives. Africans also rented land from the government as well as land speculators who were waiting for an increase in immigration and a rise in land prices. The cry for labour started shortly after whites settled in Natal and when Sir George Grey, High Commissioner over British territories in Southern Africa, visited Natal in 1855 the colonists petitioned him to import labour. Grey, who was aware of the success of Indian labour in Mauritius, recommended that it be imported to Natal.
The arrival of 342 Indians aboard the Truro on 16 November 1860 marked the culmination of a 10 year struggle for cheap labour. The majority of the 152,641 workers who arrived between 1860 and 1911 were young males. About 70% were in the 18-30 age group and only 2% were older than 36. The average male:female ratio was approximately 64:28, while less than 20% comprised families. The list of immigrants included several hundred castes and although the majority were middle-to-low caste there were some upper-to-middle level castes like Moodley (traders), Brahmins (priests) and Rajput (landowners). They were drawn primarily from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the south-east, and Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the north-east of India. Madras was the point of departure from the south and Calcutta from the north. Migrants from south India spoke Tamil and Telegu; northerners spoke dialects of Hindi which came to form a South African Hindi.
Although recent studies have shown that migration was a feature of pre-British Indian society, migration overseas was an extreme step given that Indians considered the act of crossing the sea, the "kala pani" (black waters), as defiling for the soul. The decision to emigrate was forced on most by demographic and economic dislocation which resulted from the wars that shattered the Mughal Empire, and the administrative reorganisation of India under the British Empire. For example, the Madras Presidency, which supplied two-thirds of Natal's Indians and where 71% of the population was dependent on agriculture in 1902, was affected by natural disasters and the system of land tenure. Under the Zemindari system, absentee landlords charged exorbitant rents and demanded it in cash rather than kind. This increased the number of landless and the 1882 Famine Commission reported that two-thirds of peasants were in debt. Natural disasters further impoverished the masses. For example, the Great Famine of 1876-78 killed 3.75 million people. Poverty and landlessness forced many into cityward migration where they were enticed by recruiting agents who promised wages several times higher than those current in India.
In terms of the contract which they signed, indentured workers agreed to work for five years for the employer to whom they were allocated. They were to perform all tasks assigned and were free, at the end of five years, to either reindenture or seek work elsewhere in Natal. Although they were entitled to a free return passage after 10 years, almost 58% remained in the colony after indenture. Approximately 60% of all indentured workers were allocated to sugar estates.
Indentured Indians faced numerous difficulties as their contract was abused in practice. In fact, when the first group of indentured workers returned to India in 1870 and complained of ill-treatment, the Indian government insisted that work conditions be investigated. Based on the recommendations of the 1872 Coolie Commission, a "Protector of Indian Immigrants" was appointed. In practice, the Protector had little power. Following an incident of abuse in 1906, for example, Protector Polkinghorne admitted that he was fighting "a very strong and influential company backed up in many quarters, and as Protector I have been alone in this matter simply doing my duty."
In her analysis, Swan (1985) concludes that "there is a solid weight of evidence in the Protector's files to suggest that overwork, malnourishment, and squalid living conditions formed the pattern of daily life for most agricultural workers." For Tinker (1974), social and economic life on estates amounted to "a new system of slavery." Indentured Indians had few ways of resisting their exploitation as a series of regulations maintained rigid control. Formal control included draconian laws which viewed all contractual offenses as criminal acts and sanctioned legal action against Indians for laziness and desertion. Indians could not go more than two miles from the estate without an employer's written permission, even if the purpose was to lay a charge against that employer. They could not live off the estate, refuse any work assigned to them, demand higher wages, or leave the employer. Most protest was consequently individualistic, and comprised of acts like absenteeism, desertion, suicide, feigning illness, and destruction of property.
Indentured workers were also utilized in other sectors of the economy. They were instrumental in the successful extension of Natal's railway network. In 1885, for example, the Natal Government Railways (NGR) employed 949 Indians, 200 of whom were based in Durban as gate-keepers, signalmen, and platelayers or collected tickets, copied letters and addressed envelopes in the office. Its total allocation of over 8,000 Indians made the NGR the largest single employer of indentured labour. The Durban Municipality also hired large numbers of Indians in its health and sanitation department. By 1913 they numbered 1,602. The vast majority were low-paid, unskilled general labourers who did things like street sweeping and grass cutting, while others worked as night soil men, scavengers, and in the street lighting department.
Emigration Agents also recruited Indians with special skills to work in hospitals, hotels, private clubs and dockyards. They were usually recruited in urban areas in India, could speak some English, and commanded a higher salary because of their skills. For example, Indian boatmen were brought especially from Madras, and the African Boating Company and other landing and shipping agents in the Durban harbour employed 422 Indians in 1909. Indentured Indians were also employed in very large numbers outside of Durban. The Protector noted in 1892 that they were "employed almost throughout the length and breadth of the colony," and there were 1,300 employers of indentured labour in 1904. The Clayton Commission of 1909 noted that the tea industry employed 1,722 Indians, 6,149 were indentured in general farming (non-sugar), 606 on wattle plantations and 3,239 on the coal mines.
Goolam Vahed is an Associate Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. He has published extensively on the history of Islam / Indians in South Africa, and the role of sport and culture in South African society including several co-authored and co-edited books. These include Blacks in Whites: A Century of Sporting Struggles in KwaZulu-Natal, 1880-2002 (2002); The Making of a Social Reformer: Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, 1893-1914 (2005); Empire & Cricket: The South African Experience 1884-1914 (2009); Monty Naicker: Between Reason and Treason (2010); Inside Indian Indenture: A South African Story, 1860-1914 (2010); Gender, Modernity & Indian Delights: The Women's Cultural Group of Durban, 1954-2010 (2010); and Many Lives. 150 Years of Being Indian in South Africa (2010).
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Last Updated (Wednesday, 17 November 2010 19:56)