Prospering in a harsh world
To celebrate, we must work towards a just society
“Sometimes it is impossible to know Where you are headed Without reflecting on whence you came” – James Baldwin
THE year 2017 marks the 157th anniversary of the arrival of the Indentured Indians on November 16, 1860, to Natal. The commemoration of this provides an opportunity to revisit our history by broadening the scope of interpretation pertaining to the Indian struggle for freedom.
The genesis of indenture started as an experiment in Mauritius in 1834, after slavery was abolished.
The success of this trial exercise prompted the British government to introduce Indian “bonded labour” to South Africa, British Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad, St Lucia, Granada, West Indies and Fiji.
As the locals in Natal refused to enter into contracts to work for white masters, the Natal sugar plantation owners arranged to import labour.
Thus the first group of 342 Indians arrived from Madras and Calcutta on November 16, 1860, on the Truro to land at Port Natal.
By 1917, when the indenture system ended, about 1.3 million Indian contract workers were shipped out to colonial-owned sugar plantations.
Between 1860 and 1911, there were 152 184 immigrants who arrived in Natal.
They were drawn mainly from the Madras Presidency, United Province of Agra and Oudh and Bihar.
Despite the Indian Government setting the ratio of men to women as 60:40, the average over a 50-year period was 70:30. The average age of immigrants was from 18 to 30.
Sixty percent of the workers were absorbed mainly by over 50 sugar plantations, while the rest were employed by the railways, tea and coffee plantations, coal mines, hotels, public bodies, inland farms, the fishing industry and contractors.
When their contractual obligations ended after five years, some returned to India, while others opted to work independently.
Sir Liege Hulett, speaking in the Natal Parliament on July 14, 1908, noted that the material prosperity of Natal ( in agricultural matters) began the day the Indians arrived and if it had not been for them, Natal would not have been in the position it held as the premier producing country in South Africa.
The further we move away from the first generation of our forebears, the dimmer the past becomes, especially when one considers how each day is consumed by either keeping the wolves from our doors or creating a better future for our families.
To determine what we should be celebrating, it is imperative that we have an overview of the struggle of the pioneers and how they overcame myriad obstacles and challenges from the time they were recruited.
To do this, we look at our history as three waves.
The first, after recruitment, was the painful goodbyes to families and friends and the hectic overland journey, mainly by ox carts, to the processing depots in Calcutta and Madras.
Some were escaping the sapping drought and merciless taxation of the British Raj, hoping to save sufficient money and return to give their families a better life; others were escaping the iniquitous Zamindari system; many were seeking a fresh start.
Eventually they arrive at the departure stations for medical examination and declaration of fitness to travel and work. The recruits board the sailing ships with trepidation and unease.
From the 1870s, the second wave, namely, “passenger Indians” who paid their own fare, followed the Indentured Indians, seeking opportunities as traders, craftsmen, goldsmiths, artisans, clerks, priests and teachers.
Space dictates the using of broad brush strokes to trace the humiliation and suffering of our forebears, who deferred their dreams to ensure that their offspring would lead better lives.
Moreover, if you take our pioneers as the first generation, many of you are the fourth and fifth generation.
As such, our rich history has probably receded into the distant past. (To jog your memories, you should visit the 1860 Heritage Centre at 1 Derby Street, Durban.)
The British plantation managers trampled on the dignity of their workers and demeaned them by considering individuals purely as units of labour.
Many, depressed by this constant dehumanisation, committed suicide (the suicide rate for indentured Indians in 1904 was 469 per million); some absconded and others whose spirits were broken, died.
During the crossing to Durban, many passengers died, for example, 29 on the “Belvedere”, the second ship to arrive in Durban.
The workers arrived on the fields at sunrise and left only after sundown.
Pregnant women worked until they were in the seventh month. Added to this unjust rule, rations were withheld until they returned to work.
For minor misdemeanours the harsh punishment ranged from whipping to reduction in rations and cuts in wages.
Sundays were the only rest days but there were reported cases where some laboured for seven days.
There were restrictions in movements outside the plantations, failure to produce signed notes resulted in punishment or being charged as vagrants under the British Vagrancy Act of 1824.
Withholding of notes of leave also prevented aggrieved workers from going to the police to lay charges.
The judicial system favoured the prosperous sugar plantation owners.
The punitive laws “to render Indians as second-class citizens” was passed because white colonists regarded Indians as rivals and competitors, either in agriculture or commercial pursuits.
Despite the range of despicable, shameful, undignified and demeaning descriptions and abuse that were hurled against Indians (women and children were referred to as “dead stock”, “parasites”, “squalid”, “artful”, “wily”, etc), many overcame all odds, not only giving us the life we enjoy today, contributing to the development of our country but also enabling the third wave of Indians to settle overseas, opening new frontiers to add to the Indian diaspora.
In celebrating the 157th anniversary of the arrival of the indentured Indians to South Africa, we as proud standard bearers must pass the baton and work towards a just society and revive voluntarism by reducing poverty, improving education services, building the skills of the under-privileged and enhancing social cohesion.
Juggie Pather is the honourary director of the 1860 Heritage Centre, author, blogger and heritage conservationist.
Child labour on the cane plantations on the North Coast of Natal.