Pros­per­ing in a harsh world

To cel­e­brate, we must work to­wards a just so­ci­ety

Post - - Opinion - JUG­GIE PATHER

“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.

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