They came from the East

2010-08-02 00:00

THE arrival of the first indentured Indians was to have far-reaching results for the Colony of Natal. The first ships arrived in November 1860, having left Madras and Calcutta the previous month. The voyage, in a sailing ship or paddle steamer, in those days took an average of 45 days from Madras and 54 from Calcutta, but a few decades later, when steamers were used, not only was the journey considerably shorter, but 600 passengers could be transported in comparison with the 300 or 350 who the Truro, Belvedere, Lord George Bentinck and Spirit of Trade carried in 1860.

Groups of Natal agriculturalists had begun to agitate for the importation of labour as early as 1855 and necessary legislation was finally passed in 1859. However, before labourers­ could be sent to Natal the necessary machinery had to be set in motion in India. William Collins, the postmaster-general, was sent to India as a special agent and he arranged for two emigration agents to represent the colony, one in Madras and the other in Calcutta.

Recruiting was carried out by licensed­ recruiters and their assistants or touts under the supervision of these emigration agents. The Protector of Emigrants, appointed by the government of India, was in overall control of all indentured emigration and saw to it that regulations were complied with and that all complaints made by people were investigated. The 152 184 men and women who came to Natal as indentured labourers were from a wide area, but the majority were recruited in Madras Presidency and Mysore in the south and Bengal, the Ganges Valley and Bihar­ in the north.

Intending emigrants were required to sign a contract, printed in English and the Indian language of the district, setting out all the conditions of service that were applicable in Natal. The conditions for all places to which Indian labourers were sent were based on the recommendations of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission of 1842. Intending immigrants were subjected to a full medical examination. They had to be fit enough to stand a voyage of two months followed by 10 years of manual labour. They were to be free of contagious diseases, men were to be not more than 35 years of age and women not more than 30, unless they were part of a family. Certain physical signs such as calloused hands and a well- developed chest were taken as indications that the man being examined had been accustomed to manual labour and would thus be a useful immigrant in the colony where agricultural labourers were in short supply. Anyone showing signs of heart disease, varicose veins, goitre or any debilitating or contagious disease as well as venereal disease was to be rejected. Another medical examination was carried out once the ship docked in Port Natal and it was not uncommon for people to be declared unfit for work and sent back to India even though they had originally been passed as healthy.

Every vessel used to transport indentured Indians had to conform to specifications that were laid down by the government of India with regard to space per person, water, rations, medical attention and ventilation. The captain was required to sign a charter party and to undertake to carry­ certain stores, medicines and equipment. Extra clothing for the passengers also had to be carried.

Usually the passengers were brought ashore in small boats and then transferred to the depot on the Bluff.

Shortly before the arrival of the Truro and the Belvedere an official post of coolie agent was created with Edmund Tatham as the first incumbent. His main task was to see to the accommodation of the immigrants and then to allocate them to the colonists­ who had applied for them. Added to these duties was the financial responsibility for collecting the money due from employers. This was originally set at £7, but later increased to £12,10 and then £15 for each immigrant who landed. This was to cause endless problems until eventually the colonial secretary agreed, very reluctantly, to allow employers to pay by instalments. Throughout his years in office, Tatham had difficulty satisfying the colonial officials about his accounting methods and in the end this was to lead to his dismissal. His successors were more fortunate in being able to concentrate on the immigrants and their needs, leaving the financial side to the Indian Immigration Trust Board. The policy in allocating immigrants was to keep families together and also, whenever possible, to send people from the same village to the same employer. Employers had to accept the immigrants that were sent to them and only in cases of bankruptcy or proven ill-treatment by the employer or his agent could transfers be made before the indenture period was completed.

The majority of the immigrants in the 1860 to1866 period were allocated to employers along the coastal belt, from Verulam to Umzinto, where they were in demand as agricultural labourers on estates which, at that time, were growing a variety of crops while experimenting with growing various types of sugar cane. Some of the Indians­, however, were indentured to residents of Durban as domestic servants or to the Corporation as labourers. After 1874, when immigration was started again after a break of eight years, there was a demand for their labour in the inland districts and by the end of the century, Indians, indentured and free, were working in almost every part of the colony, as well as across the borders on the diamond and gold fields.

The conditions under which Indian indentured workers were employed laid down nine hours of work per day, from sunrise to sunset, rations as quoted below, wages of 12 shillings per month during the first year, increasing to 13 shillings during the second year. Medical attention and treatment was to be provided free of charge, letters could be posted to India free of charge and there was freedom to practise their religion without interference. The original indenture period was five years, after which it could be renewed for another five years with the same employer or it could be terminated and a new employer found. At the end of 10 years immigrants were to be provided with a free passage to India or they could remain in Natal as free Indians.

Rations were to be supplied by the employer, consisting of one-and-a- half pounds of rice per day and each month two pounds of dhal, two pounds of salt fish, one pound of ghee or oil and one pound of salt.

In 1874 a new set of regulations was implemented in an attempt to eliminate some of the problems that had arisen between employer and indentured worker, and in that year a Protector of Immigrants was appointed with increased powers. At the same time, the number and standard of interpreters was improved. By the 1880s there were considerable numbers of free Indians in Natal in addition to the indentured and they were engaged in many types of occupation — agricultural, technical and commercial, skilled and unskilled. As agricultural workers they were employed on sugar estates, tea and coffee plantations and on dairy farms.

They soon had the monopoly of market gardening in the vicinity of the towns, delivering their produce to the market, selling it on the streets or hawking it from house to house in panniers.

More technical occupations were followed by Indian workers in tea and coffee factories, tobacco and cigar factories, in tailors’ shops, in quarries and in collieries in northern Natal. They were also employed in wattle plantations where they stripped the bark that was required for tanning and as shepherds on upcountry farms. At Port Natal they worked as stevedores­ for the African Boating Company, forming the bulk of its labour force.

Masulah boatmen, with their boats, had been imported in 1860 to assist the port captain, and Indian fishermen were active in the bay, using seine nets. On Salisbury Island groups of free Indians set up small fish- smoking plants where they made a steady living since dried fish was in demand as part of the ration supplied to indentured labourers.

The first Indian labourers who were employed on the railways were imported from Mauritius­ by the Railway Company at the end of the 1870s, but it was not long before indentured labourers were working in large numbers for the Natal Government Railways. Many of these men had formerly been employed in railway construction in India and were specially imported into Natal because of their experience or skills. Indian families as well as single men were accommodated on site in places like Pinetown, Ladysmith and as far as Charlestown, while the line to the Transvaal was being constructed, and overall the Natal Government Railways was the largest single employer of Indian indentured labour.

When the railway expansion came to an end many of these workers remained in the inland towns earning their living in various ways, including the practice of their traditional crafts, trading or market gardening­.

Although Indian labour played an important part in the development of the sugar industry this has been somewhat overemphasised while their contribution to the overall economy has not received the attention it merits. The part played by the special servants brought from India, particularly from Madras, in the growth of the hotel industry in Durban deserves mention.

They provided the waiters, dhobies, doormen, carriage drivers and chefs attired in crisp white uniforms, turbans and coloured sashes, who were a distinguishing feature of high-class establishments.

The social influence of the Indian people on KwaZulu-Natal has also been considerable. Their architecture, colourful clothing and customs have made Durban a cosmopolitan city and KwaZulu-Natal as a whole more interesting and less insular.

• This article first appeared in Natalia.


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