A History of Indian Settlement in KwaZulu-Natal

A History of Indian Settlement in KwaZulu-Natal

The Morewood Factor

Most forward thinking of these frontiersmen was Edmond Morewood. Granted a farm on the outskirts of the Port Natal-Durban settlement in 1846, Morewood sailed to Mauritius and Reunion to seek answers to the above-mentioned problems. He returned armed with hardy new stocks of seed-cane and knowledge of indentured labour from India, only to discover that the newly fledged government had expropriated his farm. Subsequent negotiations saw Morewood allocated a new stretch of land further to the north, that he aptly named Compensation , and that constitutes the bulk of what is today our Zulu Kingdom s Dolphin Coast . Morewood's cane was successful, and he made further history in 1850 with construction of our first, albeit primitive, sugar mill. Tracing the exploits of this adventurous figure is a highly sought after attraction for visitors to our Dolphin Coast , while the fruits of those he inspired can be enjoyed along our spectacularly scenic Sugar Coast and South Coast .

Morewood and his peers now had the most appropriate cane to grow, which made their labour shortage even more vexatious. They began agitating the authorities to institute the indentured system that Morewood had seen in action on his travels to the Indian Ocean islands. The first officially sanctioned call was submitted by Natal Colonial Secretary Erskine on 25 April 1855 and published in our first independent newspaper - The Natal Mercury. This prompted a flurry of Letters to the Editor from both pro- and anti-indentured labour lobbies, the latter objecting either on grounds that an adequate work-force existed, or that the Colony's white settlers should not be further outnumbered by the introduction of more non- Europeans.

Governor of the Cape Colony and known sympathiser with the cause, Sir George Gray, happened to be visiting Natal at the time. Upon his return, he instructed the local Government Colonial Secretary to write to the Government of India, asking that the Natal Colony be included among approved destinations for emigrant labour.

Safeguards in Place

Abuses of the system had already been noted by this juncture, spurring the Government of India to scrutinise even more closely applications for indentured labour. These fears were exacerbated by widespread rumours on the subcontinent that once disembarked on the far-flung shores of the Empire Hindus are forced to eat beef and Muslims forced to eat pork . The position of Protector was created, first in India then subsequently in Natal, once the Indian authorities finally passed the relevant Act on 7 August 1860. The Natal Colonial Government had in the interim formulated wide-ranging pre-immigration laws and dispatched Postmaster-General William Collins to India to expedite matters, having been advised by the Indian Protector of Emigrants to at least equal the pay and conditions being offered in Mauritius.

Natal s new legislation fell into three categories. One spelled out the prospective employer s official requisition for labour and his agreement to pay passage costs and other related expenses. The second dealt primarily with the arrival of immigrants. It declared that only a licensed authority could introduce immigrants into the Colony; the local Protector had power to inspect a ship before allowing its passengers to disembark; the Master had a duty to provide rations for up to two days after docking; all immigrants were to be registered and allocated; agents or ships Masters could be fined 50 Pounds for poorly feeding or ill-treating those in their care. The third category of legislation boasted 43 clauses as it laid out the rules and regulations for the immigrant his conditions of service and wages. While the first shiploads of immigrants were indentured for ten years, this section brought about a reduction in the binding period to five years. The wages aspect was destined to be readjusted from the initial scale of 10 shillings a month for the first year, 11 shillings a month for the second year and so on. Conditions were established for labourers to re-indenture themselves or to buy themselves out for three Pounds after three years service. So-called Free Indians those who d served out their indenture or were to arrive under their own volition were free to negotiate their own terms with employers.

Lands of Opportunity

Not that emigration to far-off destinations was a matter of adventure, but solely one of harsh necessity, anyone contemplating this course of action was at the time somewhat spoilt for choice when viewing employment opportunities within the British Empire. India s ever-expanding rural population saw opportunities for land tenure diminish with each new generation, and the Natal Colony s offer appealed to many. On the contract s completion, it was possible to commute the price of a free return passage, the pay-out enabling purchase of Crown land in 15-acre plots. This proved incentive enough for many, particularly those of peasant families whose prospects were dismal indeed in the India of that particular juncture.

Southward Bound

Southward Bound Postmaster-General Collins chartered two ships to pioneer the introduction of indentured labourers and their families to our shores the Belvedere out of Calcutta, and the Truro from Madras. Each carried 342 passengers, and were the first of 384 vessels destined to ply this route during the coming half century. The Belvedere was first to embark, leaving Calcutta on 4 October 1860 and followed by the Truro ex Madras a week later. No records exist, but it s highly unlikely that any fanfare accompanied their departure, indentured emigration having already slipped from the front pages of India s newspapers. With the Belvedere s journey from the subcontinent s far-east corner somewhat longer than the Truro s, the latter claimed historic honours when it made anchorage off Port Natal-Durban on 16 November, with the Belvedere arriving ten days later.

No Warm Welcome

If their departure went unheralded, nothing resembling the equivalent of a ticker-tape reception greeted our pioneering Indian settlers either. Under the less than jubilant banner headline The Coolies Here , The Natal Mercury reported that the planters pet project has been realised , and described the swarthy hordes pouring out of the boat's hold as a queer, comical, foreign-looking and very Oriental- like crowd . The newspaper at least dispelled one popular notion - that the new arrivals were all illiterate and uncouth accurately reporting that the complement included bankers, carpenters, accountants and mechanics in its number. Of the Truro's 342 passengers, 190 were adult males (over 16 years of age), 80 adult females, 36 boys (aged 15 and under) and 36 girls. Christian Indians accounted for 95 of these, while Muslims totalled 23 and Hindus 163. The remaining Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Pharsis and Sufis were not classified. The Belvedere's same number of passengers comprised 206 adult men, 62 adult women, 49 boys and 25 girls. No Christian Indians were aboard, but she carried 17 more Muslims than the Truro.

A Harsh Reality

The apparent lack of deaths aboard the Truro albeit two missing passengers were declared by her Master as not shipped was in stark contrast to prevalent experience. Although conditions aboard steamships were a vast improvement from the sailing vessels of yore, disease and death remained a dire characteristic of the long and arduous voyages. The Merchantman's 1857 arrival in British Guiana, for example, revealed that almost a third of its 385 passengers had died en route, and all but 10 of the survivors were seriously ill. The Belvedere brought this reality to our shores, having recorded 29 deaths at sea , and a further 10 fatalities before allocation to an employer. Another 18 people died during the next 8 years, fuelling claims that unfit immigrants were being shipped from India.

To Stay or Go?

A little over half of the Truro's passengers ended up staying in South Africa, but not all of these in the Natal Colony. Records show that 23 applied for permission to seek their fortunes in the newly discovered diamond fields in Kimberley. Less than half of the Belvedere's survivors stayed. Apart from individual farmer-employers and the fledgeling Umzinto Sugar Company, the Railways, Magistrate's Office, Port Captain and Emigrant Protector's office all engaged new recruits from India. It also became fashionable for society s elite to employ Indian house staff, replicating the glory days of the British Raj on the subcontinent.

Recession Strikes

The American Civil War broke out in 1861, and a global depression was in place by its end five years later. Britain's two colonies in Southern Africa did not escape the downturn, and by 1866 were struggling to survive financially. European fortune-hunters and pioneer entrepreneurs had departed en masse to new fields of opportunity, and the Natal Government discontinued the immigration of Indian labour. It's estimated that 6445 Indians had arrived by 1866. Paradoxically, the Colony's infant sugar industry was booming, exports increasing four-fold to a hundred-thousand Pounds in the single year prior to 1864. The ubiquitous Natal Mercury ecstatically praised the Indians priceless contribution and heralded the enlarged production and increased prosperity he will create for Natal .

The Turning Point

Two pivotal events marked the year 1871 economists declared the global depression over, and the first official complaints were made about the treatment of Indians in Natal. The latter were laid with the Protector in Madras by ten ex-indentured labourers who had returned aboard the Red Riding Hood the first ship to carry repatriated Indians back to the subcontinent. And when she reached Calcutta, further complaints were lodged there, too. All were referred back to the Colony, and 1872 witnessed the first ever report published on the condition of Indian immigrants in Natal. The charges laid against Colonial employers ranged from flogging and assaults to irregular payment and rations, unwarranted salary deductions, extra working hours, poor medical facilities and non- payment of termination monies to those seeking repatriation. All allegations were denied, and it would appear the resulting Commission of Inquiry paid little regard to equanimity in its gathering of evidence. With economic matters back in full swing and employers seeking the re- introduction of indentured labour, the Natal Government tightened- up its immigration laws and conditions of employment to appease the Indian Government, and on 25 June 1874 the Jason arrived from Calcutta, heralding uninterrupted immigration until 1911.

Progress and Problems

These 37 years witnessed approximately 146 000 new immigrants disembark from a further 364 ships, bringing about a transformation in virtually all spheres of the Colony's agricultural, industrial and economic activities. And while authorities felt they'd adequately legislated against the abuses that led to the above-mentioned complaints, this proved not to be the case, and dissatisfaction simmered as employers flouted laws that few of their workers understood clearly. Indians were also of the opinion that the Protector in Natal ostensibly the impartial arbitrator was in fact little more than the employers yes-man. These problems gave rise to the second investigation into the conditions and treatment of Indian immigrants in the Colony the Wragg Commission of 1885-87. The resulting report chronicled short-comings in medical facilities, difficulties encountered in the transition to urbanised Western lifestyle, pollution caused by unsanitary living conditions, disregard of labour laws by employers, the need to diminish the Protector's authority while simultaneously maintaining population statistics, and the pros and cons for the white populace of the Industrious Indian in their midst. This, in particular, contributed significantly to the report's final chapter The Future of Immigration.

White Fears

The Wragg Commission clearly established the fact that Colonials were divided on the question of continued immigration from India. Those less-inclined towards their new compatriots were themselves split into factions. Some believed the indenture period should revert to ten years, or if the five-year system remained, should include compulsory repatriation unless a further indenture was signed. Others demanded that the status of free Indians be reduced to include control of movement and place of residence and business. Yet others called for the removal of Government subsidies to dissuade prospective employers from importing labour, while the most hard-core elements lobbied for the total cessation of Indian immigration and its replacement by an African work-force. The Zulu nation under King Cetshwayo had suffered its final defeat of the Anglo-Zulu War on 4 July 1879, a conflict in which the Indians took no part, unlike the Anglo-Boer War destined to erupt two decades hence. After a quarter-century of indentured labour, the Colony's white population of 45 000 was on the cusp of being outnumbered by Indians, and knew that sooner or later immigration from the subcontinent would have to be curtailed and ultimately come to an end. Natal stood at a crossroads of sorts, and it was into this emotional arena that arrived an unassuming young man destined to become one of the greatest figures in world history - the Mahatma-to-be.


Follow Us