Coming to South African Shores An Overview of Indentured Labour in  Natal (South Africa) [1860-1911]        

 By Satyendra Peerthum

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Historian, Lecturer, & Writer

On Thursday, 16th November 2023, an important commemoration ceremony was held near the port area of Durban, South Africa, where the arrival and settlement of the Indian indentured labourers in that part of the Indian Ocean was remembered and honoured. This event has been held for several years now and it is interesting to note that, after many years of campaigning and petitioning, the local Indo-South African communities will finally get a monument which will pay homage to the memory of their indentured ancestors which is sometimes taken for granted and overlooked in Mauritius.

A Picture of the ship the Truro in Calcutta during the 1860s
(Photo Collection, South African Library, Cape Town, RSA)


The Arrival of the First Indian Immigrants in Natal & its Global Colonial Labour Context

Adult male Indian Indentured Immigrants were photographed upon their arrival at the Immigration Depot in Natal during the late 1870s

Indentured migration to Natal was part of a new international circulation of labour which evolved after the British Parliament abolished slavery in 1833. This created a labour shortage on colonial plantations where huge sums of money had been invested in the production of raw materials such as sugar. In total, between 1826 and 1920, more than 3.3 million Indian indentured and contract labourers were exported to Mauritius, Jamaica, British Guiana, Trinidad, Natal in South Africa, and 25 other countries, colonies, and territories to satisfy the demand for cheap labor mostly for the sugarcane plantations and other local economic activities.

In order to meet capitalist demand for sustainable labour in the post-emancipation former colonial plantation world, the indentured system was introduced in sugar colonies and spread to other parts of the world including the British crown colony of Natal. This was most noticeable in Mauritius, Fiji, Caribbean, East Africa and South Africa. In South Africa, between 1860 and 1911, 152 184 Indians were recruited to work on the plantations on the east coast of Natal. Indentured migration to Natal began with the arrival of 342 Indians aboard the Truro on 16 November 1860 marked the culmination of a long struggle for cheap labour. This historic event took place several months after the enactment of Law No.14 which was to ‘Provide for the Immigration of Coolies into this Colony at the Public Expense and for the Regulation and Government of such Immigrants’.

Geographic Origins and Demography of the Immigrant Workers in Natal


The vast majority of immigrants who arrived in Natal between 1860 and 1911 were recruited in the Madras Presidency and Mysore in the south and Bengal, the Ganges valley and Bihar in the north. Around 70 percent were in the 18-30 age group; two thirds were male; and fewer than 20 percent 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).

Unlike most other colonies that imported Indian indentured labour, where the majority were northerners, around 65 percent of migrants to Natal were from southern India just like in Reunion Island. They were drawn primarily from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the south-east, and some from 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 Telugu; northerners spoke dialects of Hindi which came to form a South African Hindi.


Details of the Indentured Labour Contract in South Africa


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 percent remained in the colony after indenture. During the 1870s and after, thousands of Indian male immigrants who recently arrived in the colony were photographed and some of these registers have survived to the present.

The immigrants arrived under a contractual system which laid down certain conditions of work: they were to be employed nine hours per day, from sunrise to sunset, wages of 12 shillings per month during the first year, increasing to 13 shillings during the second year; rations were to be supplied by the employer, consisting of one and a half pounds of rice per day and each month 2 lbs of dhal, 2 lbs of salt fish, 1 lb of ghee or oil and 1 lb of salt.

Other conditions included free medical attention and treatment, free posting of letters to India and freedom of religious practice. The original indenture period was five years, renewed for another five years with the same employer or could be terminated and a new employer found. At the end of ten years immigrants were to be provided with a free passage to India or they could remain in Natal as ‘free’ Indians. [End of Part 1]

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