Indian Indentured Labourers Arriving in ‘Natal’

The history of indentured labour in South Africa is a story of colonialism and the European desire to expand economically, culturally and politically across the globe. It is the history of the Indian diaspora who, through indentured labour, were taken to South Africa, Mauritius, Guyana, Suriname, Reunion Island, and many other colonies. 

The indentured labour system was invented as a response to slavery, which was abolished between the 1830s and the 1860s. It was not much more than slavery under a different name. Britain, under which India remained a colony until 1857, would force Indian people to abandon their homes, splitting up families. Upon landing in South Africa, the colonial authorities required indentured labourers to announce to the magistrate that they planned to be free. Thereafter, they would be required to work for a minimum of five years until their freedom would be granted but bureaucrats frequently extended this to 10 years.

Sugar cane cutters in oThongathi under indenture

Indian people who travelled independently to South Africa (not as indentured labourers) most often did so under what was thought of as the promise of gold and riches in Africa. This notion of Africa as a land of riches was due to the fact that historically Africa was, indeed, an incredibly wealthy region and for centuries the world’s greatest source of gold. The stark reality that Indian immigrants faced in Natal was one of tension, inequality, violence, the invention of race-based social experiments in segregated living, and poverty.

The first South African Indian community began at what was called Victoria Village, a small town built to support the sugar cane farms which is today called oThongathi. It was there that the Indian indentured labourers were taken after landing in Port Natal/D’Urban, as it was in Victoria Village that the sugar cane industry was beginning to boom. Between about 1860 until the early 1900s, the time during which Indian people were taken to Natal under indenture, was also a time of struggle against local African people. May of them had become wealthy and economically independent by selling their excess cattle, leather, horns, maize, and other agricultural products, and this was one of the primary reasons for the Natal colony’s desire for cheap labour.

The Early Morning Market – Photo by Katie Els

Durban’s Early Morning Market, which is part of Durban’s Markets of Warwick Junction complex, was built in 1934 as a result of more than 50 years of struggle for a marketplace by the ex-indentured Indian gardeners. The market was a place for Indian people who had been freed from indenture to establish their own economic independence by selling produce. The situation was still dire as they were disallowed from selling their goods in the main town market, and if they sold their goods ‘after-hours’ they were required to make their prices lower than the white vendors’ prices. The economic success of the Indian community in South Africa is testament to these centuries of anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle, and the transformation of the ‘promise of gold’ in South Africa to the reality of fighting for freedom against the odds.

Images courtesy of:

South African History Online
City Press
Katie Els