Social media and history collide

At the launch of “The Indian Africans” at the 1860 Centre in Durban last week are, from left, event facilitator Maya Jagjivan Kalicharan, Ranjith Choonilall, Caitlynn David, Kiru Naidoo and Selvan Naidoo. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad African News Agency (ANA)

At the launch of “The Indian Africans” at the 1860 Centre in Durban last week are, from left, event facilitator Maya Jagjivan Kalicharan, Ranjith Choonilall, Caitlynn David, Kiru Naidoo and Selvan Naidoo. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 26, 2022


Durban - In the late 1800s the captain of a ship documented the journey of those passengers who boarded his vessel travelling between India and South Africa.

Now, 162 years later, the descendants of those who embarked as indentured workers and headed to Durban mistakenly hoping for a better life, finally have the pictures and written notes detailing those journeys.

The priceless records, which nobody even thought existed, saw the light of day in a seminal book, “The Indian Africans”, launched last week.

Much has been written about indentured workers from India – how they landed in South Africa, what they did and the contribution they made to the country as it is today.

However, until now their names and stories were faceless.

One of the old pictures of Indian indentured labourers on a ship travelling to Durban.

That all changed when social media and history collided almost 160 years later.

That’s when Stewart Fairbairn, a man in Sydney, Australia, took to Facebook and posted pictures and notes taken from the diaries and clippings of his grandfather, Max de Gruyter.

As a ship’s captain, De Gruyter had taken indentured workers, passengers and cargo to various places around the world, including Durban.

De Gruyter documented those journeys and had taken images and made journal entries of the indentured workers as they embarked and while they were on the ship’s deck.

Ranjith Choonilall, Caitlynn David, Kiru Naidoo and Selvan Naidoo at the launch of the seminal book, “The Indian Africans” at the 1860 Centre in Durban. David represented her grandfather and lead author Paul David, who died before the book was published. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad African News Agency (ANA)

It came to the attention of the writers and one of them, Selvan Naidoo ‒ who is also curator of the 1860 Centre in Durban ‒ was able to get those documents from Fairbairn.

Finally, researchers could connect ship records to names and faces.

“What really sets this book apart is that it shows for the very first time actual photographs taken on board indenture ships,” said publisher Anivesh Singh.

Technology and social media played a huge role in every aspect of the book. One of the authors, Kiru Naidoo, said: “We had the grandson of De Gruyter scan those images and then Dropbox it to us, so that worked very well.”

In the book, the Naidoos and their fellow memory-keepers Paul David and Ranjith Choonilall weave together a series of vignettes that tell the stories of those who arrived as indentured workers, the communities they built and the legacy carried forward by their descendants who were born here.

They also explore the contested issue of identity.

Durban lawyer Zandile Qono wrote the book’s emotive foreword. She said the stories might have been told before, but from a different angle, and they should be retold constantly, not just as a reminder but to “rethink popular narratives”.

“They must be told so that our children and their’s (sic) can share in the pride that we are a nation born of struggle,” she writes.

“My own birth was in exile in Senegal. My parents were driven from the land of their parents’ birth by apartheid violence and land dispossession. In my parents’ veins coursed the revolutionary spirit of amaXhosa and indentured Indians who for generations defended the graves of their ancestors from intruders.”

For Qono, freedom came at a price.

“As a child embraced in another part of our great continent, I was denied the beautiful melodic tongues of my parents, isiXhosa and Tamil. Instead my earliest conversations with my friends were in Wolof and French. I was robbed. Freedom was the bigger prize.”

However, Qono says freedom without a documentary record rings hollow.

Kiru Naidoo agrees. He says writing the book was both a moving and liberating experience for them.

“This was really emotional because we’re connected to the story and there’s a saying that until the lions have their historians, the tale of the hunt will always be told by the hunter. We are now the lions, we are equipped to be able to do the archival research, so it doesn’t have to be a third party telling our story.”

In the 374 pages, the writers don’t only examine the origins but also the development, activism and success of the descendants of the indentured workers.

“Where we needed documents that were in Edinburgh or London or Calcutta, we had our network of people go and find that and scan it and then send it to us, if we were not physically able to go to those places,” said Kiru.

It was a painstaking process to ensure that the information was correct and to piece together the documents.

“Some were not even documents. These were just fragments of paper with sticky tape and we had to go in and decipher things,” said Kiru.

Then they found documents that could only belong to spy agencies and the Bureau for State Security, the country’s former intelligence agency, because they were so detailed, he said.

The authors started by writing pieces for local newspapers and found readers who had additional information or could identify people in the pictures. The feedback helped to make the community part of the process.

The book touches on various milestones and pays tribute to all the achievers within the community.

They tell the story of the heroic Padavatan Six who saved 176 people from drowning when the banks of the uMngeni River burst in October 1917 and more than 400 market gardeners of “indentured ancestry” drowned. Without the six men’s assistance, the writers say, the death toll would have been higher.

The book talks about the formation of the Aryan Benevolent Home in 1927. It also explains why education was so important in the Indian community and the role of people like ML Sultan, who donated funds for the development of a technical college in 1941, known today as Durban University of Technology. It also gives insight into the successes of political activists and the failure of young people to speak the languages of their ancestors.

The book attempts to mention all those who made a contribution to South African society and ends with the chapter Beyond Indenture, a look at all those writers, scientists, musicians and activists who have succeeded despite their humble beginnings.

Kiru Naidoo says there are still huge gaps in the story but that’s exciting because it makes way for other projects.

“The Indian Africans” is an emotional and informative must-read for any South African. It might deal with history but brings you right to the present. It retails at R350 and is from the stable of heritage publisher Micromega. You can order online at for countrywide delivery.

The Independent on Saturday