FEATURE: Justice for indentured Indians remains elusive
Opinion / 26 November 2019, 8:00pm / Selvan Naidoo and Kiru Naidoo
FEATURE: The second indenture ship, the Belvedere, landedi n Port Natal 159 years ago today carrying its human cargo from India to the plantations of colonial Natal. The first was the Truro, which arrived on November 16, 1860. The Belvedere warrants a deeper gaze in highlighting the violence of indenture. Records show that 14.2% of the 342 Indian c***lies on its list perished between departing Calcutta and landing in southern Africa.
Well before the Belvedere’s docking, 29 died at sea. One was listed as “not shipped”. Of the 312 human cargo that disembarked, 10 died between 1860 and 1861, even before being assigned to a plantation. Over the next eight years, a further 18 died.
That equates to an incredible 58 deaths off the Belvedere’s original manifest when it left Calcutta on October 4, 1860. Next year marks 160 years since the first Indians were drafted into indentured servitude in colonial Natal. It was a labour process described as “secret slavery” in the wake of the British Empire abandoning actual slavery in 1833.
The indentured and their descendants, now numbering almost 1.5 million, played a significant part alongside other South Africans in growing the economy of the then Natal and the country as a whole.
Critical to remembering, reflecting and restoring human dignity in a country tortured by colonial and apartheid violence is the need for acknowledgement of the evils committed by the colonial planters and their heirs. Atonement and accountability for gross human rights violations against indentured Indians remains elusive. Over the past 159 years no single colonial planter nor any of their descendants have offered an apology for the litany of murder, rape, torture and other forms of violence meted out to indentured Indians.
It is common cause that the gross human rights abuses on the plantations were harrowingly sadistic. Among the starkest was on the plantations of the Reynolds located in the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. While abuse was commonplace, the Reynolds brothers’ plantations stand out like a horror movie. The ferociously high incidence of suicides on the Reynolds estates, now owned by Illovo Sugar, ought to have provoked extreme concern by the authorities. Over a period of almost 25 years, reports of assaults, desertions, deaths and suicides poured from the Reynolds sugar estates in the Umzinto district. The conspiracy of silence on the part of the officials and then Natal society, served quite efficiently to shield the image of Reynolds Brothers from censure.
The Coolie Commission of 1872 however subsequently prohibited the practice of flogging. That did not mean an end to human rights abuses by the plantation masters and their boss boys, who included Indian sirdars. An unrepentant Thomas Reynolds said “that to do away with flogging was to show ignorance in how white people needed to deal with native races”.
Violent exploitation of human labour in order to realise maximum profit was fundamental to the way Reynolds and his sons, Charles and Frank, ran their plantations.
The persistence of the Protector of Indian Immigrants brought to light many unsavoury, illegal and inhuman practices committed against indentured Indians on the Reynolds estates. Listed below is some of the evidence of the types of human rights violations:
A doctor was only summoned if the patient was dangerously ill. In most instances, the indentured had to walk 14km to visit the doctor.
The stipulated, agreed working hours of nine hours a day between “sunrise to sunset” were extended to 13 hours, which meant that they were working seven days a week.
Pregnant women continued to work for seven months; thereafter their food rations were suspended until they returned to work
Food rations were often inadequate. Items such as dhall, salt and ghee were not issued for periods of up to five months. Proteins like meat and fish stipulated in the contract were never given.
Double shifts were normal in the mill eg 2am to 7pm. Time to visit the latrine (which was generally non-existent) was rarely allocated.
Housing conditions were pitiful with many labourers dying from exposure during the winter months.
Between July 1, 1892, and June 30, 1893, the Protector of Indian Immigrants, Louis Mason, noted that eight Indians had committed suicide on Reynolds Bros plantations.
An inquiry in 1900 conducted by Mason, assisted by Durban magistrate Herbert Miller, when a record 74 of the 1220 Indians employed on the Reynolds estates died during a 10-month period bizarrely concluded that there was no evidence of “systematic abuse”.
Next year, as we mark the 160th year of the first Indian indenture to South Africa, we fully intend to rally to seek small measures of justice for our enslaved ancestry.
Like the #RhodesMustFall protest movement that saw the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes’s statue at UCT in 2015, KwaZulu-Natal must decolonise relics of an ugly past.
Places like the clubhouse at Umdoni Golf Club where frames of the Reynolds legacy are so proudly displayed should start to do some introspection and atonement for past evils. Those portraits must fall. The very estate where the Reynolds ruled is today transformed into a beautiful wedding venue named Lynton Hall. Inside its ornate drawing rooms lurks a shameful past. This violent history must be revealed to prospective clients who might be unaware that this estate listed the highest incidence of suicide in comparison to all other sugar estates during the years of indenture.
Other efforts in remembering those who suffered during an era of colonial crimes must gather momentum. The renaming of Marshall Drive in Mt Edgecombe to Selvan Guruvadu Street for instance will serve as an apt tribute to a martyr of indenture. Guruvadu was one of the 1913 coastal strikers of South Africa’s first mass worker protest that brought the entire economy of Natal to a standstill. Guruvadu was murdered by Colin Campbell of Natal Ltd Estates yet he walked free. Other names like that of Swamy Nagappen, Harbat Singh, Valliamma and other ordinary heroes and heroines of indentured history must be acknowledged for resistance to colonial brutality.
The financial success of Reynolds Brothers and other sugar barons in the growth of the sugar industry of KwaZulu-Natal came on the back of horrific abuse of indentured people.
The sugar barons’ heirs have refused to acknowledge the injustices of the past or to even engage with descendants of the indentured on the topic of accountability or reparations.
As we approach the 160th anniversary, we challenge the Reynolds of Illovo Sugar, Crookes Brothers LTD, the Saunders and Huletts of Tongaat Hulett and others to acknowledge their part in the human rights abuses of the plantations. An apology is a necessary first step. Rest assured that there will be no turning back in this quest to yank a small measure of belated justice.
The authors are members of ASIJIKI - Activisits for Selvan Inquest who along with Gary Govindsamy opened a case at SAPS last December asking the National Prosecuting Authority to reopen the inquest into the 1913 Guruvadu murder.