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Jigsaw of colonial labour and indenture

East Indians and their cultural practices. Picture: Girmit Global Facebook Page.

East Indians and their cultural practices. Picture: Girmit Global Facebook Page.

Published Oct 4, 2020


Selvan Naidoo and Kiru Naidoo

Durban - Land, labour and livelihoods are among the themes at the heart of the disruption of human lives across the world for at least the past 500 years.

In South Africa, we are familiar with how the migrant labour system damaged settled African family life.

Like with the pillaging of India, the eventual destruction of the Zulu kingdom in 1879 meant that the British could reap obscene profits of those forced off their ancestral land to labour in the gold and diamond mines.

In this 160th year of the first Indian indenture to colonial Natal our interest has focused on indenture as the global trafficking of human labour including child labour.

There is considerable value in better understanding how diverse peoples came to live in different corners of the planet through forced migration and dislocation. A common thread throughout is the greed for human labour by those who wielded power.

One of our journeys to piece together this puzzle was deep in the Indian Ocean. Fragments of ganja pipes dangle from fishing line in a display case at the Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis, Mauritius. The ghat is sacred and emotional ground as the museum marks the first landing of African slaves and indentured Indian workers on the island.

Early postcard from Trinidad in the West Indies.

In spite of its sanctity we permit ourselves a chuckle. The pipes establish a link among our indentured cousins across the globe.

Not everyone smoked the holy herb but those who did gave enough trouble to the colonial authorities for the matter to feature prominently in historical documents. Mostly it was the masters’ complaints of workers being too intoxicated for work or being rendered completely unfit by madness.

We hazard an alternative view that Cannabis indica far from an abused recreational drug served to dull the pain of plantation oppression and the dislocation from a distant home.

Mauritius stands out in the spider’s web of the then European colonies that dot the globe. In 1834, the British selected the island as the first site for the shipping of indentured labour from the Indian subcontinent.

Slavery had been abolished in the British Empire but neither the greed for colonies nor the scramble for human labour abated.

Perhaps the most cutting of contemporary commentators on Britain’s pillaging and near ruin of India, Shashi Tharoor described it thus: “ the British state in India was a totally amoral, rapacious imperialist machine bent on the subjugation of Indians for the purpose of profit, not merely a neutrally efficient system indifferent to human rights. And its subjugation resulted in the expropriation of Indian wealth to Britain, draining the society of the resources that would normally have propelled its natural growth and economic development”.

Indentured workers in the West Indies.

Most damaging, of course, to any economy is to rob it of its most productive resource, its human capital.

Between 1834 and the end of World War I in 1918, the British trader-military state shipped almost two million economically active Indians as indentured workers to no fewer than 19 colonies including Suriname, Reunion, St Croix, Fiji, Mauritius, Ceylon, Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, Malaysia, Uganda, Kenya and Natal.

According to our relatives in Mauritius: “Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a million indentured labourers arrived from India at Aapravasi Ghat to work in the sugar plantations of Mauritius, or to be transferred to Reunion Island, Australia, southern and eastern Africa or the Caribbean.”

Our pilgrimage to the Indian Ocean landing site was therefore a poignant choice in piecing together the jigsaw of our family trees dismembered across the planet.

Not too many South Africans of Indian descent are aware of the sheer scale and scope of this dispersal, the deception in the recruitment nor the parallels in the experience of the oppression. Scholars Carter and Torabully cite an Indian Immigration Commission Report of Natal of 1887: “An Indian woman (who) belonged to Lucknow, met a man who told her that she would be able to get 25 rupees a month in a European family, by taking care of the baby of a lady who lived about six hour’s sea-journey from Calcutta; she went on board and, instead of taking her to the place proposed she was brought to Natal.”

An immediately recognisable word in local language to describe a downright horrible person is derived from arkatia. Kim Johnson notes: “The licensed immigrant recruiters in India hired men known as arkatias to scour the villages for willing migrants.

“Arkatia refers to a hook, like the kind used to catch fish.”

The man the woman from Lucknow met was in all probability an arkatia hooking people for a fee and unconcerned about the story he told.

The journey too was a lie.

The inherent dangers were left silent. The voyage took anything between 10 and 20 weeks depending on the destination.

Sometimes the destination changed at the dockside or while at sea.

People recruited under the impression that they were headed to the diamond fields of Kimberley found themselves weeding sugar cane fields on the Natal south coast.

Hugh Tinker observed that: “In 1856-57, the average death rate for Indians travelling to the Caribbean was 17% due to diseases like dysentery, cholera and measles.

“After they disembarked, there were further deaths in the holding depot and during the process of acclimatisation in the colonies.”

Closer to home, in eastern Africa the British shipped several thousand Indian indentured workers between 1895 and 1902 as labour on the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway.

Tinker notes further that seven percent of those workers died while working, almost a hundred from attacks by lions. People who trace their recent origins to Durban’s Railway Barracks have forebears indentured to the Natal Government Railways in spite of them being engineers and other railways professionals in India.

An intriguing aspect that cropped up in our scouring the records are the Indians indentured to the Danish West Indies.

Lomarsh Roopnarine in the course of research at the India Office Records in the British Library in London says: “I was struck by what I found because I was unfamiliar with the fact that the British government allowed the Danish planters on St Croix to import East Indian indentured servants to substitute for the loss of slave labour.” That information will surely surprise

Scandinavians who hold up a supposed stellar human rights record.

As we plod through this tortured history, there are still many pieces of the jigsaw scattered across the table.

* Selvan Naidoo and Kiru Naidoo are co-authors with Paul David and Ranjith Choonilall of The Indian Africans to be launched on November 16.

Sunday Tribune

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