Indentured Indian labourers arrive at in Durban. Picture: Local History Museum
Indentured Indian labourers arrive at in Durban. Picture: Local History Museum

New investigation strips away sugarcoated narrative of KZN’s indentured labourers

By Opinion Time of article published Nov 15, 2020

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For 160 years, history has sugar-coated the narrative of the traumatic legacy of Indian indenture within the cane fields of colonial Natal, but a new investigation has uncovered a litany of abuse, rape and murder.

Latashia Naidoo

For 160 years, history has sugar-coated the narrative of the traumatic legacy of Indian indenture within the cane fields of colonial Natal. A new investigation of crimes from various cross-sections of indentured history has uncovered a harrowingly sadistic litany of abuse, murder, rape and other forms of violence within a system of labour precipitated by British capitalist greed. Monday marks the arrival of the first group of indentured labourers aboard the SS Truro in 1860.

At 3.40am on February 27, 1906, train number 306 made its routine early-morning commute from central Durban to Verulam – then the epicentre of sugar production in colonial Natal. From drivers’ logs of the journey we know that the freight train was travelling uphill at a sluggish 20km/h, arriving at the station – and on schedule – just before sunrise. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary on that fateful Tuesday morning, driver A. Spencer, guard J. Hutchinson and fireman WE. Schill would later report to authorities.

In the twilight haze the train’s headlight would have cast a single blinding beam into the horizon, illuminating the locomotive’s journey through the landscape of sprawling cane fields to highlight any obstructions on the tracks. But as records show, that wasn’t the case. Less than 10km from central Durban, near Storms Brick kiln, indentured labourer Ponappa Naiker (35) had laid down on the train tracks. His son Arumugan (4) lay beside him, swaddled in a dark and threadbare blanket, their prone bodies concealed from the driver’s view.

Moments later father and son were dead: both decapitated, ripped from limb-to-limb, and crushed to death by the weight of the 5-ton engine. When the grisly discovery of the bodies was made by another labourer some hours later, the pair’s internal organs were reportedly strewn across the railway tracks; body parts and pieces of blanket scattered some 75m or more away in the dense vegetation. Spencer and Hutchinson later revealed they had seen nothing.

This harrowing account is just one of hundreds of stories of suicide committed by indentured labourers in colonial Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) that have been excavated from dusty and long- forgotten colonial logbooks, which tells the plight of indenture from the perspectives of the victims themselves.

By piecing together depositions, medical reports and witness statements from the past, a stark and confronting picture of indentured life slowly begins to emerge, one where, for many, the weight of indenture seemed to far outweigh that of death itself. It reads like pieces of historical fiction – replete with tyrannical sugar barons driven by profits and greed, and an innate sense of misery among the indentured; and it’s a dark and bitter story that’s inextricably linked with the sugar industry in South Africa. It’s also one of the odyssey of 152 184 Indian immigrants who crossed the kala pani (black waters) of the Indian Ocean to sail to a new and foreign African land between 1860 and 1911, lured by seductive promises of wealth, gold growing on chilli trees in Natal, and streets paved with gold.

Roster of arrivals/indentured labour in South Africa identified by number only. Picture: Book titled "From Cane Fields to Freedom".

An epic African odyssey

The year 1860 is significant in South Africa’s indentured history. Yet if one were to ask the average South African about this date, few would be able to provide an answer based on more than just a cursory knowledge of indenture. Its exclusion from the history textbooks is telling; an omission of a chapter of the country’s turbulent colonial past that’s been relegated to living memories and oral histories. It’s in repositioning the stories of indenture in the public consciousness that we can attempt to reconcile our traumatic colonial past, in this, the 160th year since the first indentured arrivals.

The SS Truro barge which carried the first group of indentured Indians across the Paglaa Sumandar (Mad Ocean) from Calcutta in the south of India to Port Natal, arrived on November 16, 1860 with 342 migrant Indians onboard. The vessel had departed Madras on October 12, and newspaper reports reveal that the ship’s arrival – days earlier than anticipated – was met with a mixture of fanfare, fear and curiosity by the Anglo-Natalians and indigenous Zulus who came to meet it. “The Coolies Here”, proclaimed the headline on the front page of the November 22, 1860 edition of The Natal Mercury. (The term coolie is a racial slur meaning “labourer”.) The article describes the “remarkable scene” of the arrivals, tinged with curiosity for the exotic: of the swarthy-skinned men and the black-eyed women with their long, dishevelled hair and their “half-covered well-formed figures”, and of the “well-satisfied expression of self-complacency on their faces”.

Over the course of the next century, the plantation system in Natal would evolve into a tool of British colonialism characterised by power that provided a new font of wealth for plantation owners.

Sugar soon became a precious new commodity in the country’s agricultural sector, and indenture was the system that nurtured it. Indenture was first adopted by the British Empire as an alternate form of labour post the abolishment of slavery in 1833, and had been tested in the plantation colonies of Mauritius and Reunion before the first imports of human cargo arrived in Natal.

The passage itself was often perilous and foreboding, as captain’s logs depict. The story of the Belvedere’s arrival just 10 days after the Truro’s reflects this. Captain WB Atkinson reported that 29 migrants died onboard from cholera, dysentery and a number of other illnesses precipitated by the longer journey and a lack of adequate provisions for such. A further 10 died on shore. “The ship was placed in quarantine on arrival and on the instructions of the Health Officer, the clothing and bedding of the 351 survivors was burnt and replaced… Dropsy, dysentery and insanity complemented the cholera… 23 more died in the wooden lazaretto and stuffy tents in which they awaited their recovery and removal,” records show.

Beyond the passages of the ships, abuse and violence were interwoven into the DNA of plantation life. Workers, contracted to hard labour in the cane fields for five years, had a rigid and gruelling work schedule. They toiled the fields doing backbreaking work of cutting the hardy sugar cane from sunrise to sunset, six – sometimes seven – days a week, increased to 18 hours a day during harvesting season. The colonial masters reaped maximum output for minimum pay. And workers were controlled by a series of draconian laws.

Indentured labourers employed on sugarcane plantations in the former province of Natal in the 1860s.

As sugar became the engine of economic life in Natal and plantation owners grew wealthier with each harvest, the plight of the indentured grew worse. Abuses by the Sirdars (overseers) and colonial masters were habitual. According to prominent Durban lawyer and executive member of the 1860 Heritage Committee, Verulam, Anand Jayrajh: “History shows that indenture gradually developed into one that was used increasingly to exploit the workers and evolved into a system of bonded labour and exploitation – while not exactly like, but considered by many – akin to slavery.”

He added: “They were trapped into harsh and binding indentureship contracts by the colonial farmers; compelled to labour on the sugar fields for a pittance; and survived in cramped and unhygienic conditions not fit for human habitation.”

By 1904, suicide rates among indentured Indians in Natal were the highest in the world. Paris, which was considered the most notorious at the time for its suicide numbers, stood at 422 per million. Comparatively the rate among the indentured in Natal was at 741 per million. It’s even more shocking in context to the rate of suicide in South Africa today: 220 per million.

The ambivalence by both the plantation owners and colonial authorities to the rising suicide numbers pointed to the value of the indentured: unlike a slave, a dead indentured labourer could be easily replaced with little personal cost to the planter himself. Between 1880 and 1916, a total of 670 “intentional suicides” were recorded. Academics say the numbers remain inconclusive – with some estimating a figure closer to 1 000 as a result of unpublished data.

Dr Hemant Nowbath, a leading Durban-based psychiatrist, has conducted extensive research on the psychological impact of indenture on migrant labourers. “The indentured Indian was indeed a vulnerable person. Separated from homeland and family he experienced a sense of isolation. Themes of loss ran through his life – loss of self, self-esteem, social connections, dignity, relationships, financial stability and finally, loss of hope. All photographs of indentured labourers taken at the time reflect despair, anxiety and fear,” Nowbath said.

Children were not immune to these forms of self-destruction either. Ammany, a girl of 12, died in 1902 by “suicidal hanging”. A few months later, 16-year-old Beni was “found dead on railway line; suicide”.

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, colonial authorities largely ignored the psychological and psychiatric needs of the indentured. No commissions were ever appointed to address the scourge, nor any plantation owner or Sidhar prosecuted for their roles in a number of indenture suicides.

* Latashia Naidoo is an award-winning print and TV journalist. She is currently a 2020 Open Society Foundation Global Investigative Journalism fellow at Wits University, and has just completed a yearlong investigative research project on the atrocities of Indian indenture in colonial Natal.

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