Boxes containing the ship registers at the Durban Archives. Picture: Thembisa Waetjen
Boxes containing the ship registers at the Durban Archives. Picture: Thembisa Waetjen

The day the first Indian indentured labourers landed in SA

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 11, 2020

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Anand Jayrajh

During the height of colonial expansions preceding the 19th century, planters and industrialists in European colonies around the world relied heavily on slavery for the massive profits they made and immense wealth they accumulated.

The scourge of the slave trade came to an end within the British Empire in 1833 when England abolished it. Slaves throughout the British Empire were set free and this heralded the end of free labour.

Subsequent events revealed that the importation of Indian indentured labourers into colonies of the British Empire scattered around the world during the 19th century was the direct result of the abolition of slavery.

These labourers, often referred to as “human cargoes”(much like the slaves before them), were exported from India to far-flung regions of the world such as Mauritius, Fiji, Natal and West Indies to name a few.

In 1843 Britain officially annexed Natal, South Africa. In 1856 it became a full Crown Colony. At around that time the Colony, caught up in throes of world-wide recession, was on the brink of financial ruin, economic collapse and bankruptcy.

The colonial planters had, in the meantime, experimented with various crops such as coffee, tea, cotton and arrowroots, with little or no economic success.

Experiments revealed that sugar cane would thrive in the colony. It became abundantly clear that the sugar industry would prove to be its saviour.

However, such an enterprise would require labour and in the case of the colonial planters, they wanted low-cost ones.

With the abolition of slavery, farmers and industrialists had to resort to some other form of cheap labour.

In 1859 the local farmers formally petitioned their government to make arrangements to import indentured labourers from India. After initial refusals, India eventually relented and agreed to allow indentured labourers to emigrate to Natal.

Laws were passed by the Natal colonial government to enable and facilitate lawful importation of indentured labourers to work on the sugar cane fields of the colonial farmers in Natal. Complementary laws were passed in India to allow emigration of labourers from that country.

The ship, SS Truro, departed from Madras on October 12, 1860, with 342 passengers aboard and arrived in Durban on November 16, and was the first ship to bring Indian indentured labourers to Natal from India.

The SS Belvedere departed from Calcutta on October 4, 1860, with 310 passengers aboard and arrived in Durban on November 26.

The period 1860 to 1911 is thus an important and integral part of the overall history of South Africa. It was during this turbulent period when more than 150 000 indentured labourers were imported from India to Natal.

During the period of slave trade the “human cargoes” were transported by sailing vessels propelled by wind. By the time the indentured labourers began to travel from India to Natal, the ships that plied the oceans were no longer sailing vessels but powered by steam. Travelling conditions were, nevertheless, still relatively arduous and uncomfortable.

The book Documents of Indentured Labour - Natal 1851 to 1917 published by the Institute of Black Research (1980), gives some idea of the conditions under which passengers travelled. The book states that “the passengers were tightly packed in the paddle steamers in an allotted space of 6 feet (1.8m) by two. It is reported that when the deck was full, a platform was raised on the side of the vessel”.

A space was screened off by a sail to serve as a “bathroom”.

A “small room” was set aside as a “hospital”. This was kept in continuous use with cases of “itches, opthalmia, measles, aches and cold”.

Owing to the cramped conditions, congested travelling condition and lack of proper sanitation, disease spread with ease and the mortality rate was high. Although the Truro escaped mortality, records show that during 1860 to 1866 there were 180 deaths on board ships carrying these “human cargoes”. In one year, between 1881 and 1882, there were reportedly 67 deaths.

There was also the constant fear of assault and sexual harassment, not only from fellow passengers, but also the crew themselves.

The following was recorded in a captain’s log in 1885: “Considering the number of emigrants and the closeness in which they herded together immorality is very small”.

The captain recorded that “some precautions were taken by separating the single women, who were placed at the back of the ship, from married people and single men who were placed at the front”.

The log also bears an entry “but there is nothing, if they have a mind, to prevent single men going to single women or vice versa.”

In spite of all the measures he reportedly put in place his sirdars complained “something was going wrong”.

When the SS Truro anchored off Durban, the arrival was so unexpected that “Coolie Immigration Agent” Edmund Tatham, was not present. He is said to have “galloped through the night from Pietermaritzburg to take up his duties”.

The passengers only disembarked the next day.

The Natal Mercury on November 22, 1860, reported on the arrival of the ship with the opening line: “On Friday afternoon last, the 16th instant, the large barque Truro made the anchorage and signalled the fact of her having a large number of Coolies on board.”

It goes on to describe the landing as “a remarkable scene”.

The emergence of the “human cargo” was described, inter alia, as follows: “The swarthy hordes came pouring out of the boat’s hold, laughing, jabbering and staring about them with a very well-satisfied expression of self-complacency on their faces.”

It goes on to report further: “They were a queer, comical, foreign looking, very oriental like crowd”. The men were described as having “bare scraggy shin bones”. The women were described as having “flashing eyes, long disheveled pitchy hair, with their half covered well-formed figures, and their keen inquisitive glances”.

The children were seen as having “meagre, intelligent, cute and humorous countenances”.

They were all collectively described as “beings of a different race and kind to any we have yet seen either in Africa of England”.

Upon landing, the passengers were herded into what was described as unfinished barracks surrounded by pools of stagnant water.

They were expected to find their own place to relieve and wash themselves in a wild, soggy, mosquito-infested swampy area. Sores erupted, dysentery, colds and fever broke out. Although no deaths were reported en voyage, four passengers died within a few days of landing.

The immigrants remained under guard in the barracks until the “planters came to claim their commodities for which they had signed bonds.”

Employers wanted good, strong, healthy men who would be able to dig, plough and perform back- breaking work and turn virgin soil in a subtropical area into productive, arable land.

Women and children were seen as “dead stock”.

Tension and anxiety mounted while they were confined in the barracks and awaited assignment. There are reports where some of the immigrants made attempts to flee. Evidently, this became a serious problem for the authorities, that a high wall was built around the barracks “to prevent absconding and absence of coolies at the time of distribution” as later reported by a Durban magistrate.

While there were no deaths on board the SS Truro, the Belvedere was described as “a catastrophe in practically every respect”.

Cholera broke out within days of departing Calcutta. It is reported that 25 passengers died on the voyage itself. On arrival the ship was placed in quarantine. The clothing and beddings were burnt. In addition to cholera, many succumbed to dropsy, dysentery and insanity.

Upon arrival, immigrants were medically examined and confined in barracks and awaited assignment.

Once assigned, they began a journey by foot to their places of employment. The journey could be 20 miles (32km) or more. They were dispatched to areas like Clare Estate, Cato Estate, Sea Cow Lake, Springfield, Umgeni, Claremont, and Isipingo.

Other places were Avoca, Ottawa, Verulam, Tongaat, Milkwood Kraal, Shakaskraal and Umhlali in the north and Umkomaas and Umzinto in the south.

When the immigrants first reached their places of employment their first task was to build their huts on earthen floor in demarcated areas utilising available material like wattle, grass and daub. They had to endure the inconveniences wrought by bad weather conditions.

They had to work from sunrise to sunset. When they returned at dusk after a hard day of back-breaking labour, they had just enough time to have their meals that were prepared from the meagre rations allocated to them, before they fell into deep sleep through sheer exhaustion.

They were awakened by the loud clanging of the bells in the early parts of the morning while it was still dark; because they had to start work at first light.

Their tasks entailed tilling the soil; planting; fertilising; weeding; tending the growing crops; harvesting; loading; transporting; milling; packing; levelling roads as well as building dams, factories and houses and carrying out repairs and so forth.

* Anand Jayrajh is the executive committee member and spokesperson of the 1860 Indentured Labourers Foundation, Verulam.

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