The first Indian indentured labourers arrive in Durban harbour aboard the Truro in 1860.
The first Indian indentured labourers arrive in Durban harbour aboard the Truro in 1860.

Are Indians still at sea in the new SA 160 years later?

By Opinion Time of article published Nov 13, 2020

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“Our province is also at the crossroads of change, that in the promotion of social cohesion in a divided society, racial groups depended on each other. I always say that the history of the Zulu nation would not be complete without the history of the Indian communities, and the history of the English people, Afrikaners and Germans.” – His Majesty, King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu kaSolomon.

OPINION – South Africa’s 1.4 million Indians will soon observe 160 years since the first contingent of 342 Indian indentured labourers arrived in Durban. More than 200 000 migrated to SA between 1860 and 1911, creating the biggest concentration of Indians outside mainland India.

But could the celebration become a damp squib amid the dark clouds of the Covid-19 ban on public gatherings?

Selvan Naidoo is the curator at the 1860 Indian Heritage Centre. A state-subsidised repository, it contains 160 years of historic documents, books, artefacts and memorabilia of the life and times of the enslaved sugar cane workers in the colony that was dubbed “the last outpost of the British Empire”.

‘’The Covid-19 protocols will not allow us to host a banquet and exhibition at the Sibaya Casino and Hotel on this historic day. We have to take responsibility to ensure that we do not endanger lives and may host a scaled down event by observing social distancing,’’ Naidoo said.

Thus the global pandemic has put paid to any traditional outdoor gatherings, including this celebratory milestone. KwaZulu-Natal has warned its 10 million citizens that the needle would move backwards to a hard lockdown after nine out of 12 districts had been declared Covid-19 hotspots.

But on another level, Premier Sihle Zikalala has confirmed government’s efforts to build a monument as a living legacy to the indentured labourers who arrived by boats from India on November 16 1860. He said this would be honoured by his Pietermaritzburg administration.

At the heart of the issue is that 160 years later and there’s still no statue for the stoical 1860 people who turned a green into gold economy.

Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children toiled for up to 10 years on hundreds of sugar cane plantations across the garden province. Many were shipped by the British Raj to Durban because of their farming and agricultural skills. British India in the 18th century was in the throes of the country’s worst drought and high-level poverty and a state of joblessness.

The British shipped Indians to South Africa, Mauritius, the Caribbean island states and Fiji.

In SA, 10 years and R10 million rand later, the political and non-governmental agencies are still at sea about erecting a living legacy monument as an homage to the trailblazing 1860 Indian indentured labourers who arrived by boats in Durban from the east 160 years ago.

On November 16 1860, the first batches of 342 Indians disembarked from the SS Truro, followed by the SS Belvedere on November 27. Buildings in Durban were named after Truro and a sugar farming pocket after the Belvedere. From 1860 to 1911, 200 000-plus immigrated to SA. The early pioneers sought a better life in Africa.

The Truro left Madras on October 12 1860. The second ship, the SS Belvedere sailed from Calcutta a week earlier, but only caught sight of Durban 11 days later.

Writers and historians have chronicled these ‘’difficult journeys’’ and ‘’hardships’’ on the ships, where the passengers were spaced by six to two feet each; and dozens died of cholera and dysentery.

The Indians were given five-year indentureship contracts and many renewed their contracts. They were given an option to return to India, but many chose to stay behind and built their own homes, state-aided schools and Hindu temples after they were freed from their bondage on the plantations and shameful communal living standards.

India was ruled by the colonial power known as the British Raj – or London’s Whitehall seat of government that also ruled SA and island-nations. Natal was occupied by settler-immigrants who needed a foreign workforce for their subsidised plantations after attempts to coerce the dominant Zulu-speaking inhabitants to work on the plantations failed repeatedly.

The Natal Government sanctioned the importation of a foreign workforce and labour.

There is very little that is romantic about this dehumanising odyssey. Inter-generational Indians, however, are still sentimental about these poignant historical time lines and how their founding forebears had set up communal camps and toiled with back-breaking labour in the sugar cane fields from dawn to dusk. Their masters brutalised and humiliated them at work stations. Indians also committed suicide.

But their collective community spirit of resilience and work ethos pulled them through of the abyss of hard labour under the searing African sun and appalling living conditions.

By the 1900s, they were freed from their indentures, but many occupied barracks and worked in plantations and sugar milling factories across coastal towns. By the 1990s, it was a classic story of people from the plantations to the parliaments – and boardrooms and factory floors – in the new SA.

However, as the years of “uhuru” or freedom accumulated, social commentators say Indians have been pushed to the margins of the mainstream economy by black economic empowerment laws. They have slowly been elbowed from universities – particularly medical schools. The doors of job prospects for post-apartheid and post-millennial graduates and job-seekers in government and corporate offices are closing ominously in favour of blacks-only candidates.

These working-class peasants and merchants, teachers, artisans, priests, railroad workers, miners and domestic hands had collectively contributed to spawning a new, cultural and colourful bloc outside mainland India. They had bolstered the colonial economy and spiced up a multicultural society.

Almost 800 000 reside in Durban and KwaZulu-Natal and they contribute substantially to the city and the province.

The majority, however, are confined to the old Group Areas Act townships and economic and living conditions have deteriorated – higher unemployment and poverty levels have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 curfews and hard lockdowns.

On the flip-side, are Indians faced with an identity crisis on the eve of another milestone in a sea of change and hybrid of cultures and languages?

Mauritian Dhundeev Bauhadoor said: ‘’From the Pyrenees to Cape Verde, and from Silicon Valley to Wall Street; from Southern Africa to England, the Indian settler has endured a number of hardships and has survived and made significant contributions in his adopted countries.

‘’The concept of globalisation and development of communication technology has meant that the diaspora, like all ethnic minorities that have settled away from their countries of origin, is faced with new challenges.’’

Professor Ravindra Jain of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal University, believes Indians faced more of an ‘“identity strain than an identity crisis. Those outside India are going through a process of assimilation and they are finding out what to retain or shed from their heritage’.’

But, let us get to the crux of why a resilient community which built up an ailing economy of this province and city has not been honoured?

In a far cry to the upcoming milestone, the 150th year made its mark.

Communications Minister Roy Padayachie, corporate leader Stanley Subramoney, philanthropist Ishwar Ramlutchman contributed to a memorial peace park in Tongaat and produced a brochure.

The apartheid government used the milestone to propagate its ‘’separateness and apart-ness’’ policies, building Truro House for ‘’Indian affairs’’.

In 1948, the Nationalist Party regime threatened to repatriate the British subjects to their motherland on the cusp of independence in India and Pakistan.

Let us now figure out the mystery of this missing monument:

In 2010, ANC Premier Zweli Mkhize budgeted R10 million for the project.

In 2020, ANC Premier Sihle Zikalala pledged the statue would rise up.

In October, the premier tasked ANC Finance MEC Ravi Pillay to get the show under way.

The Covid-19 virtual meetings and social distancing protocols are bound to turn the statue into a stalemate.

The MEC has roped in the usual crusaders into his de facto committee, with his spin-doctor Kiru Naidoo on board, and the 1860 Heritage Centre as knowledge content providers, making it a Durban-centric politburo with a trio from Pietermaritzburg, but without Christian-Indian input from the Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip and 2010 Celebrate Indian Christians in SA chroniclers, GK Nair and Gabrielle Naidoo.

Between 2010 and 2014, R5 million was spent on 10 plaques in KZN – but the pioneering place of Indian birth – Durban – hit a roadblock.

In March 2014, R4.4 million was transferred to the city hall, but these snags means the money is going back to the premier’s office.

Seven designers were paid R20 000 each and architect Rubin Reddy picked up R244 000.

Amidst the dark hour of Covid-19’s crippling social and economic mayhem, let us simply pray quietly on Monday, November 16 – because a cold, heartless statue will not bring us any succour or solace except tearful memories of an epic 1860 struggle story.

But continue to re-imagine this steely pose of a turban-wearing man, his sari-clad wife and children in tow – striking a symbolic gesture towards the blue skies and seas of the Indian Ocean Rim.

Marlan Padayachee is a seasoned journalist and publishing editor of Indians Under the African Sun 1860-2020 yearbook.


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