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Many stories speak of kindness and compassion but are yet to be told

For the indentured workers spread across all former British colonies, the jewellery brought with them on the ships was their only form of savings, it was their only material possession.

Selvan Naidoo

Published Nov 18, 2023

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DESPITE the records demonstrating that colonial Natal was among the most violent and vicious in the treatment of indentured workers, there are stories of goodwill and kindness that prevail.

There are various instances throughout indentured history in South Africa that validate the inherent goodwill of humanity despite the varying contexts of time.

In the initial years of indenture to South Africa, built into the initial five-year contract of indenture, was the offer of either a return passage to India or a plot of land after 10 years of service. The records reveal that the only crown land allocated to Indians in lieu of the return passage was 53 lots of 15 acres (6 hectares) in Braemar on the Natal south coast.

An example of goodwill is shown by sugar cane plantation owners, allowing labourers to purchase land once their indentured contracts had expired.

Babu Bodasing came from India as an indentured worker on the Enmore on September 1, 1874. After serving two terms of indenture, Bodasing was offered land to purchase, later becoming one of the largest sugar cane farmers on the Natal North Coast and building a business empire that continues to thrive today.

The goodwill of Christian missionaries in the early years of indenture cannot go without mention. French Catholic priest, Jean Baptiste Sabon met many of the passengers on the Truro on their arrival in 1860. Sabon, who was fluent in Tamil, took care of the indentured Indians by ensuring that their children were educated.

In the years after 1860, other divine souls from various Christian denominations came to the aid of Indentured labourers. In 1867, Reverend Ralph Stott of the Wesleyan Methodist Church opened a day school for indentured children and a night school for adults to teach basic literacy. Reverend Stott’s contribution to providing education to the earliest immigrants became a rich source of inspiration for the development of schools like the revered Sastri College situated behind St Aidan’s Hospital.

The Anglican Church brought Dr Lancelot Parker Booth in 1883 by opening the St Aidan’s Mission. Booth established himself at 49 Cross Street in Durban where he plunged himself into aiding an impoverished indentured community. He was appalled at the conditions of the indentured labouring classes, becoming concerned with the poverty, illiteracy, low standard of living, lack of medical facilities, and the urgent need for spiritual upliftment.

In the backyard of the Mission House, Booth opened a dispensary (clinic) where he could attend to the needs of thousands of the poorest citizens of Durban. In appreciation for his services, when Booth left Durban in 1900, he was presented with a special memorial document that was signed by 837 Indians from the richest to the poorest.

To the south of Durban, sits a gracious old stone homestead, the Coedmore Castle situated in the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve. The grand castle with its enormous tourism potential, presently managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, is in desperate need of renovations to uphold its long history.

Caroline de Beer, the granddaughter of Kenneth Lyne Stainbank, revealing the jewellery bag to the writer, Selvan Naidoo. Picture: Selvan Naidoo

The castle reveals a long list of “special servants” who worked tirelessly for the upkeep of this grand property. Mary Stainbank, one of South Africa’s famous sculptors, was cared for by a nanny of “special servant” status. A servant by the name of Doulati worked as a messenger there. His picture, first revealed in the outstanding book, From Cane Fields to Freedom: A Chronicle of Indian South African Life, by Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, shows Doulati carrying his walking stick that doubled as a safe where he had wrapped his life savings.

The Coedmore Castle located at the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve holds a special place in the hearts of the indentured workers and their descendants who worked at the estate for generations. Last year after cleaning various parts of the estate, Caroline de Beer, the granddaughter of Kenneth Lyne Stainbaink whose father, Deiring Stainbank, bought the land in the mid1800s, was able to open a safe that had been on the estate from the time of her great-grandfather, Deiring Stainbank. After eventually opening the safe, she found a beautiful small bag that had jewellery belonging to workers on the estate.

An unattached tag belonging to a jewellery piece marked as belonging to Maroothamuthu Mamundi indenture no: 32 468.

The jewellery that was found in the bag held greater historical value than material significance. The jewellery pieces ranged from bangles, earrings, and beautifully crafted hand ring to a few chains. It was clear that the jewellery was kept for safekeeping by generations of indentured workers.

For the indentured workers spread across all former British colonies, the jewellery brought with them on the ships was their only form of savings, it was their only material possession. Through various passages of time, jewellery was used as a bond of advancement, sending descendant children to school or university or used as security for paying marriage expenses. Beyond the material connection, jewellery in Indian homes has an emotive value, connecting each generation to their ancestry.

The jewellery pieces from the Castle’s safe belonged to generations of indentured workers kept in safekeeping, never being collected or claimed by the original owners. Over time, some of the tags attached to the pieces have fallen off. One tag caught my attention. On closer inspection, it revealed the inscription of Maroothamuthu, indentured number 32 468, attached to a jewellery piece kept for safekeeping on January 26, 1905.

An unattached tag belonging to a jewellery piece marked as belonging to Maroothamuthu Mamundi indenture no: 32 468.

On searching the Excel spreadsheet listed as 30 001 to 49 999 of the indentured ships listed to Natal, 28-year-old Maroothamuthu Mamundi was not listed as number 32 468 but as 32 465. Three rows below Maroothamuthu, 32 468 was listed as 14-year-old Rungasawmy Marudan.

Maroothamuthu and Rungasawmy had arrived from Madras (Chennai) on the Umvoti XIV in September 1884, both being assigned to Umhlanga Valley Natal Sugar Company in Durban.

Rungasawmy is listed as leaving the colony of Natal LC without a licence in January 1887. There could be many theories about why Maroothamuthu was listed as 32 468. Could he have stolen the identity of Rungasawmy after he left the colony? Did Maroothamuthu steal the jewellery piece that belonged to Rungasawmy before he found himself in the Coedmore estate, or did Maroothamuthu keep the jewellery piece in safekeeping for Rungasawmy Marudan at the Coedmore estate?

Beyond the indentured worker history at the Coedmore Estate, the legacy of Deiring Stainbank’s generosity of spirit was found years later when Kenneth Lyne Stainbank, Caroline de Beer’s grandfather, was presented with a beautiful scroll by the Indian Community of Coedmore Zeekoe Valley and Chatsworth.

The scroll recorded: “Sir, We wish to record our sincere gratitude and appreciation of great kindness and generosity in giving shelter to 2 800 of us who were worried, fear-stricken, and grieved as comfortably as possible at Coedmore during the Native – Indian riots in January 1949. It would be impossible to thank you adequately for rendering humane service, making great self-sacrifice, and without any sleep or rest for two days, placing yourself in readiness to offer any help within your means. The example of kindness demonstrated by you and your family will be long remembered by many an Indian Family that took refuge in your premises.”

There are many stories that speak of kindness and compassion that are yet to be told in revealing the fuller picture of indentured history in South Africa. The generosity of spirit and innate ability of humanity to work with each other rather than against each other also deserve recording in the decolonisation of our history telling.

Selvan Naidoo is the great-great-grandson of Camachee, indenture no 3297. He also co-authored The Indian Africans with Paul David, Kiru Naidoo and Ranjith Choonilall.

* Caroline de Beer, who resides in Westville and is the granddaughter of Kenneth Lyne Stainbank, donated the jewellery to the 1860 Heritage Centre. The jewellery will be on display at the centre. If any of the descendants of the original owners are able to prove the authenticity of ownership, they are welcome to retrieve their family heirloom. For more information, call Naidoo at the 1860 Heritage Centre at 082 4982614 or email [email protected]

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