Indentured labour to Natal was introduced in terms of Laws 13, 14 and 15 of 1859, which set out the regulations and conditions of service for men and women recruited at Madras under the supervision of the Protector of Emigrants in India. Initially Natal had a recruiting office in Madras only, while in Calcutta the recruiting officer for British Guiana looked after their affairs. This was changed in 1884 when Mr R.S.W. Mitchell, working in Garden Reach, Calcutta, took over the Natal work. Looking for your Ancestors Colonial Number?
Natal needed agricultural labour in the 1850s and 1860s and put pressure on the Natal government as well as on Sir George Grey, then Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, to approach the British Government and the Government of British India with the aim of extending the indenture system to Natal. Indentured labour was already being supplied to Mauritius and to a number of sugar growing colonies in the West Indies, and, after examining the conditions agreed to for Natal, the scheme was finally introduced. Nevertheless certain aspects of indenture were not adequately thought through and were amended several times over the years. One of these was the question of whether Indians should be allowed to settle permanently in the Colony of Natal after they had completed their indenture, or if they should be returned to India. Employers hoped that the Indians would supply a permanent, regular and reliable labour supply, for that was what the colony seemed to need as farmers struggled to find a cash crop among the many that they tried -cotton, coffee, tea, indigo and arrowroot – without much success. Not until the 1870s did farmers on the coastal belt turn to sugar when new varieties were introduced; once this happened the demand for Indian labour increased greatly.
The first shipment of indentured labourers from India arrived in November 1860 on the Truro and Belvidera. In the next six years a total of 6445 men, women and children arrived. Natal was now suffering deep economic depression with the forced sale of a number of farms; the importation of labour was now halted. At the end of 1870 the first group of labourers had completed ten years of indenture but instead of re-indenturing, as had been hoped, a substantial number decided to return to India. Others abandoned their right to a free passage and were licensed to leave Natal for the Diamond Fields.
The first legislation provided a clause allowing immigrants who had completed their ten years of indenture to claim a piece of land in lieu of a return passage and a small group of 51 men took advantage of this and after a long wait were granted land at Braemar on the South Coast. This clause was removed from the legislation before the arrival of the 1874 immigrants.
Another point that had not been taken into account in passing the legislation was that the colony of Natal was required to send back to India, at the expense of the colony, invalids and those unable to work. The first such group returned on the Catarqui in November 1861 and thereafter small groups of sick, injured and ‘insane’, as well as their families, were placed on returning ships as the statistics show. It is interesting to read that the people returned on the Catargui were found by the Indian medical examiner to be quite fit enough to be immediately assigned to another recruiting agency.
Towards the end of the 1880s regular shipments of time-expired as well as invalid and unsuitable immigrants were returned to India and then transported to their home villages where they had been recruited.
The first ship chartered to take returning workers to Madras was the Red Riding Hood, which arrived at Madras in April 1871 bringing returning immigrants. The Umvoti, which left-Natal in May 1871, followed it and the two vessels together took 413 returning passengers of whom 187 disembarked in Madras and 226 went on to Calcutta. On arrival, some of the passengers gave unfavourable reports on the treatment they had received in Natal, and while a Commission of Enquiry was appointed in the colony to investigate their complaints, the Indian government allowed no further indentured labour to be sent to Natal. Problems were identified and new regulations promulgated and by 1874 recruiting was again allowed in both Madras and Calcutta. Many of the sugar estates, previously se~iously under-capitalized, were now sold to form part of larger enterprises, and with the discovery and exploitation of diamonds and gold, the economy of South Africa took a leap forward.
The second batch of indentured labourers, arriving between 1874 and 1879, numbered between eight and nine thousand and were all from Northern India. They were in great demand not only for sugar estates but also for the construction of the railway line from Durban to the interior. The Natal Government Railways, established in 1876, became the largest single employer of Indian labour, some of their employees being experienced and skilled men who had worked on railway construction in India.
In the 1880s labour was required for the rapidly developing coal mines in Northern Natal and recruiting agents were asked to find men working in Bihar’s coal mines. They had little success, either because wages offered were not attractive or because there was a shortage of labour in India itself. Nevertheless between three and four thousand indentured labourers were employed each year on the coal mines in Natal, contributing to the economic development of the mines and of the colony. Now the medical records began to give details of accidents resulting from machinery and mining operations, including loss of limbs, and the affected men were eventually returned to India as invalids or unfit to work. Every ship carrying returning workers now had a section for the sick and incapacitated.
On completion of their indentures Indian workers had four options open to them. They could re-indenture to the same or another employer of their choice and this they were actively encouraged to do, to the extent that in 1895 a law was passed imposing a tax of £3 on those time-expired workers who did not sign on for a further period of at least two years. This law came into effect in 1901 and two years later was extended to cover the children of formerly indentured men; boys over 16 and girls over 13 now became liable for the tax. All adult men in addition to the annual £1 Poll Tax paid this. A second choice for time-expired Indians was to leave Natal for another part of South Africa such as the Diamond Fields or the Eastern Transvaal or Witwatersrand gold fields. Thirdly they could enter the field of agricultural production on their own account, many having special skills in intensive agriculture. Of these some could afford to buy a plot but most found farmland to rent along the coastal belt or close to the towns. Others took up employment in the non-agricultural sector, using their skills as jewellers, blacksmiths, potters, tailors and so on. The final choice was to return to India and try to take up life where they had left off ten years earlier. Many of these returning Indians had accumulated money and jewellery during their years in Natal and the Protector remarked on several occasions that more money was taken back from Natal than from any other colony.
The attitude of the colonists towards Indians as permanent residents of Natal altered over the years, particularly after Natal was granted Responsible Government in 1893. The colonists began to resent the presence of considerable numbers of “Passenger Indians” who had paid their own fares, had never been indentured, and, since the 1880s, – had established themselves as hawkers, traders and merchants in the towns and country districts, competing with the local business people who saw them as providing unfair competition. The hostility began to spread to the ‘free’, i.e. ex-indentured, men and women who now outnumbered the colonists; this was eventually to cause political tensions. After the Anglo-Boer War Natal suffered another serious depression and the Indians could no longer afford to pay the £3 tax and many were forced to return to India or to leav~/Natal. Towards the end of this period, before the Act of Union of 1910, M.K.Gandhi, who had arrived in South Africa in 1893, took up the cause of the Indians who were discriminated against in Natal and the Transvaal, leading protest action. In 1914 he signed an agreement with General Smuts, then Minister of the Interior, known as the Indian Relief Act, Act 22 of 1914. Under this Act, which was administered by the Protector, ‘free’ Indians and their colonial born children were to be encouraged to return to India, the hated £3 tax was abolished; no action was to be taken to recover unpaid tax, Indian marriages were regulated and special marriage officers were appointed. Instead of
language tests a thumb print on a certificate of domicile would now be accepted as proof of the owner’s former domicile in Natal. The Assisted Emigration scheme, which was part of the Smuts-Gandhi agreement, began in September 1914 and for the next seven years a
bonus of between £1 and £5 was paid but only to indigent who never agreed to return to return.
The number who left Natal voluntarily under the Assisted Emigration Scheme of 1914 was a disappointment to the South African government and in the next ten years legislation discriminating against Indians in various ways continued to be passed. In 1921 the Asiatic Enquiry Commission increased the bonus to £5 per person with a maximum of £20 per family in order to encourage voluntary repatriation to India. This was increased in 1924 to £10 per person or £ 50 per family.
Natal now restricted the areas in which Indians could acquire land for farming to the coastal belt, extending about 20 or 30 miles inland. The core of the problem at this time was the fear among the white residents of Natal that their country would be flooded with Indian immigrants, or the “Asiatic influx” as it became known.
In December 1926 the Round Table Conference was held, resulting in the passing of an important agreement, known as the Cape Town Agreement of 1927. This included an Upliftment Clause addressing the question of the education of Indian children, which had been largely neglected by the South African government. The newly appointed Agent General for India, V.S.S. Sastri, and the South African Prime Minister, General Hertzog, signed it. This again was an attempt to relieve the tension by offering free passage to India to any who would go, plus the inducement of a gratuity to be paid on their arrival in India. The gratuity had reached £40 per adult and £20 per child under 16 by 1949. Again there was a limited response.
Those Indians who might have gone back to India were discouraged by reports of difficult climatic conditions, low wages, problems arising from the caste system for those who had contracted inter-caste marriages, the high cost of foodstuffs and the different style of living in the crowded cities which made it difficult for skilled workers to settle down. The Indian government, which had agreed to assist the returning families to settle in and find jobs, had been able to help a few in South India but not in the north. The report, written by Bhawani Dayal Sannyasi, on the assisted emigration scheme was highly critical of it -and believed that the emigrants had not been given all the facts. The arrangement failed to attract the large number of returning Indians that the South African government had expected, despite the economic depression of 1929 to 1933 during which Indian families had suffered hardship and neglect.
To conclude, Indians returned to India under one of these categories:
1. Those who were sick or unfit to work, and their families
2. Those entitled to a free passage under Act 17 of 1895, after completing their indenture period
3. Those who volunteered under the Relief Act 22 of 1914
4. Those who paid their own passage
5. Those who volunteered under the conditions of the Cape Town agreement, Act 37 of 1927 or under Act 45 of 1931, section 18
Full details of the numbers returning after 1914 are provided in the Statistical Report of the Protector of Indian Immigrants for the fifteen months ending March 31, 1953, p.9.
The 1954 Report of the Protector of Indian Immigrants provides statistics of the number of Indian immigrants, introduced from India from:
1860 to 31 December 1954 as 152 641
Died in Natal 53 334
Colonial born offspring of indentured persons 404 086
Estimated total returned to India 94 466
Left Natal for other places 14 984
Passenger Indians 30 680
Total Indentured Indian population of Natal,
31 Dec 1954 306 814
These figures are approximate since the number absconding from estates and other employers and then crossing the borders of Natal is unknown.
Further Information can be found in the Annual Reports of the Protector of Immigrants and of the Indian Immigration Trust Board.
Political aspects of the topic can be found in B. Pachai, The South African Indian Question 1860 to 1971, (Cape Town, C.Struik, 1971).
J.B.Brain Professor Emeritus, University of Durban-Westville
Search our online database of Indian immigrants to South Africa. The Indian Shipping Lists, complete in 91 volumes, provide extensive data relating to Indian indentured immigrants to South Africa.
* Colonial Number
* Places of origin, namely Zillah, Thanna (or Taluk), and Village
* Arrival Date
* Name of Ship
* Return to India List
A final column in the registers provides identifying information on caste marks, scars, moles and warts. This has not been included. Instead Remarks columns have been added providing information obtained from the Report of the Protector of Indians on unnatural deaths, suicides and accidents, and from the Estates Registers, the names of employers and transfers from one estate to another.
Eligibility Criteria: A foreign national, who was eligible to become a citizen of India on 26.1.1950 or was a citizen of India on or at anytime after 26.1.1950 or belonged to a territory that became part of India after 15.8.1947 and his/her children and grand children, provided his/her country of citizenship allows dual citizenship in some form or other under the local laws, is eligible for registration as an Overseas Citizen of India(OCI). Minor children of such persons are also eligible for OCI. PIO card holders and those eligible to become PIO may also apply for OCI. Persons wanting to apply for Indian Citizenship can apply via the High Commission of India to South Africa.
The amount of information and the large number of entries makes the Shipping Registers, with their complementary Estates Registers, an important tool for researchers. Economic historians, sociologists or anthropologists interested in caste and occupation would find plenty to work on. A considerable number of different caste names have been used in the Ships' Lists, many of which do not appear in the modern caste lists. The spelling has been compared with the caste names in the Census of British India for 1883 and corrected where necessary but there is a great deal of work to be done by an expert in classifying and correlating them with modern lists.
The valuable part played by Indian workers in the economy can be assessed and analysed while a list of employers of indentured labour reveals just how many white and Indian companies and domestic households relied on Indian labour; this extensive list of employers and their agents is in the process of compilation as at July 2003. The physical height of each Indian immigrant, originally provided in feet and inches, has already been used in a study of height in relation to nutrition and caste. `Push and pull' factors in the decision of individuals and groups to emigrate from India, the significance of famine and hardship, and the apparently unreasonable demands of the Zamindars are all aspects of emigration waiting to be examined.
At one time it was only academics that showed any interest in the Shipping lists and related documents. That has changed in the last few years and now there is a steady stream of interested people asking to see these documents. One reason for this new interest is the opportunity for people of Indian descent to visit India and trace the village that their forefathers came from.
There is now a flourishing trade between South Africa and India and many more people have reason to travel to South Asia. Another reason is that once having traced in the Ships' Lists the grandparents or parents who came to Natal, individuals can obtain a written statement from the Archivist, giving full details of the person, the ship and the date of arrival. With this the representative of the Indian Government in South Africa will provide a certificate for Persons of Indian Origin which has advantages for those visiting India regularly.
Others, with no intention of visiting India, are now interested in their ancestors, where they came from and the details that all genealogists like to know.
Looking for more information on the arrival of Indian Passenger? Read this article