The Indian Indenture system was set up in 1834 after the abolition of the slave trade and continued until the 1920s. It was touted as a more humane form of labour as workers supposedly entered into labour contracts freely and could be free of the contract after a period of five years. The reasons people had for entering into indenture contracts were varied. Some were successfully recruited from agricultural districts during times of famine in India, others kidnapped or coerced into labour transport, while still others boarded ships crossing the Indian Ocean in order to escape various personal, familial and social problems ranging from the caste system to widowhood. Once in the indenture colonies, conditions in the various colonial plantations were not ideal. Some Indians returned to India at the end of indenture contracts while others re-indentured, or once free of the bonds of labour contracts, chose to remain and make their homes in the colonies.

Kala Pani is a blog that explores history, culture and lived experiences among ex-indentured, ‘Indian’ communities around the world. Much of the literature relating to various types of recent ‘diasporic’ communities focuses on the longing for a ‘true’ (often essential) cultural identity or emphasizes links with an Indian ancestral home, to the point that many other forms of historical subjectivities and experiences shared among a range of people are often overlooked. Here, we will investigate the extent to which the idea of ‘diaspora’ is even tenable in the context of the currents of the British imperial system. This blog hopes to bring to the fore the lives and experiences of people who may be of Indian ancestry but who are, as historical subjects with varying degrees of agency, embedded in the social contexts in which they live. We hope to tell these stories in all their historical complexity, shifting the analysis away from India as the centre of these supposedly ‘diasporic’ histories, while also interrogating the ways in which the idea of ‘India’ is made historically and imagined in the present. Thus, rather than mourning for the loss of place and a sense of identity that is so common in identity politics, this blog seeks to focus on the histories, lives and experiences of people who crossed the Indian Ocean and wrought new lives in indenture colonies.

Kala Pani (literally, black water) represents the taboo of the sea in Indian culture, for which sailing the high waves and leaving the caste Hindus mainland meant confronting “houglis” or monsters. Fear of crossing the Kala Pani also derives from the notion that it entailed the end of the reincarnation cycle, as the traveller was cut off from the regenerating waters of the Ganges. Such voyages also meant breaking family and social ties. This taboo accounts for the disinterest in overseas commerce on the part of high, who therefore left this lucrative field to Muslims, and to Christians and Jews settled in the spice enclaves such as Cochin and Calicut. For a more detailed discussion on the term Kala Pani see Rehana Ebr.-Vally in her book Kala Pani: Caste and Colour in South Africa and Khal Thorabully’s work on Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora.


1 Response to “About Us”

  1. 1 morgan naidoo
    January 25, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    looking for names and locations fo early 19th century sugar eatates in Natal, particularly Milkwood Kraal and Waterloo Estates

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