Archive for the 'Indenture in Colonial Natal' Category


Filling in the missing jigsaw puzzle

If you live in KwaZulu-Natal and you want to trace your family tree your first port of call should be the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository.


Global Diasporas: An Introduction By Robin Cohen

Labour and Imperial Diasporas

Indentured Indians and the British


Indentured Indian Workers in Mauritius, Natal and Fiji

Indentured Indian Workers in Mauritius, Natal and Fiji

By Ravinder K. Thiara

published in

The Cambridge survey of world migration


Chapter from Imperial Connections

By Thomas Metcalf

Hard Hands Sound Bodies


Indentured rendered visible

The story turns to the past for inspiration and looks to the future with optimism

July 26, 2009 Edition 1

Rajendra Chetty

Aziz Hassim’s The Revenge of Kali appears at an appropriate juncture in the history of South Africa – 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the indentured Indians.

In this fictionalised historical novel, which was launched in Durban last week, Hassim renders the history of indenture visible through the exposure of the harsh working conditions of indentured labourers who toiled in the sugar cane fields of Natal in the late 1800s.

He recovers an incredible slice of history, the impact of which still resonates in the heart and soul of the descendants. The scars of indenture are indelible, as the writer witnesses during his interview with a 98-year-old man who became a catalyst for the story.

A Foucauldian archaeological and genealogical approach is used to traverse the terrain of the everyday life on the sugar fields in the first part of the novel, the early resistance to colonial power, the collaboration of the sirdars (foremen) with the landowner; a story from the inside, situated within the small intense world of oppression and exploitation on a single farm.

The story is set in three areas: the first in the cane fields; the second in the “Duchene” behind Durban’s Warwick Triangle and the third in the “Casbah”, the city’s Grey Street complex. The last two places were notorious for the gang wars of the ’50s and ’60s.

There is a sustained emphasis on specifics of routes through the city in the novel and the use of cartographical images in the construction of geographical space is rather interesting.

The Revenge of Kali comes after Hassim’s highly successful debut novel, The Lotus People, won the Sanlam Award for new writing in 2005.

It’s often difficult with a second novel. However, this work, a tender tragic-comedy, is as exciting as the history that inspired it.

While the first book focused on the Indian merchant class, the new book delves into the tough lives of poor indentured Indians.

The ironic and controversial role played by the Indian merchant class as accomplices to the oppression and slavery of their fellow immigrants is told with courage and openness.

In the process of the recovery of history, writers sometimes fall into the trap of either “forgetting” or playing down the insensitivities of class among communities for fear of deepening the complexity of the historical context.

However, Hassim does not simply reinforce the dichotomy of Indian slave and white master/oppressor in the novel. He unearths the atrocities perpetuated by the “passenger” Indians (the merchant class who paid their own passage to South Africa as opposed to indenture) against those from the working class, the girmityas.

The sugar slaves are not portrayed as defenceless victims; rather, the courage and resistance of Ellapen, Mohideen, Runga and Daniel is foregrounded.

The violence of the sirdars is as repulsive as the racist attitude of the white farm owners.

Ellapen vows that they will walk out as free men – or die as free men.

“On that night our slavery ends. But let us not talk about dying. We died on the day they brought us here. We are fighting to be alive again.”

The title of the book was inspired by a prayer recited by cane workers to the Hindu goddess Kali for their white masters to be punished.

She is the goddess of destruction whose cult was characterised by savagery and cannibalism.

It’s interesting that in the stories of indenture from British colonies such as Trinidad, Tobago and Fiji, it was Shiva, god of the dance, the destroyer of evil, that emerged as principal deity as reflected in Itwaru’s poem: “Scatter of worlds and broken wishes/ In Shiva’s unending dance.”

The choice of the female goddess by the South African girmityas, the embodiment of evil with dripping blood, severed arms and a necklace of skulls, is poignant.

There have always been strong women in the writings of South African Indians. The paradox is that Kali also preserves the good: “Leave revenge to the Goddess Kali. She will avenge all of us. Forget the false pictures you may have seen, depicting her as a malevolent and demonic creature with her long tongue hanging out of her mouth, dripping with blood.

“Many mistakenly believe she is the goddess of evil, an incantation of the devil. The truth is none of those things. She is the goddess who punishes evil, penalising corruption and depravity and ensuring justice for the powerless.”

One detects an autobiographical element in this story, concomitant with the rigour of a careful researcher, tinged with the feelings of pathos as articulated by Thiru, a key protagonist: “For some time now, I had been preoccupied by thoughts of the arrival of my ancestors from their distant village in Madras.

“My efforts at researching what drove them to leave their homes and cross the ocean ended dismally. All I could find were fragments of documents that left me asking more questions.

“Until the day I found myself sitting next to an ancient descendant of those early settlers. What that grizzled old man told me shook me to the core, inflamed my passion, and left me seething with anger.

“And it was more than what he said, it was the way he said it: the tremor in his voice, the emotions doing a hideous dance on his face, the terrifying account of the appallingly harsh abuse, the torment and anguish of a lifetime of persecution and tyranny of guileless people abandoned by both God and government.”

Thiru’s quest for information about his ancestors is the driving force of the book.

After vain attempts to unearth his past, he leaves home at 3am one morning and drives to the cane fields where he communicates with the spirits of his ancestors.

Here the story resonates with the magic realism of the monkey’s tale in Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain where there’s no distinction between flesh and spirit, imagination and empiricism, gods and humans.

Thiru begins to feel like he was living during the time of his ancestors. He gets to know about Kolappen, who had escaped from the cane fields and then seeks this man to get more answers.


In a surprising twist to the tale, through imaginative accounts of family relationships and love, the breaking down of shrewd Indian distinctions of ethnic and religious divisions, transgressing the state’s abhorrent racial categorisation, and bringing the Foucauldian genealogy full circle, Kolappen’s long-lost grandson emerges.

The story of sugar slavery renews itself each time, a kind of Janus-faced story that turns to the past for its inspiration and yearns for the future with the kind of optimism endemic of diasporic communities.

The imageries associated with indenture and sugar are moving – “The sweetness of the sugar cane was soured by the brutality of slavery that followed, and the bitter legacy it spawned.”

Rajendra Chetty, is a researcher in Commonwealth writings, including South African writings.


Primary Document on the description of the 1913 Natal Indian Strike

This is a primary source from Killie Campbell,  Source 1: KCM 32530

It is a letter by William Campbell. A manager of a sugar estate where a large group of Indentured Indians went on strike in Natal in 1913. The letter provides an account of the events from the perspective of William Campbell

The Chairman Mount Edgecombe

Natal Estates Ltd 1st December 1913


Dear Sir

Indian Strike

The strike of Indian which was mentioned as a possibility in the Managers report for October has actually taken place. It was extremely unfortunate for us that our Blackburn Estate adjoins Muckle Neuk Estate the property of Umhloti Valley Sugar Co Ltd as it was this property that the movement originated as far as the sugar industry is concerned

1st November On the 1st we found that a number of men from the Umhloti valley were passing this way. They were not allowed in our Barracks but said that they had come to see their Rajah who they heard was coming to Mount Edgecombe.

Thee men returned to their Estate but we kept hearing rumours of unrest there until Thursday 6th when we heard they struck work. On the police going down to arrest the ringleaders on Friday (7th) they were jeered at and prevented from doing so through lack of numbers had to come away

8th On Saturday all these Indians with their wives (sic) and families left their Estate and proceeded to Verulam with it was said the intention of proceeding to Durban, As the main road runs through our property we mustered all the Europeans and natives we could with the idea of passing them through quickly if we could not stop them. However after coming about a mile out of Verulam they were persuaded b some of their own people to return to their barricade but not to work.

10th The following Monday a number of police were sent to arrest the ringleaders they succeeded in doing so but they and the prisoners were followed to Verulam by the whole of Indians who remained in Verulam the whole day and tried to rush the gaol in the afternoon. They remained camped over the river at Verulam they were joined by a mob from Tongaat Sugar Estate and La Merci Estate.

As our men said they were being threatened we managed to General Lukin to send us 16 S.A.M.R to give the men confidence.

The strike seed had been sown however and the proximity of the Umhloti Valley Indians (who still refused to work) to out Blackburn Estate proved too much for our men with the result that Blackburn Estate struck work on Thursday (13th) morning but remained at work long enough to send in all the cane that was out.

(14th) The following day Mount Edgecombe Estate Saccharine, and the Mill men struck but were persuaded to continued to work until all the cane had been sent in and crushed.

The remaining Estate Cornubia, Milkwood Kraal and Phoenix turned out to work but saying they were afraid of the rest these Estates refused to turn out on the Saturday (15th).

However by means of Europeans and Natives the boilers were kept going till most of the juice boiled off on the Saturday.

At one o’ clock p.m. on the Saturday a fire was noticed in the direction of the Wilkinsons boundary on the Saccharing Estate. The Natives were called out and the Mill bell and hooter sounded and all the Indian who were in the barracks turned out at once to put it out which was done without much difficulty. All these Indians were armed wit heavy sticks or weapons of some description and after leaving the fire suddenly made up their minds to go to Verulam. My brother and I rode back and managed to stop them peaceable but on their way back they assaulted four Mauritian Mechanics who had to run for their lives and the Indians were only stopped by Mr. Collin Campbell riding in and collaring the ring leader. The remainder returned to the barracks, this latter incident putting a nasty taste to what had at first been a pleasant character viz the Indians turning out to help although they were on strike. The same afternoon I went round the barracks and strongly advised the men that if they must strike, they should remain quietly in their barracks.

(16th) The following day Sunday was again marred by disturbances. A gang armed with heavy sticks went round to the houses of the European employers and with threats demanded that the house servants should be let go generally adopting a terrorising aspect. They also attempted to terrorise the stable boys who were working. As a number of these men were identified the police to the barrack to arrest them, but a large proportions of the men turned out armed with any weapon they had handy and challenged them. As the police persisted a hand to hand fight took place in which several Indians were injured and one European trooper had a serious out on the temple. They managed to effect the arrest of a number that were wanted and they were sent to Verulam and brought up the next day on various charges and remanded.

No sooner was this matter over than we had a message that the Saccharine Estate Indians were coming down in a mass. The police went to meet them but they returned to their barracks after seeing the police.

Meanwhile a telephone message was received saying that the Cornubia Indias were coming to the assistance of the Mount Edgecombe men and the police now reinforced by 20 men from Verulam succeeded in stopping them before they succeeded in getting to the Mill and Mount Edgecombe Barracks. The first party were disarmed and escorted back to the main body but having joined forces they refused to go back any further. Finally the police had to move them on when a struggle ensued in which one man was seriously hurt and several to a lesser degree principally by the horses or the troopers. They eventually returned to their barracks where I addressed and implored them to keep quiet an avoid bloodshed.

The whole of the Estate was in such ferment that it was though advisable for all women and children except those actually living in Mount Edgecombe should leave the place.

(20th) Things continued fairly quiet for several days abut on Wednesday night the 19th we came to the conclusion that unless we took some active steps there was no chance of improvement consequently it was arranged to arrest the most prominent ringleaders at Blackburn and send them into the Protector with a view of having them deported. This was done with the sanction and approval of the Protector. The arrest of eleven was made quietly by the police the following morning early and the prisoners were brought up by locomotive and they were sent to Durban. The same day word was sent around to the free men at the Mill, that if they were not at their work by 12’00 o’ clock they would loose their billets and be turned off the Estate. This had the effect of bringing in 25 men and some of the more loyal indentured men seeing these returned came and offered their services till about midday we had over 40 working. The sight of these men working, together with the fact that many of the leaders had gone to Durban where the strike was commencing brought out more the next day and on Saturday (22nd) we had nearly 300 men working. On Sunday (23rd) the strike leaders sent out rations for the men.

These were delivered to each Estate and the men left to divide them out. The fact that the men found this method unsatisfactory and also that only 3 days rations were served, instead of having the effect of keeping the men out seemed to have a contrary effect as on Monday (24th) 77 of the Mount Edgecombe field boys turned out to work.

On the proceeding Saturday (22nd) we received a wire from West, Editor of the Indian Opinion that our Indians were flocking there for protection as they were being terrorised. Our Assistance Manager at once motored down there and asked to see the Indians and was shown 7 whose names he took. These men said they had nothing to complain about but will be seen from follows it was part of the scheme to get the strikers to go there as on Tuesday morning (25th) it was found that all the Milkwood Kraal, Phoenix about half of the Saccharine and a number Mount Edgecombe Indians had cleared out bag and baggage in the night and had gone to the Indian Opinion property. The C.I.D. were communicated with and a warrant obtained against West in his action on Saturday and the police went down to effect his arrest and order the Indians back to their barracks. Evidence is now being collected to bring a charge against West for harbouring all these men about 240 in all.

When the Indians saw that they would be allowed to remain at West’s place they appear to have come to the conclusion that they had better go to work especially as they knew a large number o the Mount Edgecombe boys were working and in the following day (26th) Wednesday practically all Saccharing and Milkwood Kraal men came to work and all but 20 of the Phoenix men. Meanwhile on Tuesday the 25th a number of Cornubia men resumed work so that on the morning of the 26th every Estate with the exception of Blackburn was working. As it was felt that as long as one Estate not working there was a possibility of them pulling the others out ; we felt that it would be best to arrest all those who would not work and hoping that when they saw we meant to have them work or arrest them they would turn out quietly.

A police patrol, 16 in number, went down with Mr. Colin Campbell and after some difficulty got the men to line up out of Blackburn barracks; after Mr. Collin Campbell had spoken to them and asked them which they were willing to i.e. work or go to the goal, they finally said they were willing to work and he sent a message up to Mount Edgecombe to have rations sent down. They then proceeded to Hill Head barracks on the same Estate and here again he tried to persuade the men to work but only a few expressed themselves willing. They were told to stand on one side which they did, but the remainder hemmed him in and threatened him and he had to ride through them to get away. Mr. Campbell then called the police up and began asking the men separately if they would work. On the first one refusing he was arrested and the whole mob assaulted them with sticks and brickbats, a large heap of which was handy, several of the police as well as m brother being knocked of their horses. They were very determined and undoubtedly had the police not drawn and used their revolvers they would have been killed. As it was the police managed finally to drive the Indians back to their barracks and arrest several of the ringleaders to bring them to Mount Edgecombe but as the police were coming away from Hill Head they were suddenly ambushed by the men from the Blackburn barracks, who had already promised to go to work and who must have intended to help the Hill Head men. They had hidden themselves in some high cane through which the road passes and attacked the police on both sides. A very sharp fight ensued in which one of the police horses were killed and several of them had narrow shaves with their lives, but in the end they managed to disperse the Indians and returned to Mount Edgecombe with the prisoners.

It was afterwards found that four Indians had been killed and 29 wounded, 5 seriously. Since then another had died an also did the man that was seriously hurt at Cornubia on the 16th.

The casualties among the police were one officer, two non coms and one trooper badly injured, while all of the remainder were suffering from minor wounds and black and blue from the blows received, while Mr. Collin Campbell was in a dazed and condition from a blow to the head.

The following day, Friday , we found that a very large number from the Hill Head and Blackburn barracks had cleared out, some to Verulam and some to Durban and other to the Beach but 110 cane for their rations and promised to work the next day.

On Saturday they came to work and also a number that had been sent back from Verulam and Durban and in 220 were working. Thus on the last working day of the month we had the whole of our Estates working again and I trust we shall again have to with a similar. It is coming home to the men that they have made fools of themselves I do not think the same leaders will have the same influence again.

I understand that several depositions have been sworn against my brother for shooting some of the Indians; the medical evidence however proves that the wounds of all those killed or injured by gun shot were caused by bullets of heavy calibre while my brother only carried a “Baby” Browning, counter depositions have been lodged refuting the allegations.

Yours faithfully

(Signed) William A. Campbell

Managing Director


Indians Overseas

Indians Overseas


P. Jodanda Rao- 1944

Is a senior member of the Servants of India Society. This speech and
paper comes out of his travels in countries where Indians had settled. This paper provides an interesting insight into contemporary 1940’s Indians views on Diasporic Indian communities.