November marks the 158th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers from India to South Africa.
Many of them were recruited by the British in exchange on the promise of a better life.
From 1834 to the end of the WWI, Britain had transported about 2 million Indian indentured workers to 19 colonies including Fiji, Mauritius, Ceylon, Trinidad, Guyana, Malaysia, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa.
In this edition of unearthing their journey to the shores of South Africa, Newsbreak producer, Tailiesha Naidoo speaks to 1860 Indentured Labourers’ Foundation executive member in Verulam, Anand Jayrajh.
Listen to the podcast below
‘Coolies’ the derogatory name for Indians
The indentured workers (known derogatively as ‘coolies’) were recruited from India, China and from the Pacific and signed a contract in their own countries to work abroad for a period of 5 years or more.
They were meant to receive wages, a small amount of land and in some cases, promise of a return passage once their contract was over.
In reality, this seldom happened, and the conditions were harsh and their wages low.
India to South Africa the journey
The journey took between 10 and 20 weeks, depending on the destination. Conditions on the ships were similar to those on slave ships.
In 1856-57, the average death rate for Indians travelling to the Caribbean was 17% due to diseases like dysentery, cholera and measles.
After they disembarked, there were further deaths in the holding depot and during the process of acclimatisation in the colonies (Tinker, 1993).
Resistance to the indenture system
Migrant workers did try to oppose the abuses of the indentured labour system, but this was difficult. Some sent petitions to the agents of the colonial government who administered the indenture system. According to historical records, indentured workers carried out acts of sabotage and revenge against the plantation owners on numerous occasions, but this just resulted in increased repression.
To the voices of the indentured workers was added the dissenting voice of the growing Indian nationalist movement. Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian freedom movement, saw first hand the plight of Asian indentured labourers in South Africa and campaigned on this issue during the first decade of the 20th century. The system of indentured labour was officially abolished by British government in 1917.
Over the following century, the descendents of those who stayed back became significant parts of the population of a number of countries including like Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad, Jamaica, Malaysia and South Africa, and, to a lesser extent, in the East African countries of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Many of these Asian people later migrated to the UK in the 1950s and thereafter.
Sources: Newsbreak Lotus, Striking Women