Indian indenture 157 years on: ‘This vile system was ugly blot on human history’

By Imraan Buccus

South Africans have a habit of privileging one history over another. With race, ethnicity and identity being such fraught subjects in our country, it is no wonder that all types of chauvinism and erroneous assumptions creep in. Take for instance Indian indenture whose 157th anniversary was marked this month on November 16. The divergent narratives that seek to understand this subject serve only to muddy the waters further.

One line of argument popular among those who have limited or no knowledge of the liberation struggle or indeed history is that Indian workers indentured to the plantations, mines, railways and domestic service of colonial Natal, took on jobs that Zulu people resisted. It is true that in 1860 when the first indenture commenced, the Zulu kingdom was a pre-capitalist and an independent state. The idea of either slavery or wage labour was therefore an alien concept. One of the incorrect assumptions is that Zulu people resisted the colonial encroachment by withholding their labour. Why would a fiercely independent kingdom with demonstrated military prowess want to resist temporary sojourners on their lands who were backed by little more than a small expeditionary force?

That argument does not gel. Another factor here is that Zulu monarchs handed over land to the colonialists whether in trade or by sleight of hand. It was only in 1879 with the burning of Ulundi that the British gained the upper hand through military conquest of the Zulu nation and steadily started to proclaim over lordship of their lands. With Zulu resistance broken, the British could do what they wished to whomever they wished in pursuit of advancing their imperialist ambitions. Those ambitions extended to India in as much as they did to Zululand.


That takes us to another line of argument which is the erroneous assumption that Indian indentured labourers willingly and gleefully left their homeland to fill a vacuum created by Zulu resistance to colonial encroachment. This line of thought ignores the fact that like slavery, indenture was an oppressive labour system and that those subjugated had little if any control over their fate. British colonial control over India brutally put down any resistance to it. A case in point is the 1857 Indian Mutiny or First War of Independence. What the British could not put down by its soldiers it did with its merchants.

India commanded a significant slice of global GDP in the nineteenth century. It was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. By steadily eroding its economic base with open warfare like hacking off the thumbs of Indian weavers to imposing burdensome taxes on a subjugated populace, it succeeded in impoverishing the entire subcontinent while simultaneously enriching Britain beyond its wildest measure.

As the indigenous Indian economy was steadily dismantled, its people fell into debt and despair. Couple that with adverse weather conditions like drought and one had a recipe for knocking the bottom out of the Indian economy and society. It comes as no surprise then that the elaborate “coolie catching” system devised by the British in the wake of the end of slavery would invariably have takers.

Desperate Indians eager for a way out of their misery opted for the uncertainty of indenture. Yet others were duped by the grand promises touted by the agents recruiting labour for the colonies in places as diverse as Trinidad, South Africa and Fiji. Whatever the system employed to entice them into indenture, history records that between 1860 and 1911 some 142 000 workers were recruited to colonial Natal. Whatever the romantic or revisionist notions ascribed to indenture, there are ample records to demonstrate that it was a vile and vicious system that is an ugly blot on human history.

That said, let me now turn to how the experience of indenture is contorted by those whose forebears were its victims. That narrative goes along the lines that Indian indentured workers worked hard to lift themselves out of misery and that it was their sheer industriousness that built the economy of Natal. There are strong elements of truth in that but also healthy doses of chauvinism that impact on our nation-building project and social cohesion. This interpretation that privileges the hard labour of Indian workers ignores the fact that other people also worked hard and that they too played an important role in economic advancement.

British subjugation of the Zulu kingdom brought the same kinds of punitive taxes it imposed on India. Payment of taxes in cash meant the erosion of the rapidly diminishing wealth held in cattle. It also meant that those without anything to sell had to subject themselves to migrant labour on the mines, in domestic service or similar menial services. Communal land owners were transformed overnight into labour tenants – dispossessed, demoralised and dependent. Their hard work alongside other contributed to building a powerful economy. That collective contribution, albeit under oppressive conditions, should be privileged above sectarian interpretations that privileges one community’s memory over another. It was Madiba who reminded us that wherever we come from, ours is an interdependent and interwoven destiny.

Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. He promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside, Durban

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