Indian indenture – ‘a new form of slavery’ – and African slavery in Natal

This is an edited version of the paper presented by Kiru Naidoo of the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre (UKZN) at the Toussaint Louverture Day Colloquium in La Reunion on 7-8 June honouring the Haitian anti-slavery revolutionary.

The abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834 did not quell the hunger for manual labour in its colonies. Indentured servitude which Hugh Tinker described as a “new form of slavery” was conceived. Human cargo was shipped from India to far-flung corners of the empire. 

In the dominant narrative about indenture in South Africa, the focus is entirely on the community of Indian origin. An often overlooked fact is that in the newfound zeal to curb the slave expeditions of the Arabs and the Portuguese in the later nineteenth century, the British navy “rescued” shiploads of African slaves in the Indian Ocean and transported them to Durban, ostensibly to deposit them in a safe third country.

This group presently identified as Makua from northern Mozambique were misnamed “Zanzibaris”. A number of them were also indentured since 1873, alongside Indians.  When apartheid segregation was enforced after 1948, they were relocated to the Indian township of Chatsworth.  While there has been extensive research by among others such as Zubeda Seedat, Goolam Vahed and Preben Kaarsholm, the confluence of the experiences of Indian indenture and African slavery should be explored further.  This is especially in the context of contemporary interpretations of South African nationhood especially as it relates to those conceived of as minority communities. 

The overall Indian presence in South Africa has come through diverse routes. In the centuries before the Dutch conquest of the Cape in 1652, one theory holds that Indian traders and gold miners were active along the eastern coastline of Africa.  Much more credibly demonstrated are the Indians slaves shipped by the Dutch to the Cape since as early as 1653.  The better-known migration of 152000 Indian indentured workers to the plantations, railways, harbour and mines of colonial Natal took place between 1860 and 1911, running parallel with the arrival of Indian traders as passenger Indians.   In the context of the well-documented abuse of the workers, indenture to Natal was stopped by the Indian Government in 1911 and ceased globally in 1920.

The significant presence of the Indian community contrasts sharply with perhaps the smallest minority in the country, namely theh 5000 descendants of the Makua-speaking slaves. Like with Indian indenture, it is necessary to locate their shipment to South Africa within the colonial labour procurement processes that ran parallel with the abolition of slavery.


Among the first documentary records of this community linking them to colonial Natal is to be found in the Natal Government Notice Number 142 of 1873 dated 11 July 1873. Under the hand of the Colonial Secretary, D. Erskine, its reads: “The Administrator of the Government directs it to be notified that in the event of freed slaves received from Zanzibar, the Government will require the entire number received; at first to be employed upon the Harbour Works, the Public Wharves, the Roads and other Public Works.”  A later notice read:  “Contracts for service or apprenticeship will be entered into before the Protector of Indian Immigrants.” 

The slave history of the community has assumed increased importance in recent years with the community setting up the Zanzibari Civic Association at the height of apartheid resistance in the early 1980s as well as the Makua Research Group. After liberation in 1994, questions of ethnicity and identity have featured prominently in debates about the content of South African nationhood. Instead of this contested terrain becoming polarised, it will be valuable to frame these questions as a shared history and a common destiny.

A deposition of a woman called Maria which was sourced by Seedat during her research in the early 1970’s reads: “I live in the Portuguese territory. I am one of the slaves brought by HMS. Briton. Six months ago I went to catch crabs and I was kidnapped by a Mussalman and taken into a village and put into a home with other captured slaves. I with others (pointing out that some were freed slaves) have been six months in one house, imprisoned and waiting for the dhow. I was captured by a Mussalman called Umkaba. He is black and is set over by the Portuguese. The Portuguese come to see him at his place. Occasionally he visits Mozambique (i.e. the ‘town’) and he takes people as slaves and barters them. When the dhow come, the men catch as many of us as they can and they pay a royalty for each slave to Umkaba. Sometimes when a ship comes, Umkaba gives orders to his men to collect slaves. The slaves were packed in the night and they sailed during nights. We were rescued from the dhow off the Madagascar coast after the British ship fired six shots. It was then the dhow hauled down her sails and surrendered.”

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