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Essays on Indentured Indians in Natal

Written by Karen L. Harris for South African Historical Journal on no date provided

This is the third publication on Indian immigrants to Natal that Surendra Bhana has been involved in over the past few years. Unlike the former two works, Setting Down Roots (1991) and Indentured Emigrants to Natal (1991), this collection of essays considers the subject in far broader perspective. The six contributions are written by a number of specialists from a variety of disciplines including history, psychology and linguistics, and were presented at a conference at the University of Durban-Westville in 1985, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured Indian labourers in Natal. Although it has taken some five years to publish the research, the contents make an invaluable contribution to the growing international study of indentured labour systems. Moreover, as the editor rightly comments, all the essays ‘should serve as a basis for comparing the indentured experience elsewhere’, but at the same time he indicates that while they cover new ground there is still a need for ‘redoubled research efforts in the future’ (p. 6).

The first essay by the economic historian M.D. North-Coombes is extensive, encompassing a third of the book. It is a well-researched and detailed comparative study of indentured systems in the Natal and Mauritian sugar industries. Although the author states that the paper should be seen as an ‘exploratory essay’ (p. 13), it is far more wide-ranging than this and could have been developed into a monograph in its own right. At the outset, he critiques the state of both local and international migration historiography. Problems and new directions are identified, while an appreciation of the economic context of indentured labour is emphasized as an essential prerequisite of comparative studies. The Natal and Mauritian sugar industries are then analysed and placed within their respective colonial political economies.

The last section of North-Coombes’ study tackles another important aspect of the indentured labour system - its termination. Here, while drawing some interesting comparisons with slavery, the reasons for the ending of the indenture system are sought beyond ‘conventional interpretations’, not only in the sugar industry itself but also within the framework of agrarian transformations generally. This is then taken further in an analysis of the effects of termination in the post-indenture phase. The essay is enhanced by the inclusion of references to indentured systems in other colonies, and the text is interspersed with tables and diagrams.

The second essay by Jo Beall also goes beyond what the title of her paper promises. It is a study of the exploited position of women under indenture in Natal. The circumstances experienced and role played by women within the system receive attention, and their oppressed position in terms of class - the male employer - and culture - fellow male workers - is explored.

Maureen Swan’s very readable essay considers both resistance and accommodation as forms of reaction by indentured Indians in Natal. After criticizing the shortcomings of the Gandhi-centric approach, she discusses the conditions of Indian contract-workers and their actions in terms of consciousness, aspirations and needs. The specific circumstances of different types of indentured workers are portrayed: agricultural, industrial and the so-called special servants. The final section of her essay sets out the various forms of resistance - mainly individualistic and limited in nature - and conclude with the 1913 strike and brief reference to Gandhi as a ‘significant outsider’, who provided the ‘crucial legitimating factor’ that permitted an upsurge of popular unrest.

The next essay in the collection is an in-depth analysis of suicide as the most extreme form of reaction among the Indian indentured labourers to their oppressive conditions. Surendra Bhana and Arvinkumar Bhana maintain that the cause of the high suicide rate in Natal, which at the turn of this century was only second to that of Fiji’s indentured Indians, must be sought in the collective conditions of labour, and not in the individual, as was generally believed in contemporary official circles. They argue that the estate on which the indentured Indians worked was a ‘mini-laboratory’ in which both ‘alienation and acculturation’ coexisted, and examine the factors that led to suicide in order to understand the ‘psycho-social fabric’ of the indentured immigrant’s world. The Bhanas give a rather unnecessary exposition on the archival sources, historical background and conditions of Natal Indian indenture, not unlike the approach adopted in Surendra Bhana’s Indentured Emigrants. Similarly, the fifteen pages of appendices listing suicides derived from to the Protector’s Indian immigration annual reports and the authors’ own findings seems superfluous and unduly quantitative for this study. The analysis of the causes of suicide, however, shows careful research and is clearly illustrated with detailed statistics, tables and graphs which assess demography, age, sex, marital status, education, religion and the methods and reasons for suicide. Suicide rates among the Natal indentured workers are not only compared with those among indentured groups in other British colonies, but also with those of free Indians in Natal. The essay concludes by locating indentured suicide within the ‘matrix of learned helpless theory’ and emphasizes the inhumanity of the Natal system, which ignored the psychological, social and cultural needs of the indentured workers.

Rajend Mesthrie approaches the subject of Natal Indian indenture linguistically. Although much of the analysis is rather arcane for the non-linguist, interesting conclusions are made about the development of South African Bhojjpuri. The role of Fanagalo, loan-words and oral traditions are also considered, and the potential for further study in South African varieties of Tamil, Telugu and Urdu are underscored.

The last essay concerns the indentured Indian, religion and missionaries. Here Joy Brain explores the religious practices and attitudes of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and how their beliefs assisted them in adjusting to a new environment. Despite the paucity of research material, she succeeds in presenting new insights into the Natal indentured world. Like many of the other contributors, she also points to areas of future research, particularly the need to create a fuller picture of the social milieu of the indentured immigrant’s life style.

For the historian interested in indentured labour and colonial Natal in the period 1860-1911, this collection offers a number of new perspectives, and highlights potential issues for future investigation.

This is a review of Essays on Indentured Indians in Natal

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