Women under indentured labour in colonial Natal, 1860-1911 by Jo Beall

From the book: Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945 edited by Cherryl Walker

To Protector of Indian Immigrants,
27th June 1916.
Dear Sir,
Bearers wish to be registered as man and wife. Will you please fix them up today as we cannot afford to let them off two days, the cane is so dry.
N. Sykes and Sons,
Trenance Estate (NA, Indian Immigration Files,
1/191 416/1916)2


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Indian women were at the very bottom of the class-race-gender hierarchy in colonial Natal. As workers they were ultra-exploitable, being used for the most arduous and least skilled tasks in a forced labour system as Indians they were regarded as unwelcome additions to the already complex social make-up of the colony and, what is more, the person responsible for the increase of this despised and resented group; as women they had to struggle against two separate but convergent constructions of gender relations, both characterised by nation.

According to Brookes and Webb, Indians were 'the only part of population of Natal which came by special and urgent invitation (1965: 85). For it was on the backs of Indian indentured immigrants that the sugar industry of Natal was built. The invitation however was not extended to Indian women. They were imported colony only grudgingly. Whilst the industry wanted labours, it wanted only adult male labourers.

Women were deemed of little use in the sphere of sugar production for which indentured immigrants were introduced to NATAL IN THE FIRST instance. Furthermore, their role in the sphere of reproduction was regarded with suspicion and resentment. Rather than seeing women as a means of reproducing labour, the planters saw the system of indentured immigration itself as the way in which the labour force would be replaced over time. Moreover, the presence of women underscored the potential permanence of the Indian population, and other colonists felt that the introduction of Indians on a permanent basis was an unnecessary complication in Natal's social fabric.

Unfortunately for the planters, the government of India, which had allowed the system of indentured emigration to develop through the British Empire from 1830 onwards, had evolved a network of rules and regulations to govern the export of labour from India. These came to include the provision that for every 100 men that left India for a colony, so too had 40 women to go (or a female quota of 29 per center, 1974:89). The Natal government had no option but to comply. Sugar was grown in Natal on an experimental basis from as early as 1848. What prevented immediate success, however, was lack of capital and shortage of labour? Sugar production was labour-intensive and the planters were unable to induce the local African populate work on the plantations for a wage and under contract. The problem of capital was overcome largely by attracting funds from overseas investors (Richardson, 1981: 37). Importing indentured immigrants from India solved the problem of labour.

The first shipload of 341 indentured immigrants arrived in Durban on 17 November 1860. This first phase of immigration continued until 1866 when it was terminated for eight years, partly because of economic recession in the colony and partly because by this time complaints of ill-treatment and employer violations of the terms of the indentured contract had reached the attention of the government of India. In response, a commission of enquiry was appointed in Natal in 1872, to look into the conditions of Indian immigrants. As a result of its report, the Natal Legislative Council passed Law 12 of 1872, which introduced some improvements, including the appointment of a Protector of Indian Immigrants. From 1874 immigration entered a second phase which continued unabated until it was terminated by the Indian government in 1911.

Through immigration and natural increase, the Indian population of Natal grew. Between November 1860 and July 1911, when the last shipment of Indians disembarked, 152 641 indentured immigrants on Natal's shores - 104 619 men and boys and 48 022 women and girls (Beall and North-Coombes, 1983: 67). This population was reduced by deaths and departures from the colony, which together exceeded births over the period as a whole. Altogether 42 415 immigrants and their children, some of whom had been born in Natal, returned to India in this time. Nevertheless, by 1897 the Indian population had surpassed the white population in Natal, confirming the worst fears of many of the white colonists.

Indentured labour contracts were initially served for three years extended to five in 1864. After ten years under contract, immigrants were allowed to remain in the colony as 'free' Indians or were entitled to a free passage back to India. Alternatively, their passage could be commuted into a grant of Crown land equivalent in value to the cost of the journey back to India. In practice, however, only 53 Indians ever received these grants (Pather, 1961:52). Instead, 'free' Indians tended to continue working on the sugar plantations or in other sectors which employed Indian labour, such as the coalmines and the Natal Government Railways (NGR). Some made an independent living as fisher-folk, agriculturalists and market-gardeners but, for the period under review, opportunities outside of contracted wage labour were limited.

This was particularly so after the passing of Act 17 of 1895, which came into effect in 1901. Introduced in the wake of complaint from white settlers (but not plantation owners) who objected to the continued importation of Indians, this Act attempted to reduce the level of importation and promote reindenture. It penalised Indians introduced to the colony after 1895 by imposing an annual tax of them (men and women alike), at the termination of their five-year contracts. It was extremely successful in its aims, forcing the could not afford the tax (and this was the vast majority) either to reindenture or to return to India. From the late nineteenth century reindenture came to supplement to a significant degree the importation of indentured immigrants as a source of labour on the plantations (Beall and North-Coombes, 1983), reaching its peak when the rate was 95,25 per cent (Report of the Protector of Indian Immigrants, 1912). Moreover, after 1901 nearly 30 per cent of the immigrants introduced after 1895 returned to India at contracts.

In addition to the indentured immigrants, a smaller Indians, referred to as 'passenger Indians', came to Natal at the expense. The indentured immigrants came from eastern Indian, near Madras and Calcutta, and spoke mainly the Tamil and Telegu languages. They comprised 12 per cent Moslems, 5 per cent Christians and 83 per cent Hindus (Brookes and Webb, 1965:85). The passenger Indians’, on the other hand, was predominantly Urdu-speaking Moslems, from the Bombay area or from Mauritius, but some Gujarati-speaking Hindus and Moslems as well. They came to form a relatively distinct and comparatively privileged trading community in Natal. Engaged in importing and retailing, only for the Indian immigrants but also in time competed with white merchants and African traders. This earned them a great a deal of hostility, from the white settlers in particular.

Thus Indians in the colony differed among themselves in language, religion and class position, and did not form a homogeneous group. The main focus of this chapter will be on indentured women, the largest category of Indian women in Natal at this time.


In order to understand the organisation of gender relations amongst the Indian population of colonial Natal, it is necessary to understand something of the organisation of gender and the position of women in nineteenth-century India. Indian immigrants brought with them from India a culture which differed considerably from that of both the African population and the white settlers. It contained within it an expression of gender relations that was also distinctive.

India's history until relatively modern times was characterised by successive invasions of people with varying social and cultural backgrounds. External threats served to reinforce indigenous customs but also led to the assimilation of new social practices. Around 1500 B.C. the invading Indo-Aryans introduced Vedic culture and the pervasive Hindu religion and also developed the enduring caste system. In more recent times the invading Moguls - Moslem people who ruled much of India from the early sixteenth to the early eighteenth century have had a marked impact on Indian culture. The British Raj which followed introduced another era of foreign penetration, characterised by both assimilation and resistance on the part of the Indian people. The dual process of cultural exclusiveness and cultural assimilation can be seen very clearly with regard to the position of women in the nineteenth century. Polygyny, for example, although a Moslem custom, was practised by Hindu and Moslem alike, as was child marriage (a Hindu custom) and the Moslem practice of purdah (seclusion of women and the wearing of the veil).

Both in the Quran and the holy Sanskrit writings, women are not only respected but revered, particularly as mothers, and the mother-cult survives strongly even today. Nevertheless, 'In the role of wife, women are inevitably subordinate. A wife becomes merged on marriage the persona of her husband, and this merging lasts beyond death. A dutiful wife (patrivrata) worships her husband, regardless of his worth or character, as if he were a god' (Caplan, 1987: 280).

The Indian family was a sternly patriarchal one. The degree of oppression to which women were subjected, however, varied according or caste. Polygynous marriage and the custom of purdah, for example were features of the wealthier groups. Less privileged women who had to work in the fields or move about as migrant-workers or who went to the cities in search of a living could not be so secluded. By the same token, polygyny was more usually associated with men of wealth and status whilst the monogamous state was more common amongst the Indian masses.

This is not to suggest that Indian women in general were emancipated. The most oppressive of the customs to which they were subjected were suti or widow-burning (outlawed by the British in 1829) and the prevention of widow remarriage. In 1856 the British legalise widow remarriage but, for all practical purposes, this Act remained dead letter throughout the Raj and beyond (Thomas, 1964:299). The life of Hindu widows was hard, living as they did in the households of their late husbands, under the jurisdiction of their mothers-in-law The prevention of widow remarriage was all the more oppressive given the Hindu custom of child-marriage, which meant that girls could be widowed as very young children and condemned to a life of servitude in their dead husbands' households. In 1929, when legislation was introduced to prohibit the marriage of girls under age of 14, there were some 140 000 widows ten years and younger India (Thomas, 1964: 340).

Despite legislating against what they perceived to be the MOST horrifying forms of women's oppression, the British did little enhance the position of Indian women. In some ways the condition of women even deteriorated. Poverty and the dislocation of village life ensured that vast numbers of women, many of them widows some still children, were forced to abandon their homes in scare employment. Many resorted to a life of begging and prostitution the cities. Some found jobs in India itself, for example on the plantations of Assam. Others were forced further afield into neibouring territories or under indentured contract to far-flung corners of the British Empire.

It is against this background that the efforts of the recruiting agents of the indentured emigration schemes to acquire the 29 percent quota of women for each shipload should be viewed. Undoubtedly women made the decision to emigrate of their own volition often signifying courage and independence. Nevertheless, many of the female emigrants fell prey to the recruiters and their touts, who lured them into indentured contracts by means of misrepresentation or coercion. Whereas the men had to undergo fairly strict medical inspection and the most sickly of them were turned down, the women received a more superficial examination and virtually through, even when infected with cholera, typhoid, venereal disease (Tinker, 1974:138),


Indentured women were drawn into production in a number of different sectors of the Natal colonial economy. Though possible to generalise too broadly about their role in the extent of their exploitation, it is clear, however, that under the indentured system, within the different sectors, women workers were subject to greater exploitation by their employers than were men.

The sugar estates

The conditions of indentured labourers in general and of women in particular were at their very poorest on the coastal plantations. These estates also employed the greatest number of indentured laboures. According to the Wragg Commission of 1885-7, five times more indentured Indians lived in the coastal districts than inland of (Meer, 1980:309-14). A tiny minority of seventeen large planters dominated the sugar-belt, and they, together with the Natal Government Railways, employed 64 per cent of the indentured labour force on the coast, though constituting less than 10 per cent of the employers in the area (Beall, 1982:173).

These plantations which dominated the economic landscape of Natal were organised along quasi-industrial lines. Workers were accommodated in rows of huts or in 'lines', long buildings corrugated of corrugated iron or built of masonry and roofed with iron. ' They were poorly ventilated, badly lit and appallingly overcrowded. The unhealthy living conditions, when combined with the rigours of labour on the plantations, gave rise to a high incidence of occupationally environmentally related disease and a high mortality rate. In the Protector of Indian Immigrants observed that the mortality rate on the large estates was far higher than in other areas of employment (NA, Protector to Colonial Secretary, II1/2/1904). The Tuberculosis Commission of 1914 noted further that ‘the extent of the sickness and death rate has proved a most reliable index of the conditions and treatment of coolies by different employers’ (UG34-1914: 92).

When Indentured labourers were first introduced to the sugar female quota was regarded as dead stock, the planters wanting only strong, healthy men to establish massive and orderly out of the virgin subtropical bush. This attitude was reflected in the haggling by planters over the price’ to be paid for each labourer. In terms of the of original system, employers were to pay to thirds of the cost of their laboures’ immigration, the remaining one third deriving from the colony’s general revenue. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, as a result of their persistent and the cost of the quota of women assigned to them directly (NA, II, 1/53/1890)

In the time however, the planters came to see the value of women on their estates and for a period women formed an important component of the plantation labour force. Employers were thus able to benefit not only from female labour, which was very poorly remunerated if at all, but also from not having to bear the direct cost of labour supply.

According to Law 14 of 1859, remuneration for me at the rate of 10s per month for the first year of indentured immigration shilling a month for each successive year of the contract. Women who worked were to receive half the amount paid to me were to be paid in proportion to their age. These indentures did not change for the half-century of indentured immigration to Natal. The law also provided that married women were not obliged to work and that employers were nevertheless still required to provide them with accommodation, rations and medical care mention was made of single women or women whose conform to the legal definition of marriage in the colony.

As the majority of women fell into the latter categories (marriage by Indian religious rites was not recognized in colonial Natal, sufficient commission existed to allow for a system of abuse by employers which was never eliminated. In the second phase of indenture, from 1874 onwards even greater confusion about the regulations governing the employment of women, and great capital was made of this by the planters. There was no blanket ruling enforced as to whether or were compelled to work, although significantly, the words if employed’ that had appeared opposite each women's name on the old indentured contracts were omitted from the post-1874 contracts. This led to rulings by magistrates that women could be compelled to work unless protected by a medical certificate.

By the end of the first phase of indenture (1860-clear that on many estates all women and older chit rations if they did not work. In 1866 Government Notice 34 was passed, staring that women and children less than 10 years to half-rations if they were unable or unwilling to work. This represented clearly a compromise between the colonial authorities were responsible to the government of India for the welfare of the immigrants, and the planters, who refused to pay for even feed anybody not engaged directly in production.

It was not long, however, before planters discovered uses of women's productive labour. On the plantations division of labour was established. Field tasks regarded for women included hoeing, weeding, planting bean' between the cane rows, and cutting plant cane (Meer, 1980:)passim. Weeding was conducted along the lines of task work classified as light labour, was a backbreaking and extremely monotonous task. Cutting plant cane, which was used to cane-fields, was a semi-skilled occupation as the pieces plant cane had to be carefully selected and handled so as not to damage the eyes from which the new shoots would grow. In Natal planting and harvesting seasons overlap to a considerable degree, and as the new fields were planted every year in rotation/ this work engaged women on a fairly regular basis.

For their work women were supposed to be paid 5s a month with rations, but from the evidence given to the 1872 commission of enquiry and the Wragg Commission of 1885-7 (Meer, 1980) it is clear there was no uniform pattern of employment or payment for women on the estates or the other sectors of the economy. Many women found themselves on an estate which provided no rations and h offered them only task work at 6d a day during the season. OTHERS were provided with full rations and the statutory 5s a month but only if and when they worked.

The unstated but very clear view of the planters, that women should only be paid if they worked, assumed both that women would be catered for within a family set-up (whether or not this was the and that the 10s monthly wage paid to male workers constituted a family wage. These were clearly unrealistic expectations and had severe implications for gender relations within the indentured labour force.

The tea estates

Tea estates in the Stanger district on the north coast made the most intensive use of women’s labour on plantations. Mechanisation was not possible on the steep slopes where the crop was grown, AND THE PRofitability of the industry was too slim to sustain high production costs. Tea planters invariably placed requests for families its and attempted to import people directly from the Indian growing area of Assam (NA, Liege Hulett to Protector, II, 4/1/1876).

In contrast to other sectors, women on the tea estates were assigned to relatively skilled tasks. It was they who were used to pluck the tender tips of the tea plants, their particular skills in this regard being terms of gender stereotypes such as their greater dexterity or their capacity for work that did not require great strength but considerable powers of endurance. Men were used for clearing the fields in factory work. Children were put to work at light factory task such as sweeping.

During the picking season, which lasted for nine months of the year, women laboured in the fields for eleven to thirteen or even more hours a day. For the rest of the time they were engaged in cultivation task hoeing and weeding. Despite their skills they were still tale wage rates and received half the male rations. They faced control mechanisms and wage deductions as men, such as for illness or absenteeism, but they were refused rations when they were not at work. This led women to push themselves to work whether sick, pregnant or even in labour. The worst time for them the six weeks following the long picking season, when their labour was not required. In a complaint to Hindson and Company Limited the Protector wrote of such women: 'Those who are without husbands or men to look after them are compelled to beg for food, which do, or obtain food by more objectionable means' (NA, II, 1 /130/1904). Hindson eventually agreed to give the women a fortnight's break with rations following the picking season (NA, II, 1/131/1904).

Apart from the cheapness of their labour, the great advantage of women workers to the planters, therefore, was that they could be drawn into the workforce when their labour was required and back to the barracks when it was not. With regard to male workers the planters were more strictly bound by the conditions governing indentured labour contracts. The confusion surrounding female conditions of service gave employers great latitude to do as they pleased. This is not to exaggerate the advantages men enjoyed or thee to which planters abided by the rules in any case. In a letter to Hulett & Sons, lambasting them for their treatment of their indentured workers, the medical officer of Stanger, Dr H. W. Jones, fumed Well, I happened to ride round the corner of the old Factory - when behold there were five Indians - who were very ill. One woman had her right out.... Now why were these people hiding there... During the summer months you make your Indians toil in the blazing sun from sunrise sunset.... How would you like it yourself?... You may say perhaps Industry would not thrive unless the coolies were sweated to the tune of 3 or 4 hours per diem. Very well then. Let the Industry go to the devil one but yourselves (NA, II, 1 /98/1900). For his trouble the Colonial dismissed Dr Jones from his post Secretary, on the grounds that he was not in a fit state continue his duties'.

Other sectors of the economy

The largest official employer of indentured labour' Government Railways, which ran its construction and maintenance gangs along the lines of a mobile army, with no place Women assigned to the NCR were not provided w received no wages or rations. In some of the smaller there were no other work opportunities for women, the situation was so bad that it led 'in some instances men to send the from the line - as they plead (and rightly) that a insufficient for two people to live on' (NA, Report Protector, II, 1895).

A small but not insignificant number of indentured Indians were allotted to farms and smallholdings in the Natal Midlands. Here women were particularly welcome. They were most often used as domestic servants, although they had to engage in farm work alongside the men as well. In this sector women were subjected to the long hours and isolation which characterise domestic service. There is ample testimony to their poor working conditions in the complaints they put forward to the Deputy Protector of Indian Immigrants. Apart from having to work long hours, they were often treated with great harshness. One woman, for example, was made to stand on a barrel all day, for refusing to work because she was in an advanced state of pregnancy (NA, II, 1/191/1916).

The coal-mining industry also used Indian workers, but these were mainly ex-indentured or reindentured workers; between 1903 and 1913 these men averaged 37,3 per cent of the labour force on the collieries (Beall and North-Coombes, 1983:54). Because 'free' Indians did not arrive in Natal with a statutory quota of women, the number indentured women on the mines was therefore comparatively ill. The women who were employed were engaged in surface work has picking and sorting the coal. More important than their role in the labour process, however, was the way in which mine managers owners used the scarcity of women to control the labour and mobility of the male workers, a practice by no means confined only to the mines. There is ample testimony in the records to confirm that both Indian men and their employers regarded women as property, to be bought, sold away. Women were most commonly used to punish or reward workers on the sugar estates. This practice was less common on the NGR, because women's labour was not needed there. Instead, managers often sold women consigned to the railways to Indians wanting wives. In the case of the coal mines (as with the states), women were valued both as labourers and as a means of social control. A Natal Witness report of 9 December 1904 carried a story headlined ‘Amazing Allegations Against Mine Officials – Indian strange Story - Wife Bought for £10', which illustrates this point. The incident referred to had taken place on the Ramsay Colliery Ladysmith and came to light in a court case. An Indian man whose indentured contract had terminated, had been forcibly prevented from leaving the colliery and from taking his wife with mine manager, Mr. Thomas, assaulted both the man and the women and instructed the clerk at the nearby Wessels Nek station not to issue the couple with travel tickets. The Indian worker was most indignant because, whilst working on the colliery, he had taken the women Mandaye, as his wife; in court he declared that he paid £10 receiving a receipt for that amount from Llewelyn Davies, the secretary of the company.' It was not only the mine officials (who sold the women) and the male workers (who bought them) who conceived of women as property. In this case, when told by Thomas to go to work and take another man as her husband, Mandaye had refused, 'saying that she had been paid for by the complainant' (NA, 11,1/130/1904).

The ultra-exploitability, of indentured women

Indentured labourers from India offered themselves for contract employment overseas in the manner of free labour. It was the employer, however, who had the upper hand in negotiating the contract with the British government of India. Although indentured immigrants attested to their contracts, they had no say over the ten their employment. Once brought to the colony, they became a captive labour force. They were tied to their contracts for a period of years, and sometimes longer when forced to reindenture (for instance through the £3 tax). They were unable to renegotiate wages regular and suffered long hours of work. They had no control over the terms of their contract being upheld, enjoyed inadequate legal protection and were denied the right to organise. Furthermore, the opportunities for work outside of indentured labour have often been exaggerated as the high rate of reindenture, particularly from the late nineteenth century, testifies.

For all these reasons indenture in Natal can be seen, as a system of forced labour, which rendered the workers ultra-exploitable. Under this system, women were even more exploited than men; women were the lowest-paid workers in the colony, when they were paid at all. Their powerlessness stemmed largely from the labour regimentation and control which applied to the labour force as a whole. But in addition women endured another set of restrictions that derived from their position as women in India and colonial society. In general their role in the labour process precluded them from tasks that might enable them to develop experience and, in turn, bargaining power. (Tea-picking, which went into decline after 1911 anyway, and cutting plant cane were the only exceptions in this situation.) Furthermore, familial resistance to any thing that was thought to challenge women's domestic prevented Indian girls from being allowed to acquire an education when this became a possibility for male immigrant child early twentieth century. Finally, responsibility for child-bearing and also for child-rearing (the latter unquestioned by employ Indian community itself) further reduced their mobility and thus their potential for finding alternative forms of employment choices facing women when phased out of indenture were repatriation marriage, or some other form of dependence on a male or relative.

The question arises as to whether indentured workers resisted their exploitation. While there is ample evidence that they did, the extent collective resistance amongst the indentured labour force has been widely debated.4 Resistance by women does not seem to have taken an overt or demonstrably collective form, but more often found expression in individual acts such as desertion and arson, which increased the woman's vulnerability. For instance, one woman, Sornam, who was accused by her master of not working fast enough, in protest and desperation 'flung down her hoe and also threw herself on the ground', whereupon she received a beating from the estate manager (NA, II, 1 /131 /1904). In the case of one woman who set fire to cane-fields on the Natal Estates, repatriation was recommended on the grounds that she was suffering from a weak intellect (NA, II, 1/191/1916). To resist meant risking physical assault, deprivation of wages, the withholding of rations or dismissal. The phasing out of women from the indentured labour force It is revealing, given the importance of women to the labour process on the estates and their role in reproducing the labour force, that they were the first to be phased out of the plantation workforce. In time, African men, with their families, came to be seen by the planters as more appropriate and potentially plentiful source of labour than women, and replaced them. Indian men, however, maintained their place in the estate labour force, mainly in skilled work, particularly in the mills. In this way the male-female hierarchy that had been originally established in the labour force was later restructured along racial lines, to the detriment of Indian women.

Even during the period of indentured immigration, African daily or togt labour was used. Generally, however, the African population was able to resist long-term labour contracts during this time because of their accesses to land as well as the availability of togt work to meet their cash requirements. Around the turn of the century the pace African of proletarianisation quickened somewhat and there was a greater availability of African labour for the sugar estates. The expansion of the sugar industry into Zululand after 1905 took place on the African labour.

African labour was more attractive to the planters because it was now cheaper than Indian. The African wage rate had dropped from around 10s a month at mid-century (the same as for indentured men) to round 9s a month by the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, under the provisions of the Masters and Servants Act of 1894, Africans could be employed under twelve-month contracts on the estates, while Section 19 of the Act provided that their wives and children under 16 years were also bound by these contracts. Thus 9s a month bought the planters a labour force of some size.

What underpinned the cheapness of African labour was not only the unpaid family labour of contract workers on the estates, but also subsistence production in the reserves, which supported both contract and togt workers. In the reserves it was African women who were primarily responsible for this production and thus for the maintenance of the cheap African labour force. African men and women came to form another captive labour force and, in time, to replace indentured Indian workers.

Indian women were the first to be replaced in this way. As early as 1902 it was reported that Indian men 'were found very handy at the mill, to be good cane cutters, and very useful in making drains and roads, but the kaffirs were found best for ordinary field work' (South African Sugar Journal Annual, 1920-1:181) - in other words, at tasks previously performed by Indian women. The one area of employment where Indian women had held some advantage by virtue of relatively skilled status - the tea industry - failed to survive ending of indentured immigration in 1911. Although it had confidently argued that the labour question on the tea estates be resolved by the employment of African labour, as in the case sugar production, this did not prove possible; only an ultra-exploitable, captive labour force could be induced to perform the skilled back-breaking work required on the tea estates for such minimal reward. With the demise of the tea industry went an important employment area for Indian women.


As well as being directly exploited as workers, indentured was also subjected to extreme forms of oppression in their capacity as reproducers of labour power. Both women's productive and unproductive labour was harnessed by employers and served to hold down indentured wages. On the estates women laboured not only directly for the planters, but indirectly as well. Their cultivation of garden plots partly met their own subsistence needs, as well as that of their younger children and of the indentured men. This, together with their domestic barracks, served to reproduce labour power on the estates day-to-day basis.

In the sphere of the proverbial double shift, indentured women were subject to extraordinary burdens. When not in the fields themselves, or during their breaks, they were required by their male partners or the men to whom they were somehow indebted to take them their midday meal in the fields or at the mill. In the evening they prepared the meal and were expected to perform other domestic tasks such as washing and cleaning and to provide sexual services. Given the disproportion of the sexes, they were frequently required to domestic tasks on behalf of not one but several men. This was often done in return for rations or other favours such as clothing on from other men. Their low reward for fieldwork increased the dependence of women on men. As already pointed out, the planters did not recognise women's value as producers of labour power on a generational basis at first, because they saw the system of indenture itself as replenishing their workforce. However, as reindenture came to supplement importation degree from the turn of the century, owing to the expansion of the economy and before Africans had become fully, so the reproductive function of indentured women became more important to employers. This was especially so during of the twentieth century, at which time the system of immigration was threatened with termination.

'In the long term, however, the development of the sugar industry was carried out on the backs of African contract labour. That the value women's reproductive function was transitory is attested fate of the women coming out of indentured contracts after 1911. The records of the Indian Immigration Trust Board reveal a host of cases of destitute women wandering around without employment or support in the years immediately following the termination of indentured immigration. These women were classified as 'free' Indians because, according to the Protector, 'a destitute Indian cannot be under indenture’ (NA, II, 1/189/1913). Employers were not interested in having them live on their premises if they did not work for them. Women in this situation were frequently repatriated to India.


As suggested above, the Indian immigrants brought with them culture with a different form of gender relations from those prevailing among the African and white populations of the colony. Whilst emigration constituted a break with much that was 'Indian' - it was difficult, for example, to maintain the elaborate rules of caste under the new circumstances - much of the Indian heritage was also retained. The retention of cultural values was often a defensive strategy in an alien and hostile environment, and found expression particularly in the sphere of gender relations. It is significant that the only feature of caste which persisted in Natal was that of caste endogamy, wherever possible (Kuper, 1955:23).

Yet although the form in which gender relations were expressed was culturally specific, much of its ideological content was confirmed and reinforced by the dominant ideology of gender prevailing among their class. At the workplace there was both conflict and collusion between male workers and employers for control over Indian women. At a more general level white colonial perceptions and Indian expectations of the proper ordering of relations between the sexes tended to coincide. Struggles around sexuality under indenture The ideology of extreme wifely subordination in marriage that was brought from India persisted amongst the immigrant was given a sharper edge under conditions where men outnumbered women by nearly three to one. Despite this, life denied immigrants the opportunity of customary marriage and family life. Relationships between men and women were often very unstable and many men abandoned their partners either during indenture or when moving out of it (NA, II, 1/52/1890).

Whilst many indentured workers arrived at emigration depots in India single, they frequently established relationships with members of the opposite sex at the depot or during the journey and declared themselves married, a practice disapproved of but recognised by the authorities. As Tinker has pointed out: The advantage to the man was obvious: he had someone to cook for him attend to him in a society where females were very scarce. But there also advantage to the woman in securing a protector in a savage new environment, and in establishing some sort of recognised position in a social order which held no place for adult single women (1974:34)

The extent to which women were protected by these partnerships or liaisons should not be exaggerated, however for even on boardship women were subject to sexual assault, not only by fellow emigrants but also by crew members; and furthermore the blessing of a conjugal relationship on the sugar estates were mixed indeed. Swan has described how women on the plantations were treated almost as chattels, and even marriage was regarded with contempt in some quarters. On one of the biggest plantation, women were routinely used to punish recalcitrant labourers ... thus a situation was created in Natal which permitted the whites to believe that Indians were incapable of sustaining bonds of mutual affection or responsibility (1985:37).

The indentured labour system undoubtedly deprived couples of the conditions suitable for sustaining such bonds (NA, II, 1/5/1890). Partners were often sent to different estates and could fined for trespass for visiting each other. Even when employed on the same estate, men and women found it difficult to mail intimate relationships in conditions devoid of leisure and privacy the Wragg Commission noted: 'We regret to observe that too little regard is paid to this very essential requisite towards purity of life. There is a general huddling together of the sexes, of all ages, much to deplored' (Meer, 1980: 302). Yet when single women did lay complaints about sexual harassment, the response was invariably that echoed by the Protector, who argued that there was 'nothing whatsoever to prevent the complainants from keeping themselves apart if they wished, from the single men' (NA, II, 1/197/1900).

However, life on the estates was not as simple as that, as the evidence led in a murder case, Regina v. Mulwa, demonstrates. This involved an indentured worker, Mulwa, who murdered his common-law wife Nootini, on the Blackburn Estate in April 1890. The case shows how little resemblance there was between the ideology of marital stability and the actual ways in which indentured workers were obliged to interact and live together. The couple had arrived in Natal on the same ship and been assigned to the estate in 1879. On arrival at the estate they had to negotiate a place to sleep and were taken in by a man called Poonie, in whose hut they remained for about four months, with Nootini doing the domestic chores. In his evidence Mulwa stated that they had not felt 'safe' there. Nootini was not given work on the estate and received no wages or rations. The couple and their young child were unable to survive on Mulwa's twelve pounds of rice a week. After a time they were offered alternative accommodation by Sahabdeen, a mill worker who saw in Nootini a potential cook, housekeeper and mistress. In his statement before being sentenced Mulwa described what followed:

I declined at first - he again asked me and as an inducement said I should get free rations – the woman and I then went - the food we got from the estate was insufficient. Sahabdeen said if the woman would cook for him he would give her clothing - Sahabdeen gave me to the extent of 9s. I returned 8s. Sahabdeen asked me for the balance I owed and said if I did not pay I must leave.... I said where were we ... to go.... Sahabdeen then said I want you to go away but not the woman and child.... I went to Mr. Townsend [and] ... reported the matter and asked for a lodging - Mr. Townsend did not give us a house.... I killed her because she went with other men (NA, II, 1 /57/1890).

On the morning that Nootini was murdered a witness heard her pleading with her sick husband to go to work, saying 'If you don't go to work who will give us food?' Later that same morning Mulwa found her sleeping with Sahabdeen and subsequently attacked and killed her. As could be expected in a situation of such complete powerlessness, indentured women were very vulnerable to sexual harassment not only by fellow workers but also by sirdars (or overseers) and by their white male employee. While it is difficult to ascertain how indentured women they perceived their lives, as they did not often have the opportunity to speak for themselves, most of the surviving records of women informants refer to this gender-specific form of harassment. Very typical is the case of a woman called Vellach who, caught in a double-bind, complained: 'About ten days ago whilst in my master's bedroom regulating it, he came in, striking his pocket and saying that he would give me £3 if I were to lie with him, as the mistress and her family had gone to town. I refused saying that my husband would beat me. He said he would not tell him' (NA, II/1/7/1880).

In his defence the employer, a Mr. Hulley, used the gilt-edged excuse frequently favoured by men of the ruling class, that of the promiscuity of the woman involved and the fact that she had venereal disease, He managed to convince the Deputy Protector of his innocence by arguing: 'Putting aside her personal appearance which is not very attractive, is it likely that I a married man, knowing what had been the matter with her ... would be guilty of such a charge?' (NA, II 1/7/1880). In such cases the employer's word was almost always taken over that of the indentured woman, and women in Vellach's situation were invariably denied their requests to be transferred to other employers. Colonial courts took the part of the men not only because of their position in the white ruling class, but also because they were men in a male dominated society.

Sexual harassment was not confined to employers alone. It was common for planters, for example, to rely on sirdars to oversee the women in the workplace and the barracks, and these men frequently used their position to their advantage, subjecting women to abuse and indignities (NA, II, 1/77/1895). It was also common for indentured men to buy and sell women for a shilling, with the tacit approval of the employers and sirdars and even of the women themselves. Given the marked sexual imbalance in the Indian immigrant population, the men were most vigorous in asserting their claims over women, possible, marriage was entered into, but this was not always feasible as legally recognised marriages required a £5 marriage licence which was out of reach of most indentured immigrants. Moreover, marriage by customary religious rites, Hindu or Moslem, was not considered valid in the colonial courts. This did not prevent Indian men from recourse to colonial justice in their attempts to assert control over women. Cases of desertion, adultery and breach of promise to marry were brought before the protector for trial.

Giving evidence to the 1872 commission enquiry, an Indian hotelkeeper at Verulam, by the name of Rangassamy, outlined his views on the problems created by the scarcity of women and theft for legislation to control Indian women and the need for legislation to control Indian women:

As to marriages, among the coolies we first imported too many males [who] were single and the scarcity of females causes many debauches, and in many cases they committed suicide: therefore I consider stopping this, when they agree to marry, the Coolie Agent, in the Coolie office, should draw the agreement. After they agree to marry, if either party refuses to marry, the should punish the guilty person. If a woman commits adultery, punished by cutting off her hair, and ten days' imprisonment that if she goes to another man, she must pay to the first husbands ten pounds. The adulterer should be fined five pounds, and be imprisoned for 20 days, and get 12 lashes. The wife should be imprisoned until she repaid the money, or went back to her husband (Meer, 1980:139).

It has been argued in the context of other colonies which imported indentured labour that women's scarcity value gave them considerable power in relation to men, and that by moving from one partner to another women could not only remain independent but could benefit materially (Moore, 1984:4-5). Whilst this viewpoint might have some application in Natal as well, it would have to be an understanding of the underlying powerlessness of women. One would question, for example, the extent of the independence open to a woman like Nootini in her decision to sleep with Sahabdeen. One would also question the bargaining power described by the Inspector of Nuisances in a 1904 report to the Protector. This child lived in one of the NGR barracks, was not attached to anyone, and had 'no regular sleeping place but finds any place she can for the purpose' (NA, II, 1 /126/1904).

Marriage family outside of indenture

Marriage was of greater moment for Indians outside of indenture than for those within it. Thus in 1886, out of 4 7047 married Indian women in the colony, 3 182 were 'free' (the figure does not include passenger Indians) and 865 were indentured (Meer, 1980: 261). It seems that once Indians were free from their indentured contracts and the conditions of estate life, marriage and the creation of a stable became a priority. It was, perhaps, a response to their uncomfortable location within the social fabric of the colony wedged between the politically and economically dominant whites and the vast, subjugated African population. The practice of child-marriage was given a particularly unsavoury situation created through the sexual imbalance amongst Indians in the colony. There is evidence that young brides could be purchased from their parents and that some unscrupulous guardians a daughter married by religious rites to one man and married her to another for an additional fee. In many cases the girls 13 years, the legal age of marriage. Nundy (1902) reported that in Verulam alone, in only two out of ten marriages solemnised in one month were the girls even approaching the legal age; the rest were between 10 and 12 years old.

Recent interviews with Indian women in Durban give some insight into how this practice was perceived by the girls themselves:

The practice of child-marriage, as practised quite extensively in India, was more characteristic of the period following indenture.... Of all the women interviewed all those who had been married had no choice or say in who their husband was to be.... Velimah: 'Father chose the husband, they won't let go and choose, and they’ll give us a hiding.... If he feels it OK we got married never mind if he's a drunkard' (Williams, 1986:17).

Although the young girls acquiesced in the practice, it was nevertheless resented, if not construed as oppression. The question of marriage formed a central issue in the 1913 passive resistance campaign waged by Natal Indians under the leadership of M. K. Gandhi. However, the issue mainly touched the trading class among whom wives were generally sent for from India once their husbands had established themselves in the colony. At first it was the practice to admit a woman, if she was the man's only wife, to resident in South Africa. In 1910, however, Mr. Justice Searle ruled that for' purposes of immigration, no marriage could be regarded as monogamous, and therefore legal, if it was celebrated according to the rites of any religion recognising polygamy. Indians argued that this reduced their wives to the status of concubines. The ensuing passive resistance campaign (in which women played a significant part) succeeds winning recognition of existing monogamous marriages amongst Indians in South African and restored the position to that which had existed before 1910. Although important in the political awakening of the Indian community, and providing a useful counterpoint to stereotype of Indian women as especially docile and submissive issue was only really significant for the wealthy trading class. Given the imbalance between the sexes amongst indentured workers their offspring, the question of polygamy did not much concern them.

As Carby (1982) has suggested with regard to blacks in AMERICA and under colonialism, it is possible for the family to become the site of both political and cultural resistance. That the resultant emphasis on communalism can be a conservative or even reactionary force does not reduce the persistent potency of Indian cultural values, particularly in the sphere of gender relations, as a source of social cohesion in the community. Nor should it be allowed to obscure the fact the Indian family has also constituted a site of oppression for women.

The attitude of the colonial state

The attitude of the colonial state towards Indian marriage family life was inconsistent. At one level, it attempted to promote somewhat incongruously, some sort of Victorian ideal of family and stability amongst the Indian population. At another level there was a persistent belief that Indian women were promiscuous, and were blamed for all manner of social ills, most notably the prevalence of venereal disease amongst the indentured population. The colonial state intervened to confirm the proprietorial attitude towards women held by Indian men. Government Notice 84 of 1873 empowered the Protector to adjudicate in cases of seducing, or biting, or committing adultery wives of others; or enticing or abducting unmarried Indian immigrant girls under sixteen old from the custody of their parents’ (Meer, 1980: 173). In his report the Protector stated that the punishments he handed out for such offences had proved a successful deterrent. By the same token, success was achieved (without any apparent protest from Indian men) by inflicting harsher punishments on the women than on the men involved in illegal liaisons.

Reporting on the registration of marriages amongst indentured Indian, the Protector noted in 1875:

Those centered as 'single' include many aged widows and respectable persons, but the majority are no doubt dissolute and abandoned characters. It is not, it course, supposed that registration has put a stop to adultery among the Indians, but at least it affords the means of establishing the validity of their marriages and thereby facilitates a prosecution for adultery if committed. The best effect, however, is that it has certainly raised the women as a class; it has given married women a proper status, making them respectable in the eyes of the men, and thereby raising their own self-respect (Meer, 1980:261).

In reality, of course, prevailing conditions prevented the development ability in family life and promoted the social ills complained about-conditions which the colonial state did very little to improve. A debate which took place in 1899 in the Legislative Assembly on the Women and Children's Protection Bill provides a measure of the prevailing sexual morality amongst the white male settlers, and reveals its double standard not only in relation to men and women but in relation to blacks and whites as well. The bill was introduced 'in interest of womanhood' - but for 'womanhood' read 'white womanhood' - and dealt with the raising of the age of consent. The all male legislators were in no doubt about the importance of this step for white women. They had become a virtual symbol of white supremacy and were being increasingly sheltered and protected at a time when women in Britain were gaining more freedom and autonomy (Beall, 1982:196). But the age of consent became a contentious issue regard to African and Indian women. The legislators' main concern, it seems, was for the white man who might be convicted of intercourse with a minor African or Indian girl. It was argued that because black girls matured early, it was difficult for white men to determine whether or not they had reached the age of consent.

The hypocrisy of colonial morality is summed up in the words of the Deputy Speaker, who argued that if the proposals did not refer to white women alone, 'you place the life and liberty of every white man in this country at the mercy of every coolie girl, and let that distinctly understood. Further than that you open the door to a system of blackmail; at which the Indians of India are past masters... there are already ample provisions made in the Indian Code [sic] and the Native Code for the protection of Indian and Native women' (Colony of Natal, 1899, Debates: 617).

His colleague, Mr. Greene, argued further that 'It is very nice- we are protecting the females ... but I do not know why males are not entitled to have some protection,' and suggested that men be entitled to plead that the girl was a prostitute if carnal knowledge was proved.


Indian women were brought to Natal with great reluctance. Their labour power was, however, harnessed in the development of Natal’s economy, at a time when they were amongst the most exploited members of the colony's proletariat. Both their productive and their reproductive labour facilitated capital accumulation, particularly on the sugar estates. Throughout the period of indentured immigration, Indian women were located at the very bottom of the bottom of the class-race-gender hierarchy in the colony. As workers they were ultra exploitable. As Indians they were unwelcome and subject to obnoxious stereotyping. As women they had to struggle against two different women subordinated to men-that prevailing within the immigrant population itself and the border relations of gender that developed under colonial rule.

Some writers have argued that women derived benefits from indentured immigration, in that it offered them an escape from starvation, widowhood, prostitution and beggary - 'that the decision to emigrate was in itself a sign of independent character of these and the decision to emigrate alone and as individuals was their strength' (Reddock, 1984:13). But whilst it is undoubtedly true that indentured women did fight to maintain some control over lives, at the same time it is difficult to conceive of them finding freedom and independence under conditions of forced labour undoubted collusion between employers and male workers maintain male control.

This is not to deny that indentured women devised a variety of strategies for survival, often outside the bounds of marriage and the patriarchal family. Indeed, for many women marriage option, particularly for widows and for those who had been passed around the barracks from man to man and bore the scars, both physical and psychological, of that experience. What is necessary, however, is to understand the constraints under which Indian women made their choices.

Moreover, whilst it is important to recognise the persistence of the form of Indian patriarchal family in Natal over the past hundred years, it is equally important to recognise that it has not been static, changing institution. A discussion of marriage and family form in India is beyond the scope of this chapter; suffice to say that these varied over time and place and according to caste. Under conditions indenture the patriarchal family was little more than an ideological form to which people aspired but which they were unable to establish in reality. With the termination of indenture, and as the Indian population became more settled and permanent, so the Indian family reasserted itself in Natal, its significance within the community being enhanced by the experience of indenture

For women this was a mixed blessing, as the family nurtured patriarchal values. A haven in a hostile environment, the Indian family has also enabled oppressive gender relations to persist and has been the site of gender struggles between men and women in the twentieth century.

Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945