The Beginnings of Protest, 1860-1923

< Menu page

< 1. Introductory Survey | 3. Gandhi in South Africa, 1893-1914 >


The Establishment of the Indian Community: The Beginnings of Protest, 1860-1923

2. The Early Years of Indian Settlement

Natal became a British Crown Colony ruled from the Cape in 1843, and by 1856 it was a separate colony with a partly elected legislature with manhood suffrage based on property qualifications. Virgin Natal offered tremendous opportunities to the European planters and farmers. But they faced an acute shortage of labour since the African people were unwilling to work on European farms.

There arose, therefore, a demand for indentured labourers from India. After some protracted negotiations between the Natal Government and the secretary of State for the Colonies, the Natal Coolie Law, Law 14 of 1859 was passed. On securing the reluctant agreement of the Indian Government the wheels of immigration were set in motion. The first batch of indentured labourers arrived in Durban on November 16th, 1860. There were 342 persons, including 75 women and 83 children, mainly South Indian Hindus with a sprinkling of Christians and Moslems. Ten days later another shipload, from Calcutta, disembarked with 351 passengers, including 61 women and 83 children, mainly from the South and East of India.

Unfortunately the vociferous and urgent demand for labour was not reflected in the treatment accorded to the first arrivals. No food, shelter or interpreter was provided, with the result that on arrival the Indians were in a confused and desolate state. A "hat-trick" was improvised where:

"tickets were picked and according to the dictates of chance, friends, relatives and members of the same family were parted and assigned to new masters."

Even for the late nineteenth century the working and living conditions of the labourers were miserable and disgraceful. The difficulties are too long to catalogue in this chapter. It should suffice to quote a summary of the treatment received by the labourers made by Fatima Meer:

"Ramsamy, caught out of bounds, was tied to the rafters and lashed with a sjambok and then jailed for desertion. Illama gave birth in the fields while working because her employer would not release her, and a little girl of 16 was found dying of anemia on the roadside because she had not been examined on her arrival at Durban before being sent off 50 miles, to her place of employment. .... The Coolie Commission of 1872 found that on many estates no medical care was provided, wages were withheld, and illegal flogging was common."

The immense contribution of the Indian people to the economic development of Natal cannot be denied. In a leading article, early in 1865, the Natal Mercury pointed out that the employment of Indian labour had increased the export of sugar from £26,000 in 1863 to £100,000 in 1864. In 1901 the Protector of Indian Immigrants wrote that the employers realised the indispensability of Indian labour and pointed out that if Indian labour was withdrawn the "'country would at once be simply paralysed". Finally, Sir Liege Hulett, ex-Prime Minister of Natal Colony and a sugar baron, said in 1903 that Durban was absolutely built by the Indian people.

On the expiry of their contracts some of the indentured labourers found employment as domestic servants, railway and council workers and on the Coal Mines in Northern Natal, and a large number of them became self-employed as market gardeners. The latter movement was powerful and by 1880 the Magistrate of Durban observed that Indians grew most of the vegetables consumed by Europeans. Similarly the Magistrate of Inanda reported in the same year:

"They [ex-indentured Indians] are fast spreading themselves over the Division, paying high rentals for land which would otherwise be unproductive to the owner and are all becoming great cultivators of maize, tobacco and. garden produce".

This diversification pattern continued and by 1909 the ex-indentured labourers were employed in the following sectors: General farming 6,149; sugar estates 7,006; coal mines 3,239; tea estates 1,722; railways 2,371; domestic 1,949; corporation 1,062; brick yards etc. 740; wattle plantations 606; landing and shipping agents 422; and miscellaneous 313. Total number of workers 25,579; total number of employers 2,249.

Already it had become clear that the Indian community was going to play an increasingly important role in the economy of Natal, especially as industrial workers. This was markedly reflected in the decade 1910-1920, which Palmer described as the period in which:

"the position of the Indian changed from that of a serf who had to be kept to his work by force, was liable to prosecution if he deserted, and was occasionally subject to assault from his employer, to that of an ordinary wage labourer.... This was, of course, a very great change for the better, even though the labourer's position was still, notwithstanding all the ameliorations, one of very great poverty."

In 1869 a new wave of immigration occurred, of traders from the West Coast, mainly Gujerat. They were called "passenger" Indians as distinct from indentured Indians. The new immigrants, mainly Moslems, were attracted by the rich potentialities for trade that Natal offered. The Gujerati speaking traders were laterjoined by some Urdu speaking Moslems from the United Province and a few Marathi speaking Kokince Moslems.

Initially, the traders operated in Durban, but later some moved into the interior, following the main transport route from Durban to Johannesburg. As a result there is a settled Indian community in every major town on the main road from Durban to Johannesburg.

Unlike the earlier immigrants the "passenger" Indians were in regular contact with their families in India and whenever possible visited India. Later their wives and children came over thereby establishing family units spreading out to include associations based on their place of origin in India.

Indian traders did relatively well. By skilfully exploiting the consuming potential of the Indian, African and poor white communities the traders expanded their commercial activities and profit margin. But the entrepreneurial skills and hard work exhibited by the traders made them unpopular in Natal from as early as 1884-1885. It is ironical that the white colonist should detest the Indian for displaying the very same personal qualities he held so dear. Two extracts from magisterial reports of 1884-1885 illustrate this point:

"A few more Indian stores have been opened in the town of Verulam during the year, and two European stores have been closed for want of support, the Indians having entirely absorbed the petty trade as well as trade with Indians and natives.


Complaints continue to be made of the increasing number of Indian traders and hawkers. .... These people render it impossible for small European store-keepers to make a living."

The two streams of Indian immigrants had, until the arrival of M.K. Gandhi in 1893 and the experience of uniform discriminatory legislation after 1900, very little in common except the epithet Indian. This gap was a result of the cultural, linguistic, and economic and religious differences that characterised the Indian population. These differences were further exacerbated by the contrasting situations of the Indian communities in each of the other provinces besides Natal.

Indians first entered the Transvaal (then the South African Republic) in 1381 and by 1911 the estimated population was 11,004. From 1885 onwards they suffered severe restrictions on their right to trade, reside or to own and occupy property. Following in the wake of the traders was a smaller number of ex-indentured Indians who worked as waiters, domestic servant and hawkers of fruit and vegetables.

Law 3 of 1885 was the first racially discriminatory legislation passed by the Volksraad. This law prohibited Indians from acquiring the rights of citizenship and ownership of property in the Transvaal. The Republican Government also assumed the power of assigning the Indians to "special streets, wards and locations for habitation." In addition, any Indian wishing to trade was compelled to pay a registration fee of £25.

The British Government was unhappy and refused to sanction the law as it contravened Article 14 of the London Convention of 1884, which protected the rights of British subjects. However these differences were overcome when the Republican Government agreed to substitute the word "sanitation" for "habitation" in an amendment to Law 3 of 1885 in 1887. Moreover, the Transvaal High Court upheld in 1885 the right of the Landdrost of Middelburg to refuse to an Indian firm the right to trade on an erf formerly occupied by the Indians.

Thisjudicial decision led to further negotiations between the two Governments, with the British holding that the law referred only to locations for residence and that even these should be within the municipal bound ari es. Unable to come to an agreement, the two governments submitted the issue for arbitration to the Chief Justice of the Orange Free State. In April 1895 the Arbitrator decreed in favour of the South African Republic.

In spite of these restrictions the traders continued to expand their commercial undertakings and profits. They managed to advance, firstly, because the law was not strictly enforced and secondly, as Gandhi pointed out:

"[By] carrying on negotiations in one place, by having recourse to law courts in another and by exerting what little influence they possessed in a third."

The intervention of the British Government also helped the traders. But these efforts were hampered not only by the intransigence and attitudes of the Afrikaners, but also by the racist attitudes adopted by the English speaking section of the white community.

However, the conflict between the two governments went beyond the question of the treatment of the Indians and resulted in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. The maltreatment of the Indians in the Transvaal was one of the reasons advanced by the British as a moraljustification for the war.

There was a division of opinion as to the attitude the Indians should adopt towards the war. Gandhi held that they should participate on the side of the British since it was as British subjects that they were claiming British rights and protection. Although he recognised thatjustice was on the side of the Boers, Gandhi maintained that the overriding factor was allegiance to the state, and he also argued that Indian participation would prove baseless the charge that they were "money-grubbing'' and a "dead weight upon the British". Those who opposed Gandhi pointed out that the lot of the Indians was the same in the other British ruled parts of the country. They also argue that the Indians should not be instrumental in the destruction of a small nation, and they expressed the fear that if the Boers won they "would wreak vengeance upon us." However, Gandhi carried most of the Indians with him and organised an Indian Ambulance Corps, which was reluctantly accepted by the British.

Defeat for the Boers ensured British military rule in the Transvaal. Lord Milner as British High Commissioner for South Africa was appointed Governor of Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, withjurisdiction over the conquered territories. But the British authorities were no more sympathetic to the Indians. Lord Milner thought that it was "impracticable" to place white and coloured people on an equal footing and that the "Asiatics are strangers forcing themselves on a community reluctant to accept them." By force of the Peace Preservation Ordinance and Ordinance no. 5 of 1903 they sought to restrict Indian immigration into the Transvaal and to enforce the provisions of Law 3 of 1885. At the same time an Asiatic Affairs Department was also created. According to Gandhi this department was corrupt and consequently the best efforts of the Transvaal British Indian Association (TBIA), which he founded in 1903, were directed at finding a "remedy for this disease."

Four years after the imposition of military rule, the Transvaal was granted Crown Colony status. One of its first acts was Ordinance 29 of 1906, which was to inspire Gandhi to organise his first campaign of Satyagraha.

In the Cape Colony the Indians were relatively more comfortable, but nevertheless subject to certain humiliating treatment such as refusals to grant trading licences, accommodation in hotels, or education for their children at public schools. In addition they were also subject to stringent immigration laws, regulations and tests. They possessed both the parliamentary and municipal franchises and were free to trade and own property without any restrictions.

Indian Moslems married Malay woman and thus became closer integrated with the Malay community. This and three other factors, the small Indian population, the "liberal" policies of the Cape Government and the less hostile attitude of the local papers contributed to the relatively more favourable position of the Indians in the Cape.

At the outset of Indian immigration into the Orange Free State there began a powerful agitation for the expulsion of the Indians. Responding to this demand, the Volksraad passed a law in 1891 expelling all the Indians awarding them nominal compensation. By this law no Indian could own or hold fixed property or trade in the O.F.S. With special permission he could settle as a labourer or as a waiter. For this reason the Indian population in the O.F.S. was (and still is) negligible, dropping from an estimated 108 in 1911 to 14 in 1946.

< 1. Introductory Survey | 3. Gandhi in South Africa, 1893-1914 >

< Menu page

Last updated : 31-Mar-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 31-Mar-2011