Indenture: A new system of slavery?

An Indian family in Natal circa 1888. Images source: The Collections Library of the South African Parliament.

Was the system of indentured Indian labour "a new system of slavery"?as Hugh Tinker entitles his book? The answer would depend on how the reader defines the word "slavery." In ancient times, for example, under the Romans, a people defeated in war were usually taken over by the conquerors as slaves. The men were imprisoned and assigned to hard labour, where most of them died, while the conquerors absorbed the female population. In more recent times, one tends to think of slavery in terms of the capture of people from West Africa who were taken by slave-traders to America or elsewhere. These slaves were tied, chained or even yoked to wooden poles and taken against their will to boats where they were herded together like cattle and then transported across the sea. Many never reached the end of the journey where the survivors were auctioned to the highest bidder, and subsequently subjected to the most inhuman treatment, there being no laws to protect them. If the slave married a slave woman, his children were also subject to slavery. Slaves had no rights whatever, and were subjected to merciless punishments and worst of all, could never obtain freedom for himself or for his children unless "set free" by his master.

Both of these descriptions are not applicable to the indentured Indian because he voluntarily contracted his labour for a specific period, and under specific conditions, for example, salary, accommodation, rations and free travel to and from India to the country where the worker was assigned to go.

By Law 14 of 1859 (in addition to subsequent legislation) the British Government introduced labour regulations for employers of Indian labour as well as for employees. While legislation was essentially designed to protect the Indian immigrant, the execution of the law was not always strictly enforced and in the case of Natal, there were employers who defied the law and subjected their employees to a type of Lynch?s law. The Revd W. Pearson who was sent by the Government of India to Natal in 1914 to act as an "observer," was a more impartial critic, but even he commented that "the laws afford him (the indentured Indian ), no adequate protection, either in principle or in practice."

Fortunately there emerged one journalist, Henry Polak, who was determined to expose the evils of the system of indenture. In 1903, Polak was a journalist working for the Transvaal Critic. He became friendly with Gandhi and, in 1904, became one of the founders of the Phoenix Settlement and subsequently reporter and editor of Indian Opinion. In 1906 he was articled under Gandhi and in 1908 qualified as an attorney in the Transvaal Supreme Court. In 1907 he went to India to enlist the support of the Indian Government and on his second visit in 1909, enlisted the support of Mr Gokhale to bring to a conclusion the system of indenture. Polak became an outspoken critic of the treatment of British Indians in South Africa and in a book entitled The Indians in South Africa, Helots Within the Empire and How They are Treated, he exposed the horrors and inhumanity of the system of indenture prior to 1909. Many of the court cases he attended were reported in the press and subsequently, recorded in his book. Unfortunately much of his evidence cannot be substantiated without very detailed search in the archives. On occasions, there are a few incorrect historical details about South Africa in his narratives. As he was one of the few journalists to denounce the system of indenture, his work provides us with a dynamic account of the miseries of the indentured Indian in Natal and, as such, demands our attention:

Discriminatory Attitude

The first aspect which grieved Polak was the discriminatory attitude held by Whites towards Indians. ?Sammy," a common method of addressing an Indian of the labouring classes (said to be an abbreviation of Ramasamy" and similar names), remained very much the second class citizen when it came to travelling on the railway and the tram-cars. He was not permitted to walk on the footpaths (pavement) and the petty arrogance of the lower White officials caused him much irritation, humiliation and bitterness. Hotels did not offer any accommodation for Indians, despite the fact that Indians were rate payers of Durban; they were prohibited from using the municipal baths and the children's paddling pool on the beach.

Recruitment

Polak regarded "famine and want" as the best recruiting agencies. Further, the "ignorant labourer, in penury and starvation" is led to believe before migrating about the "El Dorado tales of South Africa." What does he understand of the contract? What does he know of the laws and social conditions of Natal?

A point on which both Polak and Pearson appear to have been in agreement was the fact that when the labourer was engaged in India, he had no knowledge of the type of work he would do in Natal or who his future employer would be. Certainly after 1895 very few were aware of the £3 annual tax.

Poor Social Conditions

In Natal not only did he encounter new, but poor social conditions of life. These were coupled with the worst aspects of the employment of labour, such as:

. . . "over-long hours of toil, the most arduous drudgery, ill-use, climactic differences, insufficient food supply, temptations to immorality, petty fines and punishments."

The "Coolie marries" were prostitutes and immorality prevailed, partly on account of the non-acceptance of Indian religious marriages and partly through an absence of any social, religious or educational upliftment.

Temporary Slavery

Polak regarded the system as one of "temporary slavery" and totally abhorrent. In fact, the contemptuous attitude of Whites towards Indians could be compared to the Southern States of the USA where the employer treated his servant as,

... "a mere chattel, a machine, a commercial asset to be worked to its fullest capacity, regardless of the human element, careless of the play of human passions. The system lends itself to heartlessness and cruelty, if not on the part of the employers, then on that of his sirdars and overseers."

In his opinion the employers were probably unaware of the hardships they were inflicting on their subordinates, particularly the petty tyrannies, the dehumanising tendencies, the petty prosecutions, the constant injustices and the appalling cruelty which merely contributed to a high rate of suicides. Any breach of contract was regarded as a criminal offence and not a civil matter. In any case, in labour disputes the advantage always lay with the employer. The comparison between the labourer and beast is interesting:

"The Indian labourer is often regarded by his employer as of less account than a good beast, for the latter costs money to replace, whereas the former is a cheap commodity."

Law 25 of 1891 made conditions increasingly difficult for the labourer. Section 25 stated clearly that he could be employed on a Sunday morning up to 8 a.m. "for the care and feeding of animals." However, the law was ambiguous and gave an unscrupulous employer an unfair opportunity to obtain additional labour from his employees. According to Section 26 the employer could be fined up to £2 for failing to observe the clause "up to 8 a.m." On the other hand, if the employee failed to work as requested after 8 a.m., he could be subjected to a fine not exceeding £1.

Section 36 could impose a fine of £5 (half a year's wages) or thirty days imprisonment for "gross insolence, fraud or damage to employer's property." Section 40 stated that the indentured Indian could be transferred to another Estate (subject to the approval of the Protector), a fact which Pearson considered to be "perilously near slavery.? These and many other regulations, provide proof that during the last 25 years of indenture, the labourer had "no adequate protection," and in any case, it became so complicated and tangled in legal jargon, that in most cases, the Law was beyond the reasoning capabilities of an illiterate peasant.

Statistics from the Annual Reports of the Protector for the years 1903 to 1908 reveal that the employers' complaints against their labourers far exceeded the complaints by labourers against employers. Thus, according to Polak, in the first category we find: 5769 labourers were absent without leave or without passes, of these 46 cases were discharged, while 17 were withdrawn; 7767 were absent from roll-call and accused of disobedience, of these 472 cases were discharged while 362 were withdrawn; 1600 labourers left their Estate "in a body;" 135 labourers assaulted their employers; 36 cases were discharged and 362 were withdrawn, making a final total of 15,611 complaints. As to the complaints by immigrants: 120 lodged complaints against their employers, of which 37 cases were discharged while 42 were withdrawn; 85 managers and sirdars were accused of assault, of which 26 cases were discharged while 42 were withdrawn; finally, 14 employers failed to provide medical attention, 3 cases were discharged and 17 withdrawn, making a final total of 374 complaints.

The reason that the employees' complaints appear so low becomes obvious when the laws relating to "lodging a complaint" are examined.

Lodging a Complaint

According to Section 30, Law 25 of 1891, if a labourer was found to be more than two miles from the place of residence of the employer, without written leave and was on his way to lodge a complaint with the Protector, he could be apprehended and arrested by a policeman or any other higher official. Under Section 31 he could be arrested as a "deserter," unless he could produce a "Pass" or his "Certificate of Discharge." In this instance he could be taken to the Magistrate and fined 10 shillings or serve punishment with hard labour for seven days. For his second offence, he would be punished and serve 14 days, while for a third offence, he would have to serve 30 days. Expenses for his return to his employer would be deducted from the labourer's wages.

If the labourer managed to evade the police and succeed in reaching the Magistrate's offices, he had to convince the Magistrate that his complaint was not "frivolous." If the Magistrate was not satisfied and refused to grant him a pass to proceed to the Protector, the labourer would be fined (and/or punished) and returned to his employer. It must be added that all the days the labourer spent in gaol were ultimately added to his working term before his contract could expire.

If the labourer proceeded directly to the Protector's office, then according to Law 25 of 1891, subsequently amended by Act 17 of 1895, Act 1 of 1900 and Acts 39 and 42 of 1905, and did not have a valid "Pass" to visit the Protector, then the Protector could send him back (under escort) to the Magistrate, where he could be fined (punished) and still be returned to his employer and have to pay all expenses including that of the escort.*

If the Protector accepted the labourer's disposition (for example in a case when his employer had brutally assaulted him), then the labourer "shall be returned to the employer before the complaint is investigated." If there was some irregularity and the Protector was not satisfied, then he could hand the labourer over to the Magistrate, where he could be committed to gaol, fined or punished and returned to the employer.

If the labourer refused to return to his employer, he could be sent by the Protector to the magistrate who would impose the previous punishments.

In cases such as these, Polak regarded the Protector of Indian Immigrants, no longer as his "Protector, but as prosecutor as well as persecutor," and remarks that the Protector becomes the legal advisor of the employer, whilst the poor labourer remains unaided and unrepresented:

"In most cases therefore, if the labourer desired to lodge a complaint against ill-treatment to the Protector and attempted to obtain compensation and redress," he invariably found himself imprisoned and punished "for having dared to seek justice without first obtaining permission."

Polak's condemnation of this system is expressed in very forthright terms:

"This is the most scandalous provision extant on the British Statute-book anywhere. What if these unfortunate wretches have to ask permission to go to the Protector's from the very man they propose to complain against? Is he at all likely to grant it? Indeed, if not, are they to endure on in patience? This section alone is enough to damn the whole Act."

Section 101 of Law 25 of 1891closed the possibilities of a large number of labourers who absented themselves without leave, to complain to the Protector, in which case "they may be brought before any Court and on conviction be punished and fined £2 or imprisonment for two months irrespective of the nature of the complaint."

Polak's conclusions about the Protector and the Magistrate are realistic. He says, "The Protector should be independent," but states that this official very often "becomes the guest of the employer on his tours." As to the Magistrate, he is "born and bred in an atmosphere of semi-slavery and tainted with the Colonial prejudice against and contempt for the Indian labourer." Quite possibly, the Magistrate was a friend of the employer and more likely, even an employer himself.  Under these circumstances, "What chance of redress has the complainant?" Further, under these circumstances, would suicide not be the only solution for the unfortunate victim?

By the time the twentieth century came, absconding or desertion, from work had become a major offence and stricter laws were imposed to stop this malpractice. However, as Polak indicates, the law was now so strictly applied that it was almost impossible for the labourer to make a complaint without first being punished for daring to make the complaint)

Despite the fact that Mr Pearson had only been in the Colony for a short period, he diagnosed the malady immediately:

"He (the Protector) makes the assumption, which so many prejudiced Europeans make, that any complaints or evidence put forward by Indians is not to be trusted. He seems to interpret the principles of British justice in a way that assumes all the Indians to be guilty until they are proved to be innocent and all employers of Indians innocent until they are proved to be guilty. And the burden of proof he leaves to the illiterate Coolie whose very language he is unable to understand.?

If we compare reactions by previous Protectors, then it becomes obvious that by 1914 there was complete indifference on the part of the Protector to protect the weak and seek justice. By this time too, as a result of the Government's desire to economise, the Reports of the Protector were no longer published.

Prosecution

Under the existing circumstances, it was a near impossible feat for an employee during the early 1900s to institute civil (sometimes criminal) action against his employer. Fortunately instances did occur where the employers were punished and Polak lists about 20 such cases, with detailed summaries. In all instances, Polak was disappointed at the lenient punishments meted out to the offenders and he comments,

'The penalty is usually quite disproportionate to the offence, whether European or Indian be the accused. But too often it appears that there is one law for the European employer and another for the Indian."

Polak singles out the family of T.B. Robinson of Cato Manor as being of "evil repute" because Robinson senior, his wife, and Robinson junior, were all convicted of offences of ill-treatment against their employees. In the case of Ragavalu (No. 105 396), he had already lost his left hand and had been to the Protector seven times to complain and was eventually rebuked and punished for attempting to commit suicide. Three servants of Sydney Robinson had just served a gaol sentence for refusing to return to work. When they came out, they still refused to return and an infuriated Master Sydney attacked them with a sjambok. The "sympathetic" Magistrate cautioned and discharged Master Sydney, advised the Indians to return to work and commented that, "he knew how aggravating and tantalising they (the Indians) could be!"

In the case of Altsch versus Ginganna, the employer had set his dog upon the labourer. The evidence was clear and Altsch was fined thirty shillings. The Magistrate, commenting on the frequency with which Indians complained against ill-treatment by their masters, said, "This sort of thing must be stopped."

In another case, the Magistrate commented that "if these indentured men had not the protection of the law, their life would not be worth living." This indeed was the case in the so-called Thornville Junction Case, where Messrs Leask, Senior and Junior, were accused of punishing their servants by various means of torture, which included "being cooped up in a box 6 feet by 1 1/2 feet by 1 foot for varying periods" (from one to eight days) without food. Here it was said that the "Coolies live in mortal fear of their masters." The Leasks were subsequently deprived of their labour by the Protector.

In the case of Noyle of Ramsay Collieries, Ladysmith, Devi Singh was so severely assaulted that the Deputy Protector immediately ordered him to hospital. The Magistrate however took a "mild view" and fined the assailant £2-10.

Perhaps one of the most callous instances of inhumanity was when Armitage in a premeditated attack cut off the lobe of the right ear of his servant and thereafter proceeded to dress it. In sentencing Armitage to a £20 fine, the Magistrate remarked.

. . . "As the Government allowed the cutting of sheep's ears, he (the individual) could not do the same to human being who was placed under his care and protection," and regarded him as a person not fit to have Indians in his charge. Mr Armitage stated that he regarded all indentured Indians as "no better than sheep."  As to the people of "evil repute," Polak remarked,

"The Robinsons could not even find it in their hearts to treat their servants as they would expect good cattle. What hope of justice can an indentured Indian expect from such a Magistrate."

A tragic family case was that of Ramasamy and Poli who "lived together" (i.e. they were not lawfully married) and had two small children. For some trivial offence, his employer P.D. Simmons "tied him up to a nail in the wall and whipped him until the man's back was one mass of raw and quivering flesh.?   That night Ramasamy fled with his family. He reported the incident to the Magistrate, who ordered him to return to his employer, whereupon he went to the Protector, who also ordered him to return to his employer. In the meantime Simmons had reported his servant's desertion and Ramasamy and his family were arrested at the Protector's office. Ramasamy was returned to his employer, but nothing was ever heard again of Poli. Ramasamy could not claim his wife as according to Section 71 of Act 25 of 1891, they were not legally married. This particular case was raised in the House of Commons. Simmons was fined 10 shillings, but the case also aroused deep interest among the Natal press, officials and Colonists.

Another tragic family case was that of Mudaly (No. 116821) and his wife Odda Nagi (No. 116838), who although they were employed as domestic servants, received the rates of pay as for field labourers. His working hours were from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. with two half hour breaks, while hers were from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The elder child was 2 1/2 years old, and all day was tied to a peg in the parent's hut for safety, until the day's work was over. When a second child was born, and a week old, the employer refused to allow the mother to bring the child to work. Fearing the child would starve, the mother gave the child away to foster-parents; the child died of neglect. Complaints to the Protector were of no avail.

According to the terms of indenture, the law prohibited the separation of man and wife and their children. Further, there was no provision for the prevention of separation after allotment. On a particular Estate, Muthialu, the sirdar, paid unusual attention to Valiamma, the lawful wife of Padiachy. When the latter complained about this to his employer, he was thrashed and transferred to another estate, but without his wife. The employer sent Muthialu and Valiamma to the Protector to register their marriage. Three years later after the birth of children, the Protector charged Valiamma for bigamy and in November 1907 fined her £5 which Muthialu willingly paid.

Indentured labourers also had to be very careful when giving any evidence, a factor which has already been emphasised repeatedly, for fear of being accused of perjury and sentenced to imprisonment. Finally, to conclude Polak's list of cases, the author refers again to the couple of "evil repute." T.B. Robinson assaulted Rambally (No. 128349) so severely that for six months thereafter, he was unable to work and was finally shipped back to India as a cripple, leaving his wife and child unprotected. A few days after giving birth to a child, his wife was assaulted by Mrs Robinson.

Polak concludes by quoting statistics for "desertion" under Section 31 of Act 25 of 1891:

 

YearNo of desertion cases

1901

340

1902

450

1903

520

1904

600

1905

720

1906

850

1907

1100

1908

900

 

and no doubt succeeded in getting his point across to his reader, namely, the increase in assaults and ill-treatment of labourers was a prime cause of "desertion."

In surveying these examples and statistics given by Polak, the author would like to draw attention to the fact that as approximately 30,000 Indians were still under indenture; Polak's list of aggrieved and battered Indians was a relatively small one. No one will deny that ill-treatment existed, but as to how widespread the evil was cannot be estimated. Polak himself admitted that,

"It is a physical impossibility for the Protector or the estate Medical Officer to completely control abuse on the part of the employers."

The Revd Pearson agreed with the statement, but pinpointed the cause when he wrote:

. . . "So long as the laws remain as they are, no official can properly protect the indentured Indian labourer."

Medical Treatment

One factor to which the Protector objected was the composition of the later Indian Immigration Trust Board, where the employer majority was 7 to 2 and further, that the Medical Officers were also under the control of the Trust Board. By 1908 the Board was in the hands of the employers and the ideal solution would have been to put the Medical Officers under the control of the State, otherwise remarked the Protector,

. . . "It appears impossible to me that an Indian Medical Officer can do his duty conscientiously and live in peace with his employers."119

Despite the introduction of more and more "Trust" hospitals, the irregularities continued. Polak complained about deduction from the pay of a sick man, and, that when he fell ill, the family only received the rations of one man, and, in some instances, nothing. It was a disgrace to see women working in the fields with babies on their backs, while the fact that there was no employment for women during the winter months, was regarded as inhuman. Extremely sick Indians were usually sent to hospital when there was no longer any hope for recovery while employers were annoyed when cases of illness were reported to the Protector. Polak writes:

"The callousness of some employers and managers is appalling; they look upon their servants as animals and treat them rather worse than such."

Six years later the Revd Pearson commented in similar terms on the "artificial and inhuman relationship between the planter and the indentured labourers," and as he saw the situation,

"Cattle and dogs may be well housed and well fed and even kindly treated as animals, but for men and women we require something more than conditions such as are satisfactory for cattle."

Cases of assault (and consequent injury) to labourers continued to go unreported because the law operated in such a way that the truth was often suppressed and Indians came to the conclusion that they would be safer as "unwilling witnesses."

The Protector was aware that with his reduced powers, he became increasingly powerless to act in the interests of the Indian. After 1900 he complained that he could not afford complete protection to the indentured Indians particularly when they were scattered over thousands of square miles. Referring to the composition of the "Board" he remarked, "It is when the employer domineers over the Indian Medical Officers, that the Indian suffers,? and that such a Board, should in no way "influence the treatment of the indentured Indians in the Colony."  Commenting on the high death rate, he stated, "employers continue to be careless and the Indians suffer accordingly." As "father and mother" to some 30,000 Indians, he was also aware that the number of punishments for trivial offences had increased considerably, and remarked, "a little more sympathy on some estates, and better results would accrue." He even felt that the "won't work" group could be humoured rather than imprisoned.

Like all other aspects of indenture, medical rules also changed constantly. Bill No. AB 74/1909 and Act II of 1910 amended Law 25 of 1891. Henceforth, employers with up to 400 employees paid up to £30 per quarter, i.e., £120 per annum, while those with 400 or more, paid ££ per quarter, i.e., £160 per annum for medical fees to the Trust.

Child Labour

Polak's only reference to child labour was the fact that in the tea factories, young children were working eleven hours per day. However, the Revd Pearson exposed several weaknesses in the system as regards child labour. According to the Protector, although children were "not legally bound to work, in practice they are." This statement summarizes some of the ambiguous regulations that no one appeared able to interpret. The law laid down that "women were to be paid half wages and minors in proportion." Many plantation owners considered that the children were actually under indenture. This meant a boy's wage could vary from 5 to 9 shillings per month (depending on his age), with an increase of one shilling per month per annum. Thus a boy aged 10 would receive 2 pennies for nine hours work per day. Only a few Estate owners established schools and often children were forced to work, when their parents actually desired them to go to school. In this respect many of the sirdars forcefully took boys away from the schools in order to work on the Estates. The question of rations for women and children was another aspect on which clarity appeared unobtainable.

Female Labour

On some Estates the employers preferred women labour, because they "can be treated with more impunity than the men and do two-thirds as much work." Polak objected to women doing hard manual labour, such as feeding cane-rollers, cutting cane or lifting bundles of cane on to trucks. Apparently this practice existed in other Colonies, and Polak sincerely hoped that "this system of forced labour," on women would be abolished. Generally speaking, the system of indenture was basically evil where the labourers "are completely at the planter's mercy."

Regarding the planter, the system "kills whatever decent instincts he had and turns him into a cruel and remorseless slave-driver, for it is slavery and nothing else."

Repatriation

There are few accounts of indentured Indians being repatriated and still fewer accounts of the return of "wastage" (i.e. unfit workers). Fortunately, M. MacMahon, an ex-planter who sailed on the Umfuli on 26 September 1906, was able to provide an account in a Madras newspaper. The Umfuli, a vessel of 2300 tons, was packed with 653 passengers whom the writer described as "a disgrace to civilization." The passengers, men, women and children, were "huddled together, without any separation of sexes." Some of them, "were invalids and in a pitiable condition and ought never to have been allowed to leave the hospital." Many were ill with terrible diseases and "the best that was in them having been taken out of them" and quite simply, "they were packed home to die." The writer's final impression was that, "The slavery there (in Natal) under the British flag is indeed worse than the slavery under the Sultan of Zanzibar."

While the Government paid the passage back to India, prospective repatriates from up-country areas such as Newcastle, had to pay their own rail fare to Durban before they were able to join the ship for India. On this point the Protector commented,

. . . "The law is silent in this connection, but the Board's legal adviser is of the opinion that the Indians have no claim."

In other words, while the rules for emigration from India (e.g. Act XXI of 1883) were implemented, the same law contained inadequate provisions for repatriation.

The Lobito Bay Scandal

On account of deteriorating social conditions in Natal coupled with the fact that so many were unable to pay the £3 annual tax, in addition to a £1 tax per year, many were faced with unemployment, imprisonment and starvation. As a result, when advertisements appeared for the Benguella Railway project in Angola, about 2,250 Indians applied, and were shipped in March 1907. Their contract stated that after service, they would be returned to Natal, free of cost. The experience turned out to be most unfortunate, because according to the Indian Opinion, half the labourers died during the first three months in service. In addition to the non-provision of tents or any other kind of shelter, there was a desperate shortage of water. For months the workers were unable to wash and many succumbed to fever. Living conditions were filthy, there were no medical facilities, and food was scarce. As if this was not enough, when the labourers returned, 948 of them were prohibited from landing in Durban. Relatives and friends in Durban were not given permits to visit them. According to the Government, they were "not domiciled" and would be repatriated "against their will, penniless and friendless back to India without being given the opportunity to prove their domicile."

According to available evidence, the Indian Government broke its rules regarding emigration to non-British countries, because it believed that "the Coolies' interests would be safeguarded." Subsequently it warned the Government of Natal . . . "that both contracts are also open to objection in that they do not make provision for maintenance during sickness or for compensation on account of injuries received."

However, it is doubtful whether the Indian labourers were aware of their legal position as regards their return to Natal, and many, according to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1903, were now prohibited immigrants to Natal. On this episode, Polak writes:

"The Colony of Natal got rid of about 1500 of its Indian population, partly by death, partly by deportation, because the poor wretches could not pay the dead-weight of taxation that was attached to them as the price of freedom," and concludes by remarking that after this fiasco, no more British Indian labourers were assigned to areas outside of British South Africa.

Indian Petitions

In August 1908, at an unprecedented mass meeting of 400 ex-indentured Indians, the petitioners:

... "strongly urge the stoppage of indentured Indian immigration to Natal, under the present state of the law, which reduces indentured labour to a form of slavery."

They complained about the callous attitude of their employers who,

... "are content to regard the Indian labourer as a machine, from which the last ounce of work is to be ruthlessly extracted, and which may then be "scrapped" with other outworn instruments of labour," and remarked that when they were indentured, they were not acquainted with the laws of the country and with the terms of their agreement. Further,

. . . "Neither were they aware of the hardships and disabilities they would have to undergo here as indentured or free Indians."

In fact,

. . . "their position under indenture was so miserable and the necessities of life here are so dear, that your petitioners are virtually unable to save any sum in order to enable them to go back to their country after the expiry of their indenture, or to pay the £3 tax, should they choose to remain in this Colony after giving the best years of their lives under indenture.?

Owing to the vigorous enforcement of the Act, they now faced "intolerable difficulties" which, in some instances, made law-abiding citizens turn to crime. They regarded the enforcement of this iniquitous measure (the £3 tax) on women as :

"unprecedented and contrary to the principles of justice and quite repugnant to the British idea of freedom and liberty."

In one notorious case, a woman in Stanger was imprisoned and her hair shaved off because she could not pay the £3 tax. Polak reported that since that incident, the Natal Government gave instructions that no female Indian prisoner could be subjected to such treatment except on the specific instruction of the prison Medical Officer.

In September 1908, the Natal Indian Women's Association also forwarded a petition on the disastrous effects of the £3 tax on family life. The Act was responsible for breaking up homes, alienating the affection of husband and wife, and, in many instances, separating mother and child. Men who could not find employment were deserting their families and as a result many women were forced into immoral living. The complaint was that £3 was the price for freedom or constant imprisonment, and the fact that:

"There is no precedent in the legislation of any other country under the British flag where women are taxed for the privilege of living with their husbands or under the protection of their natural guardians."

The author has chosen this particular statement by Henry Polak to illustrate that on many occasions throughout his writings, one is under the impression that he has taken the credit for a fact which could be attributed to another source. In the case of the latter statement, there is remarkable similarity to the wording from the Women's Association letter, signed by Miss C.R. Sigamoney (Hon. Secretary) which reads:

"The Law is an unprecedented one in the history of the world and it is repugnant to British justice to impose a tax upon women and girls to live with their husbands or natural guardians." Unfortunately the date on the archival document is illegible.

Forced Re-indenture

Under Act 42 of 1905, Indians could gain the right of a free return passage to India, if they re-indentured for a further two-year period. As a result of the iniquities of the £3 tax, many were forced to re-indenture. For example, in 1908, out of 7 735 who had served their five-year term, 3 304 re-indentured (i.e., 43 per cent) about 50 per cent returned to India while the rest became "free." Thus we see that only a very small percentage could "afford " to pay the £3 tax.

Under the five-year plan, it was impossible for the average indentured Indian to save any money. Polak estimated that under the average five-year period, savings had declined from £1 6-7-6 in 1904 to £5-5-2 it 1907. Previously under a ten to eleven year stay, it was possible to save a considerable amount, especially during the time one was free. The Protector of Indian Emigrants in India estimated that while average annual savings in 1907 in Mauritius was about £4-18-2, and in Jamaica about £4-14-8, in Natal it was among the lowest at £1-1-2.144.

Another contributory factor was that although under Act 17 of 1895 the wages for re-indentured Indian was stipulated to be 16 to 20 shillings per month for each succeeding year of service, in reality man3 employers paid only between 10 and 14 shillings.

Discontinue Indenture

Polak questions the wisdom of a man returning to India after five years with £8 or less in his pocket. "Is it not inhuman to repatriate them after having made Natal habitable and productive?"  he asks and question further,

. . . "What is it but taking the best of our servants and then refusing them the enjoyment of their reward', Forcing them back when their best days have been spent for our benefit"?

Polak criticises Natal's immigration policy when he says that,

"Natal while closing the front door upon Asiatic immigration, opens the back door for its further artificial introduction, contrary to the wishes of the Indian community," referring to the different attitudes held in Natal towards "free-passenger" and "indentured" immigrants. In short, there was only one way to rectify the evil, and that was to stop indenture altogether.

By 1908 the possibility of a future union of the four British Colonies of Southern Africa had become reality. The other South African Colonies, alarmed at the continued increase in the numbers of indentures Indian immigrants to Natal, subtly urged Natal to discontinue the system of indentured labour. The Natal Governor, Sir Mathew Nathan, was well aware of the intricate situation. For example, when commenting on the three controversial Bills of 1908 stated that if these Bills which concerned the merchant class were passed, they would- ultimately have "an evil effect on the whole body of Indian subjects of the King," and wisely forecast a near impossible solution:

"Repatriation ... is the only solution which would be completely satisfactory to the white races in the sub -continent."

After Union it was the National Party under Dr Hertzog which relentlessly pursued this theme at the Cape Town Conference (1926-7), and at the Second Cape Town Conference (1932). Finally in 1960, exactly a hundred years after the arrival of the first Indians, the South African Government finally accepted, rather reluctantly, that the Indians were citizens of the Union of South Africa.

By the time of Union there was also popular agitation throughout Natal for the abolition of the system of indenture. The newspaper,Indian Opinion, by highlighting cases of ill-treatment, merely stirred up public opinion particularly amongst the Indians. Polak contributed much in this respect, while Albert West considered the system to be "unjustifiable and inhuman" and attacked the system in principle.  Slavery in any form, whether it was partial, temporary or indenture, remained objectionable on humanitarian grounds.  The historian, Pachai, concludes very aptly when he says:

"If the labourer was accepted in Natal with half the alacrity and affection as was his labour, the operation of the indenture system in the Colony might have conformed more closely to the ethics of human conduct."151

The reluctance on the part of the British Government to discontinue indenture must also be considered as a contributory factor because,

"It took a long time before either the Indian or the Colonial authorities would admit that most of those who returned (to India) had obtained little benefit from their exile."

Last updated : 28-Nov-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 04-Apr-2011