Indian Indentured Labour in Natal 1860-1911

The majority of Indian South Africans are the descendants of indentured workers brought to Natal between 1860 and 1911 to develop the sugar industry in this province. 

A complete list of Indian Indentured Labourers can be searched by: name, village, region of origin, religion, caste, names of Estates or Estate owners. Click here to make use of the ship list database.

In 1911, India prohibited the indentured labour to Natal because of the ill treatment of its citizens in the Province.

India, whose import trade on the eve of British occupation consisted of gold bullion, now exported as much in revenue to Britain. Evasion of dues on trade and the extraction of exorbitant taxes from land owners and local rulers further impoverished its people. In rural areas, British administrative laws and actions led to peasants? losing their land.

The reduction in exports of raw materials, the heavy tax burden and various other factors inflated the value of money and deflated prices and incomes. This coupled with the avarice of the British coloniser eventually contribute significantly in turning land holding peasants to rootless labourers where they eventually forced into factories and onto plantations through the world. It was against this background that Indians began contracting their labour to the world in 1834 to the plantations of the world.

The first recorded reference to Natal Colonists demand for indentured labour appears in a report in the Durban Observer, 17 October 1851 at a meeting of citizens held at the Durban Government School Hall where a motion calling for the introduction of indentured labour was passed. However, it must be noted that the first Indians, four in numbers, had been brought to Natal in 1849.

Jan van Riebeeck had as early as the 1650s brought Indians as slaves to South Africa. During the 17th and 18th centuries, over 50% of all slaves at the Cape were Indian from Bengal and South India.

Legislation related to indenture

The Natal Government had to revise its legislation prior to the introduction of Indian workers in the colony. The Law stipulated that a minimum number of women in every ship load and ships often waited for days before they could depart for Natal as it did not have the requisite 25% of its passenger quota.

The immigrants signed no contract but merely put their mark on a written statement which served to confirm that the person had agreed to serve his/her employer to whom they were to be allotted to by the Natal Government and that they understood that the wages for the first year was to be 10 shillings, 11 shillings for the second year and 12 shillings for the third year. This was in accordance with the Natal Act No.14 of 1859

The Natal Colonial Government formulated legislation before indentured labour was introduced into the Colony.  Amongst other laws, Laws 13, 14 and 15 were passed by the Natal Legislative Council which governed the system of indenture labour from India into Natal.  The laws were based on the statue of St Lucia which had been sent to Natal as a precedent

Law 13 of 1859: dealt with the arrival of immigrants into Natal.  In summary, this law stated that only licensed persons could bring immigrants into the Colony.  The Immigration Agent (later the Protector of Indian Immigration) after inspection could issue a certificate to allow a ship and its passengers to land.  Only after the issuing of a ticket of registration could such persons be employed by the Colonists. It was the Agent's task to ensure that employers had fully paid the required passage fee.  A fine of £50 could be imposed on the Master of any ship that abused or ill treated any immigrant. The provisions of Ordinance No. 2, 1850, (Masters, Servants and Apprentices Act) was applicable to employers and indentured workers. 

Law 14 of 1859: this Law consisted of 43 clauses dealing with rules and regulations governing the immigrants, conditions of service and wages, basically the contract between the master and the servant, which was binding for five years. Attached to Law 14 of 1859 were three schedules which had to be signed by the employer, employee, the Immigration Agent and the Resident Magistrate.

Law 15 of 1859: this law related to the official requisition of the employer to the Indian Agent to engage Indian labour. The planter had to agree to pay the cost of the passage money as well as other expenses.

The Coolie Consolidation Law of 1869 became Law No. 2 of 1870. This law stipulated, inter alia, that the Immigration Agent (later the Protector) ahd to keep a register of all Indian immigrants and that all employers ahd to keep a "wages book".  Employers had to provide medical care and employers had to submit monthly medical reports to the Immigration Agent. Employers also had to submit a return of hteir staff twice a year. The Coolie Agent was entitled to inspect estates twice a year and employers had to pay the sum of £3 per annum for every immigrant.

Law 12 of 1872: this Law contained amendments to law 2 of 1870. It prescribed the appointment of a Protector of Indian Immigrants, previously known as the Coolie Agent.  Coolie immigrants were to be referred to as Indian immigrants.  The state was to appoint a medical officer to attend to Indians on the estates. Estate owners were obliged to pay sixpence per month to the Natal Treasury for the medical care of Indians. The Protector of Indian Immigrants was to undertake the duties performed previously by the Coolie Agent.  Neither the Protector nor Magistrates were allowed to inflict corporal punishment on the immigrants. The Protector, as part of his duties defined in this Law, had to ensure that all Indian females living in the Colony were to be registered, register all Indian marriages, act as the Registrar of Births and Deaths and to hear civil cases.

Law 19 of 1874: Medical fees for every Indian immigrant was raised to one shilling per month

Law 20 of 1874: known as The Indian Immigration Trust Board Law which dealt with recruitment, repatriation, employment and the welfare of indentured Indians.  It was State owned undertaking

Act XXI of 1883: with the increase in the number of immigrants departing from India, it became necessary to impose strict regulations which were enacted through Act XXI of 1883. 

This Act stipulated the necessary documentation, pertaining to the conditions under which the immigrants travelled, that had to be completed and adhered to. It made provision for just about every aspect of emigration of Indian citizens, for the depots and the voyage itself.
There were strict rules governing relations between officers and crew of the vessel and women passengers as well as rules governing the conduct of the crew.  Passengers were not to be subject to corporal punishment.

The Act stipulated that additional clothing be provided for emigrants, men and women, travelling to Natal and clearly listed these items.  Children were to receive only a single blanket.  Passengers were provided with a bag to carry additional clothing.  Eating utensils, a tin mug and tin plate were issued, whilst children were issued with smaller drinking cups. Whether the ships captains adhered to these rules or to what extent can only be surmised, though careful records were to have been maintained.

Last updated : 10-Nov-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011