From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai

By far the largest number of Indians (152 184 in all by 1911) who came to South Africa were indentured. Among the many problems that faced them, and apparently the most serious and persistent of all, was suicide. The Indian Opinion of 4 June 1904 called for a commission of inquiry into the matter, but none was ever appointed. There are hundreds of medical and employer reports in the Indian Immigration records in the Natal Archives on individual cases of suicide. Below are reproduced (a) a medical report by Richmond R. Alien on one Ramaiya, (b) report by the employer, Mr. A. C. McEwan, and (c) general comments by Indian Opinion on suicide and other matters. Sources: I.I./1/21, 119511884, Natal Archives; and Indian Opinion, 4 June 1904.

(a)  On the morning of 2 Sept. 1884, Mr. McEwan called upon me to say a Coolie of his was dead. At 10.15 a.m, I visited Mr. McEwan's place (Town Hill). I found the door of the hut which the Indian occupied closed and fastened on the inside. Through a fissure in the wooden partition wall, the corpse could be seen suspended from the roof inside. I broke open the door and found the deceased hanging from a beam by a rope in the centre of the room quite dead. His back was turned to the door; he was dressed, coat and trousers.

The left leg was slightly flexed and toes touching the ground. The right leg was extended, abducted, and in advance of the other, with about the anterior third of the foot resting against the floor.             

There was no evidence of a struggle having taken place, and everything appeared in order about the room. His arms were extended, and parallel to the trunk. His fingers were slightly flexed over the thumb of each hand. He had evidently made more than one attempt to destroy himself because his pugaree [headgear] had been twisted like a rope and broken, one half on the floor and the other knotted to the beam above. The rope which he hung himself with, did not correspond to any other which I could find about the place. The noose was artistically made, and placed round the neck with anatomical precision, the knot of the noose pressing against the [garotted] artery and jugular vein on right side so as to completely arrest the circulation of blood to and from the brain, thus causing death by apoplexy.

Appearance of body: A fairly well-nourished man of about 35 years of age, muscles moderately developed, dead from 7 to 10 hours, rigor mortis set in, tongue swollen and between teeth, lips open, teeth separated, face and head dark and swollen from venous engorgement, no marks of violence externally save that made around neck from rope. Eyelids open, pupils dilated especially on right side.

History of case: The deceased had always been peculiar. He had a peculiar restless and uneasy eye which invariably indicates some cerebral trouble. I however attributed these symptoms to dakkha smoking, a habit to which believe he was addicted. He was a man of ungovernable temper, and used to burst out in periodical fits of passion. In the interval he was melancholy and snappish, but a good workman. His wife died 12 months ago, and he has since lived alone. The other Coolies have always been afraid of him. He had his head shaved on Sunday, a significant act. He appears to have had a fixed delusion from 1 o'clock on Monday, when he stated he was sick, and that some Kaffirs wanted to murder him, and he would not leave his hut. He remained there until 7 p.m., when he entered the kitchen complaining that the Kaffirs were still after him and that he was very thirsty. He was given a cup of coffee which he drank and returned to his hut, saying he felt better. He was not seen alive afterwards.

Neither his employer nor I have any reason to suspect foul play, on the contrary, the absence of a struggle, the door being fastened with a button on the inside, the appearance of the corpse, and the history of mental aberration all prove that it is a case of felo de se.

I have therefore certified that the Indian Ramaiya no. 22128 committed suicide on 3 Sept. 1884 by hanging himself.

(b)  I herewith enclose notice of death of an Indian Ramaiya no. 22128 who committed suicide on the evening of 1 Sept. or early the morning of 2 Sept. He had been addicted to drinking, but he had got over that, but he showed unmistakable signs of insanity for a few weeks before he made away with himself. On a separate sheet I hand you a list of his effects, and shall be glad to know what I am to do with them, whether offer them to the other Coolies in my employment or get them sold by them.

(c) We have received from the Protector of Indian Immigrants a copy of his annual report for the year ended 31st December 1903. The indentured Indian population of the Colony, including the descendants of such Indians, at the end of the year, was 81,390 as against 31,712 in the year 1896, and 78,004 the year 1902. The birth rate for the past year was 32,11, and the deaths 20.78. The lowest death rate was in the year 1898, namely, 14.30, and curiously enough, the same year shows the lowest birth rate, namely, 19.09. Plague claimed 52 victims during the year under review; pneumonia and other lung complaints 328 and phthisis 262. These figures are rather disquieting and require careful investigation. As has been remarked in the report, in the coalmines the death rate among the Indians has been rather high. Of 40 deaths occurring among the small number of Indians within the mining circle, 16 died from phthisis and 8 from pneumonia, and it is to be hoped that the Protector will not rest content until the mortality has been considerably reduced. 1,053 marriages were registered at the Protector's office last year of which 2 were polygamous. The savings of the 2,029 Indians who returned to India last year amounted, in cash and jewellery, to £34,690, that is to say, a little over £17 per head. Herein there is a conclusive argument against the notion often put forth that the Indians could very well return to India and live on their earning for the rest of their lives without having to do anything, or could utilise the savings otherwise so as to enable them to earn a decent living. Now, even in a poverty-stricken place like India, it could not seriously be contended that £17 could go a great length in supporting a man. Of the 2,029 returned Indians, 1,542 were Madrasees and 487 Calcutta men. The savings of the Madrasees amounted to £27,417 — that is, £18 per head — and those of the Calcutta men amounted to £7,273 — that is, £15 per head. There is an interesting classification given by the Protector of the savings of the immigrants. 47 Madrasees had above 2,000 rupees each as against 5 Calcutta men. 25 Madrasees had fewer than 2,000 as against 6 Calcutta men. 22 Madrasees had fewer than 50 rupees as against 11 Calcutta men. And so, throughout, the Calcutta man has come out extremely badly. It shows that he is not so industrious or so thrifty as the Madrasee, and it would be well if our Calcutta friends would take note of this important fact, and those who have influence inculcate among them the necessity for greater prudence. Of the 81,390 Indians, 30,131 were under indenture; the balance had become free. Under the heading 'Employer and Employees', we are told that the relations, generally speaking, between employer and indentured Indians have been good, and as consequences the Indians are well treated.

New rules have been framed with reference to the Indians who may be desirous of going to the Protector for making complaints; whereas, formerly, the Indian was free from arrest if he could show that he was proceeding to the Protector for the sake of laying a complaint before him, under the new rules, he would not be free unless he possessed a pass to that effect from the magistrate of his division, which may or may not be granted. Thus, really speaking, he has to establish a prima facie case before the magistrate in order to enable him to proceed to the Protector's office. We cannot help remarking that this is an innovation which was hardly necessary. It would have been far better if the freedom of the Indian had been unrestricted with reference to any complaints he might have to make. No doubt there would be a few frivolous complaints, but we think it is better to overlook them than that those who have bona-fide complaints should have any difficulties placed in their way.

The demand for Indian labour seems to be increasing at an alarming rate. There were, at the end of the year, 15,033 applications undealt with. The Agent in India is utterly unable to cope with this extraordinary demand. It shows that the Colony simply cannot do without indentured Indian labour, and yet we hear men crying out against it, and arguing that the Colony has been ruined by indentured Indian labour.

The following is what the Protector has to say on the suicides:

Suicides, who are not included in these figures, during the year numbered 31. Of these, 20 were indentured men, and 3 women, while 6 men and 1 woman and 1 boy were free Indians. A magisterial enquiry is made into the circumstances attending each case of suicide, and whenever the evidence tends to show that the fatality in any way resulted from ill-treatment received from an employer or employee, I make a personal visit to the estate and enquire myself into the circumstances. In one instance and one only, did the evidence tend in this direction, but my own enquiry did not confirm this suspicion, which was created by the ship-mates of the deceased, who was a shop assistant in India and kept the books of the proprietor, and it appeared to me that he really committed suicide because the work of a sugar estate was not congenial to him. One woman, married to a well-to-do man who had finished his first term of indenture and was well treated, committed suicide because she regretted her union to a man of lower caste after nine months. One man was deserted by his wife. Another attempted to kill his wife and thinking he had done so, hanged himself. Why a free Indian boy of nine years of age tending cattle belonging to his father's Indian employer, should kill himself is a mystery yet to be explained. Generally speaking, witnesses can give no reason for the suicide, and if those who are supposed to know decline to give any information, it is impossible in many cases to arrive at even a probable cause.

We have given the remarks of the Protector on this painful subject in full and we cannot help expressing our surprise that it has been dismissed heartedly. Suicides among the indentured Indians have become a feature year after year, and we think that the cause ought to be probed to the bottom. And it is hardly an answer coming from the Protector of Indians that he cannot arrive at even a probable cause if those who are supposed to know decline to give any information. There is a homely English proverb, ‘Where there's a will there’s way', and if the Protector would only feel as we feel, having the powers of an autocrat, he should have not the slightest difficulty in tracing the cause. There is enough in the Protector's statement to show that there must be something wrong. Out of the free Indian population of 51,259 there were 8 suicides. Out of 30,131 indentured Indians, there 23. Why this great disproportion? Now, the highest rate is to be found in Paris - namely, 422 per million - and Paris is considered to be most notorious in respect. But the rate among the indentured Indians comes to 741 per million. These figures are sufficient to give cause for very serious reflection. We think that the information given in the report on the subject is exceedingly meagre. There should be a statement showing which estate shows the highest number, and there should be a summary at least as to the nature of evidence given, etc., at the magisterial enquiries. We do not wish to draw any conclusions against the employers from these staggering figures, but we do plead for a thorough enquiry, alike in the interests of the Indians as of the employs, and we consider that nothing short of an impartial commission to investigate would meet the ends of justice. And an ideal commission ought to include a medical gentleman of good standing, a nominee of the Immigration Board, the Protector, and, if it is not a sacrilege to make the suggestion, an Indian of standing in the Colony. Such a commission cannot but result in arriving at the truth. The greater the light thrown on the subject, the better it would be for all concerned, and we hope that the remarks we have ventured to offer will be favourably considered by the authorities.