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

By 1911, the public outcry in India against the system of indentured labour had grown so strong that the exportation to Natal of indentured Indians had to be stopped. Before export was prohibited in July 1911, the Immigration Trust Board decided to invite employers to send sirdars to India so as to encourage friends and relatives to emigrate to Natal. The sirdars had a torrid time in India. The testimonies of four of them are reproduced below. They are dated 30 June 1911. Source: I.I.A/3/9, 158/1911, Natal Archives.

Sirdar Muthusamy, S. no. 610

My master told me that Natal Mason [the Protector of Indians] would give me all information and help to enable me to recruit Indians in India. I went to Mason in Durban. He told me that the Madras agents would give me all information and help to enable me to recruit Indians in Madras. When I came to Madras, the agents told me that their up-country agents or writers would render me all assistance. When I applied to these writers for any help they told me to go to recruiters for any information or help. No one after all gave me any help. Instead of help and information, Madras Collector put me in great fear. I will have to fight my own battle. After all it was God that helped me in securing about 7 Indians, I would have done better, if one Venkatachalam had not arrived in my village in the meantime from Natal. This Venkatachalam was working as a sirdar in boating company at Natal. He was drawing there 4s. a month. He returned about two months ago. He told the villagers the present agitation in Natal. He warned the villagers to take care of their children chiefly young women. He made the people believe that some sirdars are purposely come to India to take away from their kith and kin, some young women of fair complexion to get rich husbands in Natal, and thereby get some large amount. This was a talk all over.

One day the village magistrate sent for me and I went. He told me that I should be held responsible if any persons were missing in the village and that I should not speak to any woman during my stay. All this discouraged me. I resolved to abandon the idea of recruitment.

Sirdar Munusamy Naidu, S. no. 623

I am now sorry that I came to India as a sirdar. The name 'sirdar' sounds all right. It may have some weight in Natal. In India, everybody ”” young and old - did spit on sirdars. Sirdars are treated like pariah dogs - not as gentlemen. I must say on honour that some Natal sirdars behaved most shamefully in the villages. They not only brought shame on themselves but also on their good employers to some extent. At last it reflected on the whole staff of Natal sirdars. I am not a young man to stand all abuses, to receive kicks and blows from the public. I belong to a respectable family[,] I do not like to bring on my family any sort of disgrace. I knew fully well that I would be treated most disgracefully and mercilessly, if I were to go into the interior villages and interfere with strangers. My master's advice was not to speak untruth, not to exaggerate Natal and its advantages, not to force Indians to emigrate, etc. I spoke to my own people. I told them the whole truth. I secured in April last some Indians and sent them to my master. I patiently waited in my village. All the time the villagers treated me very respectably. They knew that I was one of the sirdars. They also understood that I was not influencing by false statements and pretences any Indian to emigrate. Of course, Tamil notices, printed, warning the public not to emigrate to Natal was freely distributed in my village. These notices did not interfere with my work. I must admit that these notices contained some true statements. I do not think I even induced a stranger to emigrate to Natal. When time came for my departure to Natal my people about 4 quite willingly started with me. No one in the village raised any sort of objection. I got a name for my estate and myself.

Sirdar Periya Gengadu, S. no. 615

Mr. Angus is my employer. He asked me if I could get 50 Indians to work under him. The concession given me by my employer was:

  • 1.That I will be paid a bonus (as soon as I arrive in Natal) of 2s. 6d. on every Coolie I take.
  • 2. That I will be paid a commission of one shilling per month on each of my Coolies till the expiration of their indenture.

These being very liberal concessions I left Natal with a strong determination. Many a time on board the steamer, I thought myself that I'll soon become a rich man if I only take 100 to 200 emigrants. On going to my village, I saw the present state of affairs and soon realised the position. I at once gave up all my hopes. All my thoughts and plans turned out to be a mere dream. I was really astonished to see my close relations and intimate friends holding aloof. Vernacular pamphlets announcing the arrival of one hundred Natal sirdars to take away all the villagers to an unknown country were distributed to the public. The public believed all that was stated in the pamphlets. No one cared to what I said. I did not remain in one place. I went to 5 or 6 villages in my Taluk but without effect. I had no licence. I cannot therefore publicly recruit Coolies. Rumours were afloat that some sirdars were killed. All these put me in great fear. I could not eat. I had no sleep. I cursed the day on which I left Natal. In the meantime some 15 men who were negotiating with me privately to emigrate changed their minds and absconded at Ramapuram railway station. This made the situation worse. The villagers began to suspect me. The village magistrate put a guard on me. I was more or less a state prisoner like. Seeing all these difficulties, I begged of my wife to go with me to Natal. After a deliberate consideration she agreed. She also influenced 3 Indians. I became sick on account of the worry on all sides. I do not think I weigh half as much as I weighed in Natal. If I go to Natal, I am sure I will regain my weight. I hate Indian climate. I want to go to Natal soon.

Sirdar V. Sampson, S. no. 670

I am a native Christian. I am a God-fearing man, as such I am known well in my Christian community. Almost all the villagers liked me while I was here prior to my going to Natal. Brahmins and high-caste Hindus liked me. I was under the impression that I will be received by my relations and friends as before if I were to go to Madras as a sirdar. Really I was proud when my employer nominated me as a sirdar. With this title of sirdar I thought of doing wonders in my village. I thought of superseding Markapur Lazarus, who is now in Natal as a Compounder. With this object in view, I assured my employer that I would be able to secure a large number of Indians. My employer was really glad when I told him this.

On my arrival at Madras, I was taken before the Collector of Madras. Other sirdars also followed me. He gave us some good advice which was detrimental to recruiting. On hearing this advice from a big gentleman as Collector, my heart broke down. My hopes were gone. However, without halting at any place, I directly went to my dear land, the village of Nandavanam. The villagers do not know that I came out to India as one of the sirdars to recruit Indians, so they were very kind to me during the first week. I had several invitations. I enjoyed myself well. Gradually I began the subject of my mission. This matter spread like wild fire. People began to look down on me. Some bad characters took advantage of this and began to insult me in the public streets. One day when I was explaining to some of the villagers in Kanigiri Taluk matters relating Natal a police sergeant and a constable arrested me. They took me to the Nandavanam police station and placed me in the lock-up for 12 hours; they then told me to go away, warning me at the same time that I will be arrested and punished. On the 28th May last, the same sergeant came to me and asked me to produce my licence. I told him very submissively that I have no licence. He again took me to the same police station and kept me in the lock-up for 24 hours. During this time at the police station, some people demanded a bribe. I told them that I had not got a farthing. They let me out with the same warning. Under these circumstances, I thought that my stay in India would be of no good at all. I asked my wife to go with me to Natal. First she refused. Gradually by kind words I got round her and she came my way. Through her I got her sister and two more Indians to emigrate. I told my wife and her above relations that we are going to a place called Natal, which is a paradise.