Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Harry Escombe became one of the most prominent White politicians in the Colony of Natal. Initially he pursued a policy of moderation towards the Indians. Escombe was in favour of the Wragg Commission being appointed to investigate Indian immigration laws, yet six years later he became one of the strongest opponents of Indian immigration into the Colony of Natal. Bills were introduced into the Natal Legislative Assembly with the intention of curbing Indian immigration. The Indian Immigration Trust Board Amendment Bill, with the object of discontinuing the annual grant of £10 000 for the transportation of Indian immigrants, was introduced to prevent public money being spent in this way. Escombe was of the opinion that the planters should import labour at their own expense. However, the planters rejected his proposal in the Assembly.
Anti-Indian feelings became stronger with every passing year, e.g., Escombe said, This country (Natal) was meant for Europeans and was never intended to be an Asiatic Colony.
As part of the anti-Indian campaign, laws were passed to this effect. The first law was Act 25 of 1891. Act 25 of 1894 followed by Act 8 of 1896 disenfranchised about 251 Asiatics of the vote.
In 1893, the Colony of Natal sent a deputation consisting of L. Mason and H.Binns to India to negotiate a new agreement for the conditions of indenture to Natal. As a result Act 17 of 1895, the Indian Immigration Law Amendment Bill, was promulgated on 18 August 1896 which decreed that:
After a five year period of indenture, the Indian had to return to India. Alternately, they had to re-indenture. However desperate poverty made most of them accept 10 shillings per month, the maximum salary being 20 shillings per month.
Should the Indian desire to remain in the Colony of Natal, a penalty of £3 tax per annum had to be paid, in addition to an annual £1 tax for males. This tax became operative around 1902.
The residential tax of £3 per annum proved to be extremely unpopular with the ex-indentured workers. It imposed an unfair burden on Indians, who in the majority of cases were too poor to pay it. The Government of India was alarmed at this legislation and the two governments hotly debated this subject. In 1903, the tax was extended to girls aged 13 and boys aged 16. As a result by 1911, thousands of people were in debt and an explosive situation was created with Gandhi intervening, resulting in the tax being withdrawn.
Between 15 October 1896 and 4 January 1897, the SS Courland and the SS Naderi brought an additional 500 to 600 free passenger Indians. A hue and cry followed. Public meetings were held and various telegrams were sent to the Colonial Secretary to prevent the lading of any more free Indians in the Colony and that those who had just arrived should be sent back to India. Around 8 January, a 5 000 strong crowd held a noisy demonstration at the Point in Durban.
At the next session of Parliament, Escombe piloted the Immigration Restriction Bill, Act 1 of 1897. The purpose of the Bill was to stop the "threatened evil" or menace of an Asiatic invasion of Natal. The protestors demanded that the matter be raised at a special session of Parliament. Escombe argued that, "We claim the right as British citizens, to say, This Colony is not open to you." The aim was to restrict the growth of the Indian population in Natal, especially that of the merchant class. In the same year, the Dealer's Licences Amendment Bill (No. 18 of 1897) also became law and added to the plight of merchant class Indians.
In 1903, the government of Natal sent a second delegation comprised of HE Shepstone and CB de Gersigny to India to discuss subsequent immigration to the Colony which included formulating new and revised conditions of service for new intending Indian immigrants. Prior to their departure, FR Moor, the acting Prime Minister of Natal stated that the object of their mission was to secure an increased recruitment of 15 000 Indian labourers for Natal. Demand for Indian labour had increased considerably since they were now employed outside the sugar industry.
Basically, the Whites in Natal held three grievances against further Indian arrivals:
The first was the steady rise in Indian population. By 1901, it was estimated that the Indian population of Natal was 81 965
The second issue was that with the ex-indentured Indian, repatriation was very unpopular. In the period 1896 to 1901, only 8% returned to India
The third grievance was the failure of the £3 tax to increase repatriation coupled with a substantial increase in re-indenture
In the eyes of the Natal Colonists, the 1895 laws proved a failure because they attempted to encourage repatriation and increase re-indenture but reduce the number of Indian settlers
The grievances of the Natal Indian Trust Board were:
The antagonism of the Labour Party, which was strenuously opposed to any increase in the free Indian population and would not hesitate to prohibit immigration altogether.