On 13 February 1871, the Red Riding Hood sailed from Durban with the first group of repatriated ex-indentured workers for India, arriving in Madras on 10 April with 382 passengers on board. Within three days of arrival, ten of the returnees lodged complaints at the Protector's Office about unfair conditions of employment and ill-treatment in Natal. The official who recorded the complaints hinted that the complaints could be exaggerated.
The complaints lodged in Madras and in Calcutta reached the Government of India. As a result the Coolie Commission was appointed in August 1872 to inquire into the conditions and mode of employment and complaints of returned Indian immigrants in Natal. The Commission, consisted of MH Gallwey and BP Lloyd, was appointed by one Colonel Milles, an Administrator of the Government. Their report of 67 pages, the first ever published dealing with the conditions of Indian workers in Natal, was completed in August 1872.
In brief, the basic complaints were:
- Indians were promised a bonus of £10.00 when they returned to India
- Many of the Indians returned in a state of poverty
- There were complaints of flogging and assaults on Indian workers by their "masters"
- Indian workers objected to the enforced deductions when they were absent or ill
- They were dissatisfied with their food rations, particularly the amount of mealie meal in lieu of rice
- Non-payment of wages
- The 25 shillings per month payable to those repatriating was not paid
- Poor medical services and treatment
- Working hours exceeded the stipulated nine hours per day between sunrise and sunset
Recommendations of the Coolie Commission
The Coolie Commission would not have been established had it not been for the insistence of the Indian Government. The Coolie Commission Report exposed the poor treatment of Indians in Natal. The Commission made the following recommendations:
- All employers were required to keep a wage book for free and indentured Indians
- The Coolie Agent should regularly visit and inspect estates and report on assigned Indian workers anything that may come to knowledge affecting their interests
- A permanent official, the Protector of Indian Immigrants was to be appointed. This official was to settle disputes between master and servant
- There was to be registration of al Asiatic persons, and births, deaths and marriages were to be recorded
- The number of Indian women immigrants should be increased
- The government was to provide education for Indian children
- The government was responsible for the medical services of Indian immigrants and a fund was to established to which employers were to contribute
Grants of between 8 and 10 acres of land outside Durban was to be made to ex-indentured Indians, in lieu of a return passage.