Sunday, April 3, 2011

Indentured Labour - Gandhiji's First Peaceful War


The Oxford Dictionary defines the word ‘indentured’ as ‘that which bonds an apprentice to a master’. This word became popular in India only about 150 years back even though it has been in the Dictionary for hundreds of years. The reason is that sometime in the year 1860 the Government of South Africa under the British rule felt acute shortage of labour force to work on their fields in Natal, as locals refused to work on fields. Poverty-stricken India [also under British rule], particularly the illiterate poor were ready to oblige the South African Government. The Government of South Africa hired these labourers on a contract basis and the term ‘indentured’ became popular.

Initially Indians were recruited to work on farms, mines and estates owned by the Britishers in South Africa. Later there was a demand for labourers to work on railway lines when the Government decided to extend the railways to the interior. This demand for hiring labourers continued for a period of nearly 50 years. The first group of Indian labourers disembarked from the steamer ‘S.S. Truro’, a paddle steamer which sailed from Madras, in the British Colony of Natal in South Africa on 16th November 1860.
This small group pioneered a path that was to be followed by over 1. 5 lakh hapless workers from India over the next half a century. This was the first batch of ‘indentured labourers’ from India to work on the sugar fields in and around Durban.

The second steamer to arrive at Natal was ‘S.S.Belvedere’, this time from Calcutta. Later, thousands landed at Port Natal as and when the demand increased. Recruitment of Indian workers was not difficult sine they needed no passport as they hailed also from British India. The last steamer which carried the workers from India was
‘Umlazi 43’ which reached Natal on 21st July 1911

The journey by steamer meant a lot of hardship. The conditions on board were awful. Nearly 29 workers died aboard ‘Belvedere’ and 10 more on shore before they were assigned to a particular employer. After reaching Durban the conditions under which they had to work were most inhuman and horrible. It is only when the workers landed in South Africa they were confronted with the severity of the labour system there. Some of the workers tried to protest in vain about the inhuman treatment and some even attempted suicide to get away from the clutches of the British landlords. However as they were far away from their other friends and countrymen and were still trying to find terms to settle down and as there was no organization to channelise their protests in a sort of systematic protest, there was no option but to suffer silently.

By about 1890 coalmines and sugar factories in South Africa started expanding their activities with the necessary infrastructural facilities. This necessitated the recruitment of a better type of workers. A small group known as ‘ special servants’ arrived from Madras to work in hotels, clubs, restaurants and also as housemaids in some of the wealthy private residences. Simultaneously another group of Indians started

migrating to South Africa who were classified as ‘passenger Indians’. They were not indentured and they were free to engage themselves in any business in Natal on their own and make money. By the time Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Natal in 1893 the Indian immigrants in South Africa were divided into three groups—Indentured labourers who were hired on contract, ‘ free Indians’ who had completed indentureship and decided to stay back in Natal instead of returning to India and the ‘Passenger Indians’.

After the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, sufferings of Indians in general and the inhuman working conditions of indentured labourers drew the special attention of the Indian National Congress in India. Every session of the Congress took up this issue seriously and South Africa figured prominently in all the sessions. Year after year it was pointed out “ how we were not permitted there to travel without a pass, not allowed to walk about in the night after 9 pm , how we were cosigned to locations where refuse was dumped in Transvaal, how we were denied admission to the first and second class on Railways, how we were driven out of tram cars and pushed of from footpaths, kept out of hotels, how we were spat upon, hissed, cursed, abused and subjected to a variety of other indignities which no human being could patiently bear “[ The remarks under the quotation have been taken by the book ‘The History of Congress: written by Dr. B. Pattabhi Sitaramiah and published in1935]

Appeal by Mahatma Gandhi and other national leaders to the British Government to repeal the Immigration Act met success only when Lord Hardinge became the Viceroy of India in 1913. He was sympathetic to the Indian cause and got the Indentured Labour Act abolished. The Congress placed on record its gratitude to Lord Hardinge foe the partial settlement of the South African problems.

It is in the blood of Indians not to forget their religion wherever they go. Sant Tulasidas wrote the ‘Sriramacharithamanasa’ in which he has imprinted his magnificent devotion to Lord Sri Rama as well as his views on the ethical, moral , political, social and other aspects of life. The work projects the message of Ramabhaktas and ideals of Ramarajya to the world through the forceful medium of Avadhi. 300 years ago following the composition of Sriramacharitamanasa, the indentured labourers from United Province and Bihar carried their copies of the book wherever they went when they migrated between 1860 and 1911. This has influenced the lives of those Hindi speaking labourers so much that even today the present third or forth generation progeny who continue to live in South Africa recite part of the hymns or at least recite the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’


Fw: ARTICLE NO. 542--Indentured Labourers.
Created: Friday, December 4, 2009 8:31 PM


At May 13, 2016 at 12:13 AM , Blogger KM said...

Why did Labourers in South Africa refused work in fields ?


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