1860 Indentured Labourers
Celebrating 160 Years
Working from sunrise to sunset on the sugarcane plantations.
Working inside a mill during the crushing season was hard work.
Working the fields led to abusive relationship where employers treated labourers as chattel
Young Girls employed on the tea estates in Kearsney
A scar called INDENTURE: Equeefa Estate on KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast.
Commemorating 160 year since the first indentured labourers arrived in South Africa in 1860. 27 August 2020. #iamparaiyar series by Selvan Naidoo
In 1858, Umzinto became the first place in Natal to employ oriental labourers when a group of Malays and Chinese people arrived to work on the Reynolds Brothers sugar estate. Two years later in November of 1860, thirty indentured Indians were assigned to the Umzinto Sugar Company.
The Reynolds Brothers owned the Equeefa Estate in Umzinto, employing a considerable number of indentured labourers to work on their sugarcane plantations. Over a period of almost 25 years, reports of assaults, desertions, deaths and suicides emanated from the Reynolds sugar estates in the Umzinto district. Between 1st July 1892 and 30th June 1893, the Protector of Indian Immigrants, Louis Mason, noted that eight Indians had committed suicide on Reynolds Bros estates. The rate of recorded suicides amongst indentured Indians was highest at their estate.
In 1881, The Mercury highlighted the poor accommodation of indentured labourers on sugar estates, reporting the death of two Indian children when a hut caught fire on the Equeefa Estate. "The wonder is that as there are so many coolie houses burnt down being made of such combustible material…" The 1906 Reynolds Inquiry found that barracks on the Reynolds estates were improperly built. There was no lining of the corrugated iron sheeting. As a result there was no protection from heat or cold. Latrine facilities were crude or non-existent.
Throughout the period of indenture, as official reports and commissions observed, the housing provided by employers was appalling. Generally that accommodation comprised of wattle and daub hovels partitioned into small rooms. Cooking, washing and sanitation facilities were non-existent.
The extracted report shown below further highlights the atrocious living conditions at the Equeefa estate:
The Indian Immigrant Commission 1885-7. The Wragg Report.
1. In March 1884, the Medical Officer of the Umzinto circle forwarded to the Indian Immigration Trust Board his report for the year 1883.
Therein were the words. “Many evils exist on the Equeefa Estate which are prejudicial to the health of Indians, but which I have failed to get altered.” He specified two of the evils thus:
a. “ The sanitary condition of the estate is bad, due to the refuse of the mill being run into a large reservoir which, when acted upon by the sun, ferments and gives forth noxious gases injurious to human health.”
b.” The water supply, to part of the estate at least seems bad. There are between twenty and thirty Indians suffering with “ Bilharzia, Haematobia.” Which I believe to bad drinking water.”
Years later the abuse of Reynolds Brothers employers saw no end. The callousness of the Reynolds is further reinforced by a painfully heart wrenching record of one employer named Parasuramen, Colonial Number 135558. “Parasuramen arrived to Natal in 1907 with his parents as an infant of five months, accompanied by five-year-old sister. His father was indentured to the Reynolds Estate, where his family lived in the barracks near the Old Esperanza Mill.
Parasuramen like his father was also indentured to the Reynolds estate, working for them for 53 years, retiring in 1972. Soon after he retired, Parasuramen’s wife had passed away from cancer in 1972.”
“When Parasuramen retired, he received a lump sum benefit of R106.00 from the company. According to the company, they had no record of the 53 years of service and proceeded to pay him a sum of R2.00 for every year of service. In addition to this sum of money, he was allowed to stay on in the ‘free’ company house.” Except for his old age pension, Parasuramen had no other income and died penniless struggling to eke out a comfortable existence.
This year as we commemorate 160 years of indenture, the psychological impact of indenture must be told and retold to a wider South African audience to better understand our collective history. The financial and economic success of Reynolds Brothers (now Ilovo Sugar) and other sugar barons in the growth of the sugar industry of KwaZulu-Natal came at the horrific abuse of our forebears. The psychological traumas from indenture through to the retirement benefit exploitation of our parents and grandparents in later years have yet to be atoned for, or even acknowledged.
Selvan Naidoo is the Curator of the 1860 Heritage Centre.
1. The Indian Immigrant Commission 1885-7. The Wragg Report.
2. Dorkin W, Untitled, ukzn.ac.za
3. A sketch of colonial Umzinto by Dr Duncan Du Bois