Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Plantation labour in Natal and elsewhere.

Drawing of A Noon's sugar mill Isipingo 1863 showing
Indian migrant labourers, hoes over their shoulders, returning
from the fields; a turbanned sirdar can be seen at right; other workers
load bags of sugar into a wagon; a white overseer - or perhaps Mr Noon
himself - is on horseback in the centre of the picture.
In the first half of the 19th century, Natal struggled to find suitable labour, primarily for the growing sugar industry. Australia had brought in white workers; the tropical plantation colonies such as Mauritius and the West Indies had imported black labour under white overlords. 

As early as 1848, Secretary for the Colonies Gladstone proposed that British convicts might be used to clear Natal's lush vegetation but the scheme did not get underway: in fact, various attempts to bring in convict labour to South Africa were unsuccessful, meeting with strong resistance from the general population. In 1854 the Cape Governor proposed bringing in Indians but the government of India argued there was already a great demand for Asian labour in Mauritius and the Caribbean. The Mauritian plantocracy, unable to acquire the requisite number of liberated slaves to work its fields, had started bringing in Asian labour in 1834. So, there were previous models in place by the time the 1860 Act was passed which allowed for Indian migrants to be brought to Natal; this Act met the legal conditions stipulated in India.

Though the demand in Natal was initially for labour for the sugar estates, not all migrants worked in the agricultural sector. Hundreds were employed by the Natal Government Railways (many had had previous experience on the railways in India) and on the coal mines. Some were in a category known as Special Servants, brought to Natal mostly from Madras to employment as carriage drivers or coachmen, grooms, waiters, dhobis (laundrymen) and gardeners.

My own search for a man named Lutchman who worked as a coachman in the Umzinto district (Alexandra County) turned up a few thousand names of that spelling and other variants on the Migrants Index, but his occupation made it possible to identify him correctly.

See archived posts (menu at right) or use the search facility to find more on the topic of indentured migrants.

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