Thursday, July 5, 2012

Indenture in Natal

What does the term ‘indenture’ mean? Originally it was a deed executed between two or more people and written so that each person concerned would have a copy. The deed occupied one sheet of paper. A wavy or ‘indented’ line was drawn between the copies and the sheet cut into parts along this line. Copies of the handwritten text could later be tallied with other copies by bringing together the indented line – which would fit precisely, thus providing proof of the original agreement.

Family historians who have researched UK ancestors will be familiar with at least one form of indenture: the contract of apprenticeship whereby an individual would be ‘indentured’ to a trade such as blacksmithing or carpentry for a period of years before acquiring ‘journeyman’ status. Gradually the term indenture came to be used for any kind of sealed agreement or contract.

In the case of the indentured Indian migrants in Natal, their term of contract was five years. The Colonial Government initially held out for a three year contract, but employers wanted at least five years. By 1862 agreement had been reached for a five year period and the option of a second phase of indenture. The question remained: would the indentured migrant be free to return to India after 5 years or 10?

Finally, it was decided that the migrant would be entitled to a return passage after he had completed the optional second five years. In Natal, return passages could be commuted in exchange for crown land: after a narrow window of opportunity for migrants to take advantage of this, the offer was withdrawn in 1874.

Whether the migrants came to Natal willingly, and the system of recruitment used, are among topics explored by S Bhana in his Indentured Indians in Natal,1860-1902: a Study based on the Ships Lists.

Page from the Truro passenger list 1860.

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