Sunday, July 8, 2012

Researching Indian Migrant Ancestors in Natal

If you’re a family historian seeking migrant ancestors who came to Natal from India, it’s wise to do some preparation before starting a search of the Migrants Index. In keeping with all genealogy research, adhere to the maxim of proceeding from the Known to the Unknown.

Migrants at Umzinto, Natal.
Are you certain that your ancestor/s arrived as migrants under the system of indenture, and not as one of the so-called Passenger Indians, mostly merchants and traders who came to Natal under their own steam, as it were, paying for their own passage out? 

If your ancestor was one of the latter immigrants he naturally won’t be found on the Migrants Index. (Bear in mind, though, that there are no hard and fast rules in researching migrants: it isn’t always simple to categorise them. Many migrants who went back to India after serving their indenture contract, for a variety of reasons returned to Natal – some re-indentured for another five years, others came out again as ‘free’ Indians and thus were ‘passengers’ at that stage.)

Start by doing some homework, collecting as much information as possible from sources within the family about the migrant ancestor/s you are looking for; family memories, legends, stories, anecdotes. The main goal is to establish particular details about a migrant which could help identify him on the index.

(Note: where I refer to a migrant ancestor as ‘he’ this implies ‘he’ or ‘she’. Migrants were men, women and children.)

Details for identification purposes include:
The migrant’s name. This may sound obvious but can be a huge stumbling block. See note below*
A spouse’s name.
Registration or Indentured Number.
An approximate year or period of possible arrival; at least try to pin it down to a decade by working out ages of succeeding generations.
Any clues as to the migrant’s employer, in which industry, or the area where the migrant worked e.g. North Coast, South Coast or more specific places.
Family memory might point to a possible place of origin in India, even if only 'North' or 'South'.
Any clues as to caste/ religion/language of the migrant ancestor.
Knowledge of a special occupation the migrant may have had: e.g. coachman.
Any official documents preserved by family members.

* Names are the single most difficult aspect when it comes to using the Migrants Index.
There could be a large number of confusing variant spellings of a particular name.  Names may have been recorded incorrectly by those compiling the original lists. Migrants sometimes changed their names during their time in Natal. The name by which descendants know them might not be the one that appears in the lists. These and other factors militate against finding the ‘right’ ancestor. It’s therefore helpful to home in on a specific detail as an aid in identification of the individual.

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