Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Searching for migrant ancestors

If while searching the Migrants Index you find a likely contender for your ancestor (from name, date of arrival, estimated age at the time of arrival, father’s name etc) it’s worth looking at the registration numbers immediately adjacent to the number you have located. These could indicate a family unit – parents and children travelling together. For example, in the case of a girl named Rajamma, thought by descendants to be aged under ten at the time of her journey to Natal, an entry on the Index for a girl of eight years old seemed a very possible match. Above her name are those of an adult couple, in all likelihood her parents. Below her name are two young boys, almost certainly her siblings. (Whole families were indentured, not only the male head of the family.)

The final column on the Index tells us that the parents later returned to India, as did the male siblings. There’s no such return recorded for Rajamma who presumably married and remained in Natal. If she is the correct Rajamma - and the chances are good - her descendants have suddenly acquired several previously unknown migrant relatives as well as, no doubt, living relatives in India.

I mentioned caste in an earlier post. This is a vast topic and I will leave it to the specialists such as Prof. Surendra Bhana. For a useful list of castes, with their relevant meanings and professions see
Names of castes – like the geographical areas of India – have undergone changes since the 1860s.

On board ship ‘there was little official space for caste or custom. A Pariah’s reply to a Brahmin upset at being bumped into, I have taken off my caste and left it with the Port Officer. I won’t put it on again till I come back, poignantly sums up the situation. … Yet it would be wrong to speak of a complete breakdown of the caste system during the voyage. Consciousness of caste and other boundaries would persist long after the voyage and indenture ended.’

[From Chapter 2, Inside Indenture: Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed]

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