The Migrants Index presents a picture of a fleeting moment. One of the dedicated volunteers involved in the compilation of the Index remarked that ‘we only get one chance with the migrants, that is, on arrival’. After they were dispersed to their various employers it becomes more difficult to follow their trail. The employer to whom a migrant was initially indentured might well not be the employer for the entire period of his indenture. Migrants could be transferred to another sugar estate, for example, even unofficially swapped between employers. Reasons for such arbitrary behaviour varied.
The migrant may remain invisible for much of his sojourn in Natal unless a particular event concerning him generated a public record at the time – that is, a document or file preserved as archival material. These could range from a claim of ill-treatment of a migrant by his employer to an application by a ‘free’ Indian (one who had completed his term of indenture) for a firearm licence. The latter subject provides a fruitful source for discussion about Vijay Maharaj’s ancestors in his book Injustice published in 2007. (ISBN: 1-4196-7877-9 ISBN-13: 9781419678776
Search NAAIRS at www.national.archives.gov.za/ for such references. Again, the difficulty is identifying the migrant by name. If an Indentured or Registration Number is known that can be helpful. A so-called Colonial Number was issued to colonial-born individuals and should not be confused with the Registration or Indentured Number allocated to migrants on arriving in Natal.
Archives of the Indian Immigration Department (1858 - 1924) offer rich pickings for descendants of migrants and other researchers: these files are held at Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository and are referenced on NAAIRS.
An example of what can be achieved by using these sources is seen in the book by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, first published by Madiba Press in 2007 as Inside Indenture: a South African story, 1860-1914, and published in 2010 by HSRC Press as Inside Indian Indenture: a South African story, 1860-1914.
(ISBN 0796922446, 9780796922441)
The volume is required reading for anyone with an interest in this topic. It takes us beyond statistics to the human story of indenture.
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