November 16th was a momentous day for many in Durban and KwaZulu-Natal as it marked the 160th anniversary of the first Indian indentured labourers who arrived in the then Colony of Natal aboard the SS Truro. The 342 passengers arrived from Madras to work on the sugar plantations. The new system of indentured labour was created by the British colonial regime as a reaction to the abolition of slavery. Its roots were thus riddled with inequality and exploitation. While many aboard the SS Turo had aspirations of improving their lives and returning home more prosperous than when they arrived, the system of indentured labour was marred with abuse and injustice.
It is believed that, between 1860 and 1911 (when the system was eventually banned by the Indian government because of ongoing abuse), 152 184 indentured labourers arrived in Port Natal, now the Durban harbour and home of the Maritime Museum. Despite being promised land and citizenship after working for five years, many were forced to work much longer with little or no reward. The history of indentured labour is a pivotal part of Durban’s history and the lives of many of its residents. In honour of 160 years since their arrival, several commemorations were held in the City of Durban.
Commemorations in the City
In order to remember the legacy of those brought to Natal through this harsh system, and the great contributions of the Indian community to Durban, a ceremony was held at Addington Beach to honour their arrival. Members of different faith-based organisations joined together and honoured their memory by sharing prayers and throwing marigolds into the ocean. The event was also attended by members of government, including KwaZulu-Natal’s premier, Sihle Zikalala, the Finance MEC, Ravi Pillay, and Health MEC, Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu. The importance of this commemoration was shared by Zikalala:
“[Indentured labourers] arrived as slaves brought by the British, as South Africa was still colonised by Britain, but they have been part of SA. As we said that South Africa belongs to all who live in it…The people of Indian origin, those who originate in SA, have no other home than SA and therefore we want to ensure that we use our history, heritage (…) also our different cultures to build one nation that is united in diversity.”
Elsewhere in the city, other commemorations were held. Cecile Kathan who is a parishioner of the St Peter’s Catholic Church took the opportunity to remember her parents, Rasmal and James Kathan, who arrived on the SS Turo 160 years ago. They would have celebrated their 110th birthday this year. Kathan aims to transform the church’s grotto and create a shrine to honour their legacy. As a sacred space where people come to pray, Kathan believes it is the perfect location for such a memorial.