Over 1.5 lakhs workers arrived at Durban from Chennai and Kolkata to work mainly on sugarcane farms as ‘indentured’ servants

A majority of the people of Indian origin settled in and around Durban and Pietermaritzburg cities are now into a serious process of identifying their roots.

Most of them are descendants of the Indian immigrant workers who arrived in South Africa between 1860 and 1911.

Over 1.5 lakhs workers arrived at Durban from Madras (Chennai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) ports to work mainly on sugarcane farms as ‘indentured’ servants. The Indian workers who initially lost contact with their motherland due to poverty, later suffered badly what with the South African Government pursuing apartheid policy for many decades.

When a new democratic era dawned in South Africa in 1993 putting an end to apartheid, the people of Indian origin were already in the fourth / fifth generation. They had no clue of their Indian association. Now they are full fledged South African citizens.

But with the dawn of democracy and the re-establishment of democratic ties between both the countries, several South Africans of Indian origin have started visiting India to establish their links, though they meet with very little success.

Maintain Indian culture

Nevertheless, they still maintain Indian culture and traditions in every possible way. The poojas in Sri Mariamman Temple at Mt. Edgecompe near Durban, comprised singing of Tamil devotional songs ‘Thillai Ambala Natarja’ and ‘Mannavane Yaanai Mugatthavane; Mukthi Nalam Sonnavane’ with the help of English script. The Navagraha Praharam and a papal tree, which are traditional marks of any Indian temple, are present here too.

"We know that our ancestors hailed from India. But now we are South African citizens. No doubt we are eager to see our native place and relatives, but that is not possible now as we have lost all contacts and the details of native place and relatives", says Cecic Pillai, maintenance manager in a packing company, whose forefathers hailed from Tamil Nadu. However, neither he nor his wife, who is also of Tamil origin, could recall their native place in Tamil Nadu. "Still we have some kind of contact with India, in particular with Tamil Nadu, through Tamil movies", Mr. Pillai says.

Councillor Logie Naidoo, Deputy Mayor of Ethekwini Municipality, Durban, has twice visited Tamil Nadu to search his relatives in a village near Vellore, but with no success. He has planned to visit the state again shortly.

Vijesh Singh, employed as a cab driver, claims that his forefathers were Rajputs and hailed from Rajasthan. His wife Radhika Devi was also an Indian. Both of them visited Rajasthan last year and stayed for a few weeks to trace their relatives, but in vain. They are in touch with private agencies which are engaged in helping the Indians in tracing their roots. "I will go to India again and am hopeful that I will succeed in my initiative", Mr. Singh says with total confidence.

Ram Jathan of Bihar is running a small shop in the Indian Market in the heart of Durban city. He and his wife take care of the shop to make their living. "I am not interested in making any attempt to re-establish my roots, as I seldom find time and money for the same", he says with anxiety writ large on his face. Yusuf Desai, employed in a three star hotel in Pietermaritzburg city, whose forefathers hailed from Surat in Gujarat echoes the same feeling.

Manage to have links

Despite the restrictions, some continue to manage to have links with their mother land in one way or the other. "They have made it a habit to visit Mumbai to do shopping during the happy occasions like marriage etc", says Mrs. Bunny Bhoola, MD, African Link Tours, Durban, whose ancestors were Brahmin priests from Surat.

The initiative taken by Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Consul-General, Consulate General of India in Durban, to assist the people of Indian origin in finding out their roots for the past four years has in come for praise from all quarters.

"We are receiving a large number of requests, both formal and informal, for support. Many of these have been referred to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs’ "Trace Your Roots" programme," says Mr. Shringla.

"In some cases we have tried to assist by referring them to the district and local authorities. Clearly, we still need to develop effective systems to assist PIO (person of Indian Origin) in tracing their origins in India," Mr. Shringla adds.

What has given the PIO renewed hope is the Shipping Lists prepared by the Department of History of University of Durban and at present housed in the Natal Archives. The Indian Shipping Lists, complete in 91 volumes, provide the most extensive and important data relating to any immigrant community in Southern Africa. The Shipping Lists provide the information including name, father’s name, age, sec, caste, place of origin (Zillah, taluk, village), identity marks, names of employers etc.

Increased research interest

Some of them are in possession of the Shipping Records, thanks to this list. David G. Gengan, Manager, Investment Promotion, The Msunduzi Municipality, City of Pietermaritzburg (his forefathers arrived in Durban in 1898 by ‘Umlazi IX’ ship from Madras) and Nilesh Singh running Video Vision Entertainment (his ancestors from Aligarh arrived in 1877) have all details and are searching for their native and relatives.

Initially only academics showed interest in the Shipping Lists and related documents. That has changed in the last few years and now there is a steady stream of people interested in seeing these documents. One reason for this new interest is the opportunity for people of Indian descent to visit India and trace the village that their forefathers came from. Some others, who had no intention of visiting India, still are interested in their ancestors, where they came from and the details that all genealogists like to know.

More In: International | News