When on November 16, 1860, a group of Indian labourers disembarked from ‘S.S. Truro,’ a paddle steamer from Madras, in the British colony of Natal in South Africa, they never thought they would become a part of history.

This small group pioneered a path that was to be followed by over 1.5 lakh hapless workers from India over the next half of a century. This was the first batch of ‘indentured’ servants from India to work in the sugar plantations in and around Durban.

‘S.S. Belvedere’ was the second ship to bring the Indian workers, this time from Kolkata. Later, thousands followed them and landed at Port Natal. The British were forced to import workers from India as the locals refused to work in the fields. Recruiting Indian workers was not a difficult job, as they needed no passport since they hailed from British India.

Indentured Indians arrived in Natal in 384 vessels, of which 262 sailed from Madras and 122 from Kolkata. The last ship, ‘Umlazi 43,’ arrived at Port Natal on July 21, 1911.

The sailors suffered a lot of hardship during the journey. Conditions on board the ships were awful; 29 died on board the ‘Belvedere’ and 10 more on shore before being assigned to an employer. Once they landed in South Africa, they were confronted by the severity of the labour system.

The immigrants did try to protest against the inhuman treatment, and even threatened to commit suicide to escape the clutches of their British landlords. However, as they were far away from their communities in India and were still trying to find terms to settle down, these protests were not organised.

Initially, Indians were recruited to work on the farms and estates. Later, there was demand for railway workers to extend the railway line to the interior parts. By the 1890s, the coal mines and the sugar estates were also recruiting workers. A small group of workers, known as ‘special servants,’ arrived from Madras to work in hotels and clubs and as housemaids in private residences.

In the early 1870s, the first ‘passenger’ Indians — who were not ‘indentured’ and were free to engage in business — came to Natal on their own to make money.

When Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Natal in 1893, Indian immigrants were divided into three groups — ‘indentured’ immigrants who were under contract; ‘free’ Indians who had completed their period of indentureship and had decided to remain in Natal instead of returning to India; and ‘passenger’ Indians.

It is almost a century and a half now since the first Indian immigrant workers arrived at Durban. The Government of India, the High Commission of India to South Africa, and various organisations in India and South Africa plan to celebrate the commemoration of the 150th year of arrival of Indians in South Africa next year and have already chalked out various programmes.

The High Commission of India to South Africa, through the Consulate General of India at Durban, has established the ‘1860 Legacy Foundation’ to represent different community associations in coordination with this celebration. The South African Government will also be involved at the national, provincial and local levels in the funding and coordination of the event.

According to Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Consul-General of India in Durban, a number of proposals have been mooted to commemorate the event. These include establishing a monument in Durban where the first Indian immigrant workers arrived in 1860; minting special coins; issuing a postal stamp in both India and South Africa; and organising the visit of cultural troupes from India.

The eighth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), which provides an excellent opportunity for overseas Indians to meet and exchange their views on matters of common interest, has been planned to be held in Chennai in January 2010. A special session on the 150th anniversary of Indians in South Africa will be a part of the Chennai PBD.

A mini-PBD to coincide with the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin Conference in Durban has also been planned, along with an India-centric Trade Fair in Durban and a visit of South African senior citizens to India, Mr. Shringla said.

The Gandhi Memorial Committees at Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg and Durban have jointly planned various activities, according to David D. Gengan, Public Relations Officer of the Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Memorial Committee.