The abuse of children during indenture, a childhood lost… by Selvan Naidoo

As published in the Mercury, 8 November 2019, page 5

Getting my children to do household chores is a real challenge. Shamefully, my son does not wash his dinner plate nor does he know how to make his own bed. In recent times I have begun to coax him to do these menial tasks with the promise of a small stipend. The wiliness of my millennial born son to do these small chores has resulted in him having more money in his collection box than I have in my wallet. In the years ahead, the task of getting my son to understand the true value of tending to basic household chores without getting a reward must list as one of my top priorities.

The value of self-reliance and hard work that shapes character is something that must be developed at an early age. There is however a huge difference between developing character and destroying character when it comes to the topic of child ‘labour’. Next week marks the 159th year of indentured labour introduction to our country. Indeed it is a significant moment to celebrate but more poignantly, it would be more useful to fully gauge the extent of the evils of indenture that go without mention. This evil saw children of indenture being abused and exploited to simply maximize profit margins of colonial planters.

Early in 1865, a leading article in this very newspaper went on to state: “Coolie immigration after several years’ experience of it is deemed more essential to our prosperity than ever. Had it not been for coolie labour, we should certainly not have had it to say that our sugar export increased from £26,000 in 1863 to £100 000 in 1864 and has greater increase before it…”

This increase in profit came at the expense of a lost childhood where children were routinely exploited for their labour. The paucity of research on the use child labour in the system of indenture is a focus that must take root as we approach 160 years of indenture next year. Despite the limited availability of research studies, the numerous complaints that have been archived for analysis validate the horrific treatment of children during colonial times.

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Children preparing the ground for the planting season on a sugarcane farm in Stanger, 1957 Photo credit Ranjith Kally

The human tragedy of indenture made tangible through the complaint records registers provides ample evidence on the abuse and exploitation of children. In one instance a case against the estate of J. Meikle has reference. Five Indians working on this estate lodged complaints with the Protector of Indian Immigrants in February 1884. The testimony of Bhagoo, revealed a horrendous case of abuse. The letter is dated 19 February 1884. Source: I.I./1/18, 18911884, Natal Archives:I am indentured to Mr. J. Meikle. Five of the men who were assigned with me ran away as they were ill-treated, and about a fortnight ago one of my sons named Augna (25980) about 10 years of age left the estate and has not been heard of since. The circumstances of his leaving were, he had 50 sheep to look after and one evening one did not return with the rest, the boy also through fear stayed away. The missing sheep eventually returned with the boy as well. The next morning Mr. Meikle with Mrs. Meikle’s approval tied the boy’s hands together with a strap and hung him naked to a rafter in the dining room and thrashed him with a hunting crop. The boy was kept hanging for an hour about two feet from the ground and when breakfast time came he was taken down and sent off with the sheep as usual. He went but as stated never returned.

 For one week before I left the estate, a search was made for the boy when I was off from work but he could not be found. On two occasions after the boy left and could not be found, Mr. Meikle beat me and my wife suspecting that we took food to the boy at night… Not a day passes without one or another of the Indians on Mr. Meikle’s farm being thrashed…The other Coolies on the estate witnessed my son being beaten. I refuse to return to the estate.”

 Other references to child labour was made by Henry Polak, a journalist who worked alongside Mahatma Gandhi in fighting the tyrannical abuse of the indentured here in South Africa. He pointed out that young children were working eleven hours per day in tea factories. Even though children were “not legally bound to work, in practice, they are.” Many plantation owners considered that the children were actually under indenture. This meant a boy’s wage could vary from 5 to 9 shillings per month (depending on his age), with an increase of one shilling per month per annum. Thus a boy aged 10 would receive 2 pennies for nine hours work per day. Only a few Estate owners established schools and often children were forced to work, when their parents actually desired them to go to school. In this respect many of the Sirdars (overseers) forcefully took boys away from the schools in order to work on the Estates.

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A child ‘waiter’ working at the tea room in Mitchell Park, early 1900s. Photo Credit: Killie Campbell collections
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Children working on a tea plantation, Kearsney, early 1900s. Photo Credit: 1860 Heritage Centre

In another particular case of abuse, Polak singles out the murderous family of T.B. Robinson of Cato Manor, KwaZulu-Natal, who were convicted of multiple offences of ill treatment against their employees. “A tragic family case against the Robinsons’ was that of Mudaly (Indenture No. 116821) and his wife Odda Nagi (Indenture No. 116838), who although were employed as domestic servants, received the rates of pay as that of field labourers. Mudaly’s working hours was from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. with two half hour breaks, while his wife’s was from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The elder child was 2 and half years old, and was tied to a peg all day in the parent’s hut for safety, until the day’s work was over. When a second child was born, less than a week old, the employer refused to allow the mother to bring the child to work. Fearing the child would starve, the mother gave the child away to foster-parents; the child subsequently died of neglect.”

Beyond indenture and for a period of up to one hundred years from 1860, children of indentured ancestry were forced to forego their childhood in search of a better life. The endless cycle of poverty that engulfed these communities saw children working for their family survival. The pictures used for this article bare witness to generations of lost childhoods from children of a forgotten and much neglected history of our city. From child labour evidenced at the Durban Mitchell Park; to children being used on tea estates and sugarcane plantations; to children taking care of the siblings and to children working for their families selling vada, murruku and samosas, the sociological impact of child labour must be unpacked and documented as we approach the anniversary of 160 years of indenture here in South Africa.

Boys waiting outside the Early Morning market selling vada. These boys had no time for play like ordinary children; any free time they had in between selling their wares was used to bond with other children of the same plight. Generation after generation of these boys from Chatsworth to Phoenix plied this trade to keep their families afloat in times of financial difficulty. Durban, 1960s. Page 98, Portrait of an Indian South African by Professor Fatima Meer
Unknown boy chewing sugarcane. Many children had to take care of their siblings when their parents had gone off to work. The baby dummy attached to his tattered jacket is a sign that this child had adult responsibilities in times of dire poverty. His childhood was lost to the cycle of poverty that trapped many children of indentured ancestry. Tin Town – Springfield, Durban, 1950s. Page 2, Portrait of an Indian South African by Professor Fatima Meer

Written by Selvan Naidoo, Curator of the 1860 Heritage Centre

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