Story Of A Sugar Plantation

Slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1835* but 1.3 million Indians were shipped as indentured laborers to replace them. They also could face brutal working conditions.

Some of them worked for my maternal great grand uncles in South Africa where they were mistreated at Umhlali and Umzinto in Natal, resulting in the Reynolds Commission of 1906. The quotes below come from The Protector, Plantocracy, and Indentured Labour in Natal, 1860–1911 by Goolam Vahed, an associate professor of history at the University of Kwazulu-Natal.

Umzinto Sugar Mill, 1888 - courtesy Wellcome Collection

After the British annexed the Boer Republic of Natalia in 1843 many Boers left and British settlers replaced them.
"Sugar flourished in the coastal regions but settlers found it difficult to secure a cheap and dependable labour supply even though there was a large Zulu population. Farmers complained to the Wragg Commission of 1885–87 that Africans were not prepared to enter into lengthy labour relationships as many survived through subsistence farming.... Between 1860 and 1911, 152,641 indentured migrants arrived in Natal."

James Polkinghorne (1856–1942) was Protector of Indian Immigrants in the Colony of Natal.
"In December 1904, [Polkinghorne]  drew Charles Reynolds’s attention to the death rate of 36 per 1,000 on his estate, which was double the average in the colony, and attributed this to poor hygiene, diet, and living conditions on the estate... Acting medical officer for the County, Dr. Gilroy, confirmed in February 1905 that undercooked food (due to lack of firewood and time to prepare meals) was the main cause of diarrhoea, which was one of the reasons for the high disease and death rates. Polkinghorne’s visit on February 21 and 22, 1905 confirmed that Reynolds’s workers were subject to overwork daily which totaled an extra two days labour per week.
Indian indentured family, Umzinto mill district, 1888 - courtesy Wellcome Collection
He wrote on September 28, 1907 that ‘‘it is nothing short of absolute cruelty to treat Indians like this, and for what? Simply to be able to declare a larger dividend at the expense of human flesh.’’ Polkinghorne continued to find instances of overwork, abuse, and poor food quality. He wrote to the Colonial Secretary on June 1, 1908 to charge Reynolds with culpable homicide for the ongoing sickness and death among his indentured labourers as a result of diseased and fermented rations. ‘‘It is simply scandalous that such things should take place after the experience of the past.’'
"The government eventually acted against Reynolds. In letters dated June 24 and July 2, 1908, the Colonial Secretary informed the estate that the supply of indentured labour would be stopped until Charles Reynolds was removed from its management... The government stood firm and stopped supplying labour. On November 4, 1908, the Colonial Secretary noted that Charles Reynolds had left Reynolds Brothers and on December 20, 1908 the firm received a new allotment of labour.
"Polkinghorne’s perseverance bore fruit. His network of ‘‘informers’’ on the plantation and his political contacts allowed him to stand up to the might of Reynolds Brothers."
The Protector, Plantocracy, and Indentured Labour in Natal, 1860–1911

The story has a moral ending... Charles was removed from management, left the country in disgrace and went to South America. There he got into a fight with a jealous husband (I suspect he tried to steal someone's wife), and got into a knife fight. He was stabbed and died. His body was pickled in a barrel of rum before being returned to Umzinto.

All I do is tell the story. I don't know where my responsibility begins or ends. I inherited neither money nor social connections. The story we need to hear more of is that of the (mainly) Indian indentured labourers. I am not at all the closest member of the family to the story and even were I to tell it, it would be from the planter's side.

But if anyone, especially a descendent of one of those Indian families, has a view on what more to do to educate and inform, I'd appreciate their suggestions. I can edit!

Links: A Sketch of Colonial Umzinto by Duncan Dubois

1 comment:

mpsk said...

I'm feeling a bit sardonic today.
It was probably a novel virus that was killing the Indians. /s

Would such a happy ending happen today? The bad guy got caught and ousted and came to a fitting end.
I hope somebody fixed the conditions of the "workers". It seems more likely that then, as now, a crime revealed is simply a lesson for crime-improvement.