The European planters of Natal wanted only slaves. They could not afford to have labourers who, after serving their term, would be free to compete with them to however small an extent. No doubt the indentured labouers had gone to Natal, as they had not been very successful in agriculture or other pursuits in India. But it is not to be supposed that they had no knowledge of agriculture or that they did not understand the value of land. They found that if they grew only vegetables in Natal, they could earn good incomes, and that their earnings would be still better if they owned a small piece of land. Many, therefore, on the termination of their indentures, began to pursue some trade or other on a small scale. This was, on the whole, advantageous to the settlers in Natal. Various kinds of vegetables, which had not been grown before for want of a competent class of cultivators, now became available. Other kinds, which had been grown in small quantities, could now be had in abundances. The result was a fall in the price of vegetables. But the European planters did not relish this new development. They felt they now had competitors in a field in which they believed they had a monopoly. A movement was, therefore, set on foot against these poor time-expired labourers. The reader will be surprised to learn, that while on the one hand the Europeans demanded more and more labourers and easily took in as many of them as went from India, on the other hand they started an agitation to harass ex-indentured labourers in a variety of ways. This was the reward for their skill and hard toil!
The movement assumed many forms. One set of agitators demanded that the labourers who completed their indentures should be sent back in India, and that therefore fresh labourers arriving in Natal from that time forward should have a new clause entered in their indentures, providing for their compulsory return to India at the expiration of their term of service unless they renewed their indentures. A second set advocated the imposition of a heavy annual capitation tax on the labourers who did not re-indenture themselves at the end of the first period of five years. Both, however, had the same object in view, namely, by hook or crook to make it impossible for ex-indentured labourers to live as free men in Natal in any circumstances. This agitation attained such serious dimensions, that the Government of Natal appointed a commission. As the demands of both these classes of agitators were quite unfair, and as the presence of the ex-indentured labourers was clearly beneficial to the entire population from an economic standpoint, the independent evidence recorded by the commission was against the agitators, who thus failed to achieve any tangible result for the time being. But as fire, although extinguished, leaves a trail behind it, the agitation created some impression on the Government of Natal. How could it be otherwise? The Government of Natal was friendly to the planters. It therefore communicated with the Government of India and laid before it the proposals of both the sets of agitators. But the Government of India could not all at once accept proposals which would reduce indentured labourers to perpetual slavery. One justification or excuse for sending labourers to such a far-off land under indenture was that the labourers, after completing the indentures, would become free to develop their powers fully and consequently improve their economic condition. As Natal then was still a Crown Colony, the Colonial Office was fully responsible for its government. Natal, therefore, could not look for help from that quarter too in satisfying its unjust demands. For this and similar reasons a movement was set on foot to attain responsible government, which was eventually conferred on Natal in 1893. Natal now began to feel its strength. The Colonial Office too did not any longer find it difficult to accept whatever demands Natal might choose to make. Delegates from the new responsible Government of Natal came to India to confer with the Government of India. They proposed the imposition of an annual poll-tax of twenty-five pounds, or three hundred and seventy-five rupees, on every Indian who had been freed from indenture. It was evident that no Indian labourer could pay such an exhorbitant tax and live in Natal as a free man. Lord Elgin, the Governor-General of India, considered that the amount was excessive, and ultimately he accepted an annual poll-tax of three pounds. This was equivalent to nearly six months’ earnings on the indenture scale. The tax was levied, not only in the labourer himself but also upon his wife, his daughters aged thirteen years or upwards and his sons aged sixteen years or upwards. There was hardly any labourer who had not a wife and a couple of children. Thus, as a general rule, every labouer was required to pay an annual tax of twelve pounds. It is impossible to describe the hardships that this tax entailed. Only those, who actually underwent the hardships, could realize them, and only those who witnessed their sufferings could have some idea of them. The Indians carried on a powerful agitation against this action of the Government of Natal. Memorials were submitted to the Imperial Government and the Government of India, but to no purpose except for the reduction in the amount of the tax. What could the poor labourers do or understand in this matter? The agitation on their behalf was carried on by the Indian traders, actuated by motives of patriotism or of philanthropy.
Free Indians fared no better. The European traders of natal carried on a similar agitation against them for mainly the same reasons. Indian traders were well established. They acquired lands in good localities. As the number of freed labourers began to increase, there was a larger and larger demand for the class of goods required by them. Bags of rice were imported from India in their thousands and sold at a good profit. Naturally this trade was largely in the hands of Indians who had besides a fair share of the trade with Zulus. They thus became an eyesore to petty European traders. Again, some Englishmen pointed out to the Indians traders, that according to law they were entitled to vote in the elections for the Legislative Assembly of Natal, and to stand as candidates for the same. Some Indians therefore got their names entered on the electoral roll. This made the European politicians of Natal join the ranks of anti-Indians. They doubted whether the Europeans could stand in competition with Indians if the Indians’ prestige increased, and if their position was consolidated in Natal. The first step, therefore, taken by the responsible Government of Natal in connection with free Indians was that they decided to enact a law, disfranchising all Asiatics save those who were then rightly contained in any voters’ list. A bill to that effect was first introduced in the Legislative Assembly of Natal in 1894. This was based on the principle of excluding Indians as Indians from the franchise, and was, in Natal, the first piece of legislation affecting them in which racial distinction was made. Indians resisted this measure. A memorial was prepared during one night and four hundred signatures were appended to it. When the memorial was submitted to the Legislative Assembly of Natal, that body was started. But the Bill was passed all the same. A memorial bearing ten thousand signatures was submitted to Lord Ripon who was then Secretary of State for the Colonies. Ten thousand signatures meant almost the total population at the time of free Indians in Natal. Lord Ripon disallowed the bill and declared that the British Empire could not agree to the establishment of a colour bar in legislation. The reader will be in a position later on to appreciate how great this victory was for Indians. The Natal Government, therefore, brought forward another bill, removing racial distinction but indirectly disqualifying Indians. Indians protested against this as well but without success. This new Bill was ambiguous in meaning. Indians were in a position to carry it finally to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council with a view to its interpretation; but they did not think it advisable to do so. I still think that they did the right thing in avoiding this endless litigation. It was no small thing that the colour bar was not allowed to be set up.
But the planters and the Government of Natal were not likely to stop there. To nip the political power of Indians in the bud was for them the indispensable first step; but the real point of their attack was Indian trade and free Indian immigration. They were uneasy at the thought of the Europeans in Natal being swamped if India with its teeming millions invaded Natal. The approximate population of Natal at that time was 400,000 Zulus and 40,000 Europeans as against 60,000 indentured, 10,000 ex-indentured and 10,000 free Indians. The Europeans had no solid grounds for their apprehensions, but it is impossible to convince by argument men who have been seized with vague terrors. As they were ignorant of the helpless condition of India and of the manners and customs of the Indian people, they were under the impression that the Indians were as adventurous and resourceful as themselves. They could scarcely be blamed if they thus created a bugbear of the vast population of India in comparison with their own small numbers. However that may be, the result of the successful opposition to the disfranchising bill was, that in two other laws passed by the Natal Legislature it had to avoid racial distinction and to attain its end in an indirect manner. The position, therefore, was not as bad as it might have been. On this occasion, too Indians offered a strenuous resistance, but in spite of this the laws were enacted. One of these imposed severe restrictions on Indian trade and the other on Indian immigration in Natal. The substance of the first Act was than no one could trade without a license issued by an official appointed in accordance with its provisions. In practice any European could get a licence while the Indian had to face no end of difficulty in the matter. He had to engage a lawyer and incur other expenditure. Those who could not afford it had to go without a licence. The chief provision of the other Act was that only such immigrants as were able to pass the education test in a European language could enter the Colony. This closed the doors of Natal against crores of Indians. Lest I should in advertently do the Government of Natal an injustice, I must state that the Act further provided that an Indian resident in Natal for three years before the passing of that Act might obtain a certificate of domicile enabling him to leave the Colony and return at any time with his wife and minor children without being required to pass the education test.
The indentured and free Indians in Natal were and still are subject to other disabilities, both legal and extra-legal, in addition to those described above. But I do not think it necessary to tax the reader with a recital of them. I propose to give such details only as are essential to a clear understanding of the subject. A history of the condition of Indians in different parts of South Africa would take up much space. But that is beyond the scope of the present volume.