KZN’s sugarcane plantations fed off the blood, sweat and tears of indentured labourers
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They had one thing in mind - a better life.
To be free from poverty, stereotypical beliefs, including; you only existed to make babies and wait on the needs of your husband and others, and the tyrannical British rule, many Indian women saw indenture as their only hope to flip their life’s script.
Media personality Joanne Joseph’s latest book, Children of Sugarcane, which was launched last week, dives deep into the suffering of indentured women, some of whom were barely out of puberty when they embarked on the nearly 4 000 nautical mile journey from India to the Port of Natal.
Joseph lifts the lid on those journeys to the southern tip of Africa, which became fashionable from the late 1900s onwards, with her fiction novel that is set for its Durban launch later this week.
Her previous book, Drug Muled, which was released in 2013, achieved best-seller status.
Children of Sugarcane has been a nine-year effort, which required extensive reading and researching from Joseph.
At times she questioned why she embarked on the project,
“It's quite a relief, actually - nine years is a long gestation period.
“It does feel strange to hold this physical book in my hand and link it to that long-unfinished manuscript on my computer, the reality is starting to sink in.”
The book zooms in on the sufferings of Shanti, the lead character and native of the Madras presidency in India, who signed up for indenture.
Indentured labourers were contracted to work five years mainly on farms, and grow sugarcane for their colonial masters in Port Natal.
Women were expected to perform the same duties as men, but their wages were only half of men’s earnings.
Workers had the option to stay or return to their motherland after the contracted period.
The fruit of their labour resulted in a sweet-tasting grassy plant, even though the parched soil they tilled in cycles was often watered by their own blood, sweat and tears.
Life in India was already a struggle for Shanti, her parents and two older sisters.
Her father’s meagre earnings from washing clothes of well to do people was the family’s only source of income.
Unlike her two sisters, who accepted their lot in life by marrying the partners their parents arranged for them at age 14, Shanti was not prepared to succumb to tradition.
She wanted more from life.
By the time she became eligible for marriage, Shanti had already gained a grasp of the English language, but hush hush.
Back then, it was diabolical for Indian women to read and write or dare equate themselves to men.
Luckily for her, the local brahmin’s (priest) wife, Aunty Saras, noticed that Shanti stood out from the other children in the village and arranged to secretly school her in English.
Her parents would have never approved of that, it would have brought great shame to them.
Similarly, they were worried about the public perception that would be stirred if Shanti was not married by age 14.
In keeping with the times, they arranged for Shanti to wed her cousin.
She was strongly opposed to that.
Emotionally, there was no connection with her arranged partner and she knew her body was not ready for some of the expected marital engagements.
A fierce rebuke is what she got for her defiance.
At the time, her mother’s health took a turn for the worse, and was no longer able to do physically sapping home duties.
Shanti was able to convince her mother that she was not ready for marriage, she also offered to do the housekeeping duties until her health improved. Thereafter, she would accept the marriage proposal.
Shanti’s mother’s heart softened.
Her father eventually agreed, but grudgingly so.
About a year later her mother’s health improved and marriage talk was in the air again, Shanti was still not ready.
At the time, a shop assistant planted the idea of greener pastures in Port Natal in Shanti’s mind. His boss was recruiting people for the British.
Her journey to Africa began when she slipped out of her home one night.
If she believed the arduous road trip to the harbour, being probed and prodded at by medical staff before the voyage, treacherous seas and the grubby seamen and their roving eyes was vexing, Port Natal tested her mettle like never before.
Her one consolation were the few friends she made along the way, who stood out for their valour and verve.
Several years ago, Joseph noticed a picture of Athilatchmy Velu Naicken, her great-grandmother on the internet. She wanted to know more about how Naicken landed in Africa and Indian indenture.
The picture appeared in the book Many Lives: 150 years of Being Indian in South Africa, penned by Ashwin Desai, Goolam Vahed and Thembisa Waetjen, where it was revealed that Naicken entered into one of the first mixed marriages of the time with a British man, John Edward Powys.
Naicken also ran a Methodist mission from her home in Merebank for 30 years.
“Her name was on a ship's list and discovered that she had travelled to Port Natal as a very young woman with her two smaller siblings. It led to all sorts of questions about why she would have chosen to do this and what her life in the Colony would have been like.
“It was amazing to watch that piece of the puzzle fall into place.”
Joseph was also appreciative of others who produced insight on Indian indenture previously.
“I was buoyed by the vast research done by many academics and historians, most of them South African, who have paved the way for creative storytelling with their extensive mining of the archives.”
On the trajectory her book had taken, Joseph said: “I felt very strongly that although the suffering of indentured women had been mentioned in the small body of indentured historical fiction in our country, we needed a novel that centred that unique experience.
“Given the double blow of patriarchy, which they had to endure: that of the British Raj and men within their own cultural communities. This twin subjugation added a real layer of complexity to their reality.
“I was certain that in itself would be enough to drive the plot of a novel.”
She suggested that when people examine the past, they must consider shared identity and ask how our personal histories converge into a collective South African history.
“I hope the book opens up a conversation about shared history, and perhaps there are some useful societal conversations that can emanate from that.”