On the 16th November 1860, the first of the indentured Indian laborers arrived on the shores of Durban, disembarking into their new lives and writing themselves permanently into the culture and history of Durban. These Indian laborers arrived seeking new opportunities  and a better lives, they arrived with hope and determination to seek success in a far off land, and looking around Durban today, they did just that!

The 1860 Indentured Indians in Durban

The first deliberate settlement in Durban came as a courtesy of the Farewell Trading company. Created and led by Francis George Farewell, the Farwell Trading Company sought to establish a trading post and trade with indigenous peoples, specifically for ivory and animal skin.

As the new settlement established itself on the banks of a natural harbor it quickly became apparent that there was a labor shortage, specifically on the sugar cane farms and later in the coal mines. The indigenous people (the Zulu) had little interest in adapting to the western ways of doing things, having no need to find employment (something the Natal government would attempt to change leading to a number of rebellions) or adapt to the new situation, leading to a labor shortage.

Indian indentured workers in Durban

Indian indentured workers in Durban

The Natal Government acting in concert with sugar cane farmers adopted a scheme to offer indentured labor contracts to Indians. The offer was simple, the government paid for the passage of the Indian workers to Durban, and the workers than paid off the passage by working on sugar cane farms.

Once the contract was up (around 6 years) the worker could either sign up for another contract period, or would be free to settle in Durban and embark on a new chapter of their lives. It’s interesting that around 25% of Indians chose to return to India after their contracts were up, although many returned later with their families.

The Indians of the Cape

Although Durban is often celebrated as being where Indian people started their lives in South Africa, the fact is that as early as 1684 the first Indians actually arrived in the Cape, having been brought over by the Dutch as slaves in the newly established Dutch Cape colony. In time these early Indian slaves assimilated in to the Cape culture, in fact nearly 80% of all slaves brought into the Cape by the end of slavery (1838) were of Indian origin.

By the 1880’s the Indians had totally become integrated with the growing Coloured population and those of the Far East slaves brought in by the Dutch.

The Free Indians

Not all Indian people who arrived in Durban did so as indentured laborers. many of the wealthier Indian people saw opportunity in Durban and so paid for their own passage over. In time the free Indians and those that had completed their contracts settled around Durban. Many of the laborers either becoming fisherman and supplying Durban markets, while other started small market farms along the banks of the Mgeni River.

The Mahatma Gandhi house in Phoenix, KwaMashu, Durban

The Mahatma Gandhi house in Phoenix, KwaMashu, Durban

Other Indians become builders, merchants, store keepers, tailors and performed other much needed roles in Durban’s growing community.

The Merchant Class

By the late 1800’s the white settlers of Durban were growing concerned about what they termed the “merchant class Indians”. These Indians were through hard work and perseverance becoming wealthy and successful land owners. The Natal Government introduced a number of acts to control this class of Durban citizen, all designed to reign in the successful Indian, introducing laws to restrict the movement of Indians, where they could live and where they could trade.

Book A Durban City Tour and Learn More About the History and People of Durban

Mahatma Gandhi who arrived in Durban to 1893 saw and experienced first hand the unfair treatment of Indian people by the white citizens of Durban (and South Africa) and through his experiences, spent 21 years in South Africa fighting for Indian rights and against the oppression of people of color in South Africa and beyond.

The Legacy of the Indentured and Free Indians

From these humble beginnings in the Cape and in Durban, there is no doubt at all the Indian people have gone on to become a part of the beating heart of South Africa, but no where else can this be seen as clearly as is in Durban.

victoria street market

Victoria Street Market

Among a population of 52m South Africans, Indians make of 1,2m (2.3%), in Durban alone the Indian people account for 24% of the population. Even though the numbers sound quite small, the Indians punch about their weight and the traditions and culture can be spotted through out the country.

Durban City Tours

One of my favorite parts of a Durban city tour is exploring what’s known as the Grey Street area. It’s one of the spots in which Indian people settled and today is still a vibrant and busy part of Durban. The early Indian architecture is evident with double and triple story building, the ground floor serving as the store and the upper floors the accommodation.

A visit to Victoria Street Market is always on every itinerary and walking into the market you are right away gifted with the heady smells of spices from all the spice sellers mixed in with fragrant incense burning in every stall.

Crossing over from the Victoria Street Market and through the Muthi Market visitor can experience the “Early Morning Market”. It’s on this site that the first garden market was established. Today you’ll still see the Indian (and also Black) traders with their fresh fruit and vegetables and prices that are honestly so cheap I often do my own grocery shopping there.

The 1860 Museum is also nearby, and is a fantastic insight into the history of the Indian people in Durban and although we don’t stop at the site, it’s a fantastic museum to explore when you have a little spare time.

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa, a large portion of which was in Durban and his home can still be seen in the Phoenix Settlement which is just north of Durban in the township of KwaMashu. A visit to this site can be pretty emotional, reading about Gandhi’s time in South Africa, in Durban, his experiences both negative and positive does make you a little more appreciative of how easy we have it today.

Booking A Durban City Tour

It’s easy to book a Durban City Tour with us and learn a bit about Indian Culture in Durban. Either visit the tour page or use one of the options below to get in touch.

Contact Form