Durban – Five years of painstaking research, intercontinental collaboration and, most of all, challenged emotions culminated in the launch of a seminal book “The Indian Africans”, in Durban on Wednesday.
The day was significant: it was the 162nd anniversary of the first arrival of indentured workers aboard the SS Truro, and the 1860 Heritage Centre was packed to the rafters for the event.
While many books have been written about the people who were shipped from India to Durban to work as indentured labour, for the first time researchers had actual photographs taken on board the indenture ships.
Selvan Naidoo, the curator of the 1860 Heritage Centre, was able to secure access to the diaries, scrapbooks and photographs of Captain Max de Gruyter, who commanded several voyages of the SS Umona which brought many of them to Durban, meaning the indentured workers are no longer faceless.
“The most exciting part of this is the pictures and the diary entries that came from Australia. We had the grandson of Captain De Gruyter (Stewart Fairbairn) scan those images and then dropbox it to us, so that worked very well,” said Kiru Naidoo.
Together, Kiru, Paul David, Ranjith Choonilall and Selvan Naidoo co-authored the 374 pages of history which for the first time has embarkation and deck pictures of those who travelled to South Africa.
“No longer were indentured workers an entirely anonymous mass, named and documented but faceless,” they write in a chapter of the book titled “The Tribe’s journey”.
As they weaved together the tales they reached out to locals and people in other parts of the world for information and assistance so that they could present a cohesive story.
“Where we needed documents that were sitting in Edinburgh or London or Calcutta we had our network of people go and find them, scan them and send it to us if we were not physically able to go to those places,” said Naidoo.
They also started out by writing pieces which were published in local papers and got feedback from people who had additional information or who could identify people in the pictures.
In the acknowledgement section of the book, the writers credit anti-apartheid struggle hero Paul Devdas David ‒ as president of the 1860 Pioneers Foundation ‒ with planting the seed for the project.
Devdas, the lead author, died in 2020 and the first printed edition of the book was presented to his granddaughter, Caitlynn David, at the launch.
Kiru said they originally intended for the book to be printed in 2020 on the 160th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers but Covid and everything else happened.
“We just kept tinkering and tinkering and tinkering and then the publisher said to us, ‘Is this book happening or is it a work of fiction?’,” said Kiru.
He said they had barely scratched the surface and there were many more areas of research, or even academic theses, which could still be produced.
Despite the writers’ vastly differing opinions on a number of issues regarding the book, Kiru said it was a moving and liberating experience for them.
“This was really emotional because we’re connected to the story and there’s a saying that until the lions have their historians, the tale of the hunt will always be told by the hunter. We are now the lions: we are equipped to be able to do the archival research so it doesn’t have to be a third party telling our story.”
The book is from the stable of heritage publisher Micromega and is available online at www.madeindurban.co.za for countrywide delivery.
At 3pm this afternoon it will be launched at Goodwill Manor, Posy Place, Reservoir Hills. Tomorrow the authors will be at the Made in Chatsworth Market, in Bayview at 11am.
The Independent on Saturday