Showing posts with label Migrants Index. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Migrants Index. Show all posts

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Migrants, Passengers and Others

As mentioned at the start of this series of posts on indentured Indian migrants in Natal, for a family historian to make progress towards a clearer picture of the ancestors’ lives is not a simple matter.

However, a good rule in any ancestry research is to think laterally, especially if you have limited basic information. Instead of attempting to pinpoint your migrant directly by unsuccessfully combing the Migrants Index, try beginning with the current generation, yourself and other living relatives, then the previous generation and gradually working back. It’s surprising how many clues such as an Indentured Number or a marriage record can be collected along the way which could lead to a correct identification of the migrant. Deceased estate files of any of the migrant’s direct descendants can provide useful detail; search for these on NAAIRS. You may have to be imaginative in your search terms if there is more than one possible name for the family members (a family name, a ‘house’ name, a nickname, even an alias).

Grey Street taken from Queen St towards the Bay ca 1900; Grey St
mosque at right.
At present, for descendants researching so-called Passenger Indians, there is no database comparable to the Migrants Index. This is understandable. In any immigrant situation where people are entering a country of their own free will having paid for their own passage rather than being part of an organized immigration scheme it is more difficult to trace their movements. Passenger Indians could travel easily to Natal from British India; they began to do so in the mid-1870s, increasingly from the 80’s. For this category of immigrant, family records and memorabilia play a key role. A useful source is the South African Indian Who’s Who. See

Masulah boat 
Certain Indian immigrants, e.g. haphazard arrivals from Mauritius, naturally do not appear on the Migrants Index. Other groups are more obscure. In 1861, Port Captain Bell, having visited India in his ocean-sailing days, brought experienced oarsmen from Madras to man Masulah surfboats at Natal. Their task: to ferry cargo and passengers from ships anchored in the roadstead. The Natal Almanac & Yearly Directory continues to record through the 1870s the presence of these Masulah* boatmen at Durban, some of whom later settled in Natal as fishermen.

*Madras had a harbour problem similar to Durban's:
'...vessels of heavy burthen are obliged to moor in the roads - about two miles from the fort. A strong current runs along the coast, and a tremendous surf breaks on the shore, rendering it difficult to land even in the calmest weather. In crossing this surf the natives use boats of a peculiar construction, built of very thin planks laced together, and made as pliable as possible. The boats from the vessels often row to the outside of the surf, and wait for the masulah boats to take the passengers on shore.'

Other useful links:

An Outline of Indian South African History 1860-1960

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Searching for migrant ancestors

If while searching the Migrants Index you find a likely contender for your ancestor (from name, date of arrival, estimated age at the time of arrival, father’s name etc) it’s worth looking at the registration numbers immediately adjacent to the number you have located. These could indicate a family unit – parents and children travelling together. For example, in the case of a girl named Rajamma, thought by descendants to be aged under ten at the time of her journey to Natal, an entry on the Index for a girl of eight years old seemed a very possible match. Above her name are those of an adult couple, in all likelihood her parents. Below her name are two young boys, almost certainly her siblings. (Whole families were indentured, not only the male head of the family.)

The final column on the Index tells us that the parents later returned to India, as did the male siblings. There’s no such return recorded for Rajamma who presumably married and remained in Natal. If she is the correct Rajamma - and the chances are good - her descendants have suddenly acquired several previously unknown migrant relatives as well as, no doubt, living relatives in India.

I mentioned caste in an earlier post. This is a vast topic and I will leave it to the specialists such as Prof. Surendra Bhana. For a useful list of castes, with their relevant meanings and professions see
Names of castes – like the geographical areas of India – have undergone changes since the 1860s.

On board ship ‘there was little official space for caste or custom. A Pariah’s reply to a Brahmin upset at being bumped into, I have taken off my caste and left it with the Port Officer. I won’t put it on again till I come back, poignantly sums up the situation. … Yet it would be wrong to speak of a complete breakdown of the caste system during the voyage. Consciousness of caste and other boundaries would persist long after the voyage and indenture ended.’

[From Chapter 2, Inside Indenture: Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed]

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tracing your migrant ancestor in Natal

The Migrants Index presents a picture of a fleeting moment. One of the dedicated volunteers involved in the compilation of the Index remarked that ‘we only get one chance with the migrants, that is, on arrival’. After they were dispersed to their various employers it becomes more difficult to follow their trail. The employer to whom a migrant was initially indentured might well not be the employer for the entire period of his indenture. Migrants could be transferred to another sugar estate, for example, even unofficially swapped between employers. Reasons for such arbitrary behaviour varied.

The migrant may remain invisible for much of his sojourn in Natal unless a particular event concerning him generated a public record at the time – that is, a document or file preserved as archival material. These could range from a claim of ill-treatment of a migrant by his employer to an application by a ‘free’ Indian (one who had completed his term of indenture) for a firearm licence. The latter subject provides a fruitful source for discussion about Vijay Maharaj’s ancestors in his book Injustice published in 2007. (ISBN: 1-4196-7877-9 ISBN-13: 9781419678776

Search NAAIRS at for such references. Again, the difficulty is identifying the migrant by name. If an Indentured or Registration Number is known that can be helpful. A so-called Colonial Number was issued to colonial-born individuals and should not be confused with the Registration or Indentured Number allocated to migrants on arriving in Natal.

Archives of the Indian Immigration Department (1858 - 1924) offer rich pickings for descendants of migrants and other researchers: these files are held at Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository and are referenced on NAAIRS.

An example of what can be achieved by using these sources is seen in the book by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, first published by Madiba Press in 2007 as Inside Indenture: a South African story, 1860-1914, and published in 2010 by HSRC Press as Inside Indian Indenture: a South African story, 1860-1914.
(ISBN 0796922446, 9780796922441)

The volume is required reading for anyone with an interest in this topic. It takes us beyond statistics to the human story of indenture.

Indian festival at Umgeni

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Researching Indian Migrant Ancestors in Natal

If you’re a family historian seeking migrant ancestors who came to Natal from India, it’s wise to do some preparation before starting a search of the Migrants Index. In keeping with all genealogy research, adhere to the maxim of proceeding from the Known to the Unknown.

Migrants at Umzinto, Natal.
Are you certain that your ancestor/s arrived as migrants under the system of indenture, and not as one of the so-called Passenger Indians, mostly merchants and traders who came to Natal under their own steam, as it were, paying for their own passage out? 

If your ancestor was one of the latter immigrants he naturally won’t be found on the Migrants Index. (Bear in mind, though, that there are no hard and fast rules in researching migrants: it isn’t always simple to categorise them. Many migrants who went back to India after serving their indenture contract, for a variety of reasons returned to Natal – some re-indentured for another five years, others came out again as ‘free’ Indians and thus were ‘passengers’ at that stage.)

Start by doing some homework, collecting as much information as possible from sources within the family about the migrant ancestor/s you are looking for; family memories, legends, stories, anecdotes. The main goal is to establish particular details about a migrant which could help identify him on the index.

(Note: where I refer to a migrant ancestor as ‘he’ this implies ‘he’ or ‘she’. Migrants were men, women and children.)

Details for identification purposes include:
The migrant’s name. This may sound obvious but can be a huge stumbling block. See note below*
A spouse’s name.
Registration or Indentured Number.
An approximate year or period of possible arrival; at least try to pin it down to a decade by working out ages of succeeding generations.
Any clues as to the migrant’s employer, in which industry, or the area where the migrant worked e.g. North Coast, South Coast or more specific places.
Family memory might point to a possible place of origin in India, even if only 'North' or 'South'.
Any clues as to caste/ religion/language of the migrant ancestor.
Knowledge of a special occupation the migrant may have had: e.g. coachman.
Any official documents preserved by family members.

* Names are the single most difficult aspect when it comes to using the Migrants Index.
There could be a large number of confusing variant spellings of a particular name.  Names may have been recorded incorrectly by those compiling the original lists. Migrants sometimes changed their names during their time in Natal. The name by which descendants know them might not be the one that appears in the lists. These and other factors militate against finding the ‘right’ ancestor. It’s therefore helpful to home in on a specific detail as an aid in identification of the individual.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Indian Immigration Registers/Ships Lists Natal

The Indian Immigration Registers, or as they are popularly known, the Ships Lists, are a unique record of the coming to Natal from India of over 150 000 migrants between the years 1860 and 1911. During that period there were gaps of several years when migration, for various reasons, was interrupted.

Detail from page of Indian Immigration Register
The original registers, handwritten and difficult to read, as well as in fragile condition (particularly the early lists), are held at the Durban Archives Repository*.

Information given includes Registration (or Indenture) Number, Name, Father's name, Caste, Age, Height, Zillah (Province of origin in India), Thanna (nearest big town), Village and name of Employer to whom the migrant was to be indentured. Ship arrival date is given and also included are descriptions of physical marks - scars, tattoos etc. There may be additional subsequent events in the career of a particular migrant, such as death or his/her return to India.

A mammoth voluntary project to index these registers has resulted in the publication of a database searchable by name of migrant, as well as by Registration Number, displayed in columns corresponding with those found in the original lists (except for the column pertaining to physical marks which has been omitted). This database or index not only avoids excessive use of the original material, which is a plus in terms of preservation, but provides an accessible facility for research purposes – especially in the case of descendants wishing to trace migrant ancestors.

However, it should be emphasised that while the Migrants Index is a wonderful resource, it is not a magic wand. The information it offers requires interpretation; it demands some knowledge and effort on the part of the descendant/researcher, as well as the use of archival and other records in conjunction with the Index. Further discussion on this aspect in future posts.

To order a copy of the CD Indian Migrants to Natal: Ships Lists (1860-1911)  GSSA CD011  ISBN 978-0-9869742-2-9 (Copyright J.B.Brain) contact the Genealogical Society of South Africa (GSSA): 

The Ships Lists are also available online at
In this version the lists are searchable by Registration Number.

*Durban Archives Repository
Nashua House
14 De Mazenod Lane
Tel: (031) 309 5682    
Hours: 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. weekdays.