Natal's Indians, the empire and the South African War, 1899 - 1902.

15 March 2012

Most early scholars of the South African War focussed almost entirely on the struggle between Afrikaner nationalism and British imperialism in which the role of Blacks was seen as irrelevant. By focussing on Indians, a little-studied group, this micro-study will contribute to the ongoing process of providing a more complete picture of the war years. It seeks to address why Indians, who were subject to oppression by English-speaking whites, volunteered on the side of Britain, the active and non-combatant roles they played in the war, the losses they suffered and the impact of the Indian role to the overall situation. Indians were clearly divided along class lines and these divisions were perpetuated during the war in terms of the manner in which Indians were recruited, their role in the war and their treatment at the conclusion of the war. Indians supported the British because India was part of the British Empire and they felt that this would give them added leverage in their dealings with the British imperial authorities. The undisguised hostility of the Boer Republics towards them also influenced their decision. Under Gandhi's prodding, Indians contributed financially and also formed an ambulance bearer corps, which served between December 1899 and March 1900 under extremely difficult conditions. A grossly understudied area is the plight of Indian refugees from areas of Indian concentration such as Johannesburg, Pretoria, Newcastle, Ladysmith, Dundee, Colenso and Kimberley. Most refugees sought refuge with friends and family in Natal even though the Natal Government tried to prevent them coming. The invading Boers had no clear policy on what to do with Indians in Northern Natal. In most cases they arrested Indians for several weeks but then released them. Boers also used Indians as cooks and cleaners. Indian traders suffered heavy losses as their shops were looted by the invading Boers as well as by British soldiers and ordinary Indian, white and African civilians. The DTC failed to assist the 4 000 Indian refugees in Durban. Durban's Indians had to feed, clothe and support Indian refugees. While Gandhi and the NIC chose to be loyal instead of exploiting the space created by the war to challenge the Government, their loyalty went unrewarded. The Governments of Natal and Transvaal imposed further anti-Indian legislation and the position of Indians deteriorated in the post-war years as the foundation was laid for a modern South Africa based on white racial supremacy. Indians became part of a South Africa whose destiny was shaped by the war. The shapers of this new South Africa were Boer leaders like Botha and Smuts who remembered all too well that Indians had sided with the British.