Mapping free Indian migration to Natal through a biographical lens, 1880-1930.

03 September 2013

The history of indentured Indians has been well documented in South African historiography in terms of migration and settlement. Shipping lists, which meticulously recorded the biographical details of each labourer, together with Indian immigrant reports, provide a wealth of information on the early migratory and labour experiences of indentured Indians. Regrettably, similar documentation regarding passenger or free Indian migration to Natal is absent in the South African archival records. This article adopts a biographical approach as a methodological tool to map the identification practices involved in the migration of passenger or free Indian immigrants to Natal between 1880 and 1930. Both the colonial and Union governments sought to regulate the entry of these immigrants through a system of identity documents. Passage tickets, domicile certificates, affidavits, Certificates of Identity and passports not only facilitated and hindered both individual and family migration, but also show how citizenship was defined, and migration controls were instituted and administered to free immigrants. Thus, as British subjects, free Indian immigrants were not really free but had to constantly, defend and reclaim their civic rights, and attest and verify their identity as the colonial and later the Union government sought new and creative ways to restrict and prohibit their entry. This article illustrates the usefulness of a biographical approach to migration studies, in not only highlighting individual but collective immigrant experiences, which provide a way of capturing the diversity, complexity and the transformational nature of free Indian migration to Natal.