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HSRC Press :: Inside Indian Indenture

Inside Indian Indenture
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Inside Indian Indenture

A South African Story, 1860-1914

Ashwin Desai, Goolam Vahed

Format168mm x 240mm (Soft Cover)
ISBN 100-7969-2244-6
ISBN 13978-07969-2244-1
Publish Year2010
RightsWorld Rights
DescriptionRelated ProductsEmail To A FriendProduct RatingCustomer Reviews

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Many were filled with hopes as high as Mahjoub's stars as they crossed the Indian Ocean, making their way from India to Durban in southern Africa in the late 1800s. But dreams of a better life and the opportunity to save money and return to the village as 'success stories' were not to be for many who returned 'home' with less than they had started out with, and found that home was no longer the place they had left. Neither were they the same people. Caste had been transgressed, parents had died and spaces for reintegration closed as colonialism tightened its grip. Home for these wandering exiles was no more.

Inside Indian Indenture is a timely and monumental work which makes a significant contribution to our understanding of South African Indian history. It tells a story about the many beginnings and multiple journeys that made up the indentured experience. The authors seek to trespass directly into the lives of the indentured themselves. They explore the terrain of the everyday by focusing on religious and cultural expressions, leisure activities, power relations on the plantations, the weapons of resistance and forms of collaboration that were developed in conflicts with the colonial overlords. Fascinating accounts brimming with desire, skulduggery and tender mercies, as much as with oppression and exploitation, show that the indentured were as much agents as they were victims and silent witnesses.

To read this book is to enter their world, to meet real people in all their ambiguities and complexities as they danced the uncertain edge between improvisation and resignation, to know the dreams that fill the souls of wandering exiles. Not only does it substantially revise the contours of South African Indian historiography, it starts to weave these themes into the mainstream of Southern African studies. It also situates itself in comparative work on indenture especially in Fiji and Mauritius and extends this work by making the South African experience of indenture available to other scholars.

(NB: November 2010 is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first ship of indentured Indian labourers in South Africa. This book is an updated special commemorative edition (now including an extensive index) of the previously published book Inside Indenture)



  1. Shiva’s dance
  2. The paglaa samundar (mad ocean)
  3. From the Raj to Raju
  4. ‘Master Coolie’ arrives
  5. The interpreters of indenture
  6. Inside the world of Uriah Heep and Jabez Balfour
  7. Esperanza: A place of hope?
  8. Bhen Choodh and the politics of ploys
  9. Cast(e) on an African stage
  10. Family matters
  11. When the ‘coolies’ made Christmas
  12. From heathens to Hindus
  13. Coolies with Bibles
  14. Bâdshâh Pîr meets Soofie Saheb
  15. The many faces of leisure and pleasure: From China to Ganja
  16. The bodysnatchers (1899–1902)
  17. The Virgin Mary and the three pound cross
  18. ‘Drawing blood from a stone’
  19. Resistance goes underground
  20. The moral persuaders?
  21. Africa calling


About the Author/s

Ashwin Desai holds a Masters degree from Rhodes University and a doctorate from Michigan State University. He is currently Associate Professor of Sociology at Rhodes University. One of South Africa's foremost social commentators, Desai's previous books include (amongst others) We are the poors: Community struggles in post-apartheid South Africa and Monty Naicker: Between Reason and Treason.

Goolam Vahed is Associate Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He holds a PhD in History from Indiana University (Bloomington, USA) and has taught widely in the fields of African, American and World history. His research interests include transnational history, religion, culture and ethnicity, as well as sprort and history. His previous books include Blacks in Whites: a Century of Cricket Struggles in KwaZulu-Natal (with A. Desai, V.Padayachee and K. Reddy) and Dear Ahmedbhai, Dear Zuleikhabehn: the Letters of Zuleikha Mayat and Ahmed Kathrada (compiled with T.Waetjen).


“Inspired research. Beautifully written. A captivating narrative.”
- Professor Fatima Meer, Anti-apartheid and Human Rights Activist

“Bold and imaginative writing characterised by what can only be called outstanding research.”
- Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Professor of History, University of the Western Cape

“A very valuable contribution to the historiography of South Africa, that will be a reference for many years to come.”
- Bill Freund, Professor Emeritus, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal

“Eloquent, informative, sensitive and moving, Inside Indian Indenture is an unparalleled exploration of a world now vanished beyond recall: the world of Indian indenture in all its gruesome and maddening complexity. This book is an achievement of singular importance unlikely to be surpassed in our time, and destined to find a permanent place in the scholarship on the subject.”
- Brij V Lal, Professor of Pacific and Asian History, Australian National University and General Editor of The Enclyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora

“The story of the global migration of Indian indentured labour is one of the most poignant and central narratives of the nineteenth century. That story, the subject of many new works, has never been told better than by Goolam Vahed and Ashwin Desai in Inside Indian Indenture . Focusing on South Africa, Vahed and Desai go far beneath the surface to reveal not only the brutalities of indenture but also the near heroic lives of those who made the passage from India and their descendants. Drawing on an unusually wide and impressive array of sources, this book is remarkable for the depth of its insights, the empathy with which it casts an eye on indentured laborers, and the richness of its historiographic contribution.”
- Vinay Lal, Professor of History, Delhi University & University of California, Los Angeles

“These pages are replete with engaging story after engaging story of disillusionment and despair, of complicity and stark survival, but also of resistance, agency and triumph. The narratives are rendered in the most compelling prose, indisputably displaying how ideas and feelings meld in passionate scholarship.”
- Devarakshanam Govinden, Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal

"Inside Indian Indenture is an achievement of singular importance unlikely to be surpassed in our time, and destined to find a permanent place in the scholarship on the subject. This book MUST be read by descendants of Indentured labourers as well as those still committed to a non-racial, democratic South Africa."
- Professor Brij Maharaj, University of KwaZulu-Natal in the Post Newspaper, Durban, 20 October 2010

Click on the link below to read the reviews:

Inside Indian Indenture Review - The Post, KZN (PDF)

Inside Indian Indenture Review - The Post, KZN (Image)



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