About the year 1860 the Europeans in Natal, finding that there was considerable scope for sugarcane cultivation, felt themselves in need of labour. Without outside labour the cultivation of cane and the manufacture of sugar were impossible, as the Natal Zulus were not suited to this form of work. The Natal Government therefore corresponded with the Indian Government, and secured their permission to recruit Indian labour. These recruits were to sign an agreement or indenture to work in Natal for five years, and at the end of the term they were to be at liberty to settle there and to have full rights of ownership of land. Those were the inducements held out to them.
But the Indians gave more
than had been expected of them. They grew large
quantities of vegetables. They introduced a number of
Indian varieties and made it possible to grow the local
varieties cheaper. They also introduced the mango. Nor
did their enterprise stop at agriculture. They entered
trade. They purchased land for building, and many raised
themselves from the status of labourers to that of
owners of land and houses. Merchants from India followed
them and settled there for trade.
The white traders were
alarmed. When they first welcomed the Indian labourers,
they did not know their business skill. They might be
tolerated as independent agriculturists, but their
competition in trade could not be allowed.
This sowed the seed of the
antagonism to Indians. Many other factors contributed to
Through legislation this
antagonism found its expression in a bill to impose a
tax on the indentured Indians.
We organized a fierce
campaign against this tax. Had the community given up
the struggle, had the Congress abandoned the campaign
and submitted to the tax as inevitable, the hated tax
would have continued to be levied from the indentured
Indians until this day, to the eternal shame of the
Indians in South Africa and of the whole of India.
By now I had been three
years in South Africa. I had got to know the people and
they had got to know me. In 1896 I asked permission to
go home for six months, for I saw that I was in for a
long stay there. I had established a fairly good
practice, and could see that people felt the need of my
presence. So I made up my mind to go home, fetch my wife
and children, and then return and settle out there. I
also saw that, if I went home, I might be able to do
there some public work by educating public opinion and
creating more interest in the Indians in South Africa.