Passages of Ink: Decoding the Natal Indentured Records into the Digital Age

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Seminar Date
August 21, 2013
In every British colony that received indentured workers from India, officials recorded personal and social details for identifying the arriving migrants. In the colony of Natal, just over 152,000 migrants were inscribed into such lists between 1860 and 1911. This article traces the history of this set of documents from their mid-19th century origins as registers of imperial labour control to their 21st century digitization by an amateur historian in a relational database, available online. Against the backdrop of transforming informational technologies, the story of the shipping lists is the story of their changing social and political meanings in relation to the circumstances of the Indian diaspora in South Africa over one hundred and fifty years. Now held at the Durban Archives Repository, these records are regularly drawn upon by South Africans of indentured ancestry to establish family origins for the purposes of applying for PIO or OCI statuses, offered by the Indian government to individuals who can prove Indian ancestry within a number of generations. Thus, the ships’ lists are bracketed by very different periods in which the creation of an ‘exceptional’ political status was legislated to serve economic interests by harnessing linkages of the global south.
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