Thursday, July 12, 2012

Migrants, Passengers and Others

As mentioned at the start of this series of posts on indentured Indian migrants in Natal, for a family historian to make progress towards a clearer picture of the ancestors’ lives is not a simple matter.

However, a good rule in any ancestry research is to think laterally, especially if you have limited basic information. Instead of attempting to pinpoint your migrant directly by unsuccessfully combing the Migrants Index, try beginning with the current generation, yourself and other living relatives, then the previous generation and gradually working back. It’s surprising how many clues such as an Indentured Number or a marriage record can be collected along the way which could lead to a correct identification of the migrant. Deceased estate files of any of the migrant’s direct descendants can provide useful detail; search for these on NAAIRS. You may have to be imaginative in your search terms if there is more than one possible name for the family members (a family name, a ‘house’ name, a nickname, even an alias).

Grey Street taken from Queen St towards the Bay ca 1900; Grey St
mosque at right.
At present, for descendants researching so-called Passenger Indians, there is no database comparable to the Migrants Index. This is understandable. In any immigrant situation where people are entering a country of their own free will having paid for their own passage rather than being part of an organized immigration scheme it is more difficult to trace their movements. Passenger Indians could travel easily to Natal from British India; they began to do so in the mid-1870s, increasingly from the 80’s. For this category of immigrant, family records and memorabilia play a key role. A useful source is the South African Indian Who’s Who. See

Masulah boat 
Certain Indian immigrants, e.g. haphazard arrivals from Mauritius, naturally do not appear on the Migrants Index. Other groups are more obscure. In 1861, Port Captain Bell, having visited India in his ocean-sailing days, brought experienced oarsmen from Madras to man Masulah surfboats at Natal. Their task: to ferry cargo and passengers from ships anchored in the roadstead. The Natal Almanac & Yearly Directory continues to record through the 1870s the presence of these Masulah* boatmen at Durban, some of whom later settled in Natal as fishermen.

*Madras had a harbour problem similar to Durban's:
'...vessels of heavy burthen are obliged to moor in the roads - about two miles from the fort. A strong current runs along the coast, and a tremendous surf breaks on the shore, rendering it difficult to land even in the calmest weather. In crossing this surf the natives use boats of a peculiar construction, built of very thin planks laced together, and made as pliable as possible. The boats from the vessels often row to the outside of the surf, and wait for the masulah boats to take the passengers on shore.'

Other useful links:

An Outline of Indian South African History 1860-1960

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