Between 1860 and 1911, 152 641 indentured migrants arrived in Natal, primarily to work on the colony's sugar plantations. They were part of the 1.3 million Indian contract labourers who were shipped mainly to British sugar colonies after the end of slavery in most of the British Empire in 1834. This alternative source of cheap labour was required for the globalising capitalist system's food production and mining operations for European markets. In terms of their contract, indentured migrants had to labour for five years for the employer to whom they were assigned. At the end of that period they could re-indenture or seek work elsewhere in Natal. After ten years they were eligible for a free passage home. The majority, however, chose to make Natal home. Their difficult working and living conditions, as well as their histories, have been extensively chronicled.
The 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in 2010 saw the launch of a project to build a monument to acknowledge the role of the indentured in building the provincial economy and their centrality in the history of Indian South Africans. The struggle over this monument must be located within wider local and global debates. In the South African context, during the long history of British colonialism, Afrikaner nationalism and racial oppression of black South Africans, art objects in the public domain were, as the art historians Kim Miller and Brenda Schmahmann assert, mainly ‘associated with ideologies that are out of favour, such as British imperialism or Afrikaner nationalism’. In the spirit of reconciliation, the practice in the post-apartheid period is to keep existing public monuments and art, and to add new works that recognise the previously marginalised histories of the oppressed. The results are mixed: while some new works have been widely acclaimed, others are marked by contestation over consultation, what is to be commemorated, and the location, design and funding, among other issues. Furthermore, since the 2015 #RhodesMustFall movement, the policy of retaining old monuments has come under scrutiny.
The quest for recognition by the descendants of indentured migrants to Natal also has a global dimension. Indians elsewhere have been seeking recognition of the journey of their indentured ancestors. As in South Africa, Indians have had troubled racial histories in places such as Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Fiji.