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Indians in Africa

Frederick Spence Tatham (1865-1934)
Letter to The Times, 04 Nov 1895


to the editor of the times.

Sir, It may be of service to state the case of the Indians in Africa from the point of view of the colonist, and I shall accordingly ask you to be good enough to give me space for this letter in The Times.

Owing to the meddling interference of Downing-street in South African affairs, the colonists of Natal found themselves unable to obtain from an enormous native population the necessary labour to develop the industries of the colony, and accordingly in the year 1859 negotiations were opened with the Indian Government with the object of enabling colonists to introduce Indian labourers known as coolies, these persons being drawn from the lower class of the inhabitants of British India. Acts were passed by the Legislature of Natal in fulfilment of the requirements of the Indian Government, which very amply safeguarded the interests of these coolies; a special department was created under the control of an officer who was called the Protector of Indian Immigrants, whose duty it is to watch over the interests of the immigrants and insure due observance by employers of their responsibilities. The laws provided for the return of the Indian to India, at the expense of the colony, upon the completion of his term of indenture, and in the event of the coolie refusing to return to India he forfeited his passage money.

But the coolie did not want to return to India. He was more comfortable in Natal. He had, speaking generally, left some poverty-stricken, and perhaps famine-stricken, province in India a weak, thin, and miserable being; a few years in Natal under kind and regular treatment have transformed him into a sleek, healthy, and strong man. He prefers not to go back to the old days of misery, and so he stays in Natal, until there is now in Natal an Indian population which equals the whites in point of numbers.

Who is this Indian? What is his state of civilization? Those writers upon the subject whose knowledge of the Indian is confined to gentlemen of Mr. Naoroji's or Mr. Bhownaggree's class fall grievously into error in taking those gentlemen as types of the man with whom we have to deal in South Africa. The Indian of Natal belongs to the lowest caste of the inhabitants of India; he is little, if at all, higher in the scale of civilization than the natives of South Africa; he is utterly unable to understand and appreciate the franchise, a state of things recognized by the British Government, which has withheld the franchise from him in his own country. Some idea of the extent of his ignorance in such matters may be gained by the following incident: During the elections which preceded the establishment of responsible government in Natal the Indian voters were told and believed that the question at issue was whether or not Queen Victoria was to be killed!

These are the people to whom we are to be coerced into giving the franchise. They are not fit for it and do not want it. The agitation is not their work. It is the work of an altogether different class of persons, who are known as Arabs locally, though they are in reality Bombay traders who have settled in Natal for trading purposes. These men number some 500 or 600, and amongst them are a few fairly educated and wealthy men, whoso ambition leads them to foment agitation amongst the Indian population in the hope of securing seats in Parliament by their votes. These gentlemen have, with Oriental artlessness, drawn a picture of the sufferings of the Indian population which is as untrue as it is libellous on the colonists. Nowhere do the governed receive greater consideration from the governing class than do the Indians in Natal. Every possible protection is thrown over them. Large sums of money are paid out of State funds for providing schools, medical attendance, and other things for their benefit. The law Courts are open to them for protection to life and property, and their interests are most carefully watched by a special department of State.

But while colonists do all that can be done to make life in Natal pleasant for the Indian, we are determined about the one thing. We will not on any account allow the Indian to govern Natal. There is no room for argument about this. We are resolutely determined upon it. To give the Indian the franchise would imply government by the lowest class of the natives of India, because they are already numerically stronger than the whites. If it suits the purpose of Downing-street to coerce us in this matter, that coercion will have to take place by other than constitutional methods. We will not stay to argue the thing. We are actuated by the all dominant instinct of self-preservation, an instinct which is as strong in Downing-street as it is in Natal. The government of Natal must remain in the hands of the white men of Natal, because the coloured population are intellectually unfitted for it. We resent the interference of Downing-street in our domestic policy. We resent the suggestion so often made by untruthful and interested persons that the Englishman when he settles in a colony becomes transformed into a cruel oppressor. We claim that we should be allowed to manage our own affairs, because if a mistake is made its consequences fall upon us. We claim that Downing-street interference in South African affairs has worked more harm than can be undone in a generation, and we urge that we may at least be regarded as of the same stuff as the great nation, and actuated by the spirit of justice and fairness towards inferiors which has made the name of Englishman respected throughout the world.

Yours truly,


The Times, Monday, Nov 04: 1895: pg. 12; Issue 34725: col B

Date04 Nov 1895
Linked toFrederick Spence Tatham

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