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Seemandhra Forum Book Reading Event: Viriah – a story of slavery, sugar, and indentured servitude in South Africa

March 5, 2019

43428442Written by Keertana Katuru (freshman, UC Santa Cruz) and Akhila Bordag (sophomore, Dublin High School)

“The only way to dampen the pangs of hunger was to eat raw rice” (Gubili 92).

After the abolition of slavery in 1835, the British Empire required another source of cheap labor to supplement the rapidly growing demand for sugar during the 19th century. By the late 1850s, hundreds of acres of land were dedicated to sugar mills and plantations. In 1860, the first group of Indian laborers was brought to Durban made possible by the Natal Coolie Law, Law 14 of 1859. The legislation allowed for Indians to immigrate to South Africa as indentured servants under a five-year contract with the option of an extension. Eventually, 1.3 million Indians were brought to work on the sugar plantations. While there were minimal regulations that outlined how workers were to be treated and what provisions must be given, there was little to no enforcement. Most were forced to work in subpar conditions of fourteen hour days- six days a week- with their wages and rations being either inadequate or even withheld. Indians working on the plantations were charged unreasonable fees for food, lodging, and other amenities that could not be paid fully by their wages resulting in a virtually inescapable cycle of debt. In addition to the debt, many of the workers were drafted from areas in India that were ravaged by droughts or extreme poverty. With nowhere to turn to, the indentured servitude continued for generations.

Viriah, written by Krishna Gubili, describes a journey to discover the legacy of his ancestor and the horrific circumstances surrounding indentured servitude in South Africa during the 1800s. Gubili’s great grandfather, Viriah, whose story this book details, was one of the many Indians taken to labor in the sugar plantations of South Africa. Along with a heart-wrenching tale of a man stripped of even the most basic freedoms, Viriah weaves an intricate web connecting the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, demand for sugar, and colonialism.

The history of an entire population has been buried and forgotten over time. It is our responsibility to unearth this neglected story behind what is now the largest Indian population outside of the Indian subcontinent. Author Krishna Gubili takes a large step to illuminate the lifestyle and hardships of Indians bound by indentured servitude through a journey to discover his roots.

Join us on March 23rd at the Regional Meeting Room in the Dublin Civic Center from 3:30-5:30 PM for a Seemandhra Forum Book Reading Event to hear a first-hand account of Gubili’s experience and the connection between slavery, the history of sugar, and the millions of Indians in South Africa. Tickets for this FREE event are available through Eventbrite.

 

Citations:

  • Gubili, Krishna. Viriah: 1.3 Million (13 Lakh) Indians Were Shipped as Indentured Laborers to Sugarcane Plantations in British Colonies to Replace Slaves: My Great-Grandfather Was One of Them: This Is His Story. Notion Press, 2018
  • Vahed, Goolam. “The Protector, Plantocracy, and Indentured Labour in Natal, 1860–1911.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 87, no. 1, 2018, pp. 101–127., doi:10.1525/phr.2018.87.1.101.
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