Travelling conditions on the ships transporting workers from India were deplorable. The voyages were long, with the danger of disease breaking out, ever lurking.
The Suffolk departed from Madras on 17 January 1878 and arrived at Port Natal (Durban) on 7 March, an arduous journey of 40 days. The logbook of Surgeon W. Watson of the Suffolk of 1887 records that breakfast was served around 10.00am and dinner at around 5pm. Single men and women were separated from families. Sirdars (supervisors) were appointed to assist in the management of the passengers and assist in translation as the vast majority of the immigrants did not speak English. The Surgeon also reported that three passengers died at sea. While at sea the crew mutinied and there was a shortage of drinking water.
According to Professor Surendra Bhana, in his book, Indentured Indian Emigrants to Natal 1860 1902, between 1876 and 1902, a total of 89 392 Indians with 477 deaths on board and 185 births, making a total of 89 100 people arriving in Natal.
The first ship, The Truro, carrying 342 Indian immigrants departed from Madras and arrived at Port Natal on 16 November 1860. The first four immigrants were Davarum, his wife, Nagium and their daughters Elizabeth (1Â½ years) and Kirbay (4 years) who were indentured by WH Savory and JL Crompton.
Between 1861 and 1865 eleven immigrants returned to India and between 1866 and 1870 a further twenty paid their own fare back to India.
On 26 November 1860, the Belvedere departed from Calcutta with 342 passengers (men, women and children). A total of 29 persons died at sea while one person was listed as "not shipped". Between 1860 and 1861, ten people died before being assigned to any employer, whilst another 18 died during the following eight years.
The listed occupations of the passengers included gardeners, Brahmins, chutrees (warriors), dairymen, pig-rearers, fruit-growers, potters, clerks, herdsmen, boatmen, leather workers, policemen, messengers, laundrymen, oil pressers, ironmongers, jewellers, a weaver, confectioner and an earthenware dealer. Although Hindus were in the majority, there were Christian and Muslim passengers among the immigrants.