Indian immigration into Natal brought with it strained relations and severe problems and conflicts between the White colonists and the new arrivals. Within a decade, irregularities in the employment of Indians had increased to such an extent that that the Natal Colonial Secretary was forced to set up a special Indian Immigrants Commission in 1885, to investigate the conditions and complaints of Indian immigrants.

The Governor, Sir Henry Ernest Bulwer appointed the Wragg Commission as it came to be known consisted of Mr Justice Walter Thomas Wragg, James Renault Saunders, J.P. Dr Robert Lewer, Senior Medical Officer and Henry Francis Richardson.

The Commission's Report was a document of the prevailing legislation in the Colony of Natal governing Indian immigrants.  According to the author, CG Henning, the lengthy report of the Wragg Commission presents a rather haphazard method of collecting and presenting facts. Many witnesses were called several times and the interrogation does not follow any pattern of logic.

A brief summary of the Wragg Commission:

  • Medical: The smoking of dagga was considered illegal as it led to crime and absenteeism from work.  Bilharzia was common in certain areas and leprosy occurred in a small minority. Veneral diseases were a serious problem especially amongst single women.  It was recommended that stricter checks be made at Calcutta and Madras as well as on disembarkation at Durban. There was an increase in the consumption of liquor.  The Durban Depot Hospital was found to be totally unsatisfactory in the treatment of the sick.  The hospital was understaffed and there was no female nurse here. Male and female patients were not separated.  The toilet facilities were very primitive while the supply of drugs was inadequate.  The Report went on to state that greater attention should be given to special diets for patients.
  • Social Aspects: by 1885 the Indian population had reached around 30 000.  Between 1873 and 30 June 1886, 4 971 Indian marriages were registered, of which 865 were still under indenture.  By 1885 there were eight divorces in Natal. According to the commission, it was lawful for an Indian boy of 16 and an Indian girl of 13 to marry. The Durban cemetery was regarded as a "disgrace and dangerous to health". Pigs (belonging to a nearby butcher) "trespassed and rooted up the bodies of the dead".  The Commission recommended that the indiscriminate burying of the dead should cease and that Indian graveyards "be maintained with decency and due respect for the dead".  The Commission condemned the Railway Barracks at Durban, the barracks at the Central Station and at the Point for their faulty construction. It was recommended that the Medical Officer regularly inspect huts on the estates for cleanliness and sanitary arrangements. Water supply for consumption on most Estates was fouled by pollution and was of grave concern.  Rivers and streams were used for personal ablution and the washing of clothes, but also to obey the call of nature.  Estate owners were to sink wells that were well protected and that latrines were to be constructed on the estates for usage.  Municipal by-laws prohibited the construction of thatched buildings and in rural areas these were also considered illegal as it was a hazard in the event of grass fires. There was a rise in drunkenness in Natal.
  • Pollution: many Indians suffered from bilharzias as a result of bathing in streams and drawing water from here. Also latrines were not provided by estate owners.  As a result the Chief Medical Officer also played the role of the Sanitary Inspector.
  • Labour: shockingly, the Commission emphasised only two cases of ill-treatment of Indians.  Sundays, Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Years Day were regarded as days of rest.  The Commission partially agreed to a request for Sunday working, namely, feeding animals etc., and those employees should work for two hours on Sunday before 8a.m.  The Commission was vague on the status of women who did not work, leaving the door open to irregularities and abuse.
  • The Protector's Office: the Commission was extremely critical of the position of the Protector and recommended that some of his judicial powers be repealed.  It further recommended that the Protectors courts be abolished and that all cases be heard by the Resident Magistrate.
  • The Wragg Commission reported that, " - - - Free Indians thrive in Natal.  Their wants are, comparatively, few, and their industrious habits cause them to prosper in nearly every occupation in which they engage". In market gardening they soon supplanted all other rivals and took over the industry. Street hawkers maintained a door-to-door fresh vegetable service in Durban. Through the coastal belt of Natal they cleared land for cultivating sugar, maize, tobacco or vegetables.  As domestic servants many earned £4 per month and even more as cooks.  On Salisbury Island, in Durban Bay, there was a thriving fish industry with their dried salt fish finding its ways to markers in Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith and even as far as Mauritius. It is interesting to note the comments of one Sir Henry Binns, appearing before the Commission, " - - - Free Indians have grown about 100 000 muids of maize per annum.  We have never had any immigrants from Europe who have shown any inclination to become market gardeners and fishermen".
  • Some Colonists felt that Indians should remain indentured for ten years or, alternatively, they should be sent back to India after five years unless they were willing to re-indenture for a further period.  The "free" Indians status should be reduced and that he should carry identity documents and that their freedom of movement and place of residence or business should be restricted.  Another group of Colonists demanded that all Indian labour should cease and that Blacks should be employed. 

After three years of intensive research gathering evidence from witnesses, the Commission compiled an elaborate report.  The Commission seemed to have failed to reach a satisfactory solution to the "problem" of Indian immigration.

Collections in the Archives