Many years ago I read a fantastic novel by a local India author; The Lotus People by Aziz Hassin. He opened my eyes to the history of the Indian people in Durban. Even today, Indian people are not considered “black” and not considered “white”; they exist in this weird middle ground that in a way forces them to become even more isolated than before.
On an emotional tour with a group of visiting Indian people to South Africa, I took them to the Phoenix Settlement and the 1860 Heritage Center. It was perhaps the Heritage Center that made the most impact – and not only for Indians, I personally discovered a great deal and have a far better understanding and respect for the Durban Indians than ever before.
What is the 1860 Heritage Center?
The center was launched in May of 2017 with the intention of “documenting, preserving and recording aspects of the South African Indian Community as part of their collective national heritage and identity“.
Housed in a “listed” building designed by Percy Eagle way back in 1913 as a school, the center functions as a space that visitors can discover not only the history of the Indians in Durban, but discover more about the culture, the sporting achievements, the role Indian people played in fighting the racists Apartheid government of the past and the important role Indian woman played in establishing themselves in Durban.
On arrival you walk through the front doors into what is the first display room that also serves as a reception area. The first thing you’ll see are huge wall covering images and photos covering the arrival of the first indentured Indians to Durban.
The Indentured Indians of 1860
The story of the arrival of the Indians should be a familiar one. With the establishment of a Natal government way back in the 1843, it was a natural that the newly established settlement of Durban would grow. The potential for farming, access to the oceans for trade via the bay, and a white government that simply ran slipshod over the local Zulu people meant times were good for the whites.
The only issue was that there was a shortage of labor. There’s a number of reasons for this, it’s a little too complicated to go into any great depth in this post, but suffice to say the white authorities turned to India to resolve their growing labor crisis.
A plan was drawn up to offer Indian people an opportunity to work and live in Durban. The first group of 342 Indians to take up the offer of employment arrived aboard the Truro from Madras. After disembarking in the bay, they were held in camps until such time as they could be shipped to the various sugar cane plantations and later coal mines.
As was usual in these times, the Indians (as were all people of color frankly) were treated little better than slaves – indentured labor being considered a modern form of slavery today. Married couples found themselves working on different farms, children were taken from families – on the whole it was a diabolical system.
But like most people who find themselves living in desperate times under deplorable conditions, the Indian people fought back by working hard and achieving success in a land not of their birth, achieving so much success in fact, that the white government of Natal were forced to curtail their freedom to movement and trade, and repress the Indian in any other manner possible.
It is a tribute to the courage and fortitude of the Indian people that in spite of an unfair system, they on the made Durban their home and changed their fortunes in so much as their culture affects us even today.
The Exhibitions at the 1860 Heritage Center
As I mentioned before, the Heritage Center is actually located in what was once a school. Many of the exhibitions are actually placed inside of classrooms (I kinda like this). When I was last there, I think in February of his year (2020) not all the exhibitions were actually open, but you could still have a good look through.
The exhibitions are;
- The Story of Indenture – This is the main exhibition and covers the period from 1860 onwards. It documents the arrival of the first Indians, the processes and documenting of them, as well the work done at the various locations. It documents the hardship of starting a new life in a foreign land, a foreign land that wasn’t welcoming at all.
- The Artifacts Room – This room holds artifacts (obviously) from both the early and later days of the Durban Indians. Personally I enjoyed this room, I spent a lot of time trying to imagine the hands that grasped and even created the items here.
- Curries – Nothing to do with cooking at all but rather a look at the the role sport played int he Indian community, bringing the community together. The “Curries” part has to do with the fountain that once stood int he area – Curries Fountain. The area became known as Curries. Due to Apartheid laws Indians were forced to segregate even their sporting endeavors.
- Mandela, Gandhi and Luthuli – This exhibition focuses on the lives of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Luthuli as seen from the Indian perspective. This is another of those exhibitions that made an impact on me.
- Corridor exhibitions – As you walk from one classroom (exhibition) to another you pass through the corridors of the the school. Along the walls are more exhibitions that although deal with the Indian people in Durban, tend to be a little more random. But well worth looking at.
The 1860 Heritage Center has a great website with information on all the exhibitions as well as a number of blog posts detailing such subjects as Indian authors, the role of double role of woman in the house and and protesting Apartheid, the treatment of Indian children during the Indentured labor period and so on.
Good to Know
Cost – The museum is free to the public. It goes without saying that a donation of some sort would be welcome, so if you’re able to, please give something.
Parking – There is secure parking inside the school, the friendly security guard at the gate will let you in, take your temperature and all that and safeguard your vehicle. There is not a lot of parking available but I’ve never been there without finding something. You could park in the road though I wouldn’t recommend it though.
Opening Times – Open Monday to Friday, 8am to 4pm .
Address – 1 Derby Street, Durban CBD
Telephone – +27 (0) 31 309 1858
Website – https://1860heritagecentre.com/
A Parting Word
The history of the Durban Indians is as fascinating as it is sad and inspirational. It’s a story of an unwanted people surviving and prospering in spite of their shameful treatment at the hands of their hosts. A visit to this center should be required of every single person living in Durban today – and I hope you make the time to visit. It is more important today than ever before to try and understand that we all have different backgrounds and life experiences and we need to deal with one another with understanding and empathy.
The details listed above were correct at the time of publishing so you should double check opening times and costs by calling ahead. Please practice social distancing, the wearing of masks and wash your hands regularly.
Other Sites of Interest Nearby
I recommend visiting the 1860 Heritage Center as part of Indian discovery day. Try visiting these sites to make a full and informative day of it.
- The Phoenix Settlement and Mahatma Gandhi
- The Cato Manor Heritage Center
- The KwaMuhle Museum
- The Temple of Understanding in Chatsworth
If you know of other sites that may be of interest to out readers relating to cultural events, museums, heritage centers or even local peoples, please let me know by getting in touch with me via my contact page.