The Lobito Bay Indians (Hons Thesis, 1986)[Railways, free Indians , Labour(Angola)]
In April 1907 some 2 208 ex-indentured Indians left Durban for Lobito
Bay in Angola. The object of their attraction was the Benguela
Railway, work on which had begun in 1903. Although these Indians
were bound, in terms of their contracts, to work in Angola for a
period of two years, by June 1908 approximately 1 600 of them had
either returned to Natal or were repatriated to India. They
brought with them reports of a disastrous encounter with death and
suffering which even surpassed by far their worst experiences in
Natal, experiences that had no doubt pushed them into Angola in the
It is necessary to place the departure of the Lobito Bay Indians in
the wider context of their experiences in Natal. Chapters 1 and 3
are devoted to such experiences and by extension, provide the most
important causal factors for their departure. Foremost amongst these
was the shameful £3 tax to which those who had entered indenture in
Natal in terms of the Indian Immigration Law Amendment Bill of 1895
(Act 17 of 1895) were subjected. 1
The burden of the £3 tax and other discriminatory legislation; the
severely depressed economy of Natal in the ~irst Anglo Boer War years;
· and the gross abuses of indentured Indians had brought intensive
pressures and hardships to bear on the Indian population and it is
against such a backdrop that the decision to go to Angola must be seen.
1. M. Swan: Gandhi ~~e South AL~ican Z~perience, p.23.
An altogether favourable picture was painted of conditions in Angola.
The climate of the country was reported to have been very healthy and
the circumstances under which they were to be employed appeared
promising and adequate enough, far better than anything in Natal.
In the wake of such favourable reports and what on the surface
appeared to be reasonable contracts of indenture, many Indians,
given their woeful conditions in Natal, could have hardly been
expected to think twice about offering their services. Furthermore,
as most of the men that were recruited had for many years been
engaged in railway development in Natal, work on the Benguela
Railway was not expected to present any difficulties.
However, as will become evident in the later pages of this work,
Angola presented no respite to the intolerable conditions under
which these as well as thousands of other Indians in Natal lived
and worked. On the contrary, life in the "Thirst" and "Hungry"
countries of the Benguela Highlands turned out to be far more discomforting,
far more intolerable and far more trying than anything
they had experienced in Natal.
I have briefly discussed the geography of Angola in the hope of
\ placing the difficulties that beset the path of these Indians in
a clearer perspective. Appropriate attention has also been given
to the financial situation obtaining in Portugal itself which
rendered her incapable of embarking on even small scale railway
development let alone a project as large as the Benguela Rail-way.
This had no doubt opened the door for Sir Robert Williams to step
in and build the railway. The concession to build the railroad had
been obtained by Williams, one of Rhodes's men, who had discovered
mineral deposits in the Katanga and conceived the notion of building
a line from the Congo to Benguela-Lobito.
The Benguela Railway was big, it was imaginative and it was expensive.
Begun in 1903 the line did not reach the Congo frontier until 1929.
International intrigues, difficulties of finance and construction,
the outbreak of the First World War and other factors all conspired
to delay the completion of the project. The shortage of labour in
the early stages of construction presented a serious problem forcing
the contractors to look farther afield for their labour supply and
it was this search for labour beyond the borders of Angola that was
to underlay the advent of the Labita Bay Indians.