MUNIAMMA, a family history by Subry Govender

An extended Indian-origin family in South Africa, who have traced their roots to a little village in Tamil Nadu, India, have published a book about their family history.

The descendants of indentured labourers, Kandasami Naiken and his partner, Thanji, who arrived in the former Port of Durban in 1882, have put together a historical book, titled: “Flight of Young Lovers”.

Muniamma - Muniamma on the cover of the familys history book

The descendants, who number more than 500 and run into six generations, owe their existence to Muniamma Coopoosamy, the eldest of two first generation daughters who were born on Blackburn Sugar Estate, near Mount Edgecombe, and grew up in the Dayal Road area of Clairwood, south of Durban.

The book relates how the Muniamma family ancestors were forced to flee their village of Navalpore in the former North Arcott District of Tamil Nadu in late 1881 after the village elders discovered that Thanji was expecting a baby out of wedlock. North Arcott has now been split into two districts known as Tiruvannamalai and Vellore.

After they escaped and reached Madras (now Chennai), the young couple was told that a ship would be leaving for the former British Natal Colony with indentured labourers recruited to work on the sugar plantations, near the Port of Durban.

The young man and woman discussed the matter and reached a decision that “where ever this place Natal Colony is, it will be a far safer place than Madras”. Their families belonged to a warrior tribe and they feared that they would be tracked down and killed.

Kandasami Naiken and Thanji then signed on as indentured labourers and boarded the ship, S. S. Mars, along with other indentured labourers in December 1881. They arrived in the then Port of Durban sometime at the end of January 1882.

Kandasami Naiken and his wife were recruited to work at the Blackburn Sugar Estate, near Mount Edegcombe, about 20km north of Durban.

mt edgecombe
Mt Edgecombe Railway Station with the Sugar Mill in the background

On the first night of their arrival at the sugar estate they had to sleep in a barn reserved for horses and the next day the couple had to build their own hut made up of sticks, reeds and mud. The conditions were tough and inhospitable but despite the hardships, their first child, Muniamma, who was conceived in the village of Navalpore, was born a few months after their arrival from Tamil Nadu.

A year later their second child, Yellammah, was born. The second child was born in the sugar cane field while Thanji was out working with other indentured women.

The Naikens completed their first five-year grimmit (indenture) in 1887 and thereafter signed a new contract for another five years.

After completing 10 years on the sugar estate, the Naikens were recruited by a white family to move to Ladysmith. Here the young family were not only caught up in the Anglo-Boer War but their two daughters nearly lost their lives after they were washed down a flooded river. An African man who was passing by noticed the young girls in trouble. He jumped into the fast flowing waters without thinking about his own safety and saved the girls from drowning.

Muniamma - Mr Sooboo Govender (third from left seated) was chairperson of the Chemical and Allied Workers Union from 1950 to 1951

If it was not for this unknown African man, the descendants of Kandasami Naiken and Thanji, who number more than 500 and go down to six generations, would not be around today.

In view of the dangerous war conditions, their white employers advised the Naikens to move to Durban where there were “many Indian families”.

The book, thereafter, narrates the settlement of the Naikens and their children in Dayal Road, Clairwood, after at first trying to eke out a livelihood in the Congella area of Durban; the marriage of the two girls at the young age of 15 after attaining adulthood; the death of Thanji; and the return of Kandasami Naiken to Tamil Nadu in the early 1920s when he could not accept the death of his wife.

Muniamma - Mr Coopoosamy Govender husband of Muniamma - daughter of Kandasamy and Thanji Naiken

The two sisters chose to remain with their families in Natal instead of returning with their father to India. Muniamma and her husband, Coopoosamy, bore 14 children – 11 of them who survived to give birth to the third, fourth, fifth and sixth generations today. Her sister, Yellammah, did not have any children and Muniamma was kind enough to allow one of her daughters to be raised by her sister.

The book also relates in the words of some of the six sons and five daughters of Muniamma their struggles while they toiled as market gardeners in Dayal Road. The book also recounts the life of one son who had to run away from home after his father and one elder brother totally dis-owned him for converting to Christianity at the tender age of 17. The father and brother asked him: “why are you bringing a white man’s God to our home?”.

All the eleven children began their own married lives from Dayal Road. But after the area became one of the first to be affected by industrial development in the 1950s, all of them moved to different areas, such as Merebank, Chatsworth, Isipingo, Port Shepstone, Ottawa on the North Coast, Pietermariztburg and Dundee.

The extended Muniamma family have no photos of their ancestors despite one picture being taken when Kandasami Naiken returned on a one-way permit to Tamil Nadu in the 1920s. The second generation descendants say the picture was kept at the home in Dayal Road but after they all moved out due to the industrialisation of the area , the photo of Kandasami Naiken was lost.

The only time they heard anything about their father was when in the late 1920s they received a letter from someone in Tamil Nadu that their father had passed on.  Thereafter, all their connections to the land of their parents were completely broken and the two sisters had to continue with their lives with their families in Natal.

Today, only two of the 11 siblings, Mrs Savundalay Padacyhee (age 93) of Dundee, and Mrs Amoy Moodley (85) of Chatsworth, are around with one sister-in-law, Mrs Soundler Govender (83)  of Chatsworth.

While most of the third generation descendants worked in and around Durban as machinists in clothing factories, clerks, and some as building contractors, a few became teachers. Most of the fourth generation descendants have excelled educationally in various fields with two graduating as medical doctors and one an advocate. Most of the fourth generation have moved to Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and some have also moved to England, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

One second generation son, Soobramoney Govender, who spent most of his life in Isipingo, and several third and fourth generation descendants had participated in the struggles against white minority rule and domination as trade unionists and political activists. One third generation descendant, who grew up in the village of Ottawa on the North Coast and who used to work in the neighbouring sugar cane fields during his school holidays, was banned, house-arrested, detained and denied his passport for 10 years in the early 1980s.

After Nelson Mandela was released from life imprisonment and the ANC and other movements were unbanned in February 1990, two descendants visited the village of Navalpore in Tamil Nadu in March of that year to check whether they could make any contact with the families of their ancestors. But when they visited the village, they were informed by elders that the families of their ancestors would have broken all contacts with the young couple because of their impropriety in falling in love and conceiving a baby out of wedlock.

Although the descendants have no family connections in Tamil Nadu they are proud of their ancestory, their languages, and their rich cultures and traditions. Their family history book was initiated, written and published mainly to ensure that the future generations will “not forget their roots, will know who they are and they will be certain about their future”.

The extended Muniamma family members are exhorted in the book to follow the words of advice by the Fijian author, Rajendra Prasad, who in his book, “Tears of Paradise”, wrote about the lives of the people who were recruited to work as indentured labourers in Fiji. He wrote: “No community can grow in the ignorance of its past, as it is a legacy that must nourish successive generations. Any generation that terminates this legacy will be guilty of failing in its duties and obligations to their children. Our early history cannot be delinked.”

One third generation descendant, Mr Logan Govender, who was born in Isipingo, wrote the Foreword for the book. Mr Govender, who works for the Save the Children NGO in Pretoria, encouraged his fellow descendants not to be discouraged by the social and economic challenges and “insecurities of belonging to a minority ethnic group”.

He wrote: “Rather than adopting a traditionalist ‘minority fear syndrome’, I believe that given our unique history in South Africa and the contributions we have all made, no matter how big or small, towards building a non-racial and democratic country, we owe it to those that will remain long after we have gone, to think positively about our future.

“I also believe that if Aiya (grand-mother) and our forefather and mother had to make their historical journey again in the year 2017, they would have met today’s challenges with the same spirit, optimism and determination as they did in the 1880s and 1890s.

“This book, therefore, is as much about our past, as it is about our future. The sacrifices made by our family ancestors should not be in vain. They have bequeathed us a wonderful and inspirational legacy. We owe it to them to carry that same legacy into the future.”

subrygovender@gmail.com  (April 6 2020)

14 Comments

  1. Loved reading this… Gives me a fuzzy feeling. Feeling very emotional because my forefathers came from India and I wish I could find my roots. My grandparents lived in Melville, on the North Coast worked in the sugar cane fields. My dad worked in the sugar mill. I’d like to write my dad’s story. He was a legend in his village together with the other elders. Such simple, amazing people.
    Sandy Nair

    Like

  2. This will indeed be a facinating read .I am intrigued by this facet of the Indian journey. Congratulations to those responsible for putting to gather a part of your heritage for future generations.
    Non relative
    M.Soobramonie
    Verulam

    Like

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