‘The Making of Mount Edgecombe’: A view of history from below

The history of Mount Edgecombe, as noted above, comes from the Mount Edgecombe Country Club Estate with Gateway and Cornubia Mall across the road. But underneath this trail of late capitalism is the history of the sugar plantations and the people who worked on them: contract workers of South Asian descent, black migrant workers from Mbunduland, skilled workers from Mauritius, workers divided like colors, plantations of white sugar cane. Owners and administrators.

With Sathasiva Pillay’s new book, Sugar Mill Barracks: The Making of Mount Edgecombe, we guide ourselves through the ecosystem of one of KwaZulu-Natal’s oldest sugar plantations and barracks, Mount Edgecombe Sugar Estate.

The self-published book is the result of more than 40 years of research on the way of life in the sugar mill barracks during and after the Indian system of forced labor. This colonial labor system was conceived by the British as a means of maintaining a source of cheap labor to work on various plantations in the colonies after the abolition of transatlantic African slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

Colonies like British Guiana and Mauritius had already established long-term contract workers from South Asia, and when sugarcane growers like James Saunders called for Indian slave labor in Colonial Natal, the British capital and the Indian government agreed that profitability Natal depended on it.

According to historian Bridjalal Panchai’s International Aspects of the South African Indian Question, 1860-1911, the British did not regard local Zulus as reliable workers in the fields. Officials said they often leave work to plow their land and work under the authority of local chiefs. They believed that the separation of the two main ethnic groups in the regions, European and indigenous, would lead to the prosperity of the colony for Europeans.


Thus, in South Africa, the first group of workers arrived from India in 1860 and the migration continued until 1911. These controlled workers had no rights to their lands, families, clan structures or tribal chiefs, which meant that their absenteeism rates they were lower. because they had no support structures or means to earn a living from the farms while they were away. African workers, in the form of Mbundu migrant workers, replaced Indian forced laborers, who left the plantations after their contract.

Forced laborers weave baskets on a sugar cane plantation. The workers brought with them art, crafts and agricultural skills from India. (Image from Campbell Collections, Kelly Campbell Africana Library, UK)

However, many descendants of the Indian laborers continued to work on the sugar plantations. Pillai (better known by her nickname Sunny) is one of those descendants. His father, Abavo Pillai, came from Thirubanjali in southern India to work in the sugar cane fields. After he finished his career, he moved to the sugar districts of the North Shore, eventually settling at Mount Edgecombe Sugar Mill, where he worked as a bricklayer. Belay grew up in the barracks.

“He worked in the factory from the bottom up,” he says. “I started as a general worker when I stopped going to school in the fourth level [sixth grade]. I worked as an office reporter, a tea boy, and a messenger.” Pillay then worked her way up to becoming an assistant director after a series of administrative positions. He attended school part time to develop his skills. “My dad worked in the factory as a builder, and since he worked, I could be employed in the sugar factory. You had that bond. I came from below, but that’s why I know what hard work is, because I’ve been through that” says Pillai.

In the book he explains that the factory’s work went “from cradle to grave,” due in part to the housing provided by Natal Sugar Estates. Sugar mill workers are eligible for free housing as long as their children work outside the sugar plantation, they cannot live with their parents. “This forced the parents to ensure that their children worked in the factory to continue living with them,” Pillay writes.

The book tells the story of how people lived in and between two comprehensive institutions: the Shree Emperumal Temple Network (comprising six different temples), founded by forced laborers; and Mount Edgecombe Sugar Mill, founded on the backs of decades-long workers. The mill, which is part of Natal Sugar Estates, became part of Tongaat Hulett Sugar in 1963 and was demolished in 1994 as its neighbor Phoenix grew in size and development needs outstripped the demand for sugar production.


Sugar Mill Barracks is a short and clear introduction to the life of forced laborers, with many of its 190 pages devoted to full-page photographs from the Temple Image Archive. For those who have not witnessed the Kavadi festival or the chariot procession, the photos provide valuable information about the Creole Hinduism practiced in South Africa; Official sports photos or school photos are a nod to the community that grew up in the barracks, and may have been included to help Mount Edgecombe’s older generations find themselves, their families, and friends in the Photo.

Indian forced laborers were a heterogeneous group with different linguistic, caste and ethnic groups working both in the field and in the factory. The book captures part of this contrast by looking at the interplay between Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity in the barracks and how sports and education developed in the various communities in the barracks.

The mill barracks transmits with great interest the social, economic, cultural and religious aspects of the workers’ lives. (Photo: Niamh Walsh-Forster)

“While settlers came on long-term contracts from different parts of India, it was remarkable how historical differences on African soil were set aside. A strong community emerged!” Pillai writes. While the Pillai characterizes this community as a place where historical differences have been put aside, he mentions how meticulously the caste operated on the farm and that the community was not racially mixed; in addition, each ethnic group had its own section of barracks. It was enforced by the Group Areas Act, which was also strictly enforced.

The Sugar Barracks traverse with interest the social, economic, cultural and religious aspects of the workers’ lives. However, Pillay often refers to the disabled as “settlers,” falling into the simplified lexicon of access and settlement that excludes violence from both white settler colonialism and the business system itself. The concepts of settlement are complicated: many contract workers were kidnapped, they did not fully understand the contract they signed or the fingerprint, and their “arrival” and “settlement” in South Africa was not an organic process as these two words might suggest.

Indenture culture

My Uncle Sunny and I are sitting in the Shree Emperumal Temple Association office, as the September winds whistle through the palm trees outside the building. Pillai, 79, has served as temple treasurer for more than four decades and is still a member of the board of trustees. “With the book I had to retire from the temple to write it, but I’m a lifelong member, you know,” he laughs.


One of the main functions of the mission was to reduce people to business units; Flesh and blood in number of personification. But, as Pillay reminds us, their lives weren’t just struggles and struggles. The workers enjoyed long contracts and their offspring in the barracks. Dancing, drinking, reading, smoking marijuana, watching theater performances and telling stories under the shade of trees – any time outdoors was welcomed by the contractors who participated in all of these fun activities, according to Pillay.

Although most of the workers were Hindus, many were looking forward to the Christmas season: the owners of the white sugar mills were Christians, and therefore the entire mill got a break during the Christmas period. New Years Day also provided a break for the workers and you will find most of the community barracks on the beach with dosa sour, liver curry and boli-saddam (sour rice) packed at home, a tradition that continues in the present.

Hinduism, both formal and informal, was a big part of barracks life. The temple network was built over time at Mount Edgecombe, but began with the Shree Emperumal Temple, a stucco and masonry temple erected in 1875.

Sattaseva Pillai outside the Shree Emperumal Temple, of which he is considered the guardian. (Photo: Niamh Walsh-Forster)

Sattaseva Pillai outside the Shree Emperumal Temple, of which he looks like the guardian. (Photo: Niamh Walsh-Forster Pillay gives us a fascinating biography of Kistappa Reddiar / Reddy, the prolific South African temple builder who was assigned indentured servitude at Mount Edgecombe Sugar Mill. Temple building is as much a skill as it is an attraction, made divinely tangible through sculptures and bricks, forming networks for worship and working alongside natural features such as snakes [excavations], ancient banyan trees or streams.

Reddiar was a bricklayer by profession and had no formal training in temple building, but was asked by the barracks community to create their temple for Ganesha (a god worshiped for new beginnings and success), knowing that he was employed as a builder in India. . His work impressed those in other barracks, and Hindu communities along the KwaZulu-Natal coast sought out his work. Reddiar’s legacy is evident in the tall spiers of Hindu temples and ornate carvings that are irreversibly molded into the skyscrapers of KwaZulu-Natal.

Theerukoothu, or Six Foot Dance, was once popular on Mount Edgecombe, and some of the earliest recorded performances of Theerukoothu come from this area. Folk dance, which originated in the villages of southern India, was first practiced by priests, mixing acrobatic dances with dramatic scriptural retellings from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Performances will take place during religious festivals, and Pillai commemorates South African icons of six foot dance such as Pattu Govender, Coochie Thumba, Ramsamy Govender, and Gadajalam).

Historian of the cane cutters

“From a young age I was very interested to know anything about history. I’m a believer of facts. When I was a teenager and working at the mill, I used to interact with old people during my lunch break — old people were my friends and I used to hear their stories,” Pillay says.

One of those stories told by the elders weaves colonial resistance with magic. Malayali workers were employed by the Mount Edgecombe Sugar Company, and “it was rumoured that they were well-versed in Malayalam Shastras, an ancient book of Mantharam [book of magic/tricks]. Other indentured labourers feared the Malayalams. It was apparent they possessed magical powers,” writes Pillay in Sugar Mill Barracks.

These Malayali workers would relax under the shade of a tree, chewing betel nut, while their hoes levitated and weeded the sugarcane fields. These workers scared the white supervisors, and were apparently deported back to India.

Another story told of workers being abused on the mill floor by a white supervisor; the Malayali workers intervened by casting a curse that stopped the machinery from crushing sugar cane. The mill engineers couldn’t tell what the problem was. The white management, already suspicious of Malayali workers because of their affiliations with trickery and witchcraft, deported these workers too.

Much of the book’s visual material was culled from Sathasiva Pillay’s archives, which he has kept since the 1970s. (Picture: Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

It’s taken Pillay four years to write his book. It could have easily been double its length, he tells me. “But I wanted the book to appeal to anybody, and I didn’t want it to be too big.” There’s a lot more history to excavate about the place, and although Pillay concedes his memory isn’t what it used to be, he’s still dedicated to archiving indentured and barracks heritage. His office is filled with black concertina folders neatly titled “Chariot festival”, “Emperumal Temple + Hall”, “Mariamman/Kali/Gengai”, “Ganesha/Muruga” and “Sports/School”, and he shows me all photographs, files and documents he needs to wade through.

“Somewhere in the 70s I started collecting pictures – you know, talking to people, asking anything about the barracks, anything about the mill. At the time I had no idea that I’d put it into a book. I’ve collected over 1 000 pictures in the temple archive,” he says.

With 40 years of research in his pocket, Pillay became the go-to person at the temple to field questions from students, academics, and journalists about the history of the area, indentured labour and  the temple.

“Every time they come and meet me here, most of the time they go, ‘Uncle, you’ve got such a vast knowledge of Mount Edgecombe: Why don’t you put it in the book?’, but it never got into my head, you know. As time went on, I felt ‘Well, nobody knows the history as I know and I’m not gonna do justice to the former residents of Mount Edgecombe if I don’t put this in a book’”.

With the book finally published, Pillay says he’s going to continue meticulously documenting each image in the temple’s archive for the next generation of indenture scholars, history enthusiasts, academics and students. The temple committee would like to create an exhibition of the temple’s visual archive, too. Most of all, Pillay wants the former residents of the Mount Edgecombe barracks to know that they are seen, and their lives recognised in all their complexity.