Between 1860 and 1911, a total of 152,641 Indian indentured workers arrived in the then British Colony of Natal. The first group of workers who returned home in 1871 complained of ill-treatment and abuse by employers and the Indian government refused to sanction further allotments of labourers until the Natal government investigated their complaints. The ensuing Coolie Commission of 1872 called for the appointment of a Protector of Indian Immigrants, as one of several recommendations. The Natal Government duly complied as the Colony was desperate for labour. Such officials were also appointed in other colonial contexts around this time. Instances of worker abuse, however, continued throughout the period of indenture in Natal, notwithstanding some observers’ claim that the appointment of a Protector was a watershed moment for bonded labour. It appears that the vastness of the area under the Protector’s jurisdiction and the enormous power of planters made it difficult for Protectors to balance the needs of workers and employers. But workers found creative ways to use the office of the Protector to resist the system; and, on occasion, the abuse was so great that the Protector was forced to intervene publicly to safeguard the rights of workers and the integrity of his office. In focusing on the Protector, this article makes a contribution to the emerging literature on empire that focuses on connections and networks across colonies and the agency and actions of ordinary people.

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