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A Brief History of Durban's Sugar Cane

Picture of Shubnum Khan
Updated: 22 February 2017
South Africa produces 19.9 million tons of sugar cane a year, and most of it comes from the rolling green valleys of KwaZulu-Natal. Sugar cane has had an important and long history in South Africa, one that has had a big effect on the economy and culture of the country. We take a look at the history of this sweet plant on the east coast.

If the sun is out, the first thing you see as your plane prepares to touch down in Durban is waving hills of a green so deep you can feel it in your fingers. As you leave the airport you’re surrounded by waves of sugar cane stalks, and Durbanites consider it their signature welcome to visitors.

The majority of the sugar mills in the country are located in KwaZulu-Natal, making it the sugar epicentre of South Africa. The sugar cane industry is estimated to provide 79,000 direct jobs and 350,000 indirect jobs, making it a significant percentage of the total agricultural workforce.

Sugar cane fields provide © Erin Collin/Flikr
South Africa produces 19.9 million tons of sugar cane a year | © Erin Collin/Flikr

But it wasn’t always this way.

When Britain took over Natal (as it was known then) in 1845, the area was occupied by British settlers, a few Dutch settlers (most of them had moved inland) and the local Zulu people. With annexation, the British allotted 809,000 hectares of land to the Zulu people, about 1 million hectares to white settlers, and the rest of Natal was considered crown land and was left uncultivated and unoccupied.

In 1848, the first sugar cultivators were imported from Mauritius and proved to be so successful that the first mill was built on an area called Compensation flats in 1850. In 1852, the ship, the Jane Morris sailed into the bay with a cargo of 15,000 cane tops from Mauritius. By 1855, a number of sugar mills were in operation. In fact the fibrous plant flourished so well that a naval captain called JC Smith told the Governor of the Cape (to which Natal was annexed) that South Africa was ’eminently suited to colonisation’.

Sugar cane fields in KwaZulu-Natal are some of the best in the world ©Jenny Mealing/Flickr
Sugar cane fields in KwaZulu-Natal are some of the best in the world | ©Jenny Mealing/Flickr

The history of sugar cane farming in South Africa is a dark one. As sugar became a larger crop, the need for a consistent labour force became clear. The Zulus had little interest in farming white settlers’ land. Desperate for labour, a public meeting was held to propose the import of indentured labourers from India. This resulted in the Coolie Law No 14 of 1859, which made it possible for the colony to bring in Indian workers for a five-year contract in Natal. On 17 November 1860, the first contingent of 341 Indian labourers arrived in Durban aboard the SS Truro.

At the time many Indians were crippled by debt or gridlocked by poverty due to India’s caste system. So many Indians from the north and south of India made their way on steam ships to work in the sugar cane fields of South Africa. Indentured labour at the time was just little better than slavery, with contract workers being held by a five years contract to work from sunrise to sunset and incidents where wages and rations were withheld were common.

Sugar cane plantations privide jobs to © David Barrie/Flickr
Sugar cane plantations provide 79,000 jobs to South Africans | © David Barrie/Flickr

The Indian labour force made an important contribution to the economy of South Africa, and with the addition of north Indian businessmen this eventually led Durban becoming home to the largest concentration of Indian people outside of the Indian subcontinent, which has affected not only the economy but also the culture of South Africa.

Today KwaZulu-Natal has some of the best sugar crops in the world, which has shaped the unique way Durban has developed.

If you want to do a tour of a sugar mill in Durban, sugar tours are offered at The Sugar Terminal from Monday – Friday, 8:30 – 4:30.