Guide: Trace your indentured roots

The 1860 Heritage Centre in Derby Street in the Durban CBD.

The 1860 Heritage Centre in Derby Street in the Durban CBD.

Published Apr 14, 2024


From colonialism through to apartheid, people of indentured ancestry living in South Africa were not able to trace their roots. Since the late 1990s, these descendants have been fortunate to have their ancestral records digitally available through the pioneering academic work of Professor Joy Brain and Professor Surendra Bhana.

The 1860 Heritage Centre has embarked on a journey of assisting descendants in searching for their roots that are listed in the 384 ship lists archived at the Archives Repository in Pietermaritzburg.

152 184 Indian Indentured workers came to South Africa between 1860 and 1911. Passenger number 1, listed as Davaram, who arrived on board the SS Truro in 1860, was the first passenger; the last passenger Mr PN Murugasam, no. 152 184, came on board the Umlazi in 1911.

This indentured number, sometimes called the colonial number, is used to trace one’s ancestral roots.

The indentured ship’s number can be found through the following means but not restricted to:

- The indentured ships’ list, (htp://

- The elongated Union of South Africa Register of Births of Indian Immigrants in the province of Natal(Birth Certificates),

- The elongated Colonial Emigration Form of Agreement for intending emigrants, - Contract

- A Certificate of Domicile, to certify that the holder lives in colonial Natal,

- Documents: 3 Pound Tax Receipt, Medical Certificates/Notes, Release from Gaol (Jail) forms,

- An Emigration Pass document that laid the foundation for apartheid era pass laws, requiring indentured workers to show this document to authorities to move freely outside of their assigned plantation,

- Certificate of Discharge to certify that the Indian immigrant had duly completed their term of indenture,

- Emigration Certificates. Fiji has all their Indian Indentured Emigration Certificates digitised on the Archives of the National Library of Australia website, regrettably, we have not located the majority of these certificates. htps://

- The plantation employment registers archived, at the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository or Killie Campbell Africana Library,

- The Church of Latter Day Saints helps with a Family Search located on their website:// to find your ancestral roots through a massive microfilmed collection of the British Empire.

- Marriage certificates have indenture numbers listed on the maternal and paternal sides. If the documents of parents or grandparents are not available, even distant relatives may be sufficient – as long as they lead to the same root on the maternal and paternal sides. If you find more than one indentured number next to someone, that is fine. We can interpret that.

- Death Notices/Certificates, Estate documents, or last will, are all kept at the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository

- Green Identity cards

Failing all the routes listed above, one has to work backwards, beginning with an Unabridged Birth Certificate from the Department of Home AfFairs for three generatIons (parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents).

Please be aware that we are embarking on this journey primarily to assist those wishing to find their ancestral roots. Those wishing to use this ship’s number to apply for their OCI application can do so by accessing the following link htps://

Please also be aware that we are doing this voluntarily, allocating the Wednesday of each week to assist in this regard. We do not guarantee that we will be able to find everyone’s roots given the complexities of the search. We will work according to our availability and during office hours.

Please be respectful of these conditions. For those requiring assistance, please fill in your details using the link below to download the Word document (please do not edit in Google Documents) at - - and then email this document as an attachment to [email protected].

We will contact you via a return email, assisting where possible with your search.

Selvan Naidoo: Director 1860 Heritage Centre


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