It is the prerogative of every generation to review and revise its history. While the basic facts cannot be altered what often occurs is that fresh insights come to hand which compel revision of previously established views.Given the anti-colonial sentiment that prevails in some quarters, the record of Natal colonial agriculturalist and political representative, JOSEPH BAYNES, as a pioneer in the liberalisation of race relations challenges traditional and current perceptions and generalisations about the colonial era.


 At the request of the Baynesfield Estate Board of Administration, I researched the political career of Joseph Baynes and found that Baynes was a fearless proponent of humanitarianism and a voice of the voiceless African and Indian majority during most of his twenty year stint in Natal politics – 1890-1910. My findings were published in 2016 in a 56 page monograph by the Baynesfield Estate Board from which the following insights are drawn.

The colonial mindset which prevailed towards the African and Indian population was decades in the making when Baynes commenced his political careerin 1890. Indeed, how the white  minority wrestled with the “Native Question” and the “Indian Question” dominated the history of colonial Natal.

From the outset, the implementation of  Shepstone’s policy of demarcated African locations proved controversial. In one of his first speeches in the Legislative Council, in 1891,

Baynes questioned the validity of the locations.  By 1899, he had become outspoken in his condemnation of the location system. In a lengthy interview published inthe Mercury on 13 May 1899 he stated: “The Native is growing up to find that the principle of equality is a fiction. He is not regarded or received on equality withthe European population. He finds himself under no end of disabilities...I hold that the Imperial policy in setting large Native locations is not only absolutely  wrongbut positively dangerous.”

On that occasion he made a call for  a policy which was revolutionary at the time: he proposed representation of the African and Indian population in the colonial legislature on a non-franchise basis. What he envisaged was that a bloc of white representatives should be dedicated to representing African and Indian interestsexclusively. As Baynes put it, so as to “give them a feeling that they have some voice in their destiny, that they may feel justice is not denied them.” Unfortunatelyhis proposal was ignored.

 As minister of Lands and Works between 1903 and June 1904, Baynes attempted to temper the prejudice  his parliamentary colleagues showed towards Indians. When oneof them moved a motion demanding that railway porterage on the Durban and Pietermaritzburg platforms  should be performed by white men and not Indians, Baynes repliedas follows: “We have a mixed population and we have duties to perform to every section of the population. Whether we should be fulfilling our duty by excluding the a matter I am not quite clear about.”

Although in 1895 he voted in favour of the £3 tax to discourage Indians from remaining in Natal at the conclusion of their indentures, he subsequently deplored it as “mistake” and calledfor its rejection. His views were not supported by his colleagues. Nonetheless, he continued to agitate for the repeal of the tax until the end of the colonial era.

During a debate on the education budget in 1907, Baynes made short work of the prejudice of a colleague who claimed that the expenditure of  £5,748 on Indian schools “would drive the Europeans out of the country.” Incensed at the remark, Baynes asked how the expense of almost £100,000 on  white education would “unfit us to meet the Indian in the competition he is setting up.”

Similarly he clashed with the prevailing sentiment that Indian traders were a menace to white commerce. Remonstrating with his colleagues he said: “We should at least try to treat the Asiatic justly.

It is not a credit to our civilisation much less to our Christianity, the manner in which certain people have so unjustly treated the Indian section of the population.”

The years 1905 and 1906 saw  Baynes at his most trenchant in confronting what he saw as the marginalisation of the welfare of Indians and Africans. He described a Bill to regulate Indian marriages as “tyrannical” because it required the parties of a marriage to report the event within one month to the authorities or else face a £20 fine or up to three months imprisonment withhard labour. Fuming at this, Baynes inquired of his colleagues: 'If such a law was brought imposing such penalty upon Europeans there would be a hubbub over it. I cannot imagine such a proposalin respect of Europeans. The practice of making legal crimes for the purpose of collecting revenue is one that ought to be greatly deprecated.This Bill should never have been introduced.”

Predictably, Baynes was censured for his remarks and told that they were “entirely out of place” and that the Bill was “to prevent crime.” One detractor even accused Baynes of doingthe image of the Council “great harm.”

In opposing the imposition of the poll tax – a tax of £1 on each African over the age of 18 – in an attempt to ease Natal’s £450,000 debt, Baynes denounced the Bill as “robbery from one classof the population “ and charged that “the European is living upon the Native in a manner that comes hard upon the Native.” Warning that  “piling up” taxes on Africans would result in“bitterness and vindictiveness” and that it was a “very misguided step” to impose the tax, Baynes also excoriated the churches for remaining “absolutely silent” in the face of “the impositionof unjust terms.”

The imposition of the poll tax led directly to the worst unrest colonial Natal experienced in its history. Known as the Bhambatha Rebellion, it resulted in the deaths of over 3,500 Africans,the destruction of more than 7,000 homesteads, the confiscation of thousands of head of cattle, the flogging of hundreds of Africans and the public execution of twelve in Richmond. Baynes’ appeal to the Governor for answers to “questions affecting the Natives and the very many matters under which they have suffered so long and patiently,” was ignored. Instead Governor McCallum expressedsatisfaction at the “suppression of the disturbance.”

In terms of his profile as a race relations pioneer, Baynes’ opposition to and campaign against the Game Laws Consolidation Bill of 1906 was without parallel. Ostensibly the aim of the Bill wasthe conservation of fauna. Baynes saw it quite differently. “I wish to protect the Native from the manifold rigours of the Game Law,’ he declared. In his view,  the Bill served  only “the few who for their own individual gratification wish to preserve game for the sake of sport.” Describing the Bill as “iniquitous,” he said it would “incriminate” every African in the Colony because, inter alia, it broughtAfrican cultural dress and ornamentation into legal question. 

While space does not permit covering the multiple exchanges Baynes had with the Governor in his attempt to have the Bill recalled, undaunted he then unsuccessfully petitioned the Secretary of State for Colonies in London. In his quest to expose the double standards of the colonial Establishment, Baynes then had his entire correspondence on the matter published in a booklet, excerpts of which featured with approbation in the Natal Witness. Significantly, Gandhi’s newspaper, Indian Opinion, praised Baynes for “holding up to derision the whole administration of the laws of the Colony as applied to the coloured population.”

During the remainder of his career in the Natal Parliament Baynes consistently exposed and opposed the abuse of the voiceless and demonstrated that in terms of race relations he was ahead of his time. Although his extensive farming operation at Nel’s Rust near Richmond would not have allowed him the time, given his understanding of African affairs and his rapport with Africans, it might be said that he was the best Secretary for Native Affairs colonial Natal never had.

Compiled and written by Dr Duncan Du Bois

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