The site on which the present day Victoria St Market was rebuilt , was that of the “Original Indian Market “ that was built Town Council in 1910 which was eventually guttered by fire in 1973. Prior to this major event, the history of the fight and struggle to keep the market a multi-racial and unrestricted place of trade stems from the arrival of Indian people labourers to south Africa in 1860 where approximately 152,641 people came to the Natal Colony as indentured labourers working on the sugar cane fields .
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Upon expiration of their 5 year contracts, a few renewed their indenture and some returned to India but almost 60% decided to make their permanent residency in South Africa around the 1870s. This trend was also followed by families of entrepreneurs, known as passenger Indians who independently funded and established themselves locally as traders. Around 1884 some 20,877 free Indians had made their homes in Natal. These Indian people employed market gardening and fishing as a means of making a living
By 1885 around 2000 were labouring on lands in and around Natal, Some had established thriving businesses by being the cheapest suppliers of fresh produce whilst others led a hand to mouth existence therefore trading in Natal was a crucial factor to their economic survival.
Around this time an open air street market was developed by the Durban City Council in Victoria Street extending from Grey Street to Brooke Street and the corner of Cemetery Lane. This market was the trading hub for around 2000 sellers whom majority were market gardeners that lined both ends of the street in carts selling mainly staple vegetables in baskets and barrows. These traders used to arrive each evening around 20:00pm and spent the night sleeping under their carts before trading began at 04:00am the next day.
According to the trading restrictions from the Council, trading ceased at 09:00 on weekdays and 10:30 on Saturdays. 30 minutes later a municipal water cart moved down the street to wash it down. This market came to be known as the “Squatters Market” as many traders squatted cross-legged in the street alongside their goods. Grey street developed into an established Indian business district but the white people saw the traders as a public nuisance as the streets were covered in rotting vegetables and leaves and schism developed between the Hindu and Muslim farmers which resulted in the Hindu group organising a Market Committee to meet with the council to request a separate market for their exclusive use. This resulted in the city council moving the squatters market to Warwick Avenue as the Council considered the market a lucrative industry to the economy of Natal. The Warwick early morning market was therefore established on the 1st February 1934, while the original Victoria Street Market, better known as the Indian Market, or the Stallholders’ Market, became an outlet for more diversified goods.
By the 1960s, the Victoria Street Market was a bustling place selling a variety of merchandise ranging from foodstuff to curios. There were nearly two hundred food stalls which included groceries such as rice, tinned and packaged foods, spices as well as cooked food and sweetmeats. The Indian market was for many years one of Durban’s main tourist attractions. Saturday was the busiest day with the number of visitors at times reaching up to 60 000. This led to the envy of the European business in the CBD as the market was seen as a serious competitor. Nevertheless, it came under increasing pressure from the municipality, which under the pretext of health and safety measures was continually able to control the Indian market.
However, on the evening of Friday March 16th 1973, a fire that started at 8:45pm destroyed the Indian market. As the market burned, fireworks exploded in all directions and green flames from melting copper flared upwards. By 9:45pm the roof of the building collapsed. Two-thirds of the stalls between Cemetery lane and Queen Street were completely destroyed. The flames could be seen from the beachfront, the Berea, Yellowwood Park and some areas twenty kilometres away. It took eight fire engines and thirty five firemen to extinguish the blaze, the Police and men from the Natal Command Citizen Force were brought in to control the hysterical crowd, Mr and Mrs Naidoo who owned a pet shop in the market were devastated as they stood helplessly pleading to the firemen to save their birds but sadly many birds and small animals were burnt alive. The fire caused much havoc as the adjoining Naran building burnt down leaving families homeless. Only the meat, poultry and fish sections weren’t badly damaged. All the curio and provision stalls were destroyed with millions of Rands worth of trinkets, curios and rare antiques as stalls had been packed to capacity in anticipation of Saturday’s trading. The destruction of the market resulted in hundreds of people facing unemployment, stallholders and workers could not afford to buy basic essentials and pay for rent, transport, furniture and many other expenses. The relief fund from many organisations did help the destitute Market people.
Given the back history of the Victoria Street Market , we have come to understand the following
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