M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 12

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Before Mr. Gandhi left Natal, he wrote and published a pamphlet, entitled "An Open Letter," wherein he set forth clearly and strongly the disabilities under which the Indian community were suffering. This he enlarged on reaching India, using it as the basis ot a lecture, which he reprinted and circulated on a large scale.

His arrival in his own country was the signal for a great demonstration of popular sympathy. Meetings were held in Bombay, Madras, and Poona, at which he was invited to speak. Before me lie printed accounts of these meetings and the verbatim records of what he said. Evidently the impression was deep and wide.

Mr. Gandhi is not an impassioned speaker. His speech is calm and slow, appealing chiefly to the intellect. But with this quiet way, he has the gift of placing a subject in the clearest light, simply, and with great force. The tones of his voice, which are not greatly varied, bear the note of sincerity, and his quick and keen intellect seizes on points which matter, and presents them with an emphasis that carries conviction. I have listened to him often, watching the faces of audience, and while I should not call him an orator, and certainly have met with several of his countrymen whose elocution, natural and unaffected, is far superior to his, I have never met with a more convincing speaker than he. In Gujarati he naturally speaks with greater rapidity than in English, but with even less variation of voice. He never waves his arms, seldom moves a finger, but the force of his own conviction, his mode, sty, and his logic carries his hearers with him. Few can withstand the charm of his personality. I have known his bitterest opponents silenced and made courteous by the power of his own courtesy. The impression that he leaves with all who debate with him is one of invariable and beautiful courtesy. They recognise that they have met a gentleman.

These qualities must have told greatly in India, and the reports of his meetings indicate that all classes of people were deeply moved. The sense of the wrongs under which British Indians were suffering in South Africa stirred them with intense feeling, as it does yet more to-day. Unfortunately, while the interest was at its height, Reuter cabled to England a highly-coloured summary of Mr. Gandhi's address. This was the message sent: "September 14. A pamphlet published in India declares that the Indians in Natal are robbed and assaulted, and treated like beasts, and are unable to obtain redress. The "Times of India" advocates an enquiry into these allegations." There was some truth in this summary, but it was not all the truth, and

"A lie which is half the truth is ever the blackest of lies."

Reuter had generalised from statements of particular cases, isolated instances mentioned by Mr. Gandhi had been made to appear the common lot of Indians in Natal, and the speaker, rabid agitator, who was a menace to the Empire. I have the address before me as it was circulated in great numbers in India, and fail to find the note of the "irresponsible agitator" in it. Its language is clear, forcible, and calm, while every statement can be borne out. If facts about the Colonies may not be told in India without awakening shame and anger, it is time indeed that those facts should be changed. The Colony was to blame for burdening Mr. Gandhi with such a story.

When the cablegram was transmitted to South Africa, naturally Natal was up in arms. Indignation meetings were held, and Mr. Gandhi was denounced in very forcible, if not very refined, terms. He was charged with besmirching the good name of the Colony that had entertained him. These are the actual words, as they were uttered by a prominent doctor and Colonist, before a large gathering of citizens in Durban, and published in the "Natal Advertiser." They form a good example of what was being said everywhere:

"Mr. Gandhi," he affirmed, "had accused the Colonists of Natal of having dealt unfairly with Indians, and of having abused and robbed and swindled them (a voice: “You can't swindle a coolie.”) He (the Doctor) quite agreed with that. Mr. Gandhi had returned to India and dragged them in the gutter, and painted them as black and filthy as his own skin." (Applause.) Evidently feeling was at white heat.

In the midst of his work, while Mr. Gandhi was arranging a meeting in Calcutta, he received a cablegram from Natal asking him to return at once, as Parliament was about to sit. This was in November, 1896. He returned to Bombay immediately, booked his passage by the first available steamer and with his wife and children, embarked on the s.s. Courland for South Africa. The Courland left Bombay on the 28th of that month. The s.s. Naderi sailed two days later. They carried Indian passengers, and reached Durban together. Then the battle began.

The two vessels were at once quarantined, and detained by the health officer far beyond the usual time-limit, although there was no disease on board, and no reason assigned for the delay. Only after repeated appeals by agents and by captains, not only to the regular authority, but to the Government, was pratique granted. Meanwhile. arrangements were being matured in Durban, and a Demonstration organised, with the avowed object of preventing the Indians from landing. The following notice appeared in the "Natal Advertiser" on the 30th December, above the signature of "Harry Sparks, chairman of a preliminary meeting," one of Her Majesty's commissioned officers: "Wanted, every man in Durban to attend a meeting to be held in the large room at the Victoria Café, on Monday, 4th January, at 8 o'clock, for the purpose of arranging a demonstration to proceed to the Point and protest against the landing of the Asiatics." About 2,000 people attended, and the meeting was eventually held in the Durban Town Hall. Its temper may be gauged by the resolutions passed.

(1) "That this meeting is strongly of opinion that the time has come to prevent the landing of any more free Indians or Asiatics in this Colony, and now calls upon the Government to take steps to have returned to India at the Colony's expense the Asiatics at present on board the Naderi and Courland, and to prevent any other free Indians or Associates being landed in Durban."

(2) "Every man at this meeting agrees and binds himself with a view of assisting the Government to carry out the foregoing resolution to do all his country may require of him, and with that in view will, if necessary, attend at the Point any time when required."

The speeches in support of these resolutions made it clear that Mr. Gandhi was the supreme object of reprobation, and that the assembled citizens were quite prepared to adopt force to accomplish their object.

The Government, according to a statement made by the Hon. Harry Escombe, then Attorney-General of Natal, were quite with the demonstrators, but was hampered by legal difficulties. At a second meeting, on the 7th January, Dr. MacKenzie reported that, in a conference with the Prime Minister that morning, Mr. Escombe had said that "the Government were with them and wished to expedite the matter in every possible way. Dr. MacKenzie continued: “Some gentleman said, "Extend the quarantine": that was exactly what Parliament was going to do. (Applause, and cries of "Sink the ship!") He heard a naval volunteer say last night that he would give a month's pay for a shot at the ship; was every man present prepared to pay down a month's pay to carry out the object of the meeting? (Applause and cries of assent.) Then the Government would know what they had behind them."

Preparations were then carried forward, and full arrangements made, including lists of men who were willing to use force, and the appointment of "captains" to lead them. Durban was in a ferment of excitement. The terrified resident Indians expected an outbreak of mob-violence at any moment. It is difficult to-day to tell how much of this extreme hostility and show of force was due to a real determination on the part of the leaders to carry through their proposition, and how much was simply intended as a means to induce the Indians to beat a cowardly retreat. It is quite certain that everything was done to make the passengers aboard the two ships aware of the feeling on shore, and to make it clear to Mr. Gandhi especially that he would have a warm reception should he land. Probably, the Demonstration was mainly "bluff," but when a spirit of mob-violence has been evoked, it is not, as a rule, easily controlled. Mr. Gandhi and his fellow-passengers, however, had no thought of retreat. The Colonists might do what they pleased, but legally they dared not refuse the landing, and there was one at least on board who knew that.

During the whole of this time the ships had been detained in quarantine, and letters and appeals remained unanswered. On the 12th January, the ships-owners wrote to Mr. Escombe: "The steamers have now been at the outer anchorage for 24 days, at a cost of £150 per diem to us; so we trust you will see the reasonableness of your giving us full answer by noon to-morrow, and we think it right to inform you that, failing a definite reply giving us an assurance that we shall be paid £150, from Sunday last, and that you are taking steps to suppress the rioters so as to enable us to disembark the steamers, preparations will be at once commenced to steam into harbour, relying on the protection which, we respectfully submit. Government is bound to give us." This quickly drew a reply. Mr. Escombe wrote as follows at 10.45 the following morning: "The Port Captain has instructed that steamers shall be ready to cross the bar inwards at 12 o'clock to-day. The Government needs no reminder of its responsibility for the maintenance of order."

So far, threats of violence had failed to sore away the Indians. A letter sent by Harry Sparks to the Master of the Courland, describing the dangerous temper of Durban, urging the passengers to return to their native land, and promising that the Colony would pay their expenses, had also failed of its design. Mr. Gandhi had interpreted the letter to them all, and had told them what they might expect. He explained also to them that, in his opinion, duty demanded that they should persevere, and they resolved to accept his guidance. A laconic message was returned: "The passengers decline to go back."

"When," said the "Natal Advertiser," on January 16th, "the signal was received that the Courland and Naderi were daring to come into Port, and the trumpeters galloped through the streets and borough shortly after 10 o'clock on Wednesday morning, the general impression was that the poor Indians were in for a rough time if they attempted to land, and that even if they remained on board, afraid to disembark, they would be deafened and scared into hysterics by the hooting, groaning, and jeering of the assembly; but the end was to be the same as originally intended—no landing at any price." The same journal gave a graphic account of what actually happened.

"Shortly before 12 o'clock, the muster on Alexandra Square was completed, and as far as could be ascertained, the sections were as follows (numbers of names are here given of those who were appointed to lead; most of them are but names now and may well be forgotten):—Railway men, 900 to 1,000. Yacht Club, Point Club, and Rowing Club, 150. Carpenters and joiners, 450. Printers, 80. Shop assistants, about 400. Tailors and saddlers, 70. Plasterers and bricklayers, 200. General public, about 1,000." So that it was estimated that over 3,300 were gathered to oppose the landing by force. These were all carefully marshalled and well-captained. The native section amounted to 500. These were amused and kept in order on the Square during the demonstration, a dwarf having been appointed as their leader. The journal continues: "Great uncertainty was felt on board the vessels as to what form the Demonstration would assume. Captain Milne of the Courland, who exhibited the bolder attitude of the two, was allowed to have his vessel taken in first, although she lay further up the coast than the Naderi. He decided that some effort should be made to protect his passengers, as he had received no assurance from Government that any steps had been taken to do so. He therefore had the Union Jack run up at the forecastle head, the red ensign was placed above the ship's houseflag at the mainmast, and the red ensign was also exhibited at the stern. His instructions to his officers were to prevent any demonstrators from coming aboard if possible, but, if they did come aboard, to haul down the Union Jack and present it to the invaders, his idea being that no Englishman would seek to molest those on board after this surrender. Fortunately, as matters resulted, it was not necessary to have recourse to this action. As the Courland entered the bay, all eyes were on the look-out to see what form the Demonstration was taking. A row of people, extending from the south end of the main wharf to some distance along the north pier, could be perceived, but they seemed to take matters very calmly. The Indians on board did not seem much scared, and Mr. Gandhi and a few others who were on deck looked on with an unperturbed expression. The main body of the demonstrators, who had thronged the vessels at the main wharf, could not be seen from the incoming steamers. The surprise experienced by those on the embankment when they saw the Courland laid alongside the Bluff Channel mooring was seen by their actions. They were seen to rush hither and thither, entirely at a loss how to proceed, and soon they all left to attend the meeting on Alexandra Square. This was the last that the vessels were to see of the much talked of Demonstration. Meanwhile, Mr. Escombe was pulled alongside the Courland in a rowing-boat, which was also occupied by Captain Ballard, Port Captain, Mr. Reid, Wharf-master, and Mr. Simpkins, Mooring-master. The Attorney-General said: “Captain Milne, I want you to inform your passengers that they are as safe under the Natal Government laws, as if they were in their own native villages.” The Captain asked if it was advisable for him to allow them to land. Mr. Escombe replied that he (the Captain) had better see him again first. Having made a similar communication to the Naderi, Mr. Escombe pulled ashore to address the crowd. The Naderi and Courland were laid side by side near to the Bluff passengers' jetty. the Courland being nearest to land."

Now that the scare had failed, it was Mr. Escombe's policy to try and disperse the crowd. So he addressed them with his most honeyed eloquence, and persuaded them that they had done all that was needful. He promised that an early session of Parliament should deal with the matter. Then he commanded them, in the name of the Queen, to disperse. After a few other speeches had been made, the command was effective, and the great Demonstration melted away.

Two hours later, the passengers landed in small batches in ferry-boats. A message, however, reached Mr. Gandhi from Mr. Escombe, advising him not to land with others, but to wait until evening, when the Superintendent of the Water Police would take him ashore. This advice he was willing to accept. But shortly afterwards, Mr. Laughton, of the firm of Messrs. Goodricke, Laughton, and Cook, Solicitors, came on board and proposed that Mr. Gandhi should go ashore with him. They consulted the Captain, and, accepting the sole responsibility of the act, decided to face the shore at once. Mrs. Gandhi and the children were sent separately, and reached their destination safely. But as soon as Mr. Gandhi was seen on the boat, he was recognised by some boys, and the alarm given. Mrs. Gandhi and the children had been taken to the house of Mr. Parsee Rustomjee, a wealthy Indian friend. It was arranged that Mr. Gandhi should follow but the crowd was large at the landing-stage, and became threatening. Mr. Laughton suggested a rickshaw and engaged one, but the people prevented the native from starting, so the two comrades walked together. When they reached West Street, the gathering was enormous, blocking all further progress. In the confusion and hustling, the friends were separated. Mr. Laughton was torn away, and stones, fish, and rotten eggs began to fall around Mr. Gandhi. As he was pushed along, a burly European from behind shouted: "Are you the man who wrote to the Press?" and followed it up with a brutal kick. Mr. Gandhi held on, in an almost unconscious condition, to some railings near by, and he was again kicked by his assailant.

Then a beautiful and brave thing happened, which throws some glory over this wretched scene. Mrs. Alexander, the wife of the Superintendent of Police, recognised him, and opening her sunshade to keep off the flying missils, courageously went to his assistance, and when he attempted to go forward, she walked at his side. It was the instinct and act of a noble nature, and probably saved the victim from severe injury. Meanwhile, an Indian boy had run for the police, shouting that the crowd was killing Mr. Gandhi, and at the critical moment some constables appeared. The Superintendent offered an asylum in the police-station to Mr. Gandhi, but the latter was anxious about his wife, and preferred to go on to Mr. Rustomjee's. This he effected without further trouble.

When night fell, as the crowd became very large and threatening, shouting before the house and demanding Mr. Gandhi's surrender, Superintendent Alexander sent in to say, that if Mr. Gandhi did not wish to see his friend's house burnt down, and desired to save his family, he had better follow the directions which were given, and steal through the crowds disguised. This was done and Mr. Gandhi, dressed as an Indian constable, with a metal saucer under his turban, and attended by a detective dressed as an Indian merchant, passed safely through the dense gathering. They were obliged to jump fences, squeeze between rails, and pass through a store, before they reached safety, but at last they found the police-station, and remained there until the danger was over.

No doubt, much of this ill-feeling was due to misunderstanding, out of which unscrupulous men attempted to make capital. The Colonists were incensed at what they believed to have been the exaggerated statements and false accusations of Mr. Gandhi. They were angry at what they thought was an insult offered by him to Natal.

When they saw the printed address, and realized that it contained nothing worse than he had published before in Durban, there was a general feeling that the Colonists had been misled, and even the "Natal Mercury" changed its angry tone, saying "Mr. Gandhi on his part, and on behalf of his countrymen, has done nothing that he is not entitled to do, and from his point of view, the principle he is working for is an honourable and legitimate one. He is within his rights, and so long as he acts honestly and in a straight-forward manner, he cannot be blamed or interfered with. So far as we know, he has always done so, and his latest pamphlet, we cannot honestly say, is an unfair statement of the case from his point of view. Reuter's cable is a gross exaggeration of Mr. Gandhi's statement. He enumerates only a number of grievances, but these by no means justify anyone in stating that his pamphlet declares that the Indians in Natal are robbed and assaulted and treated like beasts, and are unable to obtain redress."

But, apparently, there were two other false factors in the irritation of Natal. It was rumoured that Mr. Gandhi was instigating the passengers on the two ships to sue the Government for placing them in quarantine, and also that "he had organised an independent immigration agency in India to land his countrymen in Natal at the rate of one to two thousand per month," these passengers, supposed to amount to eight hundred, being the first instalment. This kind of charge has pursued its victim for years — a desire to flood South Africa with Indian immigrants. The whole accusation was shamelessly fatse. Mr. Gandhi never attempted to "get up" a case against the Natal Government, and the fact of his being in company with these passengers, really six hundred in number, two hundred only being for Natal, of whom one hundred were old residents, was due to the accident of his sudden recall.

Nevertheless, these rumours, repeated from lip to lip, awakened the keenest resentment — a feeling that was fostered and kindled to white heat by the unscrupulous leaders of the moment.