M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 15

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The early part of 1904 was marked by unusual rain. Johannesburg was simply drenched. For seventeen days together the clouds hung low, and the rain soaked the city. Then the plague appeared. At first, and for some time, the municipal authorities were unable to diagnose the disease, and the needful precautions were neglected. Mr. Gandhi, confident, from his experience in India, that these scattered cases were actually cases of pneumonic plague, and that, under the insanitary conditions of the old location, a condition which, he says, was due to the neglect of the municipality, a severe outbreak might be expected, reported his convictions, and urged them with but little success, until the disaster reached proportions which challenged immediate action. Mr. Madanjit, the publisher of "Indian Opinion", was, at that time, staying in Johannesburg, and on the 8th March, Mr. Gandhi received a note from him, written in the Indian location, full of alarming news. It seemed that Indians were brought in from the mines in numbers, dying dead, stricken with this terrible disease. The numbers during that day reached a total of twenty-three, of which twenty-one proved fatal.

At once Mr. Gandhi took the matter into his own hands. Sending word to Dr. Pakes, who was acting for the Medical Officer of Health, and to the Town Clerk, he hurried off in company with an inspector to the scene of the trouble, and began a hand-to-hand fight with Death. With Mr. Madanjit and four Indian volunteers, he broke open an empty store, converted it into a hospital, and collected the patients from the different stands. Dr. Godfrey, also an Indian, soon joined them, and rendered extraordinary service throughout that day and the following night. Probably their promptitude in separating the infected men saved Johannesburg from an appalling disaster.

Late in the afternoon, the Town Clerk held a conference with Mr. Gandhi on the outskirts of the location, and thanked him for the work which had been done, but added that no further provision could be made for the patients that day. He would leave them to Mr. Gandhi's care, authorising any expenditure that he deemed needful. "To-morrow morning," he said, "some suitable place will be found."

It was an awful experience for the band. Under the pressure of alarm, the community held a mass meeting and subscribed funds. Stores were provided by Indian shop-keepers, and what willing hands could do was zealously done. But all through the night men were dying in agony, while the dread of infection kept other helpers away. Mr. Gandhi's influence, however, and Dr. Godfrey's un-remitting work stimulated their handful of volunteer who toiled heroically.

The Report published by the Rand Plague Committee has the following entries:

"During the evening of the 18th March, Mr. Gandhi, Dr. Godfrey, and Mr. Madanjit interested themselves, removed all the sick Indians they find to Stand 36, Coolie Location, procured some beds, blankets, etc., and made the sufferers as comfortable as possible."

"At 6.30 a.m. on the 19th, Dr. MacKenzie and the writer visited the location and found teen patients either dead or dying."

"On Saturday morning, the 19th, the patients had been removed from their homes to a vacant stand No. 36, and temporary arrangements had been made by the Indians themselves for nursing and feeding the sufferers, chiefly through the agency of Mr. M. K. Gandhi and his friends."

These are the only official intimations made of the splendid work which was done officially during those terrible days.

Early on the morning of the 19th, the old Custom-house, near the gas-works, was provided by the Municipal Council as a temporary hospital, and the Indians were left to cleanse and fit it up as best they could. Some thirty men volunteered for the work, and the place was speedily made habitable, and the patients were installed. A nurse was then sent down from the Johannesburg Hospital, and Dr. Pakes was placed in charge. But out of twenty-five patients admitted on Saturday, only five were living on Sunday night. Subsequently the plague patients were conveyed to Rietfontein, Lazaretto, and a suspect camp, under Mr. Gandhi and Dr. Godfrey, was formed at Klipspruit.

In addition to the work of these gentlemen, invaluable help was rendered by Mr. L. W. Ritch, who has since become so well-known as Secretary of the South Africa British Indian Committee in London. He was, at that time, articled to Mr. Gandhi, and chimed the privilege o{ helping him. His devotion in nursing these plague patients at great peril to his life, was in keeping with the fine and persistent service which he still renders in the Home-land, where he has devoted his unique talents ungrudgingly to the Indian cause.

The trouble continued for about a month. The number of deaths, during that time, amounted to one hundred and thirteen in Johannesburg, including twenty-five whites, fifty-five Indians, four "coloured" people, and twenty-nine natives. Its force, however, was broken by the prompt measure of those critical days. Meanwhile, Johannesburg went on its way, almost unconscious of its danger, quite insensible to the services rendered by a handful of Indians.

Those who know think of another story:

"Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man."

History repeats itself.