Responses in South Africa to the outbreak of WWI: South African Indians and the First World War

When the First World War broke out, Indians in South Africa gave enthusiastic support to the British war effort in the form of declarations of loyalty and the organisation of a range of activities to raise funds for a number of war relief efforts. Street collections, fairs, sports events, concerts, plays, fairs, flower sales and jumble sales were held in Cape Town and Durban. Indian merchants made generous financial contributions on an individual basis as well as through organisations such as the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and the Natal Indian Association (NIA). The latter organisation played an important role in the establishment of two stretcher bearer companies for service at the front.

The Indian community in Durban was deeply divided along class, caste and religion. Durban’s Indian community in 1914 numbered 18, 010, out of a total population of 74 000 (Whites: 33,428, Africans: 20, 302) (Vahed: 2001: 42). The vast majority were descendants of indentured workers who came to South Africa to work on the sugar plantations. By 1914, they made up the class of poverty stricken Indians, with little education or skills, and made a living as market gardeners, hawking and range of unskilled positions.  Separated from them by both class and religion was, the group of merchants, descendants of so-called passenger Indians, mostly Muslim. They made up the wealthy commercial class. They were well organised and dominated Indian politics in the colony and after union.  In 1894 they formed the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) which sought to protect their existing rights within the status quo.

The NIC membership was comprised mostly of the well-established wealthy Muslim merchants.  In 1913 a breakaway group formed the Natal Indian Association (NIA) under Mahatma Gandhi when his leadership of the NIC was criticised during the Passive Resistance Campaign.  The NIA’s membership was made up of Natal born merchants and traders of ex- indentured background.  There were deep divisions between the two groups and often they initiated separate support activities for the war effort

As with their African and Coloured counterparts, the Indian elite responded with declarations of loyalty to the British monarchy and empire when war broke out. They also believed that their grievances would be taken more seriously if they came out in active support of the war effort. In a meeting held on the 27 August 1914 the Natal Indian Association passed a resolution that resolved to prioritise the war effort over their grievances, declaring their ”loyalty to King-Emperor, and readiness to serve the Crown and co-operate with the government in defence of the country” (Vahed: 2001: 44).  They responded positively to government requests in September 1915 to help recruit 250 Indians for two bearer companies. (45). Individual merchants contributed various items to supplement the men’s meager rations, such as milk, vegetables, soap,  books biscuits, candles, cigarettes, jam. (45). They also organised public meetings in which they appealed to the general Indian public to donate and provide support for members of the bearer corps.  NIA members organised an official farewell as well as a lunch for the members of the bearer corps on the day they departed.

The number of fundraising activities and committees organised by the Indian community were so numerous that the Mayor of Durban requested that leaders in the Indian community establish one ‘general body to co-ordinate the collection and distribution of funds.  However two separate committees were formed, divided along religion. Hindus and Christians formed the Durban Indian Committee (DIC), while Muslims formed the Mohamedans Merchants Committee (MMC).  A ’Comforts Committee’ was also formed by with members of both religions in December 1915. Within two years this committee numbered 43 members and had held 51 meetings. The results of its efforts included the provision of comforts such as shirts, cigarettes, razors, biscuits and fruit to different Indian regiments in East Africa and those passing through Durban. (Vahed: 2002: 51). Stall holders at the market also formed a Market Committee through which they raise funds for the war effort. They organised an Indian War Fair over two days in December 1916, during which both stallholders and farmers contributed produce for sale at the fair. (Vahed: 51-2). Many of the fundraising activities were geared towards the recruitment and equipment of men for an Indian Bearer Corps to serve as medical auxiliaries at the font.

<< Previous Next >>

• Adhikari, M. (1993). “Let us Live for Our Children”: The Teachers’ League of South Africa, 1913-1940. Cape Town: UCT Press.
• Brown, John S. "Of Battle and Disease: The East African Campaign of 1914-18." (1982). Grundlingh, Albert Mauritz. "Die Suidafrikaanse Gekleurdes en die Eerste Wereldoorlog." D. Litt, diss., University of South Africa (1981): 149-59.
• Grundlingh, Albert, (1982). ‘Black men in a white man's war: the impact of the First World War on South African blacks’. African Studies Seminar Paper, African Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.
• Grundlingh, Albert (1987). Fighting Their Own War: South African Blacks and the First World War. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
• Hiralal, Kalpana. "The Impact of the First World War on the Indian Commercial Class in Natal." Historia 46.2 (2002).
• Mantzaris, Evangelos A (1995) Labour Struggles in South Africa: The Forgotten Pages 1903-1921. Collective Resources
• Nasson, Bill. "War Opinion in South Africa, 1914." The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 23.2 (1995): 248-276.
• Nasson, Bill. "Why they fought: Black Cape colonists and imperial wars, 1899-1918." The International journal of African historical studies 37.1 (2004): 55-70.
• Pradhan, Satyendra Dev. Indian Army in East Africa, 1914-1918. National Book Organisation, 1991. Roux, E. (1948) Time Longer than Rope: The Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in South Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
• Roux, E. (1943) Sidney Percival Bunting. Available at Accessed on 23 January 2014.
• Vahed, Goolam. "‘Give Till it Hurts’: Durban’s Indians and the First World War."Journal of Natal and Zulu History 19.1 (2001).

Last updated : 24-Feb-2014

This article was produced by South African History Online on 24-Feb-2014

Support South African History Online

Dear friends of SAHO

South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.

SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.

Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.

Make a donation here and send us a message of support.