From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai
Gandhi started writing the following article on board the ship that was to take him to England. It was completed in two or more installments, and appeared in Gujarati in the Golden Number of Indian Opinion, published in 1914. The article represents a warm, personal account of the campaign from 1906 to 1914. Source: Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 12, pp. 508-18. The poem by Dayaram (1777-1853) at the end of the article has been omitted.
During the last campaign, the very highest limit was reached. I have had simply no time to write of the experience. I had meant to share it with the readers of Indian Opinion. They will remember that the last struggle was, as it were, the third chapter in the story of satyagraha. When the first chapter came to a close, we, at any rate I, had thought that it was definitely the last. When the time came for the second chapter to open, many friends said to me: ‘Now who will fight? The community cannot be expected to put forth so much strength every time.’ I laughed when I heard this. My faith in truth was unshakable and I replied: 'The people, having tasted once the joy of struggle, will fight now with even greater zeal.’ And that was precisely what happened. On the first occasion, a hundred or two hundred Indians went to gaol. The second time, not only did hundreds court imprisonment, but also the whole of Natal woke up and leaders came from there to join the struggle. The fight dragged on, but the morale never went down and we advanced. When it came to launching the last fight, I heard only talk of defeat. 'Every time the Government deceives you,' they said, 'and you allow yourself to be imposed upon and the people's interests suffer. This will never do.’ I had to listen to bitter words like these. I knew only too well that neither I nor anyone else had any remedy against the Government's foul play. If, after we have accepted a promissory note, the signatory refuses to honour it or confesses his inability to do so, how are we to blame? To me it was clear that, if the Government broke its promise, though we would have to put in greater efforts, it would have to yield all the more. The longer the time taken to repay a debt, the heavier the burden becomes. This unalterable law applies to both material and moral obligations. My reply it that time was: 'Satyagrahais a kind of struggle in which there can be no defeat and no cause for regret. A man can only become stronger through the struggle. He suffers no exhaustion and at every stage he gains fresh strength. If truth be on our side, the Indian community will work harder this time and earn an even more glorious name.’ When I made this reply, I never dreamt that 20,000 poor Indians would arise and make their own and their country's name immortal. General Botha observed in the course of a speech that the whites had not been able to start and conduct the kind of strike that the Indians had done this time. This fight was joined by women and by many young boys of sixteen, so that the campaign became much more of a moral struggle. South African Indians became the talk of the world. In India, rich and poor, young and old, men and women, kings and labourers, Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians, citizens of Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Lahore – all were roused, became familiar with our history and came to our assistance. The Government was taken aback. The Viceroy, gauging the mood of the people, took their side. All this is public knowledge. I am stating these facts here in order to show the importance of this struggle. My main purpose writing this article is to reveal certain details with which I am particularly familiar, which are not known in India and even to Indian friends in South Africa.
The training imparted in Tolstoy Farm proved to be of great use in this last fight. The mode of life accepted by the satyagrahison the farm became an invaluable asset in the struggle. It was copied and improved upon in Phoenix. The discipline was severe and there was an understanding with each pupil and his parents that those of the pupils who chose to live in Phoenix should, provided they were of suitable age, join the struggle, if it was launched again. Totell the truth, the education in Phoenix was for the most part a preparation for satyagraha. The rules applied also to the families living in Phoenix. Only one of them kept aloof. The result was that, leaving aside those engaged in running Phoenix, all were fully prepared when the agitation started. Thus the third struggle began with the residents of Phoenix. I shall never forget the scene when those men, women and children marched out. Each had but one thought ”” that this was a holy war and that all were setting out on a pilgrimage. They set out singing hymns, one of which was the famous 'Let not thy mind be affected by joy or sorrow'. The strains of music that issued from the throat of those men, women and children still echo in my ears. The great Parsee Rustomjee was among this band. Many had thought that Mr. Rustomjee had suffered so much in the previous struggle that he would not join this one. Those who said so did not know his true greatness. That women and children should go forth and he stays behind was unthinkable to him. Two other incidents of this period stand out in my memory. There was an argument between Mr. Rustomjee and his lion-hearted son, Sorabji, who insisted that he accompany his father. 'Father, let me go in your place,' he said, ‘or take me along with you.'
The second incident was the meeting between the late Hoosen Mil Rustomjee. When Mr. Rustomjee went to see him, tears streamed from eyes and he said: 'Kakaji [uncle], if I had been well, I would have accompanied you to gaol.’ Bhai Hoosen loved his country dearly; though bed-ridden; he gave full support to the struggle and spoke constantly of it to all that visited him.
Among those who remained behind in Phoenix were boys under sixteen. Although they and the others who managed the affairs of Phoenix stayed out of prison, they did better work than those who went to gaol. Day and night was one to them. They placed themselves under the strictest vows till such time as their companions and elders should be released, lived on saltless diet and fearlessly took upon themselves even the most onerous tasks. When the strike began in Victoria county, hundreds of indentured labourers took shelter in Phoenix. To have looked after them was in itself a very great achievement. It was equally an achievement to have gone on doing their work in complete fearlessness in spite of the danger of raids by their masters. When police came and arrested Mr. West, they prepared themselves for the possibility that others also might be taken. But not a single person moved out of Phoenix. As I had said already, only one family remained an exception. The Indian community can never truly measure the services that the Phoenix workers rendered to it at that time. This secret history has yet to be written, that is why I am recording a part of it here in the hope that some lover of truth might collect further information and might appreciate the services of Phoenix workers at their true worth. I am very much tempted to write more but I drop Phoenix here.
When the Phoenix batch went to prison, Johannesburg could not remain behind. The women there became restive. They were fired with the desire to be in gaol. The entire family of Mr. Thambi Naidoo got ready. His wife, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, Mr. Moorgan's relatives, Mrs. P. K. Naidoo, Valiamma, who made her immortal, and other women came forward. They marched forth with children in their arms. Mr. Kallenbach took them to Vereeniging. The idea was that, when they crossed the Free State border and returned, they would be arrested. Their expectations were not fulfilled. They somehow managed to spend a few days in Vereeniging, where they tried to get arrested by going round with baskets, hawking, but they were left free.
This frustration held within itself a glorious future. If the women had been arrested in Vereeniging itself, the strike might not have taken place; at any rate it would never have reached the proportions it finally did. But the community was in the [protective] hand of God. He is ever the protector of truth. When women were not arrested, it was decided that they cross the Natal border. They were not arrested even there; they were to fix, along with Mr. Thambi Naidoo, their headquarters at Newcastle. Accordingly, they proceeded to Natal. At the border, the police did not arrest them. They made their home in Newcastle. There Mr. D. Lazarus handed over his own house to the women; his wife and sister-in-law, Miss Thomas, took it upon themselves to look to comforts of the women satyagrahis.
The plan was that in Newcastle the women should meet the indentured labourers and their wives, give them a true idea of their conditions and persuade them to go on strike on the issue of the £3 tax. The strike was to commence on my arrival at Newcastle. But the mere presence of these women was a lighted match-stick to dry fuel. Women who had never before slept except on soft beds and had seldom so much as opened their mouths, now delivered public speeches among the indentured labourers. The latter were roused and even before I arrived, were all for commencing the strike. The project was full of risk. I got a wire from Mr. Naidoo. Mr. Kallenbach went to Newcastle and the strike began. By the time I reached there, Indians in two coal mines already stopped work.
I was sent for by the Committee of European Sympathizers presided over Mr. Hosken. I met them. They approved of the strike and decided to support it. I stopped for a day at Johannesburg and proceeded to Newcastle and stayed on there. I saw that the people's enthusiasm was tremendous. The Government could not tolerate the presence of the women and finally they were sent to gaol as 'vagabonds'. The house of Mr. Lazarus now became a dharmsala for satyagrahis. Food had to be cooked there for hundreds of indentured labourers. Mr. Lazarus was not to be daunted. The Indians in Newcastle appointed a committee. Mr. Sidaat was elected chairman, and the work proceeded apace. Indians in other mines downed tools,
Thus, as the strike by the Indian workers in the mines was spreading, a meeting of the Mine-owners' Association was held. I was invited to attend. A great deal of discussion ensued but no solution was found. Their proposal was that, if we called off the strike, they would undertake to write to the Government about the £3 tax. This, the satyagrahiscould not agree to. We had no quarrel with the mine-owners. The object of the strike was not to hurt them but rather to invite suffering on us. And so the suggestion of the owners was unacceptable. I returned to Newcastle. When I reported the result of this meeting, enthusiasm mounted still higher. Work stopped in more mines.
Till then the workers had always resided at the mines where they worked. The Council of Action in Newcastle felt that, as long as the labourers continued to live on their masters' estates, the strike would not have its full effect. There was the risk that they might be either tempted or coerced to resume work. Then again, to live in the master's house or eat his bread while refusing to work for him would be immoral. The workers' continued stay on the mines was morally wrong. This last taint, it was felt, would sully the purity of the satyagrahamovement. On the other hand, to house and feed thousands of Indians was a stupendous problem. Mr. Lazarus' house was now too small. The two poor ladies laboured night and day but found it impossible to cope with the work. It was decided, even in the face of this, to adopt only the right course, whatever the cost. Messages were sent to miners to stop work and proceed to Newcastle. The moment these messages were received, an exodus from the mines began. Indians from the Belangi mine were the first to arrive. It appeared as though bands of pilgrims were daily streaming into Newcastle. Men young and old, women ”” some by themselves, others with children it their arms ”” all arrived with bundles on their heads. The men, one saw, were carrying trunks. Some arrived by day, others by night and food had to be provided for them. How can I describe the contentment of these poor people? They were pleased with what they got, no matter how little. Rarely did one come across anyone with a downcast look. A smile played on every face. To me they appeared to have come from among the 33 crores of gods. The women were like goddesses. From where could shelter be provided for all? For bedding, straw was spread on the earth and the sky was their roof. God was their protector. Someone asked for a bidi [tobacco rolled in dry leaf]. I explained that they had come out, not as indentured labourers, but as servants of India. They were taking part in a religious war and at such a time they must abandon addictions such as drinking and smoking. Those who were unable to give up should not expect their requirements to be paid for from the common coffers. The good men accepted this advice. I was never again asked for money to buy a bidi. The exodus from the mines continued. One pregnant woman had miscarriage on the way. In spite of numberless hardships of this kind, no one gave up the struggle or turned back.
There was a tremendous increase in the Indian population of Newcastle. The houses of Indians were over-filled. The number made available was enough to accommodate women and old people. I must state here that the white people of Newcastle showed us great courtesy, even sympathy. They harassed no Indian. One good lady even gave her house free for our use; other assistance of a minor nature was also received from a number of whites all the time.
It was, however, not possible to keep thousands of Indians permanently in Newcastle. The mayor became apprehensive. The normal population of Newcastle is about three thousand. An additional ten thousand could not be accommodated in such a town. Labourers stopped work in other mines too. And so the question arose: what should be done? The intention behind the strike was to court imprisonment. The Government could have arrested the workers if it had so wished, but there were not enough prisons to house those thousands. Hence, they had not so far touched the strikers. The one simple way left to us now was to cross the Transvaal border and get arrested. We thought that the congestion in Newcastle would thereby be relieved and the strikers could also be put to the test. In Newcastle, the agents of the mine-owners were trying to lure away the workers. Not a single person had yielded; even so, it was the duty of the Council of Action to keep them away from all temptation. It seemed desirable, therefore, that they should march from Newcastle to Charlestown. The distance is about 35 miles. To provide railway fare for thousands was out of the question. It was therefore arranged that all able-bodied men and women should do the journey on foot. The women who could not walk were to be taken by train. There was a possibility of arrests on the way. Moreover, this was the first experience of its kind for them. It was therefore decided that I should myself take the first batch. It consisted of about 500 persons of whom 60 were women, with their children. I shall never forget that scene. The company walked along raising cries of 'Victory to Dwarkanath', 'Victory to Ramachandra' and 'Vande Mataram'. Each person was given enough cooked rice and dal to last for two days. Everyone carried his or her things in a bundle. The following conditions were read out to them:
1. It was probable that I would be arrested. Even if this happened, they were to march on until arrested themselves. Though every effort would be made to provide them with meals, etc., on the way, they should not mind, if by chance, food was not available on some day.
2. For the duration of the struggle, they should abstain from drinks.
3. They must not retreat even in the face of death.
4. They should expect no shelter for night halts during the march, but should sleep on the grass.
5. No trees or plants on the way should be harmed in the least nor should any article belonging to others be touched.
6. If the Government's police came to arrest anyone, the latter should willingly surrender.
7.No resistance should be offered to the police or any others; on the contrary beating should be patiently borne and no attempt should be made to set oneself by offering violence in return.
8. They should cheerfully bear the hardships in gaol and live there as if the gaol were a palace.
There were persons of every caste and community in this pilgrim-band. There were Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. There were men from Calcutta and there were Tamils. Several Pathans and Sindhis from the North found it difficult to accept the conditions requiring them to refrain from defending themselves in case they were beaten; not only did they accept it, however, but, when the testing time came, they actually made no move to defend themselves.
And so, the first batch started on its march. On the very first night, we had experience of sleeping out on the grass. On the way, warrants were received for the arrest of about 150 persons and they surrendered themselves readily. A single police officer had come to make the arrests. He had no assistant: how the arrested men were to be taken away became a problem. We were only 6 miles from Charlestown. So I suggested to the officer that these persons could proceed along with me and that he should take them into custody at Charlestown, or do whatever he thought fit after obtaining instructions from hissuperiors. The officer agreed and left us. We arrived at Charlestown. This is a very small township, with a population of barely 1,000. There is only one main road and the Indian population is negligible. The whites were amazed, therefore, at the sight of our party. At no time had so many Indians appeared in Charlestown. There was no train ready to convey the prisoners to Newcastle. Where could the police keep them? There was not enough room for all these arrested persons at the Charlestown police station. And so, the police handed them over to me and agreed to pay for their food. This is no small tribute to satyagraha. In the ordinary course of things, how could people arrested from among us be placed in our charge? If some of them had escaped, the responsibility would not have been ours. But everyone knew that it was the job of the satyagrahisto court arrest and they had, therefore, full confidence in us. The arrested men thus stayed with us for four days more. When the police were ready to take charge of them, they went away willingly.
More and more people were being recruited to our party. On some days 400 would join, on others even more. Many arrived on foot, while women came mostly by train. These were put up wherever there was space in the houses of Indian merchants of Charlestown. The local Corporation also offered us houses. The whites did not give us the slightest trouble. On the contrary they went out of their way to help us. One Dr. Briscoe took it upon himself to give us free medical aid and, when we proceeded beyond Charlestown, gave us gratis some expensive medicines and useful instruments. Our food was cooked in the mosque premises. The fire had to remain lit all the twenty-four hours. The cooks came from among the strikers. During the final day four to five thousand persons were being fed. Yet these workers never lost heart. In the morning, the meal consisted of mealie pap with sugar and some bread. In the evening they had rice, dal and vegetables. Most people in South Africa thrice a day. The indentured labourers always have three meals, but during the struggle they remained content with only two. They like to have delicacies with their meals, but these, too, they gave up at this time.
What to do with these huge crowds of people became a problem. If they were kept somehow in Charlestown, there was the likelihood of an epidemic breaking out. Moreover, it was not desirable that so many thousands accustomed to hard work should be kept in a state of idleness. It needs to be mentioned here that, although so many poor people had come together in Charlestown, not one of them committed a theft. The police had never to be called and they had no extra work on our account. However, it seemed best not to keep waiting in Charlestown. It was therefore decided to proceed to the Transvaal and, if not arrested, to go on ultimately to Tolstoy Farm. Before commencing the march, the Government was informed that we were proceeding to the Transvaal to court arrest, that we had no desire to stay there or to claim any rights but that, as long as the Government did not arrest us, we would continue our march and finally stay on Tolstoy Farm. If, however, the government promised to withdraw the £3 tax, we were willing to return. But the Government was in no mood to consider this notice. Its informants who assured it that the strikers would soon be exhausted misled it. The Government had a notice printed in all languages and distributed among the strikers.
At last the time came for us to proceed beyond Charlestown.On November 6, a party of 3,000 left at day-break. The procession was more than a mile long. Mr. Kallenbach and I were at the rear. The procession reached the border where a police party stood in readiness. When the two of us reached the spot, we had a talk with the police. They refused to arrest us and the procession went on in a disciplined and peaceful manner through Volksrust. On reaching Standerton Road outside the town, we halted and had some refreshments. It had been arranged that women should not join in this march, but later it became impossible to check the tide of enthusiasm and a few women managed to accompany the procession. However, some women and children still remained behind in Charlestown. After crossing the border at Volksrust, Mr. Kallenbach was sent back to look after them.
On the following day, the police arrested me near Palmford. I was charged with having brought unauthorized persons into the Transvaal. There was no warrant for the arrest of anyone else. Therefore, on reaching Volksrust, I sent ”¦ [a] telegram to the Government.
The procession went ahead. I was produced before the magistrate at Volksrust. I did not, of course, wish to defend myself. But as some arrangements had yet to be made regarding those who had gone beyond Palmford and those left behind at Charlestown, I asked for time. The Government pleader objected, but the magistrate pointed out that bail could be refused only in a case of murder. He then asked me to furnish a bail of £50 and gave me time for a week. A merchant in Volksrust immediately paid the amount. As soon as I was released, I went straight to the marchers. Their enthusiasm was doubled. Meanwhile, a wire came from Pretoria to say that the Government had no intention of arresting the Indians who were with me. Only the leaders were to be arrested. This did not mean that all the rest would be allowed to go free. But the Government had no desire to make our work easy by arresting all of us or to provoke agitation in India on this account.
Mr. Kallenbach followed with another large batch. Our party of over 2,000 was nearing Standerton. There, I was again arrested and the hearing was fixed for the 21st. We, however, proceeded on our way. But now the Government could stand this no longer and it took the step of separating me from the rest. At this time, preparations were afoot to send Mr. Polak to India with a deputation. He came to see me before leaving. But 'our undertakings remain unfinished, and the will of God prevails'. This is what happened. On Sunday I was arrested, for the third time, near Greylingstad. The warrant this time was issued from Dundee and the charge was that of instigating the workers to stop work. I was removed from there to Dundee in utmost secrecy. I have mentioned above that Mr. Polak was in the march with us. He now took charge. My case came up for hearing in Dundee on Tuesday. All three charges against me were read out and I pleaded guilty to all ofthem....
I made myself quite comfortable in gaol. Afterwards, proceedings were taken against me in Volksrust and I was given another three months besides the nine months I got at Dundee.
About this time, I learnt that Mr. Polak had been arrested and that instead of going to India he found himself in gaol. I, for one, was delighted, because this, to my mind, was a far more weighty deputation than the other one. Soon after this, Mr. Kallenbach was arrested and he also, like Mr. Polak, found himself lodged in gaol for three months. The Government was sadly mistaken when it imagined that, once the leaders were arrested, the people would render. All the strikers were put into four special trains and taken to in Dundee and Newcastle. They were subjected to much cruelty and they suffered terribly. But they had come forward to suffer. They were their own leaders. They had to demonstrate their strength, left as they were without any leaders, so called; and they did so. How well they did is known to all the world....