History of KwaZulu-Natal Indian Settlement ...cont. Part 2

History of KwaZulu-Natal Indian Settlement ...cont. Part 2

MK Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi stepped ashore at Port Natal-Durban on Tuesday, 23 May 1893, a 24-year-old London-trained barrister eager to kick-start the stalled career he had failed to get up and running as an advocate of Bombay and Rajkot. Who could have dreamt that future historians would scurry to retrace his every footstep, and that our Kingdom of the Zulu would proudly boast a wealth of 'Gandhi Sites' to inspire present and future generations? From cosmopolitan Durban Metro to the rolling Midlands and atmospheric Battlefields lie opportunities for the visitor to absorb Gandhi-ji's omnipresence in the exact spots where he lived, worked and worshipped, witnessed the cruelties of war and experienced the life-changing confrontations with racist authorities of the day.

The Enticement

Gandhi had been contracted for a year to assist Dada Abdullah and Company in a 40-thousand Pound claim against two rival merchant firms, his duties to include the handling of English-language correspondence, translation of documents from the Gujerati tongue and the instruction of counsel. Over and above his first class return passage, Gandhi was promised 'a sum of 105 Pounds, all found' - no doubt somewhat of a marked improvement on the prospects at home. The case was to be heard outside of the Natal Colony, in Pretoria, but Gandhi's hosts and employers felt that prior to his train journey north it would be advantageous for the young lawyer to become acquainted with South African legal procedures.

First Encounters

Gandhi's third day in the settlement saw Dada Abdullah accompany him to the Durban Magistrate's Courts, which the young lawyer entered with turban on head - much to the magistrate's displeasure. An order to remove the headgear was ignored, Gandhi opting instead to vacate the building. The incident made headlines, with the Natal Advertiser referring to Gandhi as 'An Unwelcome Visitor' - prompting the newly- arrived barrister to respond with the first of many letters to politicians and the Press destined to become prized collectors' items. Gandhi informed readers of the Natal Advertiser that while in truth he had neither removed his turban nor bowed to the Court, he had intended no arrogance, explaining that in Indian culture 'to appear uncovered before a gentleman is to not respect him'. Wishing to circumvent further perceived insults, Gandhi contemplated replacing his 'ethnic' head-dress with a hat, but was dissuaded by Dada Abdullah with the logical and compelling argument that the young barrister would then 'resemble a table-waiter'.

The Turning Point

While the scene of Gandhi's first 'brush with the law' is now a National Monument housing Durban Metro's highly-informative and fascinating Local History Museum, the starting point of his most profound encounter is today where visitors converge to fulfill all their information and assistance needs - the indispensable Tourist Junction. Situated within the architecturally breathtaking Old Durban Railway Station Building, an emotive bust of the Mahatma presented by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations greets each new arrival.

It was from here, on 7 June 1893, that Gandhi embarked on the train journey destined to change not only his own life, but consequently the course of world history. Dumped unceremoniously onto the platform at Pietermaritzburg station for refusing to downgrade from a 'Whites- Only' first-class compartment, Gandhi's first instinct was to return to India. A bitterly cold night in the draughty waiting room, spent meditating on the disease of racial prejudice, witnessed a new realisation dawn along with the first rays of day. He saw clearly that to flee would be cowardice, and thereupon vowed to stay and fight against iniquity, declaring in later years that 'my active non- violence began from that date'.

More Reasons to Stay

By the time of Gandhi's return to Durban eleven months later, his legal obligations in Pretoria concluded, the condition of indentured Indians in the Natal Colony had deteriorated to the point where the local Protector decried 'the shame and injustice of it all, that such a state of affairs should be allowed to continue'. Anti-Indian attitudes were hardening within European social circles and among their political representatives, summed up in the infamous statement by the once-moderate Harry Escombe, whose new-found conservatism viewed the Indians as 'necessary for the development of local industries and enterprise, appreciated as labourers but not welcomed as settlers and competitors'.


Gandhi's Durban hosts showed him proposals to disenfranchise immigrant Indians through legislation, and asked him to stay and assist them oppose the Bill. The Durban Indian Committee had already initiated the first South African Indian political campaign via lists of grievances and petitions forwarded to a list of globally-influential figures from the Colonial Secretary of State to English Prime Minister Gladstone and Queen Victoria herself.

Gandhi delayed his departure and petitioned the Legislative Assembly, but the Franchise Bill was passed, and his colleagues then pleaded with him to assume permanent residence for the purpose of further legal battles with the authorities.

Present and Correct by Law

With an income guaranteed by the merchants and educated elite of Durban's Indian community, Gandhi applied to the Supreme Court for admission and was enrolled as an advocate, despite objections lodged by the Law Society. Along with Dada Abdullah and others involved in fruitlessly petitioning against the Franchise Bill, Gandhi suggested the formation of a permanent political structure to be called the Natal Indian Congress. The said organisation came into being on 22 August 1894, with its 76 initial members voting Dada Abdullah to its first presidency and Gandhi to the post of honorary secretary. Congress Hall, situated where today one finds Ajmeri Arcade off Grey Street, became a centre for cultural as well as political events, while Gandhi himself took up lodgings in the sadly long-demolished Beach Grove Villa - 'a nice little house in a prominent location' befitting an Indian barrister in Natal.

Friends and Religion

Of all the sympathetic Europeans invited to a pioneering meeting of the Natal Indian Congress, Wesleyan preacher and attorney O.J. Askew was the only one to attend. He and Gandhi became friends, with the latter often attending Wesleyan services on a Sunday, followed by dinner at the Askew household. Although born into the Hindu faith, Gandhi was by his own admission 'spiritually confused' at that point in his life and eagerly engaged in religious debate whenever the opportunity arose. Visits to his new friend's home ended abruptly on 16 September 1894, when Mrs Askew objected to Gandhi discussing Buddhism and vegetarianism with her children. Sensing in his religious questioning a potential convert, highly placed members of the South African General Mission then embarked on trying to steer Gandhi towards Christianity - a quest in which they ultimately failed.

Loved Ones and Enemies

Gandhi's much longer than anticipated stay in the Natal Colony brought painful separation from his wife and family, and in 1896 he returned to India to fetch them. While back on the subcontinent he sought to highlight the grievances of indentured and 'free' emigrants, only to be branded 'troublemaker-in-chief' by the English newspapers. These reports were duly published by the Press in Natal, and on 18 December 1896 the opposite of a welcoming party lay in wait for the Gandhi family and newcomers aboard two ships from India. The Courland and Naderi were both placed under quarantine for 24 days, and after finally crossing the harbour bar were prevented from disembarking their passengers by a 3000-plus mob of predominantly semi-skilled whites. Gandhi s wife Kasturba, sons Harilal and Manilal plus nephew Gokuldas were eventually brought ashore incognito among the main body of new immigrants, while the now instantly-recognisable barrister was escorted separately by Dada Abdullah s legal advisor F.A. Laughton. Once on dry land their would-be transport was threatened into flight, Gandhi and Laughton setting off towards the town centre on foot. They were immediately set upon, and Gandhi was stoned, punched to the ground and kicked. His timely rescue was bravely facilitated by the Police Superintendent's wife, Sarah Jane Alexander, who happened to be passing and forced her way between Gandhi and the mob with an opened parasol. An Indian boy had simultaneously run to the police station for help, and a handful of constables arrived to escort Gandhi to apparent safety. This proved short-lived, for the mob then gathered outside the shelter and demanded his handing over. Superintendent Alexander then followed his wife s ingenious example by disguising Gandhi as a policeman and spiriting him off to headquarters in the company of two detectives. Asylum was then provided in the officers' quarters. In a manner befitting his emerging saintliness, Gandhi refused to press charges against those who meant him harm, declaring that even when he thought death was imminent, 'my heart did not arraign my assailants'.

The Situation Worsens

Indentured Indian immigrants had by now to return to the subcontinent upon completion of their five-year contract or comply with one of two legally-binding options. The first was re-indenture, a system that afforded employers even more leverage as labourers accepted poverty- inducing pay cuts in preference to the uncertain future awaiting them back home. Alternatively, an annual 'penalty' of three Pounds could be paid, a clause reluctantly agreed to by the Indian Government on condition that failure to pay did not constitute a punishable criminal offence. Many accepted this financially-crippling option that ultimately left thousands in debt.

Health care for the poorest Indians in particular was virtually non- existent, and the Natal Indian Congress raised an invaluable subscription when Dr Lancelot Parker Booth offered his services to alleviate the circumstances. Saint Aidan's Mission Hospital was officially opened on 14 September 1897, and Gandhi thereupon spent an hour or more each day helping Dr Booth administer to the sick.

War Returns

Gandhi's compassion and 'medical training' were about to emerge on a larger arena. Eight years after cessation of the First War of Independence between Boer and British, the epochal Anglo-Boer War erupted on 20 October 1899. Colonial leaders created a corps of Indian stretcher-bearers to release trained soldiers for combat, and when Gandhi read of the carnage at Spioenkop, he immediately volunteered his services. His contribution is fondly recalled along our emotionally-charged and scenic Battlefields Route in the towns of Ladysmith, Dundee, Glencoe and Newcastle.

A New Vision

With the Armistice signed in 1902 the country, and Gandhi, reverted to pre-war concerns. Now inspired by the lives and writings of Tolstoy, Ruskin and Zulu scholar the Reverend Dr John Langalibalele Dube, Gandhi launched the weekly Indian Opinion newspaper in June 1903, publishing topical articles in Hindi, Tamil, Gujerati and English. The first editorial offices were situated in Durban's Indian merchants' district, but within a year would move to Gandhi's newly- purchased Phoenix Settlement on the northern outskirts of the town. He bought one hundred acres of fruit trees and ex-sugar cane plantation for a thousand Pounds, and along with trained artisans befriended during his stint with the Indian Stretcher Bearer Corps, set about building a commune based on principles learned from his own experiences and the philosophies of Tolstoy and Ruskin. The tenets of Phoenix were 'a simple and natural life, with profit sharing the end result of honest business practices'. Land and duties were apportioned, rudimentary dwellings built and a way of living set in motion that offered Indian participants a 'rising from the ashes, as embodied by the phoenix itself'.

Further Turning Points

Several critical issues in the Natal Colony came to a head in 1909. With the European population in Durban now thoroughly outnumbered by both indigenous Africans and immigrant Indians, calls to halt further emigration from the subcontinent grew louder than those from employers who sought greater profits from a 'cheap and docile' work force. Abuses of the indenture system were reported ever more regularly, and the continued presence of a 'moderating' British jurisdiction was fading as the four Colonies in Southern Africa engaged in talks aimed at unification. With prospects looming of sole governance by Colonial English in Natal and Afrikaaner-Boers in the Transvaal - both of whom had legislated policies of racial segregation - the British Government was petitioned to cease the importation of contract labour 'in the best interests of the Indian Empire and that of the Natal Colony'.

The Union of South Africa duly came into being on 31 May 1910 and, as decreed in the Gazette of India dated April 1911, from 1 July of that same year 'All emigration to Natal would be prohibited'.

Non-Violent Opposition

M.K. Gandhi had during the preceding four years, as spokesman for the Transvaal Indian community, embarked on his 'Passive Resistance' campaign against the unjust treatment of 'voiceless and voteless' merchants in that particular Colony. An embarrassed Transvaal Government had responded with deportation back to India or imprisonment resulting in severe financial losses. The so-called 'Indian Question' remained unresolved with the advent of Union, and by mid-1913 Gandhi had broadened the aims of his Passive Resistance to include working-class grievances, and those of the indentured labourers in particular. He now threatened the Union Government with peaceful revolt on an ever-widening scale, accusing it of planning to 'wipe out the resident Indian population by making its life in South Africa as intolerable as possible'. This claim was made on the basis of the crippling three-Pound penalty tax for remaining after indenture and Government's refusal to validate non- Christian Indian marriages.

Unexpected Actions

South Africa's white minority rulers were taken by surprise in November 1913 when, under Gandhi's direction, indentured Indian labourers went on strike - initially in the coal mining area of Newcastle in northern Natal and followed by Durban and adjacent coastal belts. These were the first-ever strikes in the country's history and employers were caught off guard as some 2000 workers downed tools.

The Coal Owner's Association issued an ultimatum on 29 October 1913, demanding that all strikers be evicted from mine compounds and arrested for breaking their contracts of indenture. Gandhi led phase one of the 'Great March' that same day, heading a group of some 200 strikers out of Newcastle with the intention of crossing into the Transvaal for a confrontation with the Union Government. Within three days the number had swelled to about four thousand.


Knowing that insufficient prison space existed for all the marchers, authorities targeted their leaders and Gandhi was arrested on 5 November, charged with 'aiding and abetting illegal entry into the Transvaal'. He was granted bail but re-arrested two days later and once again released on bail. It is thought that the Government hoped to sap the movement's energy by depleting Gandhi's financial resources. This failed and Gandhi was again arrested on 9 November, on this occasion sentenced to a total of 12 months imprisonment. While Gandhi was incarcerated, thousand became involved in the 'Coastal Strike', Indians in all spheres of employment walking off site and taking to the streets and by-ways. Police shot five strikers at the Mount Edgecombe plantation on Durban's northern outskirts for brandishing home-made weapons.

Indians throughout South Africa reacted in sympathy, shutting down their businesses, forcing the closure of produce markets, halting output from mines, sugar mills and factories, and seriously affecting shops, the catering industry and even domestic household routines. Thousands languished in jail as a result, and the overcrowded conditions led to hunger strikes and related unrest that further tarnished South Africa's reputation abroad as these incidents made headlines world-wide.

Indian Relief

As 1913 drew to a close, the Union of South Africa Government had no alternative but to launch a Commission of Enquiry into the strikes. Gandhi was released from prison as a means to cool tempers, and early the following year a Bill was passed whereby the infamous three- Pound 'penalty tax' was abolished and some important concessions made with regard to non-Christian Indian marriages. Matters were by no means resolved to everyone's satisfaction, but Gandhi believed he had achieved whatever he could under the circumstances. He was at the time growing increasingly concerned about the situation in India, and harboured dreams of influencing the outcome of calls for independence there.

The Mahatma Departs

On 18 July 1914, following a string of farewell functions in Durban, the coastal settlements and inland, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi set sail from Durban for the last time, destined to become leader of the massed millions in India's struggle for independence. And just as he departed from South Africa with a feeling of incompleteness regarding the plight of Indians who remained behind, so would the Mahatma - Great Soul - be inconsolably grieved by the carnage that accompanied final Independence and Partition of the subcontinent.

Post Script

Once back in 'Mother India', Gandhi launched one final, scathing verbal attack on the policy of indentured labour to South Africa and other British colonies, declaring it 'based upon full-fledged slavery and a hindrance to national growth and national dignity'. It was therefore inevitable that by 1917 the system should finally be terminated throughout the British Empire.

The independent Government of India continued to embarrass and pressure the South African government throughout the years of institutionalised racial inequality and segregation, from the time of Union to declaration of a Republic and beyond to the birth of our first democracy.

It is calculated that 152, 184 people of Indian origin arrived on the shores of our Zulu Kingdom under the 'Indenture System' - hardy people who established themselves against overwhelming odds and proceeded to become a vibrant and essential component of our multi- ethnic identity.

Visitors will discover the 'Indian Experience' at every turn, an added dimension and highlight that guarantees memorable encounters with an ancient culture that has enriched all within its ambience since the Truro anchored on 16 November 1860.