Thus the Natal Indian Congress was placed on a permanent footing. I spent nearly two years and a half in Natal, mostly doing political work. I then saw that if I was still to prolong my stay in South Africa, I must bring over my family from India. I likewise thought of making a brief sojourn in the homeland and of acquainting Indian leaders with the condition of Indian settlers in Natal and other parts of South Africa. The Congress allowed me leave of absence for six months and late the Mr. Adamji Miyakhan, the well-known merchant of Natal, was appointed Secretary in my stead. He discharged his duties with great ability. He had a fair knowledge of English, which had been greatly supplemented by use. He had studied Gujarati in the ordinary course. As he had mercantile dealings chiefly with the Zulus, he had acquired an intimate knowledge of the Zulu language and was well conversant with Zulu manners and customs. He was a man of very quiet and amiable disposition. He was not given to much speech. I have entered into these details in order to show, that to the holding of responsible positions, truthfulness, patience, tolerance, firmness, presence of mind, courage and common sense are far more essential qualifications than a knowledge of English or mere learning. Where these fine qualities are absent, the best literary attainments are of little use in public work.
I returned to India in the middle of the year 1896. As steamers from Natal were then more easily available for Calcutta than for Bombay, I went on board one bound for that city. For the indentured labourers were embarked from Calcutta or Madras. While proceeding to Bombay from Calcutta, I missed my train on the way and had to stop in Allahabad for a day. My work commenced there. I saw Mr. Chesney of the Pioneer. He talked with me courteously, but told me frankly that his sympathies were with the Colonials. He, however, promised that if I wrote anything, he would read it and notice it in his paper. This was good enough for me.
While in India, I wrote a pamphlet on the condition of Indians in South Africa. It was noticed by almost all newspapers and it passed through two editions. Five thousand copies were distributed in various places in India. It was during this visit that I had the privilege of seeing Indian leaders, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Justices Badruddin Tyebji and Mahadev Govind Ranade and others in Bombay, and Lokmanya Tilak and his circle, Prof. Bhandarkar and Gopal Krishna Gokhale and his circle in Poona. I delivered speeches in Bombay, Poona and Madras. I do not propose to deal with these events in detail.
I cannot, however, resist the temptation of describing here a sacred reminiscence of Poona, although it is not strictly relevant to our subject. The Sarvajanik Sabha was controlled by the Lokamanya, while Shri Gokhale was connected with the Deccan Sabha. I first saw the Tilak Maharaj. When I spoke to him about my intention to hold a meeting in Poona, he asked me if I had seen Gopalrao. I did not understand whom he meant. He therefore asked me again if I had seen Shri Gokhale and if I knew him.
“I have not yet seen him. I know him by name and mean to see him,” I replied.
“You do not seen to be familiar with Indian politics”, said the Lokmanya.
“I stayed in India only for a short time after my return from England, and had not then applied myself to political questions, as I thought it beyond my capacity,” I said.
Lokamanya then said : “In that case I must give you some information. There are two parties in Poona, one represented by the Sarvajanik Sabha and the other by the Deccan Sabha.”
I replied : “I know something about this matter.”
Lokamanya : “It is easy to hold a meeting here. But, it seems to me that you wish to lay your case before all the parties here and seek to enlist the support of all. I like your idea. But if a member of the Sarvajanik Sabha is selected to preside over your meeting, no member of the Deccan Sabha will attend it. Similarly, if a member of the Deccan sabha were to preside, member of the Sarvajanik Sabha would absent themselves. You should therefore find out a non-partisan as chairman. I can only offer suggestions in the matter, and shall not be able to render any other assistance. Do you know Prof. Bhandarkar? Even if you do not know him, you should see him. He is considered a neutral. He does not take part in politics, but perhaps you can induce him to preside over your meeting. Speak to Shri Gokhale about this, and seek his advice too. In all probability he will give you the same advice. If a man of the position of Prof. Bhandarkar consents to preside, I am certain that both the parties will see to it that a good meeting is held. At any rate you can count upon our fullest help in the matter.”
I then saw Gokhale. I have written elsewhere how I fell in love with him at this very first sight. The curious may look up the files of Young India1 or Navajivan2 for it. Gokhale liked the advice which lokamanya had given me. Accordingly I paid my respects to the venerable Professor. He heard attentively the story of the Indian wrongs in Natal and said, “You see I rarely take part in public life. Then again, I am getting old. But what you have told me has stirred me deeply. I like your idea of seeking the co-operation of all parties. You are young and ignorant of political conditions in India. Tell the members of both the parties that I have agreed to your request. On an intimation from any of them that the meeting is to be held, I will certainly come and preside.” A successful meeting was held in Poona. The leaders of both the parties attended and spoke in support of my cause.
I then went to Madras. There I saw Sir (then Mr. Justice) Subrahmanya Aiyar, Shri P. Anandacharlu, Shri J. Subrahmanyam, the then editor of the Hindu, Shri Parameshvaran Pillai, editor of the Madras Standard, Shri Bhasyam lyenger, the famous advocate, Mr. Norton and others. A great meeting too was held. From Madras I went to Calcutta, where I saw Surendranath Banerji, Maharaja Jyotindra Mohan Tagore, the late Mr. Saunders, the editor of the Englishman, and others. While a meeting was being arranged in Calcutta, I received a cablegram from Natal asking me to return at once. This was in November 1896. I concluded that some movement hostile to the Indians must be on foot. I therefore left my work at Calcutta incomplete and went to Bombay, where I took the first available steamer with my family. s.s. Courland had been purchased by Messers Dada Abdulla and represented one more enterprise of that very adventurous firm, namely, to run a steamer between Porbandar and Natal. The s. s. Naderi, a steamer of the Persian Navigation Company, left Bombay for Natal immediately after. The total number of passengers on the two steamers was about 800.
The agitation in India attained enough importance for the principle Indian newspapers to notice it in their columns and for Reuter to send cablegrams about it to England. This I came to know on reaching Natal. Reuter’s representative in England had sent a brief cablegram to South Africa, containing an exaggerated summary of my speeches in India. This is not an unusual experience. such exaggeration is not always international. Very busy people with prejudices and prepossessions of their own read something superficially and then prepare a summary which is sometimes partly a product of imagination. This summary, again, is differently interpreted in different places. Distortion thus takes place without anyone intending it. This is the risk attending public activities and this is also their limitation. While in India I had criticized the Europeans of Natal. I had spoken very strongly against the three pounds tax on indentured labourers. I had given a vivid account of the sufferings of an indentured labourer named Subrahmanyam who had been assaulted by his master, whose wounds I had seen and whose case was in my hands. When the Europeans in Natal read the distorted summary of my speeches, they were greatly exasperated against me. The remarkable fact, however, was that what I had written in Natal was more severe and detailed than what I wrote and spoke in India. My speeches in India were free from the slightest exaggeration. On the other hand, as I knew from experience that if we describe an event to a stranger, he sees more in it that what we intend to convey, I had deliberately described the South African situation in India less forcibly than the facts warranted. But very few Europeans would read what I wrote in Natal, and still fewer would care for it. The case, however, was obviously different with my speeches and writings in India. Thousands of Europeans would read Reuter’s summaries. Moreover, a subject which is considered worthy of being communicated by cablegram becomes invested with an importance it does not intrinsically possess. The Europeans of Natal thought that my work in India carried the weight attributed to it by them and that therefore the system of indentured labour would perhaps come to an end, and hundreds of European planters would suffer in consequence. Besides, they felt blackened before India.
While the Europeans for Natal were thus in an excited state of mind, they heard that I was returning to Natal with my family per s. s. Courland, that it carried from 300 to 400 Indian passengers, and that s. s. Naderi was also arriving at the same time with an equal number of Indians. This inflamed them all the more, and there was a great explosion of feelings. The Europeans of Natal held large meetings, which were attended by almost all the prominent members of their community. The Indian passengers in general and myself in particular came in for a great deal of severe criticism. The expected arrival of the s. s. Courland and the s. s. Naderi was represented as an ‘invasion’ of Natal. The speakers said that I had brought those 800 passengers to Natal and that this was my first step towards flooding Natal with free Indians. A unanimous resolution was passed that the passengers of both the steamers including myself should be prevented from landing in Natal. If the government of Natal would not or could not prevent the passengers from landing, the Committee appointed at the meeting was to take the law into their own hands and to prevent the Indians from landing by main force. Both the steamers reached Durban on the same day.
The reader will remember that bubonic plague made its first appearance in India in 1896. In their effort to prevent our landing the Government of Natal were hampered by legal difficulties as the Immigration Restriction Act had not yet come into being. Otherwise their sympathies were entirely with the committer of Europeans referred to above. The late Mr. Escombe, a member of the Government, took a prominent part in the proceedings of that Committee. It was he who instigated them. There is a rule in force at all ports that if a case of contagious disease occurs on board a steamer, or if a steamer is coming from an infected port, it is detained in quarantine for a certain period. This restriction canbe imposed only on sanitary grounds, and under orders from the Health Officer of the port. The Government of Natal abused their power by enforcing the above rule for political purposes. Although there was no contagious disease on board, both the steamers were detained for beyond the usual time limit, for as many as twenty-three days. Meanwhile, the Committee of Europeans continued their activities. Messrs Dada Abdulla, who were the owners of the s. s. Courland and the agents for the s. s. Naderi, were subjected to a severe hectoring by them. Inducements were offered to them if they agreed to take back the passengers, and they were threatened with loss of business if they refused to do so. But the partners of the firm were no cowards. They said they did not care if they were ruined; they would fight to the bitter end but would not he coerced into committing the crime of sending away those helpless but innocent passengers; they were no strangers to patriotism. The old advocate of the firm, Mr. F.A. Laughton, K.C., was also a brave man.
As luck would have it, the late Shri Mansukhlal Hiralal Nazar, a Kayastha gentleman from Surat and a nephew of the late Mr. justice Nanabhai Haridas, reached Africa about the same time. I did not know him, nor was I aware of his going. I need scarcely say that I had no hand in bringing the passengers who arrived by the s. s. Naderi and the s. s. Courland. Most of them were old residents of South Africa. Many again were bound for the Transvaal. Threatening notices were served by the Committee of Europeans even upon these passengers. The captains of the steamers read them out to the passengers. The notices expressly stated that the Europeans of Natal were in a dangerous temper, and said in effect that if in spite of the warning the Indian passengers attempted to land, the members of the Committee would attend at the port and push every Indian into the sea. I interpreted this notice to the passengers on the s. s. Courland. An English-knowing passenger on board the s. s.Naderi did the same for his fellow-passengers. The passengers on both the steamers flatly declined to go back and added that many of them were proceeding to the Transvaal, that some of the rest were old residents of Natal, that in any case every one of them was legally entitled to land and that the threats of the Committee notwithstanding, they were determined to land in order to test their right to do so.
The Government of Natal was at its wits’ end. How long could an unjust restriction be enforced? Twenty-three days had passed already. Dada Abdulla did not flinch, nor did the passengers. The quarantine was thus lifted after 23 days and the steamers were permitted to steam into harbour. Meanwhile, Mr. Escombe pacified the excited Committee of Europeans. At a meeting which was held, he said: “The Europeans in Durban have displayed commendable unity and courage. You have done all you could. Government has also helped you. The Indians were detained for 23 days. You have given sufficient expression to your sentiments and your public spirit. That will make a profound impression on the Imperial Government. Your action has made the path of the Government of Natal easy. If you now prevent by force a single Indian passenger from landing, you will injure your own interests and place the Government in an awkward position. Andeven then you will not succeed in preventing the Indians from landing. The passengers are not at all to blame. There are women and children among them. When they embarked at Bombay, they had no idea of your feelings. I would therefore advise you to disperse and not to obstruct these people. I assure you, however, that the Government of Natal will obtain from the Legislative Council the requisite powers in order to restrict future immigration.” This is only a summary of Mr. Escombe’s speech. His audience was disappointed, but he had great influence over the Europeans of Natal. They dispersed in consequence of his advice and both the steamers came into port.
A message reached me from Mr. Escombe advising me not to land with the others but to wait until evening when he would send the Superintendent of Water Police to escort me home, and adding that my family were free to land at any time. This was not an order according to law, but was by way of advice to the captain not to allow me to land and of warning to me of the danger that was hanging over my head. The captain had not the power forcibly to prevent me from landing. But I came to the conclusion that I should accept this suggestion. I sent my family to residence of my old friend and client, Parsi Rustomji, instead of to my own place, and told them that I would meet them there. When the passengers had disembarked, Mr. Laughton, counsel for Dada Abdulla and a personal friend of mine, came up and met me. He asked me why I had not yet landed. I told him about Mr. Escombe’s letter. He said that he did not like the idea of my waiting till evening and then entering the city like a thief or offender, that if I was not afraid, I should accompany him there and then, and that we would walk to the town as if nothing had happened. I replied : “I do not think I am afraid. It is only a question of propriety whether or not I should accept Mr. Escombe’s suggestion. And we should also consider whether the captain of the steamer is responsible in the matter.” Mr. Laughton smiled and said : “What has Mr. Escombe done for you that you must needs heed his suggestion? And what reason have you to believe that he is actuated by kindliness and not by some ulterior motive? I know more than you what has happened in the town, and what hand Mr. Escombe had in the happenings there.” I interrupted him with a shaking of the head. “We might assume, “continued Mr. Laughton, “that he is actuated by the best of motives. But I am positively of opinion that if you comply with his suggestion, you will stand humiliated. I would, therefore, advise you, if you are ready, to accompany me just now. The captain is our man, and his responsibility is our responsibility. He is accountable only to Dada Abdulla. I know what they will think of the matter, as they have displayed great courage in the present struggle. I replied : “Let us then go. I have no preparations to make. All I have to do is to put on my turban. Let us inform the captain and start.” We took the captain’s leave.
Mr. Laughton was an old and well-known advocate of Durban. I had come in intimate contact with him before I returned to India. I used to consult him in difficult cases and often to engage him as my senior. He was a brave and powerfully built man.
Our road lay through the principal street of Durban. It was about half past four in the evening when we started. The sky was slightly overcast and the sun was not to be seen. It would take a pedestrian at least one hour to reach Rustomji Sheth’s place. The number of the persons present about the wharf was not larger than what is to be usually seen there. As soon as we landed, some boys saw us. As I was the only Indian who put on a turban of particular type, they at once recognized me, began to shout ‘Gandhi’, ‘Gandhi’, ‘thrash him’, ’surround him’, and came up towards us. Some began to throw pebbles at us. A few elderly Europeans joined the boys. Gradually the party of rioters began to grow. Mr. Laughton thought that there was danger in our going on foot. He therefore hailed a rickshaw. I had never sat in a rickshaw before, as it was thoroughly disgusting to me to sit in a vehicle pulled by human beings. But I then felt that it was my duty to use that vehicle. I have experienced five or seven times in my life that one, whom God wishes to save, cannot fall even if he will. If I did not fall I cannot take any credit for it to myself. These rickshaws are pulled by Zulus. The elderly Europeans and the boys threatened the rickshaw puller that if he allowed me to sit in his rickshaw they would beat him and smash his rickshaw to pieces. The rickshaw boy, therefore, said ‘Kha’ (meaning ‘no’) and went away. I was thus spared the shame of a rickshaw ride.
We had no alternative now but to proceed to our destination on foot. A mob followed us. With every step we advanced, it grew larger and larger. The gathering was enormous when we reached West Street. A man of powerful build took hold of Mr. Laughton and tore him away from me. He was not therefore in a position to come up with me. The crowd began to abuse me and shower upon me stones and whatever else they could lay their hands on. They threw down my turban. Meanwhile a burly fellow came up to me, slapped me in the face and then kicked me. I was about to fall down unconscious when I held on to the railings of a house nearby. I look breath for a while and when the fainting was over, proceeded on my way. I had almost given up the hope of reaching home alive. But I remember well that even my heart did not arraign my assailants.
While I was thus wending my way, the wife of the Superintendent of Police at Durban was coming from the opposite direction. We knew each other well. She was a brave lady. Although the sky was cloudy and the sun about to set, she opened her sunshade for my protection and began to walk at my side. The Europeans would not insult a lady, especially the wife of the old and popular Superintendent of Police, nor would they hurt her. They must avoid injuring her while aiming blows at me. The injuries, therefore, which I received after she joined me, were not serious. Meanwhile the Superintendent of Police came to know of the attack upon me and sent me. The police surrounded me. The police station was on our way. When we reached there I saw that the Superintendent of Police was waiting for us. He offered me asylum in Police Station, but I declined the offer with thanks and said, “I must reach my destination. I have faith in the fair play of the citizens of Durban and in the righteousness of my own cause. I am thankful to you for sending the police party for my protection. Mrs. Alexander too has contributed to my safety.”
I reached Rustomji’s house without further trouble. It was nearly evening when I reached there. Dr. Dadibarjor, the medical officer of the s. s. Courland, who was with Rustomji Sheth, began to treat me. He examined my wounds. There were not many of them. One blind wound in particular was very painful. But I was not yet privileged to rest in peace. Thousands of Europeans gathered before Rustomji Sheth’s house. After nightfall, hooligans also joined the crowd. The crowd sent word to Rustomji Sheth that if he did not hand me over to them, they would burn him and his house along with me. Rustomji Sheth was too good an Indian to be daunted. When Superintendent Alexander came to know how matters stood, he quietly joined the crowd with a number of detectives. He sent for a bench and stood upon it. Thus under the pretence of talking to the crowd, he took possession of the entrance to Rustomji’s house so that none could break and enter it. He had already posted detectives at proper places. Immediately on arrival, he had instructed a subordinate to disguise himself as an Indian trader by putting on Indian dress and painting his face to see me and deliver to me the following message: “If you wish to save your friend, his guests and property, and your own family, I advise you to disguise yourself as an Indian constable, come out through Rustomji’s godown, steal through the crowd with my man and reach the Police Station. A carriage is awaiting you at the corner of the street. This is the only way in which I can save you and others. The crowd is so excited that I am not in a position to control it. If you are not prompt in following my directions, I am afraid the crowd will raze Rustomji’s house to the ground and it is impossible for me to imagine how many lives will be lost and how much property destroyed.”
I gauged the situation at once. I quickly disguised myself as a constable and left Rutomji’s house. The Police Officer and I reached the Police Station in safety. In the meantime Mr. Alexander was humouring the crowd by singing topical songs and talking to them. When he knew that I had reached the Police Station, he became serious and asked:
“What do you want?”
“We want Gandhi.”
“What will you do with him?”
“We will burn him.”
“What harm has he done to you?”
“He has vilified us in India and wants to flood Natal with Indians.”
“What if he does not come out?”
“We will then burn this house.”
“His wife and children are also there. There are other men and women besides. Would you not be ashamed of burning women and children?”
“The responsibility for that will rest with you. What can we do when you make us helpless in the matter? We do not wish to hurt anyone else. It would be enough if you hand over Gandhi to us. If you do not surrender the culprit, and if others are injured in our endeavour to capture him, would it be fair on your part to blame us?”
The Superintendent gently smiled and informed the crowd that I had left Rustomji’s house, passed through their midst, and reached another place already. The crowd laughed loudly and shouted, “It is a lie, it is a lie.”
The Superintendent said : “If you will not believe your old Superintendent of Police, please appoint a committee of three or four men from amongst you. Let others promise that they will not enter the house, and that if the committee fails to find Gandhi in the house, you will peacefully return to your homes. You got excited today and did not obey the police. That reflects discredit on you, not on the police. The police therefore played a trick with you; it removed your prey from your midst and you have lost the game. You certainly cannot blame the police for this. The police, whom you yourselves have appointed, have simply done their duty.”
The Superintendent addressed the crowd with such suavity and determination, that they gave him the promise he had asked for. A committee was appointed. It searched Rustomji’s house through and through, and reported to the crowd that the Superintendent was right and had beaten them in the game. The crowd was disappointed. But they kept their word and dispersed without committing any mischief. This happened on January 13, 1897.
The same morning after the quarantine on the steamers had been removed, the reporter of a Durban newspaper had seen me on the steamer. He had asked me everything. It was quite easy to dispose of the charges against me to his satisfaction. I showed to him in detail that I had not indulged in the least exaggeration. What I had done was only my duty. If I had failed to discharge it, I would be unworthy of the name of the man. All this appeared in the newspapers the next day. Sensible people among the Europeans admitted their mistake. The newspapers expressed their sympathy with the standpoint of the Europeans in Natal, but at the same time fully defended my action. This enhanced my reputation as well as the prestige of the Indian community. It was proved that the Indians, poor as they were, were no cowards, and that the Indian traders were prepared to fight for their self-respect and for their country regardless of loss.
Thus though the Indian community had to suffer hardship and though Dada Abdulla incurred big losses, the ultimate result, I believe, was entirely beneficial. The community had an opportunity of measuring their own strength and their self-confidence increased in consequence. I had a most valuable experience, and whenever I think of that day, I feel that God was preparing me for the practice of Satyagraha.
The events in Natal had their repercussion in England Mr. Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, cabled to the Government of Natal asking them to prosecute my assailants and to see that justice was done to me.
Mr. Escombe, who was Attorney-General with the Government of Natal, called me. He told me about Mr. Chamberlain’s cable. He expressed his regret for the injuries I had sustained, and his pleasure that the consequences of the assault were not more serious. He added, “I can assure you that I did not at all intend that you or any other member of your community should be injured. As I feared that you might possibly be hurt, I sent you word to say that you should land at night. You did not like my suggestion. I do not wish to blame you in the least that you accepted Mr. Laughton’s advice. You were perfectly entitled to do what you thought fit. The Government of Natal fully accepts Mr. Chamberlain’s demand. We desire that the offenders should be brought to book. Can you identify any of your assailants?”
I replied : “I might perhaps to able to identify one or two of them. But I must say at once before this conversation proceeds that I have already made up my mind not to prosecute my assailants. I cannot see that they are at fault. What information they had, they had, they had obtained from their leaders. It is too much to expect them to judge whether it was correct or otherwise. If all that they heard about me was true, it was natural for them to be excited and do something wrong in a fit of indignation. I would not blame them for it. Excited crowds have always tried to deal out justice in that manner. If anyone is to blame it is the Committee of Europeans, you yourself and therefore, the Government of Natal. Reuter might have cabled any distorted account. But when you knew that I was coming to Natal, it was your duty and duty of the Committee to question me about the suspicions you entertained with regard to my activities in India, to hear what I had to say and then do what might appear proper in the circumstances. Now I cannot prosecute you or the Committee for the assault. And even if I could, I would not seek redress in a court of law. You took such steps as seemed advisable to you for safeguarding the interests of the Europeans of Natal. That is a political matter, and it remains for me to fight with you in the political field and to convince you and the other Europeans that the Indians who constitute a large proportion of the population of the British Empire wish to preserve their self-respect and safeguard their rights without injuring the Europeans in the least.”
Mr. Escombe said, “I quite understand what you say, and I appreciate it. I was not prepared to hear that you were not willing to prosecute your assailants. I would not have been displeased in the least had you prosecuted them. But since you have signified your determination not to prosecute, I do not hesitate to say not only that you have come to a right decision in the matter, but you will render further service to your community by your self-restraint. I must at the same time admit that your refusal to prosecute your assailant will save the Government of Natal from a most awkward position. If you so desire, the Government will see that your assailants are arrested but it is scarcely necessary to tell you that it would irritate the Europeans and to give rise to all manner of criticism, which no Government would relish. But if you have finally made up your mind not to prosecute, you should write to me a note signifying your intention to that effect. I cannot defend my government merely by sending Mr. Chamberlain summary of our conversation. I should cable to him a summary of your note. I am not, however, asking you to let me have the note just now. You had better consult your friends. Consult Mr. Laughton also. And if after such consultations you still adhere to your resolution not to prosecute, write to me. But your note should clearly state that you, on your own responsibility, refuse to prosecute your assailants. Then only can I make use of it.”
I said : “I had no idea that you had sent for me in this connection. I have not consulted any one on the subject, nor do I wish to consult any one now. When I decided to land and proceed with Mr. Laughton, I had made up my mind that I should not feel aggrieved in case I was injured. Prosecuting my assailants is therefore out of the question. This is a religious question with me, and I believe with you that I shall serve my community as well as myself by this act of self-restraint. I propose, therefore, to take all the responsibility on my shoulders and to give you the note you ask for here and now. “
I then obtained some blank paper from him, wrote out the desired note and handed It over to him.