Gandhi's Life, Part Three
Biography of M.K. Gandhi
PART THREE Part One Part Two
South Africa: The First Crusade
South Africa at that time was divided into four areas. Natal and the Cape Colony were British possessions. The Orange Free State and the Transvaal were held by the Dutch, who were known as Boers, the Dutch word for farmer. Then as now South Africa was overwhelmingly nonwhite, and then as now the white minority ruled the colored majority by means of terror and abuse.
There were approximately sixty-five thousand Indians in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. The first had come as serfs bound to five years of plantation labor. When their term of bondage ended they were either shipped back to India or permitted to stay as free laborers. There were also thousands of free Indians of all classes, who had emigrated to South Africa. Some of them became wealthy and powerful. This outraged and frightened the Europeans, who would not consider colored men equals, and who contemptuously referred to the Indians as "coolies."
About a week after Gandhi arrived at Durban, in Natal, his business took him to Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal. His journey was an odyssey of discrimination and it set the direction of his life. He bought a first-class ticket and dressed, as he did then, in impeccable European clothing, traveled first-class until the train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal. There, a white passenger protested to railroad officials, and Gandhi was ordered to a lower-class compartment. He pointed to his first-class ticket and refused to move.
A policeman threw Gandhi and his luggage off the train, which continued its journey without him. He spent the night in the station's unlit, unheated waiting room. It was bitterly cold, but Gandhi's overcoat was in his luggage and his luggage was in the hands of the railroad authorities. Gandhi dared not request it for fear of being insulted again.
Instead, he sat shivering through the endless night, asking himself one question: Shall I fight for my rights or go back to India? By dawn he had made his decision. He would fight for his rights and the rights of all people.
He sent telegrams of protest to railroad officials and to his employer. The following evening he was permitted to take the train to the end of the line. The next portion of the journey, to Johannesburg, was by stagecoach, and the man in charge refused to permit Gandhi to sit inside with the white passengers. Gandhi agreed to sit beside the driver, but that night he wrote to the company's agent, firmly insisting he be seated inside the coach the following day. He was.
When he finally reached Johannesburg he was refused a hotel room. He spent the night with Indians who warned him he would have to ride to Pretoria as a third-class passenger, because better tickets were not issued to colored people. But Gandhi was adamant. He wrote the station master requesting a first-class ticket and received it only because the man was not a local Boer but a Dutchman from Holland.
When an astonished train guard found Gandhi in a first-class compartment with a first-class ticket he ordered him out. But the other occupant, an Englishman, told the guard to leave Gandhi alone. The Boer was astonished. "If you want to travel with a coolie, what do I care?" he muttered.
Gandhi reached Pretoria that evening, but no one met him and he knew he would be unable to get a hotel room. An American Negro helped him by taking him to a small hotel run by an American who offered to let him stay for the night if he would agree to eat in his room. The proprietor later relented and, after polling his guests, permitted Gandhi to eat his vegetarian dinner in the public dining room.
Gandhi never forgot any of the details of his humiliating journey. Within a week after he arrived in Pretoria he summoned the local Indians to a meeting to discuss their wretched condition. He made his first public speech that night; indignation had finally freed his tongue.
He told the Indians that before they could expect to reform the Boers and the British they would have to reform themselves. He urged them to be honest in business, sanitary in their personal habits, and tolerant of their own many religious differences. If they did this, and banded together to fight for their rights, he would give them as much time as he could.
More meetings were held, and Gandhi soon knew the problems of the Indians in Pretoria. They could not vote, own homes, go out at night without a permit, or walk along a public path. Gandhi himself was once kicked from a path into the street by a policeman.
While Gandhi was learning, often first-hand, the indignities of discrimination, he was also hard at work on the case that had brought him to South Africa. After studying the complex charges and countercharges, he suggested to the opposing parties that they select an arbitrator and settle the case out of court. They agreed, and when the arbitrator found for Gandhi's client, the young lawyer saved the loser from humiliation and bankruptcy by persuading the victor to accept payment in moderate installments.
Gandhi was delighted with the outcome. He had learned "the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties driven asunder." From then on, in hundreds of cases, it was Gandhi's practice to try to bring about a reasonable compromise outside of court rather than to drive for a crushing victory.
Having concluded his case, Gandhi retulmed to Durban to prepare to sail home to India. But at a farewell party in his honor he noticed a newspaper item about a bill which would deprive Natal Indians of the right to vote for members of the legislative assembly. Gandhi knew nothing about the bill and neither did any of the guests.
"What can we understand in these matters?" asked his host bitterly. "If it passes ... it strikes at the root of our self-respect," said Gandhi. The guests agreed. Then one spoke up. "Stay here a month longer, and we will fight as you direct us," he said.
Gandhi said he would stay. He would take no fees, but money would be needed for telegrams, for literature, for traveling, for law books. And he would need men willing to work with him.
"Money will come in," said a merchant. "Men there are, as many as you may need." Thus the farewell party was transformed into a planning session for a crusade for civil rights. It would last twenty years and evolve and test the essential weapons of every nonviolent freedom movement of the twentieth century.
END OF PART THREE
Part One Part Two
This biography was written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht and is reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.
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