Tuesday 8 April 2014

Gandhi and white violence in colonial Natal

In 1896, as part of a rising anti-Indian agitation, white settlers in the colony of Natal formed two populist organisations to pressure the government. Both the European Protection Association and Colonial Patriotic Union garnered widespread support and within a few months the Union had collected 5514 signatures to a petition requesting the government ‘to adopt measures which will prevent the influx of Asiatic races into this colony’.

At much the same time, and after three years of activism in the Transvaal and Natal, Mohandas Gandhi returned to India to ‘represent the grievances the Indians are labouring under in South Africa’. While he was overseas, colonial newspapers reported that Gandhi had published a pamphlet declaring ‘Indians in Natal are robbed and assaulted and treated like beasts, and are unable to obtain redress’. Even though these reports were false and were later retracted, settlers were incensed that Gandhi had dared ‘to come to the Colony of Natal, to take everything that was fair and good in it, and then to go out of it and blackguard those whose hospitality he had been enjoying’.

The organised agitation against Indian immigration was already well advanced when it became known in December 1896 that two steamers, the S.S. Courland and S.S. Naderi were en route to Durban from Bombay with more than 600 Indian passengers on board. Gandhi was among them, for he and his family had boarded the Courland and were returning to Natal. The ships had left India at the end of November and arrived at Durban after almost three weeks at sea on 18 December 1896; but in spite of the fact that both steamers ‘had absolutely clean bills of health on arrival and during the whole of their respective voyages’ they were immediately placed under quarantine. Meanwhile, at packed demonstrations in Durban there were calls to ‘sink the ships’, to send all the passengers back to India and ‘to take a coolie by the neck and throw him overboard’. At one meeting a speaker was applauded when he announced that ‘Gandhi was on board one of the boats and the greatest service they could do him would be to do him an injury. He believed Gandhi was very anxious to become a hero and martyr to his cause.’

After 25 days in the humid summer heat, the steamers were finally granted pratique. Wary of the agitation, the ships’ agents delayed bringing the ships into port until 13 January, when bugles were sounded in Durban, shopkeepers put up their shutters and crowds streamed to the Point. It was estimated that five thousand men were assembled when the vessels made their way into the harbour. Prime minister John Robinson hurriedly despatched the attorney general, Harry Escombe, to Durban to contain the crisis and broker a deal with the demonstrators, for the cabinet worried that the situation had the potential to spiral out of control.

As the crowd gathered at the Point, Escombe visited the vessels to assure the passengers that it was safe to land and no harm would come to them. He then came ashore and addressed the white protesters. He appealed to their sense of justice and called on them to ratify the pledge he had given to the passengers. He asked that the crowd ‘trust the Government, as we have trusted you’ and ‘expressed sympathy with their desire that Natal should remain a white Colony, governed in accordance with Anglo-Saxon traditions’. He gave assurances that the ministry was doing all it could to negotiate with the imperial and Indian governments to stop immigration pending the passage of new legislation.  The regular parliamentary session would open in early March, two months earlier than usual, to deal with the immigration question.  He congratulated the leaders of the demonstration on ‘having made the Government more keenly alive’ to the urgency of supplying a remedy to the ‘Asiatic question’ and implored the crowd ‘to leave the matter in the hands of the Government and not to hamper it by unconstitutional action’.

Escombe also appealed to the demonstrators not to harm Gandhi, ‘as by doing so they would only strengthen the hand of the Indians’. Seconded by the leaders, he persuaded the crowd to disperse and by early afternoon the Point ‘had resumed its normal appearance’ and all but one of the Indian passengers were ‘quietly landed, and without resistance’.
By late afternoon on 13 January, only Gandhi remained on board the Courland. Escombe had advised that he leave the steamer quietly at night so as to avoid attention, but a local lawyer and friend, F.A. Laughton, boarded the ship and suggested they land together before dark and make their way to the residence of Rustomjee Sheth, one of Gandhi’s friends. At 5pm he disembarked with Laughton and was almost immediately recognised by a group of boys who began to shout ‘“Gandhi,” “Gandhi,” “thrash him”, “surround him”’. Before long a large mob had gathered and proceeded to follow the pair along West street. Laughton was pulled away and Gandhi ‘was kicked, whipped, stale fish and other missiles were thrown at him, which hurt his eye and cut his ear’. At one point he almost lost consciousness and was forced to cling on to the railings of a nearby house.

While he was suffering the wrath of the mob, Gandhi was approached by the wife of Durban’s superintendent of police. She opened her umbrella for his protection and began to walk at his side. Unwilling to strike or ‘insult a lady, especially the wife of the old and popular Superintendent of Police’, the attackers tried to aim their blows at Gandhi without assaulting her and consequently the injuries he received after she joined him were not serious. By this time the police had been informed of the attack and a number of constables surrounded Gandhi and escorted him to Sheth’s residence.

However, his travails were not yet over. Soon a huge crowd blockaded the building and threatened to burn it and everyone in it unless Gandhi was handed over to them. The superintendent of police, concerned that the mob would force their way through the door, sent a constable into the house dressed up as an Indian trader. While the superintendent amused the crowd by singing popular songs and talking to them, Gandhi was instructed to disguise himself as a police constable. He was able to leave undetected and was taken to the safety of the police station. The mob, which had been chanting ‘We’ll hang old Gandhi from the sour apple tree’, dispersed quietly once a search of Sheth’s house revealed that Gandhi was no longer present.

In his recent biography Ramachandra Guha characterises this attack as ‘far more important’ than the well-known incident three years earlier when Gandhi was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg station; for while in Pietermaritzburg he had been ‘the victim of one person’s racism, expressed at one time alone’, in Durban Gandhi ‘was the target of the collective anger of (virtually) all the whites in Natal’. The violence he experienced in Durban was therefore ‘more revealing of the racial politics of South Africa and of the challenges faced by Mohandas Gandhi himself’.

This event is also directly linked to restrictive immigration laws in both South Africa and Australia. The Natal parliament responded to the agitation by enacting an immigration restriction act in 1897. This law, along with its ‘non-racial’ education test, would provide the model for Australia’s own Immigration Restriction Act of 1901.


Most of this material is sourced from J. Martens, ‘A Transnational History of Immigration Restriction: Natal and New South Wales 1896- 1897’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 34 No. 3, 2006, pp. 323- 344. Refer to this article for a comprehensive list of references.

See also R. Guha, Gandhi before India (London, 2013), Chapter 5.

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