(Albert H. West was one of the closest associates of Gandhiji in South Africa. In 1904 he gave up his business in Johannesburg and, at Gandhiji’s invitation, took charge of the weekly Indian Opinion. He was a member of the Phoenix Settlement and lived on a very small salary. His wife, mother and sister also became inmates of the Settlement. He managed the paper for more than fourteen years, until Manilal Gandhi took charge. He visited India in 1963 at the invitation of the Government of India.)
This article focuses on Gandhi’s earliest efforts at awakening people to the method of passive resistance. He fought for the rights of indentured labourers (Indians) in South Africa non-violently. Here he established the first settlement – The Phoenix Settlement – on which he based all other Ashrams (settlements) that were established by him and his followers. In South Africa Gandhi evolved as a crusader of non violence and had the good fortune of developing life long friendships with Herman Kallenbach, Henry Polak and the author, people who would carry on his work with love and zeal for years to come.
Many books have been written about Gandhi, who has been proclaimed “The Greatest Man in the World.” Writers have traveled from the ends of the earth to see and hear him. They knew him as a great man and they wanted to record his words and hear his views on matters of world importance. They have done well in spreading abroad their records and passing on to readers a knowledge of him and his example of living by the laws of love and self-sacrifice. I have ventured to call this great man my friend and I am glad that I was regarded as such by him. Gandhi gave expression to this feeling when, in his autobiography, he referred to me as “a partner of my joys and sorrows.”
I first met Gandhi in a vegetarian restaurant in Johannesburg in 1903. Around a large table sat a mixed company of men comprising a stockbroker from the United States who operated on the Exchange in gold and diamond shares, an accountant from Natal, a machinery agent, a young Jewish member of the Theosophical Society, a working tailor from Russia, Gandhi the lawyer, and me a printer. Everybody in Johannesburg talked about the share market, but these men were food reformers interested in vegetarian diet, Kuhne baths, earth poultices, fasting, etc. I was specially attracted by this man from India, and Gandhi and I soon became close friends. I was then twenty-four and Gandhi just ten years older. We would talk as we walked together every evening to the top of Hospital Hill and back to Court Chambers, where he lived and worked, his wife and family being at that time still in India.
Very often we would continue talking later, and Gandhi would insist on my having a cup of cocoa, made by himself, before I retired to my room for the night. On the wall of his office was a framed engraving of the head of Jesus Christ, and it occupied a place over his desk. Perhaps this started off our conversations on spiritual matters, which showed me how Gandhi, a Hindu, could be, at the same time, one of the most thorough followers of Christ’s teachings that I ever met even among professing Christians. He had a good knowledge of the New Testament, and he put into actual day-to-day practice the principles laid down in the Sermon on the Mount. These in no way conflicted with the principles of Hinduism which he held sacred throughout his life. As our friendship grew, we had many opportunities of comparing our respective views and I came to realise that love and self-sacrifice could be the basic principles of all religions.
I was not favourably impressed with Johannesburg, which, just after the Boer War, was no better than a mining camp, many of the buildings being of wood and iron, including the Municipal Offices. The Market Square was a huge sandy area large enough for a span of sixteen oxen to swing around with its long wagon load of farm produce. Even the main streets were rough tracks which would often become impassable during a dust storm. There was a tramway running down Commissioner Street between Jeppe and Fordsburg, which was known as a “toast-rack.” It was horse-drawn and passengers jumped on or off and paid six pence for the ride. Coppers were not used, the coin of the smallest value being a three penny piece, usually called a “ticky.”
Johannesburg was known as the Golden City, and the glowing tales of its wealth led one to believe that its streets were paved with gold. I learnt when I visited a gold mine that gold was never found in nuggets in the reef mines, but in small particles contained in rocks which, by a milling process, came out in grains which were melted into gold bars. Some of this gold ore contained so little gold that it did not pay to process it. So this was used as road-making material and made the “streets of gold”!
At week-ends Gandhi and a small party of us would go for a picnic to some beauty spot in the Transvaal or bathe in the lake at Rosherville on the East Rand. These were happy gatherings and Gandhi was a most enthusiastic participator in all the fun. Troubles looming on the horizon did not depress him or prevent his being a normal young man able to enjoy life to the full. During our conversations I learnt a good deal of what Gandhi had to go through when he first arrived in South Africa in 1893, and especially during the period of a year when he lived in Pretoria working on the important legal case which was fought and won out of court. He told me of his childhood days in India and his life as a student in England.
One evening I attended an Indian meeting addressed by him in the Indian Location, Johannesburg. Gandhi was the only speaker. The language was Hindi, which was understood by the large audience and listened to with rapt attention. The speaker stood erect and spoke quietly, without gesture or raising of the voice. As I looked upon that dark face in the dim light I felt that here was a leader of great power, but I could not foresee how great a national figure he was to become or how far and wide would be his influence throughout the world.
The Indian Location in Johannesburg was in a deplorable condition, being without proper roads, lighting or sanitation, the dilapidated buildings being mostly of wood and iron. The residents acquired their plots on a lease of ninety-nine years. People were densely packed together, the area of which never increased with the increase of population. Beyond arranging to clear the latrines in a haphazard way, the Municipality did nothing to provide any sanitary facilities, and they used the insanitation, caused by their own neglect, as a pretext for destroying the Location, and for that purpose obtained legislative authority to dispossess the settlers. This was the condition of things when Gandhi settled in Johannesburg.
The Indians were not removed from the location as soon as the Municipality secured its ownership. New quarters had to be found before dislodging them and, as this could not easily be done, they were allowed to stay on as tenants, when their surroundings became more insanitary than ever. While the Indians were suffering in this way, there was a sudden outbreak of pneumonic plague. The outbreak occurred in March 1904, on one of the gold mines amongst the workers. There were a few Indians on the mines and twenty-three caught the infection and returned to their quarters in the location with an acute attack of the disease. Mr. Madanjit, proprietor of Indian Opinion, who was up from Durban on business, happened to be there and wrote a note asking Gandhi to come immediately.
Madanjit boldly broke the lock of a vacant room and put all the patients there. Gandhi cycled to the location and wrote to the Town Clerk to inform him of the circumstances in which they had taken possession of the premises. Dr. Godfrey, an Indian practising in Johannesburg, ran to the rescue and became both nurse and doctor to the patients. Only one European nurse was provided by the Municipality. Four young Indian clerks in Gandhiji’s office offered their services and they were installed as nurses.
It was a terrible night of vigil and nursing. The patients became violent and had to be held down in bed to prevent them from escaping in their agony. All the patients pulled through that night. The next day the Municipality placed a vacant warehouse at their disposal, but did not clean the premises. This was done by the Indian nurses and, with beds and other necessaries provided by charitable Indians, a temporary hospital was formed. Instructions were issued that frequent doses of brandy had to be given to the patients. Gandhi had no faith in this and, with the permission of Dr. Godfrey, he put three patients, who were prepared to do without brandy, under earth treatment, applying wet-earth poultices to their heads and chests. Two of these were saved. The other twenty-one died.
Meanwhile the Municipality was busy taking other measures. There was a lazaretto for contagious diseases about seven miles from Johannesburg. The two surviving patients were removed to tents near the lazaretto and arrangements were made for sending any fresh cases there. The Indian nurses were thus relieved of their voluntary work. Later it was learnt that the European nurse had an attack and immediately succumbed. There were 96 patients, European, Coloured, Negro and Indian, who died in the lazaretto. The location residents were removed to Klipspruit Farm, near Johannesburg, where they were supplied with provisions by the Municipality. They lived in military tents for three weeks until other accommodation was found. The day after the people left the location the Municipality set fire to the buildings and destroyed everything, thinking, no doubt, that this was the best way of removing every trace of the plague.
A great change in my own life was brought about directly through the outbreak of the plague. As I did not find my friend as usual at the restaurant, I enquired at Gandhi’s office, but he was away at the plague camp. So I went again in the early morning and found him there. I offered my services and said I was ready to help in nursing the patients. “No,” he said, “I will not have you as a nurse. If there are no more cases we shall be free in a day or two.” Then, without seeming to hesitate a moment, he said there was one thing I could do, go to Durban and take charge of the Indian Opinion press. Madanjit was detained in the plague camp. If I could go, he would feel quite relieved.
This was a rather startling proposition. I was engaged in business, having leased a printing plant. However, I felt that this was a call which I must seriously consider, and I said I would give a definite reply in the evening during our walk. Gandhi was delighted when I told him I was prepared to accept the suggestion. The next night I boarded the mail train for Durban, having made certain arrangements concerning my business affairs. That was the beginning of my active association with Indian Opinion, which lasted fifteen years. I continued to interest myself in Indian affairs until my departure for England in 1949, and indeed have done so up to the present day.
Durban, Natal, in 1904 was not the fine city it is today. It was just a port, though beautifully situated. A number of Indian storekeepers and tailors had established themselves in a district around the market, which was held in an enclosure next to the Grey Street Mosque. Indian indentured labourers were introduced into Natal in 1860. After they became free, many of them and their descendants worked as market gardeners. As the sugar plantations developed and Indian gardens were extended around Durban, Natal became known as the Garden Colony. Fruit and vegetables were plentiful, thanks almost entirely to the Indian growers. In West and Field Streets a few Indian wholesale and retail merchants were in business as drapers and outfitters. This is the European shopping centre, and, although attempts have been made, from time to time, to exclude Indians, still there are some remaining to this day.
Indian Opinion was printed and published at the International Printing Press in Grey Street. General job printing was undertaken and the Theosophical Society’s monthly magazine was printed there too. Other small books were printed, including Mrs. Besant’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita. The paper was published weekly, in English, Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil. The foreman was Mr. Oliver, a Mauritian, and there was a staff of compositors and machine men. Besides Mr. Oliver and Mr. Orchard in the jobbing section, there was a French-speaking Mauritian, a St. Helenan and a Cape Coloured young man named Mannering, who were compositors of the English columns.
Kababhai, a Gujarati compositor, and Virji Damodar, who composed both Gujarati and Hindi, had come from India. The Tamil compositor, Moothoo, was a colonial-born Indian. He set the Tamil columns, and for the jobbing section set marriage invitations and other Tamil jobs. Govindoo, often called Mr. Sam, was in charge of the machine and binding sections. There were several young Indian printer’s assistants engaged in the work of the newspaper and job printing. I took over the proof-reading and office work as well as reporting and sub-editing the paper.
I soon found that the expected profits I was to share were non-existent, and the prospect of ever making the press a paying concern was not encouraging. I wrote to Gandhi and informed him of the financial position and said that I was prepared to work for a small salary, regardless of profits. During the next nine months the newspaper and job printing were carried on mainly by means of substantial financial subsidies sent by Gandhi from Johannesburg. Many leading articles for Indian Opinion were written by him and typed copy was sent to Durban for publication. Mr. M. H. Nazar was the responsible editor and helped us with friendly advice on the paper, but he preferred to leave important legal matters to Gandhi. It will be seen, therefore, that Gandhi had to bear the double responsibility of editing and financing the paper.
I lived in Durban with a French Mauritian family who had a boarding house in Berea Road. There I learnt a little of the French language through the flow of conversation, but not enough to speak it well. During this time I became acquainted with a good many members of the Indian community. One of the first was Dada Abdulla, whose firm brought from India in 1893 the young man, Gandhi. It is interesting to recall that he was not engaged as a barrister, but as a servant of the firm. He was told of the big case in the court, their claim being for £40,000. He would be able to instruct their counsel better than they could themselves. He was told: “You can be useful to us in our shop. Much of our correspondence is in English, and you can help with that too.” The engagement was to be for not more than a year. The pay would be a first class return fare and a sum of £105 all found. This was a tempting opportunity of seeing a new country with new experience, and he accepted the offer.
When I entered the premises of Dada Abdullah & Co. eleven years later, I was entertained, as a friend of Gandhi, in the large room on the first floor of the shop at the corner of West Street and Greenacre’s Passage. The furnishings were rich and oriental. I was invited to a chair. The host and several guests were reclining upon cushions on the carpeted floor at one end of the room. This was typical of what could be found among the well-to-do Muslim merchants of Natal. In this room was held the first meeting of the Natal Indian Congress, inaugurated by Gandhi.
I could give the names of many Indians – Hindus, Muslims, Parsees, and Christians – with whom I became associated, fifty to sixty years ago, but I can only name them when they become a part of my story. There was one particular friend, Parsee Rustomjee. He was one of a group of prominent men who in 1893 took part in obtaining ten thousand signatures to the monster petition which was presented to Lord Ripon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, in London, against the Bill then before the House of Assembly which sought to deprive the Indians of their right to vote. Others in the group were Dawood Mohamed, Adamji Miankhan and Amod Jiva.
Parsee Rustomjee was always known by that name, though his full name was Rustomjee Jivanji Gorkoodhoo. His residence could not be described as a house, for it was actually a part of warehouse or godown. The building was partly of brick and the rest of wood and iron. It was divided by means of partitions into offices at the entrance, a very large sitting room, bedrooms, bathroom and an area for dining in the centre of the warehouse, with a kitchen across the yard. This was the place where Mrs. Gandhi and the children were brought on their arrival from India in 1896 and when Gandhi’s life was threatened by an angry mob. It became a centre of public activity and a resting place for strangers from India.
Meetings were held in the sitting room and nobody needed an invitation to drop in and join in the conversation. There were no inside doors and Mr. Rustomjee carried on business from his sitting room and gave instruction to his clerks in the office. Twice a day he lit a brazier of sandalwood and repeated Zoroastrian prayers with incense arising. This would go on undisturbed by people coming and going. Muslim visitors could be seen at times with their mats on the warehouse floor praying without any interruption. At meal times there were usually a few guests at the table. During all the years I spent at Phoenix I made this my quarters when in Durban for a day or perhaps a night. When later I had a family, they too enjoyed this wonderful hospitality and friendship. Later on I hope to tell something of Rustomjee’s generosity and public benefactions for Indian education and relief in South Africa and India.
The decision to remove the printing press from the town to the country came about in an interesting way. My report on the financial situation had greatly disturbed Gandhi, and he decided to make a full investigation on the spot. The night he left Johannesburg the late Henry Polak, sub-editor of The Critic, who had made the acquaintance of Gandhi at the time of the plague and had become friendly, came to see him off at the station and left him with a book to read during the twenty-four hour journey to Durban. It was Ruskin’s Unto This Last. The reading of this book, Gandhi declared, brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in his life. He came to realise that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all; that a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work; that a life of labour, i.e. the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living. So he decided to reduce these principles to practice.
Gandhi, on arrival, talked over the whole thing with me, described the effect Unto This Last had produced on his mind, and proposed that Indian Opinion should be removed to a farm, on which everyone should labour, drawing the same living wage, and attending to the press work in his spare time.
This scheme was idealistic, if not very practical. The idea appealed to me because I was accustomed to a country life. I loved to be on the farms when I was a lad, although I did not become a farm worker myself. So I did not have to wake up to the importance and value of manual work or come to realise that a lawyer’s work was only as valuable as the barber’s. I was convinced already of this truth. The scheme was attractive because, if it proved successful, we should be able to gain our subsistence from the soil and have no need to expect much from the newspaper. It would be spare-time work. A monthly allowance per head of £3 was laid down. In this way it was hoped to run the paper without loss. To say that I approved of the proposal suggests a certain amount of wishful thinking. I was certainly in love with the idea, and my love for Gandhi was sufficient to make me want to succeed in this venture. Had we stopped to consider such matters as trade-union rules, minimum wages and so forth, we might never have started the scheme. But we were blind to possible difficulties and went ahead.
The first thing was to search for a piece of land near a railway station in the vicinity of Durban. This we found in the valley of the Piezang river, two-and-a-half miles from Phoenix station and fourteen miles from Durban on the North Coast line to Zululand. Gandhi and I went to inspect the estate. After our walk from the station we sat on some rocks alongside a stream running through the property and ate our lunch. It was a beautiful scene with trees and date-palms along the river. On the hill just above was an old cottage and orange grove. Within a week we had purchased this piece of land, in extent 20 acres, which we thought would be suitable for the press and other buildings. Adjoining was a further piece of 80 acres, which was bought later. The cost of the 100 acres was £1000. By the time Phoenix Settlement was established, that investment was increased to £5000.
Some of the workers in the press agreed to join up at Phoenix, others preferring to work elsewhere in town. Madanjit considered the proposal to be foolish and held that the workers would bolt, Indian Opinion would come to a stop and the press would have to be closed down. He did not stay to see this happen and soon went off to stay in India. A good many otherwise friendly Indians strongly disapproved of the scheme and were not at all helpful. Only Parsee Rustomjee remained a staunch supporter. He placed at our disposal a quantity of second-hand corrugated iron sheets and other building material, with which we started work. Other material was brought, and some Indian carpenters and bricklayers, who had worked with Gandhi as stretcher-bearers in the Boer War, set to work on the press building. The structure, 80 feet long and 40 feet wide, was ready in about a month. Then the problem was to get the printing plant removed from Durban.
Type and machinery being very heavy and the road rough, with three rivers to cross, over which there were no bridges, we engaged four large farm wagons, with spans of sixteen bullocks each, and by this means we managed to remove the whole of the plant and stock in a day. It took a good deal longer than that to get it all sorted out and put in place.
Meanwhile Mr. Booth and his engineers got busy with erecting machines, fixing shafting and putting together the oil-engine which I had bought from a farmer at Inchanga. This engine was necessary because we had no electric motor. With Gandhi’s new-found gospel of handicrafts and manual labour he would have much preferred working the machines by hand, but, with my experience of machinery, I knew we must have power to drive heavy machines. I agreed, however, that we should have some means of working them by hand in case the engine failed. So I designed a hand machine with a driving wheel mounted on a stout wooden frame. Attached to the axle was a handle on either side, so that four persons could turn the wheel and drive the printing machine by means of a long belt. Gandhi was immensely pleased with this contraption. We very soon had to put this hand machine, which we called “The Wheel”, to good use.
By working long hours we got the paper set up before the end of the week. As our big machine was not yet working, we locked up the formes in printing chases and sent them by train to Durban, where the Natal Mercury kindly printed the sheets for us. So we did not miss an issue. For the next issue we made a change in the size of the pages. Instead of eight newspaper pages, we printed sixteen, foolscap size, with covers, and folded them in book form. Apart from improving the style, we reckoned that, in case of desperate emergency, we could print single pages on small treadle machines, thus carrying out the ambition to do manual labour. At first we all slept on the floor of the press building or in tents out on the grass. Owing to the prevalence of snakes and mosquitoes, the press floor was generally preferred.
All was ready for printing the next issue, the formes were on the machine, and Sam had taken the first impression. But a report came through from the engine room that the engine could not be started. Great efforts were made by several of us, turning the great fly-wheel, to get it to fire, but without avail. This went on till well into the night, when I reported to Gandhi that I was afraid we could not issue the paper in time. “What about the hand-wheel?” he said. I pointed out that we were not enough to cope with the job. It required relays of four men each and our own men were all tired.
The carpenters were still with us. They were sleeping on the press floor. So Gandhi woke them up and requested their cooperation. They needed no pressure and said, “If we cannot be called upon in an emergency, what use are we? You rest yourselves and we will work the wheel. For us it is easy work.”
This put new life into us, and our own men, including Gandhi, joined the carpenters at the wheel with a good spirit. The sheets were rolling off the press rapidly and the folders were hard at it. At 7 a.m. Gandhi suggested that the engineer might then be asked to try again to start the engine, so that if successful, we might still finish in time to catch the train with the papers. Almost at the first touch, the engine started, and the whole press rang with peals of joy. The copies were dispatched in time and everyone was happy. Gandhi regarded this failure of the engine as a test for us all, and its working in the nick of time as the fruit of our honest and earnest labours. To his mind, this was the day of the highest moral uplift for Phoenix.
We then had to consider the question of housing accommodation for the settlers. Gandhi had joined in the discussion of this matter. Various ideas were put forward, but it was generally agreed that we must have at least a roof over our heads. The plan to have just four poles supporting a thatched roof was a charming scheme if only the weather could be relied upon, summer and winter. Eventually we had to agree to have walls on four sides. In order to satisfy those enthusiasts who thought they would prefer to sleep out, flat roofs could be provided. This plan was adopted for several houses. After finishing the press buildings, the carpenters put up the houses, which were of wood and iron.
An acre of ground was allotted to each settler and a block of rooms for single workers was erected near the press. The settlers chose their plots and had their buildings erected according to their requirements. Among the first settlers were four who had the flat-roof style of house. Herbert Kitchin, nephew of the Dean of Durban, who came to know Gandhi whilst serving as an ambulance man in the Boer War, and who joined as English editor, was unmarried. He required a large living room, a bedroom and a kitchen. He was an amateur scientist and electrician. One end of his large room was filled with equipment for X-ray and radio experiments and he had a large library.
Next along the hillside were two plots for two brothers, Chhaganlal and Maganlal Gandhi. For their families they had suitable rooms and a kitchen built in the centre of the two plots. Next came one plot for me. I was then alone and needed only a single room. Lower down the slope was Anandlal Gandhi. He had a house with a sloping roof for his family. So had Sam’s family, still further away. Another house was built for Mr. Orchard, who was not a settler. He remained only a short time. The three young Gandhis were all cousins of Gandhi. They had been engaged in store keeping at Tongaat, became very interested in our scheme, and joined us. Chhaganlal wrote Gujarati news and did office work. Anandlal quickly picked up Gujarati composing. Maganlal became an all-round press man, writing and composing in English and Gujarati as well as making himself generally useful.
Our roofs soon began to give us trouble. Heavy rain found its way under the flat iron sheets and through the wooden ceilings, causing flooding in the rooms. Mr. Kitchin suffered much damage to his electrical equipment, but others, who had not much in the way of furniture, had not so much to worry about. We did what we could about the roofs and continued to survive. Sleeping out on top was quite a success, within limitations. When it came on to rain during the night we had to reluctantly pick up our blankets and retire below. This happened, too, when the prevailing early-morning wind from the Inanda Hills sprang up at about three in the morning. But on the whole we enjoyed those nights under the stars, in favourable conditions.
When Gandhi returned to Johannesburg after the establishment of Phoenix Settlement, Polak was delighted over the whole thing and told Gandhi he would like to join the scheme. Gandhi accepted him with pleasure and, after severing his association with The Critic, Polak soon arrived at Phoenix as assistant to Mr. Kitchin in editing the English columns. He lived with me, sharing my flat-topped bungalow.
We were a happy pair of bachelors, cooking our own food and living the simple life. Although this happy life did not continue for long, we remained close friends for over fifty years, until his death. Soon he was recalled to Johannesburg, and a great change came about. He joined Gandhi’s office and qualified as an attorney, hoping thereby to realise more quickly the ideals we all had in common. In December 1905, I met Miss Millie Graham as she arrived from England, and saw her off by train for Johannesburg, where she was married to Polak, Gandhi acting as best man.
Earlier that year there had been a great storm and floods in Natal, when the rivers came down in torrents, drowning many Indians. A relief fund was at once started and a large sum raised. A committee was appointed to administer the funds and this sat weekly in the office of the Protector of Indian Immigrants. I was asked to join this committee and in the absence of Gandhi, I was glad to be able to assist in granting compensation to the poor Indians who had suffered so heavily in the death toll and so badly by the destruction of their market gardens.
Early in 1906 I began to consider the possibility of visiting my home in England, from which I had been absent for nearly four years. I discussed it with Gandhi, and he encouraged me in my resolve to sail for England in June. Arrangements were made and the passage booked, when there came a bolt from the blue. The Zulu “rebellion” was reported in the papers and this looked like war. Gandhi thought it his duty to offer his services to the Government in forming an Indian Ambulance Corps, as he had done in the Boer War. His offer was promptly accepted and he at once began preparations. The possibility of my journey to England seemed now to be out of the question, as both Gandhi and Polak would be unable to help much with Indian Opinion, but Gandhi would not hear of my postponing the visit. On the death of Nazar, and later the retirement of Kitchin, the responsible position of editor fell to Polak.
During my stay in England I met the Hon. Dadabhai Naoroji, known as the Grand Old Man of India. He was a Member of Parliament for a London constituency, and he was doing all he could to help the lot of Indians in South Africa. I also met Dr. Josiah Oldfield, who had known Gandhi as a fellow member of the London Vegetarian Society, and Mr. L. W. Ritch, who was later to do so much for the South African Indians.
The rest of my stay in England was spent in my own home at Louth, and in other towns and villages in Lincolnshire where I had friends and relatives. Leicester was a town where I had lived and worked as a printer after my apprenticeship, and I had many friends there. One particular friend was Miss Ada Pywell, and our friendship developed still further and we became engaged to be married. Before leaving South Africa for England I had discussed with Gandhi the possibility of marriage, and he gave me full encouragement. However, the question of providing a home required serious thought and preparation, and so no date was fixed for the wedding, which did not take place until eighteen months later, at Phoenix.
My sister, Ada, who had always been very much my companion in and after my school days, was interested in what I told her of South Africa, and it did not take much persuasion for her to decide she would like to try the new life. We therefore prepared for our departure in September.
Meanwhile a serious position had arisen in the Transvaal. The Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance had been introduced in the Legislative Council by the Government. It aimed at the registration of the entire Asiatic population. It condemned as criminals all against whom it operated, for it required the surrender and cancellation of all existing permits and registration certificates and the taking of a complete set of finger impressions. A mass meeting of Indians in Johannesburg, with delegates from all parts of the Transvaal, passed a resolution solemnly pledging the Indian community not to submit to the Ordinance, should it become law, but to suffer all the penalties attaching to such non-submission. This was the beginning of what was first known as “passive resistance,” and later changed to “satyagraha.” The Legislative Council duly passed the Ordinance which, however, owing to its racially contentious nature, was withheld from operation pending reference to the Imperial Government. It was therefore decided to send a delegation, consisting of Gandhi and H.O. Ally, a Muslim, to make representations in London.
By a happy chance the mail boat bringing these two delegates arrived at Southampton the day that Ada and I were leaving for Durban. We were thus able to go on board and greet them. Needless to say, Gandhi gave a hearty welcome to my sister, whom he was meeting for the first time. I was able to extract a promise from Gandhi that he would, during his stay in London, make a journey to see my people at Louth and the Pywell family at Leicester. This promise was faithfully kept, and gave great satisfaction. Gandhi, of course, thoroughly enjoyed himself.
Our voyage to South Africa was pleasant. We made calls at Las Palmas, St. Helena and Cape Town, and duly arrived at Durban without mishap or delay.
Arriving at Phoenix, we found Mrs. Gandhi and her family of three sons occupying the bungalow vacated by Kitchin. Ada was warmly welcomed by all. I got busy building two bedrooms to my one-room house, and adding a verandah in front. Close by we built a kitchen and bathroom. It was a proper native hut, of “mud-and-stud” with a thatched roof. Cooking was done on a charcoal stove. We also baked bread in the same way. Soon we had our home complete and we settled in.
Ada commenced work in the press office as book-keeper with Cordes, a recruit from Rhodesia and Chhaganlal Gandhi. Certain hours were devoted to teaching in school, and gardening was also done. At night, prayers and hymn-singing in Gujarati and English took place with Mrs. Gandhi and the children in her house. When Gandhi returned from England he joined in whenever he could get away from Johannesburg. He and the boys slept on the roof when weather permitted. There would generally be visitors whenever Gandhi was at Phoenix. They were not, however, just on a visit. There were difficulties needing solution, and Gandhi never refused to devote time to them. It was free service, which he regarded as public work.
The 1908 June wedding of Ada Pywell and Albert West was a festive occasion and all the settlers with their families attended, together with European and Indian visitors from Durban, Verulam and Cape Town. Mrs. Gandhi and her sons were there, but Mr. Gandhi sent a message regretting his inability to attend owing to important work in Johannesburg. The ceremony took place in the Cordes bungalow, the officiating minister being Mr. Ireland of the Greyville Presbyterian Church. Mrs. Pywell, who accompanied her daughter from their home at Leicester, gave the bride away. Miss West was bridesmaid and Mr. Harold Mason acted as best man. After the ceremony, the hymn, “Take My Life” was sung by all present. The wedding breakfast, prepared and served by the men folk, was very enjoyable, interspersed with congratulatory speeches and my reply to thanks.
Cordes’ place was where everyone was welcome, especially if they needed a bath. I do not mean if they were dirty, but should they be “off colour” in any way. There was nothing like a steam bath, followed by a cooling plunge in cold water around the hips, to make one absolutely fit again. That was what John Cordes thoroughly believed in. It was no trouble to him, however much trouble it caused him. To get the steam cabinet fixed up ready for his “patient” was done in next to no time; and, while the “cooking” was going on, the hip bath was filled to just the required depth with water. Nice warm towels were got ready for the final process, and the job was done. However pleased the “patient” was with this kind of Turkish, or Kuhne, bath, Cordes was more pleased with his part of the proceedings, for he just loved it.
I had become acquainted with the Kuhne water cure whilst in Johannesburg. Adolf Ziegler who kept the vegetarian restaurant where I first met Gandhi, was an expert in these matters, and I had treatment under his care. Gandhi himself had great faith in the treatment, and carried out successfully many forms of healing by water and earth.
Cordes used his thatched cottage only as a sitting room. He had a cook-and-washroom close by. This had a tiled roof, which provided fresh rain water to the tank. For eating and sleeping he used the circular verandah, which could be used in all weathers. He changed the position of his table and bed to suit the change of the wind. Cordes’ nationality was German, but he came to us from Rhodesia, where he had lived for some years. He had a small son, born of a Negro woman. He left the boy behind in someone’s care, but after a while, as Gandhi and the other settlers had no objection, Willie was brought to Phoenix, lived among the other children quite happily and received his education. When later Cordes left to join the Theosophical headquarters at Adyar in India, Willie went also.
Rugoo Govindoo, or “Mr. Sam” as we liked to call him, was a typical colonial-born Indian, descended from the original labourers who came from India under indenture. He received his education in an elementary school, but developed further experience as he grew up, speaking five languages fluently: English, Hindustani, Tamil, Telugu and Zulu. He was a useful man to have as a settler. Before he could decide to join our Phoenix scheme, he had to have an assurance regarding some land he had purchased for his family’s needs and this assurance was given him by Gandhi. He then joined wholeheartedly in the life of the settlement and remained for fourteen years.
It was fully recognised that Mr. Sam was “different.” He and his family were not entirely vegetarian in their diet, as most other settlers were. Moreover, he had a gun, to shoot game, which was to be found on our land. Most surprisingly, Gandhi bought him a new gun, which was much superior to the old one. Such was the complex nature of Gandhi, who could be so severe and uncompromising regarding his own conduct, yet so generous and broadminded to one for whom he had a genuine affection.
One of the outstanding personalities coming under the influence of Gandhi was Parsee Rustomjee. Earlier I have given a description of the place where he lived and worked. Like Gandhi he was happiest when surrounded by his fellow public workers. He placed his office and sitting room at their disposal at all times. As a young man he left India to seek his fortune in South Africa. He began as a small trader and had a stall near the market at Verulam, where he sold mineral waters, sweets and fruits. Later he developed a business in Durban, as a wholesale merchant, specializing in the importation of Indian spices and other valuable goods, and in time he became well-to-do.
On one occasion, as told to me by Gandhi, Parsee Rustomjee was caught in the act of smuggling and found himself in danger of being sent to prison. Gandhi, on being told of this, advised him to confess all and offer to pay the penalty that might be fixed by the Customs Officer and the Attorney-General. This was agreed to and the case was settled out of court. Rustomjee had to pay a penalty equal to twice the amount he had confessed to having smuggled. He reduced to writing the facts of the whole case, got the paper framed and hung it up in his office to serve as a perpetual reminder to his heirs and fellow merchants. This case of Parsee Rustomjee’s is typical of many in which Gandhi advised guilty clients to confess their sins, thus saving them from greater.
The good influence of Gandhi over Rustomjee could be traced throughout the rest of his life. As he prospered, so his generosity grew. An orphanage connected with the Mosque at Umgeni was one of his gifts. A part of the cost of a Methodist day school and the whole of the cost of an Indian orphanage belonging to the Roman Catholic Church was also provided by him.
Later, two Rustomjee Trusts – one in his late wife’s name and the other in his own – were established, with a total capital of 50,000. From the income of these Trusts, many schools for Indians in South Africa were built, an Indian Free Public Library and Gandhi Hall were provided and maintained; and for India, large contributions were constantly being sent to provide for spinning and weaving schools, and for the establishment of village wells, famine relief and other causes sponsored by Gandhi after his return to India in 1915. For many years I had the privilege of being a member of these Trusts and took part in the distribution of the magnificent income we had at our disposal. No part of the capital is ever used – only the income. This noble example has since been followed by other Indians, notably by the late R.K. Khan, who established a trust which maintains free Indian dispensaries in Natal.
Life at Phoenix Settlement continued to develop, happily on the whole, for fourteen years. If we did not succeed in proving our ability to live on three pounds a month and maintain ourselves by cultivating the soil, giving our spare time to the work of turning out the paper, we proved, at least, that Indians and Europeans could live together in a community, working together with common ideals and human interests. We cultivated our separate plots of ground, grew those crops which we thought best, and joined in helping and advising one another according to the experience gained. In time we were able to produce fruit and vegetables sufficient for our needs. Sam went one better and developed a farmyard with a cow and poultry. His gun came into use when he went hunting among the wild deer. Many times we had encounters with snakes in and around our houses, and, although we did not approve of killing, I am afraid we were only too glad to have Sam’s gun brought into use to rid us of them.
In actual practice we found that we had to spend the usual working hours at the press and our spare time in our gardens. Consequently, as time went on and families increased, our salaries had to be fixed according to our needs, which was quite fair, seeing that some of us had to spend a good deal of time in travelling about the country in the interests of the newspaper, whilst others, during the Passive Resistance campaign, served terms of imprisonment. So the time we could devote to earning our living from the land was considerably cut down. There was a good deal of what might be called unproductive work in repairing and extending our houses. A rather big job was the building of the library and school. Only the brickwork was given to a builder, and we undertook the timber construction, including a very high roof. We did not mind doing the work – it was a pleasure – but while we did carpentry, we were not cultivating the soil.
There was much in this life in open country that was attractive. We enjoyed friendly relations with Africans living in the surrounding hillsides and with passersby to and from the station who would frequently call for a drink from our rainwater tank or to buy a pineapple or paw-paw from the garden. They were happy people and we were never afraid of these “savages”.
Within calling distance across the river was a Negro squatter, whose wife helped with our washing and cleaning at times. A distance away across the fields was an Indian woman who was called to act as midwife for our Indian settlers’ wives when having children. When our two children were born we thought we should have a doctor. So, on each occasion, I cycled the fifteen miles to Durban in the morning, before the trains were running, and brought back Dr. Nanji, who cycled with me. He did not complain. I was my wife’s nurse for these events and, with the assistance of Mrs. Pywell, I managed fairly well.
Hilda for nine years, Harry for five years, lived a very healthy happy life with other children there. Mrs. Pywell, who arrived from England at the age of nearly 80 in poor health, soon became very well and active, and seemed to get a new lease of life in this new sub-tropical land. Both she and my wife joined happily with all the people at Phoenix, especially the women, who appreciated the help they obtained with their sewing and knitting. Students at the near-by Native Institute were given lessons in music and organ playing by my wife. Mrs. Pywell was known as “Granny” by Gandhi and the settlers. She lived to be 95.
The visit of Prof. G. K. Gokhale, C. I. E., Member of the Imperial Legislative Council of India, to South Africa in 1912, marked a turning point in the affairs of the South African Indians. His successful month’s tour of the Union has been fully reported elsewhere and I can only refer to the personal impression made upon me by this splendid man, recall some incidents, and refer to the way his presence among us affected our future at Phoenix.
From the moment of Gokhale’s arrival at Cape Town to the day of his departure, Gandhi was his personal attendant. Of course, he was his political adviser, as he was the only one who could supply every detail of the situation. But that was not all. Gokhale was a sick man, and Gandhi prepared and cooked every item of his special diet, and saw to his needs in every respect, even to the washing and ironing of Gokhale’s ceremonial scarf, which he always wore as part of his national dress.
During the Durban visit I met Gokhale on several occasions, privately and at a luncheon given by Senator Marshall Campbell at Mount Edgecombe. Then at the banquet given in the Durban Drill Hall, where Gokhale gave a notable speech on the Indian situation.
At Phoenix the settlers had the opportunity of meeting Gokhale. I had the privilege of a personal talk with him, when he told me of his great hope of persuading Gandhi to return to India as soon as a settlement of the Indian question in South Africa could be arrived at. This was really a great blow to me, as it seemed to threaten an end to all our earnest hopes concerning the development of Phoenix as a health, agricultural and educational centre. I said that without Gandhi as leader, all our efforts would fail. This could not be denied; but Gokhale was so certain of Gandhi’s ability to arouse the necessary enthusiasm in the people of India for their great national movement for Independence that he felt that we should be willing to make the sacrifice, and hope that, after all, our own schemes for progress in South Africa might still be realised.
Another two years passed before we saw the settlement of the South African Indian question. The struggle was renewed and hundreds of volunteers suffered imprisonment, including a number of women from Phoenix, led by Mrs. Gandhi.
Mrs. Polak, in an article, “Women and the Struggle”, published in the Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement, has this to say about it:
“The last phase of the fight and the one through which today we rejoice in peace, was practically led in the early stages by a small band of women from Natal, who challenged prison to vindicate their right to the legal recognition of the wifehood, and a similar small band of women from Johannesburg. The women from Natal, all of them wives of well-known members of the Indian community, travelled up to Volksrust and were the first of hundreds to go to gaol. The women from the Transvaal travelled down the line, taking in the mines on their way, holding meetings and calling upon the men to refuse to work and to die rather than to live as slaves; and at the call of these women, thousands laid down their tools and went on strike. I think it may safely be said that, but for the early work of these brave women, the wonderful response to the call of honour and country might never have taken place.”
Shortly afterwards, the Transvaal women were arrested, and a similar sentence to that passed upon the women of Natal was passed upon them.
The question of the promised repeal of the unjust £3 tax was the immediate cause of the strike. Thousands of Indians from the mines joined in a great procession, organised by Gandhi, towards the Transvaal border, the ultimate goal being Tolstoy Farm. But Gandhi was arrested and the march came to an end near Standerton. Polak had taken charge and he too was arrested and, later, Kallenbach. The strikers were taken by train back to the mines, which were then proclaimed gaols where they were forced to carry on their work.
Meanwhile the Indians on the sugar estates in Natal decided to strike. A body of about two thousand marched to Phoenix and squatted on the ground near the Press. Food was sent from Durban by the Indian Association. Presently two police came to me and told me that I must send the strikers back to the estates. This I refused to do. I appealed to the Chief Magistrate of Durban to allow the people to remain where they were quite safe, but he simply ordered me to obey the police.
At that time General Smuts was Prime Minister, and I sent him a telegram, pointing out the danger of trying to force the strikers to leave, and assuring him that they were quite peaceful and being cared for. No reply was received, and then a large body of mounted police arrived on the scene. I was arrested and taken away to Durban Gaol, and the strikers were driven back to the estates. What I feared would happen occurred shortly afterwards, and the police fired upon and killed several of the men.
My arrest and short period of detention in Durban Gaol under “safe keeping” gave me a glimpse of what gaol life was like. After I had been duly registered, at around five o’clock in the evening, I was placed in a cell about 8ft. by 10ft. in the European section. My bed was a mattress on the cement floor. I do not remember whether I was given any food. Most of the night was spent in walking the few paces to and fro, reviewing the events of the past week, which had been full of excitement and apprehension. Now that was over and I was left only with a feeling of annoyance at being rushed off in the midst of the work of getting out the paper.
Through the small slot in the door I could see, across the corridor, faces peering out. One man in a loud whisper, asked, “What are you in for?” He seemed to be very anxious to know, but, as I was not sure myself, I could not enlighten him. In the early morning I was let out to empty the sanitary bucket and have a wash in the yard among the awaiting-trial prisoners.
Whilst we were circling the yard for exercise, I saw two men I knew. One was a Labour Member of Parliament and the other an Indian passive resister from the Transvaal. Both were in for some political offence or other. Whilst I was in the yard I had a view of the lining up of Negro prisoners about to be sent to work outside. The Negro warders did not neglect any opportunity of showing their authority while passing along the line. One prisoner offended in some way, and the warder snatched off the man’s cap, spat upon it and then threw it on the ground. This gave the warder deep satisfaction, and he continued his march, feeling, no doubt, several inches taller.
About mid-morning I was handed over to the care of a policeman who took me, in a rickshaw, to the railway station, where we entered a compartment of the Verulam train. On arrival at the Court I was ordered into the dock where I pleaded not guilty to the charge of “Harbouring Indentured Indians.” The Prosecutor, evidently not ready to proceed with the case, secured an adjournment and I was released on bail of £100 kindly provided by some Indian friends.
That was the last I heard of the case until I was told that the Attorney-General had refused to prosecute. It was rather a pity, for it would have been interesting to see how the charge of “harbouring” could be proved. These were the facts: Indian men, women and children arrived at the settlement and squatted there. No one had asked them to come. When the Indians in Durban heard of the move, they ordered a quantity of foodstuffs to be sent by wagon to Phoenix and the people cooked food for themselves. Two mounted police came along and told me that I must send the people back to their barracks, which I refused to do. After a day or two, a posse of mounted police rode up and drove the people away. If I had been charged with refusing to assist the police I should have pleaded guilty, for that was the fullest extent of my “crime.” In other words, I acted the part of a passive resister, pure and simple.
Much has been written elsewhere concerning the great life’s work of Gandhi, especially during the later years in India, when he became acknowledged as one of the greatest men in the world. I would like to pay tribute to the many acts of loving service he rendered day by day to those around him. In his own home, at Tolstoy Farm, or at Phoenix, he delighted in acts of simple service, such as cooking meals, doing domestic work, cutting hair, attending the sick and caring for the many children around him. It was done with perfect good humour. At no time did I ever see him in anything approaching a temper, no matter how aggravating the circumstances. And whenever someone came along, seeking advice on personal or political problems, Gandhi would readily break off what he was doing and give the utmost attention to his troubles. He never treated any matter as trivial, but always gave credit for honesty and sincerity to all, though often they did not deserve it.
At the daily prayers and the Sunday services at Phoenix, there was a joining together of men, women and children in a united spiritual exercise. Hindus, Muslims, Parsees and Christians sang hymns and read the various scriptures in different languages. This, to my mind, was a unique example of a universal church service, where no particular religion was placed in a superior position and where Truth and Love were acknowledged to be the universal attributes of God. Gandhi was a great lover of these meetings and indeed, was the prime mover in all such gatherings.
One of the finest illustrations of Gandhi’s readiness to forgive was when he was struck down on his way to the Registration Office in Johannesburg to give voluntarily his finger impressions. A fight had been going on against the degrading demand that all Indians should give their finger-prints on a certificate of identification. After hundreds of men and women had suffered imprisonment for the sake of principle, Gandhi offered the compromise of voluntarily giving this objectionable form of registration if the Government would withdraw its compulsory regulations. Some could not bring themselves to accept this compromise. One of them, a Pathan, decided to punish the author of the suggestion, and struck Gandhi a blow which almost killed him. When, later, the police wanted Gandhi to agree to a prosecution for the assault upon him, he firmly refused. “He does not realise what he has done,” he said. “In his anger at what he considered an insult to himself and his friends, this man has acted in the only way he knew.” In time this same Indian came to Gandhi and publicly apologized for his cruel action, and asked for forgiveness, which was readily given, and he became a staunch supporter.
During the strike period in Natal, the atmosphere continued to be strained. An overseer on a sugar estate threatened me with violence because of my “interference” over his treatment of a crippled Indian in his employ. For a time I deemed it advisable to move with my family to Durban, where I could at the same time be in close touch with the Indian position from day to day and keep Gokhale in India informed of the state of affairs.
Gandhi, Polak and Kallenbach were all in gaol. C.F. Andrews and Willie Pearson arrived from India at Gokhale’s request when he learned that I too was in gaol. There was great activity amongst the Indians in Durban. Almost daily, meetings were held at Rustomjee’s place. Everywhere I went, detectives seemed to be on the watch, and I felt that at any moment I might be arrested on some charge or other. But that did not happen. I did, however, see the inside of the gaol again when I went with a deputation to interview the Governor regarding the treatment of Indian prisoners.
When things became more settled and there was a prospect of the struggle coming to an end, we went back to Phoenix and carried on the routine of work again there. The passing of the Indians Relief Bill by the Union Parliament in June 1914, brought the eighty-years struggle to an end. Beyond reporting the important events that followed and recording the correspondence between Gandhi and General Smuts, I took no part in it. Several public meetings of farewell were held and on July 18, 1914, Gandhi and his wife, accompanied by Kallenbach, sailed for England, where they arrived on the day before the outbreak of the First World War.
One of the most important gatherings addressed by Gandhi just before he left South Africa was the great open-air meeting of indentured Indians and employers at Verulam, Natal, reported in the local papers. He asked his countrymen to understand that it was wrong for them to consider that the relief had been obtained because he had gone to gaol, or his wife, or those who were near and dear to him. It was because they had the good sense and courage to give up their own lives and to sacrifice themselves, and in these circumstances he had also to tell them that many causes led to that relief, and one of these was certainly also the most valuable and unstinted assistance rendered by Mr. Marshall Campbell of Mount Edgecombe. He thought that their thanks and his thanks were due to him for the magnificent work that he did in the Senate whilst the Bill was passing through it.
They would now not have to pay the 3 tax, and the arrears would also be remitted. That did not mean that they were free from their present indentures. They were bound to go through them faithfully and honestly, but, when those indentures terminated, they were just as free as any other free Indians, and they were entitled, if they would go to the Protector’s office, to the same discharge certificate as was granted to those who came before 1895, under Law 25 of 1891. They were not bound to re-indenture nor to return to India. The discharge certificates would be issued to them free of charge. If they wanted, after having gone to India, to return, they could only do so after they had lived for three years in the Province as free men after serving their indentures.
If any of them wished to have assistance for going to India, they could obtain it from the Government if they did not wish to return from India. If therefore, they wanted to return from India, they must fight shy of that assistance which was given to them by the Government, and should find their own money or borrow it from friends. If they re-indentured, they could come under the same law, namely Law 25 of 1891. His own advice to them was not to re-indenture, but by all means to serve their present masters under the common law of the country. If ever occasion arose, which he hoped would never happen, they now knew what it was possible for them to do.
Now he wanted to remind them that Victoria County, as also the other districts of Natal, had not been so free from violence on their own part as the Newcastle District had been. He did not care that provocation had been offered to them or how much they had retaliated with their sticks or with stones, or had burned the sugarcane – that was not Passive Resistance, and if he had been in their midst, he would have repudiated them entirely and have allowed his own head to be broken rather than permit them to use a single stick against their opponents. And he wanted them to believe him when he told them that Passive Resistance, pure and simple, was an infinitely finer weapon than all the sticks and gunpowder put together.
They might strike work, but they might compel nobody to strike work, and if, as a result of their strike, they were sentenced to be imprisoned, whipped, or to both, they must suffer even unto death – that was Passive Resistance. Nothing else and nothing less than that would satisfy the requirements of Passive Resistance. If, therefore, he was indentured to Mr. Marshall Campbell, or Mr. Sanders, or any friends about there, and if he found that he was being persecuted or not receiving justice, in that case he would not even go to the Protector, he would sit tight and say, “My master, I want justice or I won’t work. Give me food if you want to, water if you want to; otherwise I sit here hungry and thirsty,” and he assured them that the hardest, stoniest heart would be melted. Therefore let that sink deeply into themselves that whenever they were afraid of any injury being done to them all, that was the sovereign remedy and that alone was the most effective remedy.
If they wanted advice and guidance – and many of them had complained that he was going away, and that his advice would not be at their disposal – all he could suggest to them was that although he was going away, Phoenix was not leaving, and, therefore, if they had any difficulty for which they did not wish to pay Mr. Langston or other lawyers, they should go to Phoenix and ask Mr. West or Mr. Chhaganlal Gandhi what was to be done in any particular case. If Mr. West or Mr. Chhaganlal could help them, they would do so free of charge, and if they could not they would send them to Mr. Langston with a certificate that they were too poor and he had no doubt he would render them assistance free of charge… But, if they were called upon to sign any document whatsoever, his advice to them was not to sign it unless they went to Phoenix and got advice. If Phoenix ever failed them and wanted a farthing from them then they should shun Phoenix.
The scene before him that morning would not easily fade from his memory, even though the distance between him and them might be great. He prayed that God might help them in all the troubles that might be in store for them and that their conduct might be such that God might find it possible to help them. And to the European friends living in this country he wished to tender his thanks, and he wished also to ask them to forgive him if they had ever considered that during that awful time, he was instrumental in bringing about any retaliation at all on the part of his countrymen. He wished to give them this assurance that he had no part or parcel in it, and that so far as he knew, not a single leading Indian had asked the men to retaliate.
There were times in a man’s life when he lost his senses, his self-control and under a sense of irritation, fancied or real, began to retaliate when the brute nature in him rose, and he only went by the law of “might is right”, or the law of retaliation – a tooth for a tooth. If his countrymen had done so, whether from a real sense of wrong or a fancied, let them forgive him and let them keep a kind corner for him in their hearts; and if there were any employers of indentured labour there present who would take that humble request to them, he did ask them not to act always selfishly, though he knew it was most difficult to eradicate self, and let them consider these indentured labourers not merely as cattle which they had to deal with, but as human beings with the same fine feelings, the same fine sentiments, as themselves.
Let them credit them to the fullest extent with their weaknesses, as also at least with the possibilities of all the virtues. Would they not then treat their Indian employees even as brothers? It was not enough that they were well treated as they well treated their cattle. It was not enough that they looked upon them with a kindly eye merely; but it was necessary that employers should have a much broader view of their own position, that they should think of their employees as fellow human beings and not as Asiatics who had nothing in common with them who were Europeans, and they would have an intelligent interest not merely in the material or physical well-being of their men, but in their moral well-being. They would look after their morality, after their children, after their education, after their sanitation, and, if they were herded together in such a manner that they could not but indulge in hideous immorality, then they would themselves recoil with horror from the very imagination that the men who were for the time being under their control should indulge in these things because they had been placed in these surroundings.
Let them not consider that because these men were drawn from the lowest strata of society they were beyond reclamation. No, they would respond to every moral pressure that might be brought to bear upon them and they would certainly realise the moral weight that is possible for every human being, no matter who he is, no matter what tinge of colour his skin possesses.
Gandhi’s departure from South Africa was a serious blow to those of us who were left at Phoenix. Several of our settlers and Gandhi’s sons sailed direct to India, where they expected to meet together for educational and public work. Gokhale was in London and it was intended that he and Gandhi should discuss plans for India. What was foreshadowed in 1912 was now to be realised. But it was not till January 1915 that Gandhi reached Bombay. Meanwhile he lent a hand in recruiting members of the Indian Ambulance Corps.
In reply to one of my letters, I received from London an answer dated November 20, which had been taken in shorthand and written by Mani Lal Chandra and, of course, signed by Gandhi. It appeared that, owing to War conditions, many letters had miscarried. This was the first I had received since his departure from South Africa in July. Here is the main part of it:
“I wish that your surmise was true and that I was working among our wounded soldiers. Most of the members of the Corps are certainly doing so, at Netley. When the last batch went, I was bedridden. In any case, my presence here was necessary to get together the required number of men. I was to have followed, however; but now unheard-of difficulties are being put in my way and I am prevented from going to Netley, or to any of the other hospitals where our wounded soldiers are being received. It seems to me that I am prevented because the officials immediately in charge fear that I might make mischief. The ostensible reason given to prevent my going is ill health. I may be quite wrong in my surmise, however. At any rate, I have placed the whole facts before Mr. Roberts, the Under-Secretary for India, and I should know before long probably. So you will see that I have not been separated either from Mrs. Gandhi or Mr. Kallenbach. We are all now living under Mr. Ganderia’s roof. He, as you know, is the Secretary of the Corps. He is the proprietor of a boarding house for Indian students. He has placed one of his best rooms at our disposal.
“I envy your gardening work. Just now my own health seems to have been completely shattered. I feel that I hopelessly mismanaged my constitution in the fast. I was in a hurry to regain my lost energy. I therefore overfed the system and over-strained the body in compelling myself to take long strenuous walks. I was too impatient and am paying the penalty. I can now scarcely walk with any strenuousness without the original pains starting. The ribs seem to have become shattered. They will not stand any strain, nor the groins. I, therefore, am obliged largely to keep indoors and remain in bed. Of food I can take very little. The slightest excess would upset me. In spite of all this, I am able to attend to my work. Nor does all this imply that I am only skin and bone. By carefulness I am able to undo the mischief done. The mental and moral atmosphere is also a great drawback. Everything appears so artificial, so materialistic and unmoral, that one’s soul almost becomes atrophied.
“I am longing to go to India, and so is Mrs. Gandhi; but a sense of duty – and I am not sure that on this occasion it is a right sense of duty – compels me to remain here. I share your views about war. If I had the moral strength, however, I would certainly be the passive resister that you have pictured in your letter.”
A month later I find that he was relieved of this life of uncertainty and was actually on his way to India at last. I value this short note written on a P & O liner, for its continued spirit of friendliness:
“I am thoroughly done up now, but, on the approach of Xmas Eve, I cannot help sending you loving thoughts. Our departure was sudden and early. We are keeping well, considering the stormy whether. My health is improving. I hope to resume writing for Indian Opinion. I have been so often prevented from reaching India that it seems hardly real that I am sitting in a ship bound for India. and, having reached that, what shall I do with myself? However, ‘Lead kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, lead Thou me on.’ That thought is my solace, and may it be yours in the darkest moments. With love to you all from both of us.”
In the course of my work amongst Indian labourers, I had a good deal to do with lawyers. I wondered if it would be advisable for me to qualify, if possible. So I passed the thought on to Gandhi who, in May 1915, was nearing the end of his first tour of India. I was not surprised to get this reply:
“It is no use your qualifying as a lawyer. It is possible you may get some guilty ones discharged on technicalities, and you may get the innocent also saved from imprisonment. But when you consider what a small percentage of the population passes through the Courts, you at once see that it is no part of a humanitarian’s work to take up law. All you can do without getting the title of lawyer, you are doing. More you do not need. If you have leisure, read up your laws by all means, as Mr. Gokhale did, though he never was a lawyer.”
Here is one of those personal letters which I value so highly. He had then been in India about a year:
“Your conversational letter I have. It is naturally full of you as I have known you. I never doubted that you would be able to make your way among the officials by your very bluntness. The novelty of resistance may shock them at first but pleases them afterwards. Even they must get tired of ‘nodders,’ if one may coin that noun. And you will have to continue to do that work whether people appreciate it or not, or, rather, want it or not. Appreciation may not be looked for. Do please send me all the correspondence you wish to. I promise to go through it all. Do not think that South Africa disappears from my mind. How could it? I owe much to South Africa, i.e., to friendships formed there. In my moments of sadness, recollection of friends working there is no small comfort. Your success and your failures are alike matters of deepest interest to me.
“Is your little school still going on? How is Granny doing? Is she still as fresh as before? The very thought of her working away is an inspiration. Just now I am reading to the Ashram, at prayer time, Pilgrim’s Progress. I often think of Mrs. West’s sweet voice and want her to sing to us ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross.’ The whole of Phoenix rises before us whenever we sing our favourite hymns.”
The three years following the exodus of the Gandhi family from Phoenix to India was a period of hard work for us who remained to carry on Indian Opinion and develop the agricultural experiment. In addition to editorial work, a constant watch had to be kept on the political situation. Now that Gandhi was in India and Polak in England, where he had gone to stay, it was necessary for me to act as adviser in matters coming under the Relief Act. There was the Repatriation Scheme under which ex-indentured Indians could claim free passages to India for themselves and their families. In this way the Government hoped slowly to get rid of the bulk of the Indian population. Those who took advantage of this offer had clearly to understand that the free passage was to India only, with no right ever to return. It was no wonder, therefore, that the Government was not very satisfied with the result.
Tales were spread abroad which caused confusion among the people concerning their rights. To make the position clear beyond doubt, I issued a circular, in four languages, setting forth the terms of the Government’s offer. A footnote was added that I did not advise anyone to re-indenture in order to get a free passage. Better, by far, accept less wages and preserve their independence and self-respect. This was signed, “A. H. West, representing M. K. Gandhi.”
For the same purpose I addressed a large gathering of Indians on the Temple grounds at Verulam. With a little knowledge of the Hindi language I prepared a speech on the situation, which I read. An invitation was extended for anyone to come to Phoenix for advice if in doubt.
Articles appeared in Indian Opinion, and the Natal Mercury published a letter from my pen on the Repatriation Scheme.
Our paper was then published in English and Gujarati only. Harilal Thakkar was responsible for the Gujarati translations.
It now rested with Sam and me to see what we could do with agriculture. It became more and more evident that we could not continue to accept financial help from the Passive Resistance Fund. We must, somehow or other, make ourselves self-supporting. We therefore decided to plough up more land, grow crops of corn and fruit and become real farmers. From early morning we worked on the land until midday. In the afternoon for about four hours we did press work and in the evening we resumed work on the land until bed-time. This we did for many months and got a good deal of real pleasure out of it. But it was not profitable. Drought and then floods caused much loss to our crops and rendered the land unworkable for weeks and months.
We soon realised that the land was poor and unproductive. We planted acres of bananas, but they proved a complete failure. Pineapples were the only fruit that prospered. They liked stony ground. Oranges and other citrus fruits were a miserable loss. Whilst we had hope, Sam and I worked to the point of exhaustion to make it a success. Our homes, the children, everything, had to take second or third place. At last we came to the conclusion that we could never make agriculture a paying concern by our methods. If we could adopt the standard of living of a Negro or Indian agriculturist, live in a hut, and, leaving the world aside and the education of our children, scrape a few handfuls of food from the ground, it might be possible, but we could not bring ourselves to do it.
We discussed all this with Gandhi by correspondence and received replies which only confirmed our opinion. The question of accepting advertisements in Indian Opinion and the printing of jobs as a source of income was debated again, although we had for a long time rejected both. Gandhi refused to go back on our principles regarding these, and we agreed. The idea of leaving Phoenix and returning to Durban to do business in competition with other printers was also rejected. Sam and I, therefore, came to the conclusion that the only course open to us was that we alone should retire from Phoenix and earn our living in Durban. After full consideration we put this proposition to Gandhi by cablegram:
“Will you lend Sam myself jobbing plant, papers, earn living Durban? Ultimately complete independence. Paper published English Gujarati Phoenix. Management editorship same time being. Cable reply.”
Gandhi’s reply was quite clear: “You may enforce your plan. Good luck!”
Gandhi’s son Manilal was working with us at Phoenix, having been sent from India by his father some months earlier. We had discussed a proposition that Sam and I might earn our living in Durban whilst continuing to help with Indian Opinion, and Manilal thought that this was a good idea. When he was informed of Gandhi’s reply to our request for the loan of the jobbing plant and paper stocks, he did not like it. However, he accepted the position and we proceeded to put into force our plan. I told Manilal that he could qualify for the managership in six months’ time. Meanwhile I would continue to edit the paper from Durban and come to Phoenix every Wednesday to pass proofs. We started our printing business in Durban and the arrangement about editing Indian Opinion was carried out successfully for many months, while I kept in touch with Phoenix by my weekly visits. Eventually Manilal refused to accept an editorial article which I had written, and this led to my discontinuing my editorship of the paper. As we got together the necessary new printing plant for our Durban business, we were able to return to Phoenix the printing plant we had borrowed.
Soon after Manilal had got the management in his own hands, he recommenced job printing and accepted advertisements in Indian Opinion. It may well be that he found it impossible to carry on without the necessary financial backing which we had so long enjoyed. Sam and I had made a success of our business, our children were being educated in the schools of Durban and we were living a useful life amongst both Indians and Europeans. We were satisfied that the step we had taken was the right one, but we remembered, without bitterness, that we had been forced to leave Phoenix partly because Indian Opinion was not to be kept up by job printing or advertisements.
The final verdict of Gandhi on these matters was this: “My view is that if you can turn out Indian Opinion only by removing to Town, you should suspend publication. I do not like the idea of your competing for jobs or advertisements. I think that when that time comes we shall have outlived our purpose. I would rather that you sold out Phoenix and you and Sam were engaged in some other independent work. If you can make of Phoenix something without the Paper, I should like the idea. But if you cannot even eke out a living from agriculture at Phoenix, Phoenix should be sold.”
Regarding the decision to do job printing and accept advertisements, I was not consulted, and I did not refer to the matter in any of my letters. But Gandhi wrote and told me that Manilal had asked him to permit this or to supply him with funds. Gandhi had dissuaded Manilal from making it a business concern. He had not sent him there to do this business but to render public service. He felt that Indian Opinion had served its purpose, if only partially. It had brought into being several Indian newspapers. They all in some shape or some degree served the public. He advised Manilal to close down Indian Opinion, give up Phoenix, parcel out the land, bring to India the stock of books not wanted for a better purpose, and himself come away with them. That Manilal did not take this advice and continued to publish the paper in his own way for many years is not part of my story.
I have now given a record of my contact with Gandhi from 1903 to 1914. The correspondence which follows shows the extent to which our friendship continued through the years while he was engaged in that great work of bringing about the liberation of India. That epic story has already been amply covered by more capable writers who were on the spot. I feel, however, that there are matters arising out of my experiences with Gandhi that should be discussed by me. There has, for example, been much criticism of Gandhi’s action in not giving his sons what is called a proper education. All the boys complained that they were not given a fair chance to follow in their father’s footsteps. With the exception of his eldest son, who remained in India in his younger days, none was given even an ordinary elementary school course.
Gandhi thought that what we could give in our little school at Phoenix, or at Tolstoy Farm, or at home, was enough. Moral education was the main thing. The fact that none of us was a trained teacher did not seem to matter, any more than the fact that, though I myself was not a trained journalist, I was thought qualified to edit and manage Indian Opinion. In this way, of course, it was easy to show that scholastic education was really unnecessary for the formation of character, which was what really mattered.
Once we were discussing the education of one of his sons, and Gandhi agreed to allow me to approach a lady, the daughter of a Christian missionary, living a few miles away, with a view to his receiving lessons up to the high-school standard. I interviewed the lady, and things seemed to be going on well until I mentioned religious instruction, which Gandhi did not want for his son. Now this was most unfortunate. Had this question not been raised, I do not believe there would have been any trouble. Gandhi, for instance, did not object to his sons taking part in our Sunday services, at which the New Testament was read and Christian hymns were sung. But it was not surprising that the daughter of a missionary should refuse to vow that she would never speak about the Christian religion. That was altogether too much to ask, and so the opportunity was lost.
There was no further opportunity of discussing this matter, probably because we were not together much at the time. I have often thought of it since. I could not understand Gandhi’s objection to having his sons educated in the usual way. He had, no doubt, sound reasons for his attitude, which, however, did not change after many years. As for his fears regarding religious instruction, I was also puzzled. It did not seem to fit in with his broad-minded views. Why, for instance, did he have a picture of Christ over his office desk and be a follower of Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, and yet fear that Christian teaching might do harm to his son?
Gandhi once told the Federation of International Fellowships, “After long study and experience, I have come to these conclusions, that: (1) all religions are true; (2) all religions have some error in them; (3) all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism. My veneration for other faiths is the same as for my own faith.” In this spirit we discussed these matters in Johannesburg nearly sixty years ago, and when I left for Natal, Gandhi gave me two small books. One was the Bhagavad Gita and the other, of the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis, with Gandhi’s initials signed on the flyleaf of each book.
About the year 1908, Gandhi told me of a friend in India who had asked him to suggest a school in England where he could send his son to be educated. I suggested the Grammar School at Louth, which was well known to me, though I had not attended it. Somewhat to my surprise, the idea was promptly accepted, and when Gandhi was in England soon after, the lad arrived and was personally taken by him to Louth and installed as a boarder. I understand that he did very well and stayed for two years. Incidentally, the school, though not belonging to any church, was closely attached to the Louth St. James’s Church and had daily prayers in school, and the boys attended Sunday services and special term-opening services at church. I was never told that this Hindu lad did not attend.
When the same Indian friend offered to pay the cost of educating one of Gandhi’s sons in England, the offer was not accepted. Gandhi suggested the name of another of our Phoenix settlers, and he was sent. Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis and had to return to South Africa after a short time. In a letter to me, Gandhi said he would explain his attitude regarding his son’s education when we met, but that meeting was crowded out and never took place.
A great friend of mine, who also was a co-worker with Gandhi during the Passive Resistance struggle, wrote me from London in 1920, criticizing Gandhi’s methods: “He does not seem to me to realise what a very imperfect thing is the human nature which is his material for constructing a better scheme of things and to my mind, he makes the fatal mistake, which the greatest teachers have always avoided, of supposing that everyone is immediately capable of attaining the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Many of those who worked in close association with Gandhi would, at times, observe the same thing. And yet we loved him in spite of it, or, rather, because of it. Each one of us knew in his heart that his estimate of our character was pitched too high. If it caused us to aim higher, so much to the good. And many a time it was observed how a man would rise above his normal mental and moral stature to heights of great sacrifice and bravery, all through Gandhi’s success as the great leader of the Passive Resistance movement. It affected everyone, European as well as Asian, young and old, men, women and children.
When we consider Gandhi’s life up to the day, thirty-four years later, of his death, what is it that stands out above all else? Were we to put this question to a hundred people, we would get a dozen differing answers. The misguided murderer seemed to regard Gandhi as an enemy of his people and India. Jesus was condemned to death and denounced as a traitor. The truly great men are often despised and rejected. We who were presumed to be friends and associates of Gandhi’s often disagreed with his methods and his ideas. But we knew that at all times he acted from motives of truth and of love for all mankind.