In the British general election of 1892, the nation was astonished as results began to trickle in to discover that an Indian, an elderly Parsi by the name of Dadabahi Naoroji, had taken the inner London seat of Finsbury Central on behalf of the Liberal Party. This was a watershed moment in British domestic politics, marking the conclusion of a fascinating saga that saw the fundamental tenets of the British empire, in particular the British right to rule in India, challenged.
Known as the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Indian politics, Dadabahi Naoroji was arguably the most prominent Indian of his age. He was a founding member of Congress, and would serve twice as president of the organisation. He held two professorships, first in mathematics at the Elphinstone College in Bombay, and later in Gujarati at the University College London. As a Parsi, his origins were Persian and his religion Zoroasterism, and thanks to the latter, he was not subject to the social limitations of the Hindu caste system. He was pale skinned, dark-eyed and somewhat ascetic, and although hardly a prepossessing individual, he nonetheless stood at the acme of Indian academic and political achievement.
Bearing all of these credentials, Naoroji’s decision to make his presence felt at the heart of the British empire had been intended to expose the British to the accomplishment and competence of the Indian political elite. It was understood, and it was certainly part of the British self-image, that the Empire existed not only to glorify and enrich the kingdom, but as a vehicle for the upliftment and advancement of the subject races. As the 19th century drew to a close, India had begun to coalesce a single, unified and national identity, and as such the British were coming under increasing pressure to yield the instruments of government and administration in India to Indians. Naoroji’s parliamentary campaign in Britain was intended to challenge the British to consider that, if an Indian could stand for and win representative office in Britain, then why not in India?
Dadabahi Naoroji was of a generation of Indians who were in general supportive of the British presence in India, appreciative of British cultural and material endowments and on the whole supportive of the concept of partnership with Britain in the business of empire.
In 1857, elements of the Indian Army rose in rebellion, an event which almost succeeded in toppling British domination of the sub-continent. India, in all of its fractured elements, had until then existed under the rule of the British East India Company, a private concern of vast influence that had in increments gained control of the sub-continent since its first incursions during the Elizabethan period. By the dawn of the Victorian period, The British East India Company had transmogrified into a quasi-state of disproportionate power and wealth. It thrived on predatory systems of taxation, land-control and monopoly that over the centuries had dispossessed and impoverished vast regions of India.
The rebellion, although disorganised and misdirected, exposed the iniquities of private management, and prompted the dissolution of the Company, and the formal assumption of British imperial authority in India. This was the commencement of the British Raj, the formation of which was accompanied by a royal proclamation committing Her Majesty to the fair and equal usage of India, and Indians, and an end to the exclusivity and exploitation of the company age.
In practical terms, however, aside from a handful of ceremonial and rhetorical instances, power remained concentrated in British hands. The Princely States, the remnants of the old Mughal Empire, remained under traditional rule, but closely supervised by the British administration. Indian access to the British Indian civil service was tightly controlled through a system of cadetship, which tended to exclude any Indian from participation in government at an executive level. Indians were present at all levels of departmental administration, and on the judiciary, but real power remained in the hands of a Viceroy, or governor-general, acting under the general superintendentship of the British government in Whitehall.
Dadabahi Naoroji was of the opinion that the metropolitan British, when exposed to the facts of British rule in India, would not feint from the necessary remedies. He held the highest opinion of British character, and ascribed British lethargy in implanting political reform in India simply to the obscurity of distance, and the mischief of communication. He therefore resolved to despatch himself to Britain, and to seek representative office in the metropolitan capital in order to illustrate to the British people, at the heart of their own government, that Indians were mature enough, and accomplished enough to assume a far greater degree of administrative control of their own country.
This, however, was just the beginning. Naoroji arrived in London in 1855, but it was not until the passing of the Third Reform Act of 1884, a landmark legal statute in Britain that vastly extended suffrage, that Naoroji judged the moment right to throw his name into the hat. He contested, and won the candidature for the central London constituency of Holborn, but in the 1886 General Election he was narrowly defeated by the incumbent Conservative Candidate, a retired Royal Artillery officer by the name of Colonel Francis Duncan.
Naoroji’s name on the ballot, although regarded as mildly interesting, did not capture the imagination of the British press until an unfortunate comment on the matter, uttered by the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, achieved widespread notoriety. The forum was the Scottish parliament, which Lord Salisbury addressed in November 1888, reflecting, rather too candidly perhaps, on Colonel Duncan’s precarious showing at the polls. The Contents of Lord Salisbury’s speech ran more or less along these lines.
‘I regard the  election at Holborn as a very valuable indication of public opinion at this moment. It is undoubtedly a smaller majority than Colonel Duncan won by last time, but then, Colonel Duncan was opposed by a black man; and, however great the progress of mankind has been, and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet got to the point where a British constituency will elect a black man to represent them.’
Lord Salisbury, a man whose propriety and tact was rarely complimented, was then surprised at a sudden interruption of laughter, and cries of ‘hear, hear!’ from the gallery, at which point he sought to moderate his language, continuing on more cautiously.
‘Of course you will understand that I am speaking roughly,’ he went on ‘and using language in its ordinary colloquial sense, because I imagine the colour is not exactly black; but at all events he is a man of another race who is very unlikely to represent an English community.’
Nonetheless, these comments were seized upon by the British press, and in the grand tradition, Lord Salisbury was brutally lambasted. For example, a Midlands daily, the Accrington Times, published a leader article that contained the following passage:
‘While Lord Salisbury’s unknown savage ancestor was hunting wild beasts in the woad paint of Aboriginal Britain, the Indian plains were teeming with fertility and were ruled by principalities and powers. The finely woven fabrics of India adorned the ladies of Roman patricians and were esteemed more highly and were far more costly than the shawls of Cashmere known to our grandfathers.’
The political firestorm that followed was interesting, because, on the one hand, the prime minister was taken to task for a racist insult levelled at one of India’s finest sons, at a time when Indian nationalism was stirring, and Indian calls for home rule were growing ever more insistent, but on the other hand, the nature of that insult was an inadvertent reference to Dadabahi as a black man. This, the British press was quick to remind Lord Salisbury, Dadabahi was not. The implications of this, however, are multifaceted, and suggest that both parties – Indian and British – agreed, if not on their own practical equality, then at least that both were superior to the enslaved Negro, as they were, in the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, to the Hottentot, the Mohawk and the tattooed savage of the South Pacific.
Nonetheless, the net result of Lord Salisbury’s slip of the tongue was to project the name of Dadabahi Naoroji to the forefront of the political debate, and with the British sporting nature now aroused, Dadabhai re-contested the same constituency in 1892, and was rewarded with a slim, but momentous victory. Thereafter, old ‘Narrow-Majority’, as Naoroji was thereafter known, took his seat on the opposition benches, having made a profound and momentous point?
That point was simply that at the metropolitan heart of the empire, where decisions affecting two thirds of the globe, and thanks to India, perhaps more than two-thirds of its population, the electorate was mature enough, and fair minded enough, to make space available at the centre of imperial power to an Indian.
The question then became simply that if this was possible in Britain, then why not in India?
Gandhi in South Africa
In the meanwhile, as Dadabahi Naoroji was settling into the backbenches of the Commons, some 9,000 miles to the south, in the British colony of Natal, another Indian was suffering an entirely different experience at the hands of a subordinate administration of the same empire. That Indian was a young Gujarati barrister by the name of Mohandas K. Gandhi.
It is perhaps an under-appreciated fact that Gandhi did not begin his political career in India, but in Africa, and his arrival on the African continent, in the spring of 1893, triggered momentous change, and arguably set in motion the fall of the British empire.
Gandhi shared with Naoroji a fundamental faith and affection for the British, which in Gandhi’s case had not been tempered by long experience, but had indeed been sharpened by a three-year period of study in London, perhaps the most carefree years of his life, and a period when he was exposed to the very best of liberal Britain. He was then a rather self-possessed youth, of charming personality and amiable temperament, conscious of his appearance, of finely tuned social disposition and developing an interest in vegetarianism, theosophism and esoteric spirituality. In these pursuits he found an abundance of English youth, both male and female, to share his experiences. As would be the case throughout his life, and although he would ultimately gather millions of Indian followers, his closest friends would always remain European. However, at the moment that he set foot in South Africa, Gandhi entered into a society conditioned by racism.
His tendency in London to explore his social distractions to the detriment of his studies resulted in an unremarkable academic outcome, and in consequence he was not immediately welcomed into the first tier of the Bombay legal fraternity. After a year or more of languishing on the steps of the Bombay High Court waiting for briefs, he was contacted, through family connections, by a member of a wealthy trading family whose South African branch was engaged in a complex financial litigation. The firm was Gujarati, and a perplexed local legal firm had requested a Gujarati speaking lawyer to act as interpreter and liaison, and this position Gandhi accepted with relief.
Possibly the social orthodoxy of Bombay, after three liberating years in London, was proving somewhat anti-climactic, and perhaps as a consequence the thought of a year in a British dominated colony was attractive to him. It must, therefore, have come as quite a shock, when a few months later he arrived in Natal, to encounter a pattern of Englishman entirely different to that which he had grown accustomed to in London.
What he did encounter, however, was a richly diverse Indian community, comprising elements from every Indian region, religion, sect and cast, all existing in a form of enforced community, and largely free, although not by any means universally so, of the stifling social conventions that Gandhi found so challenging in his home colony. The Natal Indian community existed until recently, and perhaps still, as the largest expatriate community of Indians in the world. Its origins, as is the case with most of the historic Indian diaspora, can be traced to the colonial sugar industry, and the labour crisis occasioned by abolition.
In 1833, an article of legislation of epoch changing significance was passed through the British House of Commons. After a long and emotional campaign, the British abolitionist lobby finally triumphed, and a year later the slave trade was effectively outlawed throughout the British empire. Five years later, in 1838, a general act of abolition was passed, and the institution of slavery in the British empire passed into history. A process of manumission in all of the British slave owning colonies then followed, which, although evidence of British moral leadership in the 19th century, also introduced an immediate labour crisis in all of the British sugar producing colonies, in particular in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean.
British producers found themselves at an instant disadvantage against Spanish, Portuguese and French producers, who all still enjoyed the benefits of slave labour. The British parliament introduced import tariffs on sugar to protect British overseas producers, but this did not impact the international market, and so for the British sugar industry to survive an immediate solution was required.
In the aftermath of abolition, quite obviously there was a strong visceral resistance to the further exploitation of black Africans in the free movement of labour, and so discussion centred on Indian, or Chinese indentured labour. There was already a precedent for this in various pockets of mining and railway construction in the empire, and beyond, and indeed, on the British island of Mauritius there had already been some importation of Indian slaves, so an Indian community exited to welcome the first wave of indentured newcomers.
Thus the phenomenon began. Indians were recruited mainly along the east coast, and mainly among rural and urban destitute, and one can imagine that the early experience of these people, in particular those arriving to replace slave labour in the Caribbean, was harsh to say the least. However, through this means, spores of Indian settlement were established, and the roots of diaspora sunk.
The British abolition lobby, however, was quickly alerted to what was underway, and a renewed campaign of abolition went immediately into effect. By 1839, the practice had been halted, for reasons primarily of its obvious similarities to slavery, but in turn, powerful economic interests pushed back, and supported by muscular legislation in both India and Britain, regulating all aspects of the practice, it resumed, but this time under far tighter controls.
As the sugar Industry in Natal began to develop in mid-century, the same question of labour arose, and the same solution was suggested. Natal was an interesting case, however, for obviously the region hosted a large indigenous African population, but these remained on the whole hostile to European attempts, through taxation and land alienation, to force them out of traditional lifestyles and into the formal labour economy. At the same time, the British government, ever vigilant against colonial tendencies to predatory land and labour policies, carefully monitored their transition, which was, of course, at some point inevitable at some point. For the time being blacks remained committed to traditional lifestyles, and were unavailable in Natal to support growing agricultural and mining industries.
Indians were the obvious solution, but a nervous population of mainly British settlers was apt to point at Mauritius, which by the end of the 1850s had imported almost half a million Indians, and naturally the social complexion of the Island was by then almost entirely Indian. As Mauritius was emerging as a virtual province of India, so would Natal if a foothold was granted to Indian immigration in the colony. South Africa, in combination, had developed as a robust European territory, and the almost infinite potential for Indian immigration, once the process had been set in motion, struck at the heart of colonial settler anxieties.
Nonetheless, the sugar lobby was powerful, and the matter was forced through the colonial legislature. In 1860 the first boatloads of Indians began to arrive in Natal, and Initially the welcome offered to them was friendly, if somewhat circumspect. Indians arrived, were sorted and allocated, and thereafter set to work, eventually becoming an established feature of the rural social landscape.
However, by the date of Gandhi’s arrival in Natal, fully three decades later, the Indian community of Natal had exploded to the extent that all of the fears of those opponents of indenture were entirely satisfied. By 1904, with the second official census in the colony, it was found that 154,000 Indians had been imported, and in combination with free immigration, this had indeed established the Indians as numerically greater in the colony than whites. And it is needless to say that with the steady arrival of what was known as ‘Passenger Indians’, or free immigrants, this number grew steadily, and as Indian trade and commerce began to compete in real terms with white trade, what had been initially a cordial reception degenerated quickly into open hostility.
The Passenger Indians represented an entirely different demographic to their indentured compatriots. These were, for most part, led by a corps of Gujarati traders, primarily Muslim, who arrived, on the one, hand to provide goods and services to a rapidly growing community, and on the other to spread the influence of a number of wealthy Indian trading families throughout the empire. Obviously, as they established themselves in trade in Natal, they did so under the legal protections of empire. As British subjects they enjoyed the same rights and protections as British and colonial immigrants, and although their presence was not welcome, there was little, other than petty and peripheral harassment, that the British authorities in Natal could do about it. They grew in influence, and in due course became a powerful economic force, and it was more at less at this point that the cordiality of relations between white and Indian in the colony collapsed.
It was on behalf of one of these companies, Dada Abdulla and Co., that Gandhi was invited to Natal. With a few exceptions, he encountered immediately a chilly, and at times hostile attitude from whites, in particular those within the professional fraternity to which he belonged. This was at first wholly unexpected, and was soon a source of great disappointment. He could not understand why the local white establishment was so consistently antagonistic towards he and his community, and certainly his early attempts to integrate were rebuffed in a manner that, although neither violent nor crude, was nonetheless insulting, and discouraging.
But perhaps most damaging, and most disappointing was his sense that the great British imperial charter, which, like Dadabahi Naoroji, he had once believed in implicitly, was a fraud. Dadabhai’s ascension to the British imperial legislature was simply a gesture, as empty as the illusion of imperial partnership. Indians were indeed second class citizens of the empire, the difference in Natal simply being that no pretence was made to the contrary. Gandhi was able, and this would be his political hallmark into perpetuity, to empathise with his opponent, so he appreciated that the almost infinite potential for Indian immigration into the colony threatened cultural submergence, and the future of white predominance in the region. However, a central pillar of his emerging response to this was to forswear any Indian political ambition, and to argue that Indians be judged according to their elite, as the British were apt to judge themselves.
In the meanwhile, the litigation that had brought Gandhi to Natal required his attention. The complainant in the case was Dada Abdulla, and the respondent a cousin who resided in the neighbouring republic of the Transvaal. The latter was not a British colony, and utilised Roman-Dutch Law. It’s statutes in the matter of race legislation, however, were relatively crude, and seldom enforced in their minutia. What defined the elements of race relations in the Boer republics was simple convention, and established practice. Brown men the Indians where quantified as non-white, alongside back, and cast therefore as inferior under rules no more complicated than the biblical relationship between the sons of Ishmael and the Sons of Esau. One was decreed by God to be a slave, and the other master, and that, simply, was that.
In due course it became necessary for Gandhi to travel out of the relative safety of Natal, a British colony, and thus, nominally at least, sensible to individual dignity, and into the unknown of the Transvaal where no such protections existed. He purchased a first class ticket on a train travelling between Durban and Pretoria, as was appropriate for his status and objective. He was a British trained barrister, and a professional man. In Durban this excited no comment, since the sight of a wealthy Indian in a first class train carriage was not at all unusual, but as the train struck deeper inland, such things were less commonly tolerated. As the train departed Pietermaritzburg Station, a white man entered Gandhi’ compartment, and seeing it occupied by an Indian, he paused for a moment before spinning on his heel and leaving. He returned a few moments later with the conductor who informed Gandhi that for the remainder of his journey he would be required to travel third class.
Naturally Gandhi refused. He had, he argued, bought and paid for his ticket, and he would travel first class, or not at all. This proved acceptable to both white men, and moments later, Mohandas K. Gandhi found himself on the concourse of Pietermaritzburg station, the tail light of the train fading slowly into the twilight. Gandhi had a long cold night ahead of him to brood upon this insult, and brood he did.
The South Africa of Jan Smuts
A world away, another citizen of the same empire was treading a not dissimilar path. As Gandhi sat on the teak boards of Pietermaritzburg railway station, ruminating over this grave injustice, another citizen of the same empire prepared to complete his law tripos at the University of Cambridge, and then to return to his home in the Cape to begin his legal career.
This was Jan Christiaan Smuts, twenty-four years old, and poised upon the threshold of a political career almost unrivalled in its brilliance during the early years of the 20th century. Smuts would almost single handedly found the concept of modern South Africa, and as a British general of WWI, he would gain for the crown the German African territories of South West Africa, the future Namibia, and German East Africa, the future Tanganyika. As a member of the British war cabinet in two wars he would help mould British imperial policy, and would be one of the founding architects of the League of Nations, and the United Nations that would supersede it.
In 1894, however, he was an impressionable Dutch youth, born in the British Cape Colony, a sister territory to the British Natal Colony, but with a history of European settlement dating back to the mid-17th century. In those two centuries or more, the Cape had evolved a cultural identity that was an amalgam of Dutch, French and British, with here and there the added ingredients of the far east, India and black Africa. The southern expansion of the Bantu races had been largely halted at the outer perimeter of white expansion northwards, and the frontier hovered more or less between the eastern boundaries of the Cape and the southern boundaries of Natal.
Beyond that frontier, no significant penetration of Bantu had taken place, and the Cape, therefore, remained substantively white. The aboriginal peoples of the Colony were Khoi, an earlier iteration than the Bantu, and like first nations worldwide, proved vulnerable to European genetic dilution, and the decay of a culture of almost immeasurable age by disease, alcohol and genocide.
Beyond the wars of pacification along the frontier, there was no question of colour politics in the Cape Colony, at least not on any significant scale. When the matter of race was discussed, that discussion centred on the difficulties of integration between the two white races – British and Boer – both of which sought to express at times opposing national destinies. It was a formula for the successful marriage of these two races that occupied the minds of the local political establishment, not the matter of Indians, or blacks, or any other variation of the race problem was so vexed the colonial occupation of black Africa.
The Dutch settled the Cape in 1652 for the simple purpose of providing a victualling station for passing ships of the Dutch east India Company. At that time the Dutch more or less dominated European trade with the east Indies, but the British were inching towards a takeover, and quite as the Anglo/French wars removed the French from India, and temporarily from a position at the first tier of European trading powers, so the Dutch alliance with the French had the same basic effect. The British took over control of the Cape in 1895, and notwithstanding some early adjustments, maintained that dominance into the modern era.
There was, however, an almost inbuilt attrition between the Dutch and the British over the facts of the takeover, exacerbated on the frontier by a visceral resistance to a British tendency to over-administration. This was aggravated further by a British tendency to take the side of the Bantu in the ever-widening field of frontier war, and further still by the forced manumission of Dutch held slaves in the aftermath of British abolition. As more and more British arrivals in the colony steadily diluted its Dutch character, the tendrils of a mass exodus of frontier Dutch – those now known as Boer – began to consolidate into a large and formal ‘trek’.
The ‘Great Trek’ remains one of the formative and most iconic episodes in white South African history, and within it lies the defining lore and mythology of the Afrikaner nation. As the people, or the Volk, packed up and left the Cape in disgust at British domination, they forged a passage into the interior against odds so phenomenal that only the sanction of God could explain its success. The greatest feats of endurance were the Boer victories over the aggressive and highly militarized tribes of the interior, which tended to confirm and underscore Gods vision of an Afrikaner nation free of outside interference, and governed according to the tenets of the Old Testament.
Ultimately, two independent republics were formed, the South African Republic, or the Transvaal Republic, and the Orange Free State, both landlocked, and both economically hobbled, but at the same time each was fiercely independent, and aggressively hostile to any suggestion of British interference or regional imperialism.
There existed, however, a more forward looking and progressive Dutch political lobby, in particular in the Cape, that recognised the obvious disability that such a bitterly divided political community represented. If the vast ideological gulf that existed between the British and Boer in South Africa could be healed, the potential of a great nation could be unleashed. The urgency and complexity of this movement was magnified first in the 1870s, with the discovery of vast diamond deposits in the northern Cape, and the again in the 1880s by similar spectacular gold deposits discovered in the Transvaal.
This attracted British capital and British imperial interest in equal measure, adding urgency to the quest for an accommodation between the two white races, for with the stimulus of such great wealth, the only other alternative was war.
One of the pioneers of the movement was an ailing capitalist and imperial visionary by the name of Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes is a man alternately revered and despised by history, and as is the fate of all great men, his legacy is both contradictory and confusing. For the purposes of this short narrative, however, let it be said that Rhodes’ vision was for a unified British colony in South Africa, achieved for the completion of a destiny that he believed had been granted by God to the English speaking races. That destiny was to rule and govern the world, and if the consolidation of the phenomenal wealth of the region into British hands could be achieved, this would multiply the wealth of the empire, and the wealth of Cecil John Rhodes.
Rhodes, however, was inhibited by a failing heart and degenerative asthma, and the sense of his own mortality added both passion and desperation to this quest. By the 1890s he had emerged not only as one of the wealthiest men of the British empire, but also as prime minister of the Cape Colony. He had acquired for the crown all of the territory south of the Congo, consolidated South African diamond production and penetrated gold production in the Transvaal to a significant degree. A unified South Africa, however, remained tantalizingly beyond his grasp, and his appeal was to the leadership of the future, the young men of the Cape, to build on the threads of unity that he had forged in the Cape, and to create that great nation of the future, the seeds of which were so obvious to his eye.
Upon his return to the Cape from Cambridge university, Jan Smuts, precisely that type of young man, fell entirely under Rhodes’ spell. Rhodes was a curious character, inasmuch as he was not attractive, nor outwardly impressive, and his ill health had painted his complexion purple, bruised his eyes and saturated his lungs. But yet, for all of that, and perhaps because of it, he was possessed of a powerful charisma that attracted Smuts, and many others like him, until a fragile but energetic unity movement began to take root in the Cape.
Smuts was an attorney, with, unlike Gandhi, an impressive record of academic performance at Cambridge. Like Gandhi, however, he was of philosophical outlook, and although without the same amiability and charm, he was gifted with an edged instrument of powerful intellect. His philosophical vision was unification in man and nature as a natural and cumulative expression of creative evolution. Complexity was by natural process narrowed down to simplicity, and the whole thus created represented a third element greater than the composition of its parts.
He was, therefore, susceptible to Rhodes’ message, and when he was invited into Rhodes’ inner circle, he submitted to the allure of Rhodes’ political ideology with absolute abandon. He trusted Rhodes absolutely, believing that within this strangely messianic personality, there lay the formula for a unified South Africa. Rhodes alone could create the alchemy of a nation from the common stuff of territories, forging out of disunity something more than the sum of its parts.
In essence, the intelligentsia of each of the four territories acknowledged the inevitability of a unified South Africa, but Rhodes saw it as an enlarged British colony with acknowledgement to the private capital invested by himself, while the Dutch or Afrikaans speaking element saw it as an independent republic removed from direct British control, although perhaps within the British sphere of influence.
The distance between the two sides would not seem great, and with time and diplomatic forbearance, the fears and anxieties of the conservative Boer element, those for the most part engaged in the republics, could have been overcome. This would be particularly true if the young and progressive Cape Dutch, those such as Smuts, were offered forth as the bridge builders. Smuts, indeed, was let loose to do precisely this, and he unleashed his energies on the conservative element of his people, assuring them that Rhodes could be trusted, and that a republic under the shelter and protection of the British empire would be precisely as Rhodes predicted.
Rhodes, however, was anxious. The hours of his life were slipping through his fingers. While he maintained a diplomatic equilibrium in the Cape, manipulating the minds and loyalties of men like Smuts, he was also working behind the scenes to hurry matters along. He believed in the power of British creativity, and he had no doubt that once brought under British control, the rank and file of the Boer would acknowledge its benefits, and bask under its celestial radiance.
As Julius Caesar once remarked: ‘If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it.’
Rhodes attempted an armed coup to seize the Transvaal goldfields, and thereafter allow the Boer administration to collapse at its own pace. It was a strategy driven by desperation and contrived by amateurs. The ‘Jameson Raid’, as the episode has come to be known, is a well-researched and documented aspect of Anglo/Boer War history, and details of it are not difficult to find. Suffice to say, however, that Rhodes efforts to affect an armed takeover of the economic heartland of the Transvaal failed, and as such he simply broke the law.
The ramifications of the Jameson Raid were profound. Rhodes, of course, was discredited, and in many ways he remains discredited, while his action set in motion the events that would lead to the Anglo/Boer War. Most importantly, however, the alliance that he had built over decades crumbled overnight. Jan Smuts, along with the entire Cape Dutch community, were dumbstruck by Rhodes actions, and as the implications were digested, profoundly betrayed. Rhodes, the greatest among the British, revealed himself to be the worst, and the conservative Boer conviction that the British simply could not be trusted was borne out. The two sides parted amid a degree of acrimony and mutual loathing that could only be absolved and pacified by war.
Smuts abandoned the Cape, and made his way north to the republics, and threw his lot in with the Transvaal leadership. He was absorbed into the administration as State Attorney, at the age of 28, and was girded to confront a British diplomatic assault that was now a naked preamble to war.
The year was 1899, and German/British rivalry in Europe was reflecting in the British and German presence in Africa. An obvious ideological compatibility between Boer and German threatened the possibility of South Africa falling into German hands. German control of the Cape peninsular would offer an intolerable advantage to Axis powers in the event of a global war, and if the Boer would not yield to an obvious absorption into the British empire, then the Boer republics must be brought to heel by force.
And thus, as the century closed, a young Boer intellectual, lately of Cambridge university, and like Gandhi, at one time deeply enamoured of the British, sat across the negotiating table with a corps of British diplomats committed to war. There was about these lengthy negotiations a formulaic air, for both sides acknowledged the inevitable conclusion. In October 1899, war between the Transvaal republic and the British empire was declared. Jan Smuts abandoned his quill and chambers, and with a rifle in is hand, he took to the saddle as the great equalisation between Briton and Boer, the two white races of South Africa, began.
The Birth of a Revolutionary
Gandhi, in the meanwhile, disposed of his contract and steered a complex litigation towards a judgement in favour of his client. This was a more mature Gandhi than the novice barrister who had arrived in South Africa a year earlier. His months in the Transvaal had sobered him considerably. He had encountered an Indian community flush with cash on the goldfields, and along with nationals from every corner of Europe, making fortunes, but discriminated against in ways that, although practically irrelevant, offended Gandhi’s sense of honesty, truth and fair play.
Personally, as a young Indian professional, Gandhi suffered only the pinpricks of racism, and for the most part he lived and functioned in the Transvaal without hindrance. He was forced to use the trade entrance in libraries, was talked down to by white court officials, refused service in the occasional tea shop and forced to travel third class, but had he been of the commercial and trading class, he might perhaps have felt, as they did, that the economic advantages of life in the Transvaal conspicuously outweighed these trifling indignities.
In the meanwhile, part of the general background to war was a groundswell of protest and antagonism between the British and Boer in the Transvaal. As they had attracted Indians, so the goldfields had attracted hundreds of thousands of British and colonial immigrants. British capital dominated the economy of the Transvaal, and in exchange for heavy taxation on all foreign mining activity, the British ‘Uitlanders’, or outsiders, were beginning to demand representation. The quandary in which this placed the Boer administration was obvious. The Boer were a bucolic and agrarian people, and allowing for unlimited British access to the franchise would, in terms both of numbers and capital influence, strip the Boer of their elemental obsession of sovereignty and freedom from British control.
Behind the scenes, the Imperial Government stood in support of this claim. British rights and protections in the Transvaal were guaranteed by treaty, and on behalf of all of Her Majesty’s subjects in the Transvaal, the British government were demanding full equality and full access to the institutions of state and government. This, of course, was music to Gandhi’s ears, for Indians were subjects of Her Majesty, and under the moral contract of the British Raj, Victoria Regina had made the specific promise that no distinction would be drawn between any of Her subjects, Indian or British.
In the meanwhile, Gandhi returned to Natal at the conclusion of the case, and there lingered for a week or so pending his return to India. He no doubt had mixed feelings about his departure, for on the one hand he could hardly be reluctant to place as much blue water as possible between himself and the stifling racism of South Africa, but on the other he had achieved a degree of professional respect and admiration in the colony that would disappear at the moment that he made landfall in Bombay. Indeed, Dada Abdulla made a considerable effort to persuade him to stay, and one can imagine that Gandhi was tempted, but he nonetheless, he scheduled his returned.
Fate, however, at least according to Gandhi himself, intervened. A reception hosted by Dada Abdulla to bid him farewell coincided with the publication of a parliamentary bill that was intended to strip Indian access to the vote. Anti-Indian feeling in the colony had reached something of a watershed by then, and active efforts were underway to establish limits on Indian immigration, forced repatriation post-contract and the separation of Indian and white areas of trade and residence in the city.
The Natal Franchise Act, then pending its final reading in the colonial legislature, sought, without dilution or equivocation, to bar Indian suffrage, based obviously on a fear that, since Indians now equalled whites in numbers, future Indian domination of government would be inevitable. Blacks were barred from access to the franchise through a complicated division of customary and constitutional law, but Indians, as free citizens of the empire, enjoyed the same right of representation as a white imperial subjects, be they from Britain or any overseas colony. This was a potentially perilous loophole that the white political establishment in Natal was anxious to seal.
As the Indian community celebrated Gandhi’s departure, the subject of discussion turned naturally to the terms of the act, which were for the first time available for public perusal. Gandhi asked why the community was so unresponsive to a legal proposal that quite nakedly transgressed the imperial charter. It was quite manifestly contrary to the understood conventions of empire, and if Indians were willing to stand by and allow this to take place, where would the process end?
To this question the community seemed divided. There were those, reflecting the attitude in the Transvaal, who argued that so long as the community kept its mouth shut and its doors open, its lucrative existence could continue without hindrance. The Indians trade community was not in the colony to compete for political representation, but to make money, and they were making plenty of money.
Others, however, recognised the principal, and perhaps saw in this unabashed marginalisation of Indians a reflection of what was underway in India. This was the Indian age, and as Indians were agitating for greater rights and liberties in India, those in the diaspora were under an obligation to do likewise.
In the end, it was concluded that Gandhi must remain in Natal long enough to draft an Indian opinion on the proposed law to be presented to the Natal assembly prior to the passing of the bill. This was done, and aside from the surprise registered in the white community that Indians had sought to protest the bill at all, the query was acknowledged, but ignored, and the vote went ahead with a predictable result.
It was required, however, as was the case with all colonial legislation, that the bill be forward on to the Colonial Office in London where, before it could be signed into law, it be approved by Her Majesty. Here Gandhi found himself at a crossroads. A petition to challenge the law at that stage held a far greater chance of success that attempting to sway the vote of a committee of hard-line settlers in a territorial assembly. The Colonial Office would be duty bound to consider the law in the light of its discriminatory clauses, and could only grant it passage if it could pass under the radar. With a determined Indian protest, however, that would not be possible, and under its current drafting, the law would be impossible to approve.
However, at the same time, to take that step would internationalise the Natal situation, expose the imbalances of race and society in the colony and confirm to the white establishment that its fears had been justified., and that Indians were indeed politically ambitious, and that an Indian takeover of government was imminent. That would deleteriously affect that status quo in the colony, at which point the fight would be out in the open.
Nonetheless, the decision was made to go ahead. Gandhi indefinitely postponed his return to India, established a local chapter of the Congress Movement, and began to actively organise Indians at all levels for a political mobilisation. This was the start of his political career, and the moment that the British empire began its slow decline.
The British colonial secretary received the Indian petition, along with its 10,000 signatures, with some perplexity. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Quite obviously the proposed law was racist in its implication, and as such could not expect royal approval, but the subtler implications presented a difficult challenge. To subject the Natal Indians to nakedly racist legislation would stir up discontent in India at a time when Her Majesty’s government was attempting to mollify Indian demands for home rule, while at the same time, undue interference in the governance of the self-governing colonies would stir up internal discontent, not only in Natal, but in other self-governing colonies anxious not to be dictated to by Whitehall.
In the end the matter was dealt with by sleight of hand. The draft law was returned to Natal with the advice that if all overtly racist intent could be removed from the text, even if the effect remained unaltered, the colonial secretary would recommend its approval. The Natal parliamentary drafting committee then returned to the drawing board, and in due course produced a revised draft that made no specific reference to Indians, but which limited access to the franchise to those imperial subjects who enjoyed such access in their home territories. Since India was by then the only substantive colony that remained under the direct rule, Indians did not enjoy representation in India, and as such were disqualified from voting in Natal.
One can imagine that officials at the colonial office where both amused and impressed by this clever little manoeuvre in legal penmanship, after which the law was duly approved, signed and soon afterwards included on the statute. The battle lines, however, had been drawn. Indian and European in Natal were henceforth engaged in a political struggle. Gandhi likewise began to reveal himself less as a respectable barrister and more as a political activist, and a man henceforth to be watched. In the meanwhile, he acknowledged that he had been outmanoeuvred and put the issue of sufferance behind him, and thereafter began the labour of organising an Indian political movement. It was clear to him, as it was to all, that a major regional war was pending, and if the basic British platform was equal rights for British subjects in Natal, and if the likelihood was that upon a British victory, South Africa would emerge as a single British territory, then the wisest course of action was simply to await that victory, and then stake the Indian claim to the same rights and protections as all British subjects in the territory.
In the meanwhile, as the initial phases of the Anglo/Boer played out, and early Boer successes threw the British on the back foot, Gandhi sensed an opportunity to illustrate Indian loyalty to the crown. As Indians were flooding out of the Transvaal ahead potential danger, Gandhi pointed the finger, reminding them that this was precisely what the whites of the territories would expect. Indians were accused of maintaining a foreign identity while exploiting the rich economic potential of South Africa, only to flee the territory at the first sign of threat with their pockets bursting with money.
Instead Gandhi proposed that the Indians declare openly for the British, and if not precisely take up arms, then at least offer financial support where possible, and to form an ambulance corps for front-line service. A number of Indians balked at this. What if the Boer prevailed, and the British were defeated? Then what. At this Gandhi threw up his arms in despair. That was precisely the white view of Indians. Now was the time to show commitment. If Indians demanded equal rights and privileges in the empire, then an equal willingness to embrace responsibility was necessary.
That the Boer, like the Indians, were resisting the bellicose imperialism of a mighty power, asserting their independence in the face of overwhelming force, seemed not to sway Gandhi’s rather simplified view of the moral battlefield. Quite as he did not quantify the black political struggle in relation to the Indian, so he did not place any value on Boer independence. Perhaps his view of it all was not that different to Cecil John Rhodes. All those living in South Africa, be they white, black or brown, would benefit from the radiant light of Britannia. He remained fundamentally of the belief that the essential British commitment to the standards of equality and impartiality that had put Naoroji in parliament were values universally possible in the colonies. He would, of course, soon be disappointed.
Race Policy in South Africa
The war, however, was fought, the Indians played their part, and the Boer were defeated. Early in 1902, the two belligerents met, and the establishment of a negotiated peace began. Chief among the negotiators was Jan Christian Smuts, now General Jan Christian Smuts, thirty-two years old and hardened by two years of war and command. It was to be a negotiated peace, and of paramount importance emerged the equalisation of only the interests and concerns of the main protagonists, no matter what might have been the original pretext of war.
From the point of view of the British, the primary objective was to restart gold production and to establish the combined territories with a solid British identity. This required the Anglisation of every government (the territories remained separately administrated for the time being), the imposition of English as the language of administration, education and justice and the encouragement of large scale British immigration.
From the point of view of the Boer, these things were, of course, an anathema, but they were, temporarily at least, the spoils of war. However, over the question of native political rights, and in particular black suffrage, the Boer were unmovable. No matter what might have been the spirit of British intent prior to the war, they were superseded by the expediencies of peace in South Africa, in particular bearing in mind the thickening clouds of conflict hanging over Europe. A stable South Africa was of greater importance than the sensibilities of the subject races.
The British draft peace proposals contained a clause stating that native suffrage would be granted upon the assumption of responsible government for the two new British colonies of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony. This Jan Smuts amended to read that ‘consideration’ of black suffrage would only be made upon the assumption of responsible government, implying that the indigenous peoples of the colony would remain disenfranchised at the pleasure of the white people of the colony.
This was manifest to Gandhi in 1903, soon after the establishment of peace, when he was invited on behalf of the Natal chapter of the Indian Congress to petition the British colonial secretary, who was touring the South African colonies on a fact finding mission. En route from Natal to the Transvaal, Gandhi was for the first time confronted with the requirement to produce an entry permit. This had been a legal requirement under republican immigration statutes, but had rarely ever been applied. Now, however, under a more efficient British administration, an Asiatic department had been established to enforce the law specifically as it applied to Indians and other Asians, including, for the purpose of the law, Arabs, Chinese and subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
This heralded a sombre state of affairs for Gandhi, for gradually the storied imperial charter was crumbling before his eyes. Far from an improvement in the condition of Indians in the colonies, the British victory simply resulted in a more rigorous and comprehensive enforcement of the laws of the republic. Indians were now subject to rigorous immigration protocols, and new arrivals limited by rigid border controls. These included a much despised literacy and language test that required fluency in a European language, allowing for a wide discretion on the part of individual border control officials. In general, the situation for Transvaal Indians had become a great deal more difficult, and there was very little popular appetite within the European community to affect any positive change.
As Natal in the past had pointed to Mauritius as an example of how unregulated Indian immigration could overrun a colony, so the white community of Transvaal needed only to point at Natal. Attitudes in the Transvaal were informed by a visceral reaction against Indian immigration, which can be explained only by the fear of white South Africa that the mass influx of a third force would result in cultural submersion. If one sees it in that context, then there certainly were grounds for fear, for if Indians were, in a British colony, to be treated as full British citizens, then the capacity of a metropolitan Indian population of some 300 million, eager for inclusion in the economic bounty of South Africa, to effectively overwhelm a combined white and black population of some 3 million was inescapable.
In the meanwhile, General Jan Smuts, chiefly responsible for the Boer terms of peace, and leading a campaign of non-involvement with the new British administration of the combined colonies, nonetheless spearheaded the movement towards responsible government. Responsible government in the context of the British imperial hierarchy defined a British Self Governing Colony. This was a colony that had achieved sufficient competence in terms of its settler community for the devolution of domestic administration to a local assembly, a local cabinet and a local prime minister. Imperial superintendentship was loosely exercised through a governor, or in this case a governor-general, but broadly speaking the imperial government avoided interference, and autonomy over local affairs was almost absolute.
All of the major British colonies of North America, Australia and New Zealand were self-governing, and the only major British colony that was not was India, which, like Ireland, could not be granted full internal autonomy because its first act of independent government would be to leave the empire. Both Natal and the Cape Colony were by the already self-governing.
Under Smuts’ guidance, the two colonies of Transvaal and the Orange Free State achieved self-government in 1907, at which point race policy became an entirely domestic affair. The question of native suffrage – which Smuts had ensured would only be considered upon the grant of responsible government – was now further deferred for the consideration of a federal government at a point yet further into the future.
Smuts then assumed the cabinet position of colonial secretary in a British administration largely dominated by Boer members. This was a curious anomaly, but it was part of the difficult process of white/white integration that had underwritten so many of the compromises sanctioned by the British government. Colonial secretary in the colonies was a position akin to an interior minister, and although this was not Smuts’ only portfolio, it granted him comprehensive, and bearing in mind his nature, almost absolute power over internal race policy and matters of immigration.
Under Smuts’ tenure, the first major revision of local immigration laws in the Transvaal took place. The Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Act, known otherwise as the Black Act, came into effect in 1907. It was, as was conventionally forbidden in the British Empire, a law aimed specifically at the control of Asiatics, which one might safely read as Indians.
In the period since the end of the war, and the revitalization of the gold mining industry, there was a clear discrepancy between the number of Indians legally registered as residents of the colony and those that actually were resident. Obviously there was significant illegal immigration taking place through porous borders, and by outdated systems of regulation and control. The Act, therefore, required the re-registration of Indians currently resident in the colony, and the careful control of those entering or leaving. Registration documents required photo identification and a full set of fingerprints, and these documents were to be carried at all times, and to be made available to police on demand.
In many respects, this law amounted to a rational review of existing legislation in the aftermath of a total regime change, and did not, in and of itself, represent unusual discrimination for times, nor unreasonable demands on the population. Gandhi, however, made a repeal of the Black Act a central pillar of his early political activism, which in turn set the stage for a confrontation between the Transvaal Indian Community and the colonial government.
A Meeting of Minds
By 1907, Gandhi had been in South Africa for a decade, and he had begun his evolution from the urbane and self-possessed Indian barrister to the political and spiritual leader that forms the better known image of the Mahatma. He had formed a collectivised settlement on the north coast of Natal – the Phoenix settlement – where the core of his growing fraternity of acolytes and followers resided, and where the influential Indian newspaper, the Indian Opinion, had been founded. He had more or less established himself as the leader of the combined Indian communities of South Africa, and although he nominally subscribed to a system of committee management, he was prone to an autocratic political approach, and was much more comfortable in the company of followers than equals. Apart from his initial effort to overturn the Natal Franchise Bill, which had launched his political career, he had so far undertaken or embarked upon no major campaigns.
He nonetheless was obviously ambitious, and alert to any opportunity to begin asserting his claim to political equality for Indians in South Africa, and although a slim point, the Black Act provided him with a pretext to act.
It might also be worth pointing out that Gandhi’s perspective on race policy in South Africa was exclusive. He was careful to avoid any overt alliance between the Indian civil rights movement in South Africa and the parallel black struggle. His objective was not to create an environment of race equality, but simply to ensure that Indians where not legislated on behalf of in a generally racist society alongside blacks. His verbiage when deployed in description of blacks differed very little from the sort of language one might have expected from a conservative white forum.
Consider, for example, a comment made late in the 1890s as he toured India raising awareness of conditions in South Africa.
‘Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.’
There are many other examples of this, and in essence Gandhi wished to draw a distinction between Indians and blacks. In a reflection of the outrage generated by British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury’s remarks against Dadabahi Naoroji, Gandhi asserted that Indians represented a version of human civilization superior to black, and comparable to white, which qualified Indians for a place around the white table, not the black.
There would come a time when Gandhi would reflect upon all of this, and realize that the exclusivity of his actions qualified him as a racist. Quite as he turned his back on the rigid class distinctions of India, many of which were quantifiable by color, he would eventually turn his back on his past tendency to write off the capacity of black Africans in a modern political context. By then, of course, it was too late, and his record of written and spoken utterances existed to be cited whenever a detractor found it necessary.
In 1907, however, he was inescapably building a political career, and his seizure upon the Black Act as a vehicle to a higher political expression is difficult to argue. But nonetheless, no activism is relevant without an action, and one way or another Gandhi felt an authentic sense of grievance at the treatment of Indians in South Africa. This can be seen less as a matter of South African racism, however, than as a betrayal by British of her own imperial values, those under which he had grown up and believed in, but which, against a backdrop of a less forgiving world, had been tossed aside in South Africa with less than a second thought.
And the recipient of the advantage in this context was Jan Smuts and his people. To adhere to the fundamental precepts of the British empire would, at least in the eyes of Smuts and his constituency, have opened the doors of South Africa to an Asiatic invasion. Racial exclusivity in the South African context differed in the first decade of the twentieth century to how it would look in the 1950s, 1960s and 1070s, when the entire continent was decolonizing. The white South African way of life was then threatened by a black takeover, not an Indian, and this was a far more threatening, inspiring a response a great deal more violent than the mere demand that a people of another race register their presence with a photograph and fingerprints.
Nonetheless, those were the terms to which Gandhi objected. The taking of fingerprints, he claimed, was reserved in India for the basest criminals, and it offended the dignity of an honest Indian to be required to do this. He could not reasonably argue against immigration controls as a blanket measure, for this was universal, and a normal activity in a rapidly commingling world. He instead objected to the discriminatory factors, or simply that the act demanded of Indians what it did not demand of whites.
Upon this basis he began what came to known as the Satyagraha (Firmness in Truth and Commitment) movement, a program of passive resistance formulated along lines ideologically similar to those of Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau, but configured in a Hindu context, with a religious overtone that made it very difficult for a society of strong religious complexion to ignore.
The movement began in a series of meetings held at a central mosque in Johannesburg where a series of speakers determined that they would not comply with the law. Gandhi on this occasion spoke only to articulate the legal ramifications of non-compliance with the law, and one gets the impression that his later attachment to this of a philosophy of passive resistance was somewhat opportunist. It did, however, comply closely with an ideal of non-violent passive resistance that had been formulating in his mind for some time, and from it emerged the concept of Satyagraha.
Gandhi first led a small delegation to London to petition the Colonial Secretary directly for the law to be disallowed. Its discriminatory elements were clear ground for this. The Colonial Secretary, however, although expressing his sympathy, concluded that there were greater issues at play than simply the grievance of an expatriate population of Indians. By this it could be accurately inferred that the British government placed a higher value of a stable South Africa under white government that to adhere to a proclamation of an earlier monarch in a previous generation.
Gandhi returned to South Africa, where he requested, and was granted, an audience with General Jan Smuts. This meeting took place in April of 1907, and was the first encounter between two men of surprisingly like mind. Gandhi was accompanied by five members of his community, representing all of the relevant sects and religions, but beyond that, they were largely superficial. Smuts, by then an internationally recognised statesman, and a scholar of monumental capacity and achievement, no doubt recognised the genius of the man before him without having to be informed. Gandhi could hardly have matched Smuts in terms of raw intellectual power, but his messianic presence, diluted for the moment by the courtesy, amiability and charm that Gandhi could so ruthlessly deploy, was evident from the onset.
Smuts was fascinated, and remarked often in the aftermath of this, and future meetings that he would have welcomed the opportunity to meet Gandhi under less adversarial circumstances. As was typically the case for both men, however, Smuts listened and Gandhi spoke, and in the end the meeting broke up with an expression of sympathy from the former, but also of regret that the Indians, in common with every resident of the colony, were subject to the law. If there were facets of the law that were not applicable in India, and which offended Indian sensibilities, then Indians were welcome to return to India at their convenience to be subject to the laws of that colony. Gandhi, although he did not overtly threaten it, indicated that the Indian community would not comply with the law, at which point Smuts, no less obliquely, indicated that, should they choose that course of action, they would suffer the consequences of law.
Gandhi then tested the water with a compromise, suggesting that if the requirements of the law were made voluntary, and the element of compulsion removed, that the Indian might see their way clear to complying, simply as a matter of saving face on both sides. It was, he went on, the mere fact of compulsion that cut to the heart of the Indian grievance.
Smuts must have inwardly smiled at the quixotic sound of this, as many others in Gandhi’s future would over similarly eccentric political solutions, and he shook his head. Laws were premised on mandatory compliance, he said, and enforcement was a built in factor of that.
And so the matter was left.
Satyagraha in South Africa
On 1 July 1907, the Black Act was granted royal assent, and came immediately into effect. Within a week an Office of Asiatic Registration opened its doors in Pretoria, and there, officials of the Asiatic Department sat in readiness. Indian, pickets were posted outside the office to intercept any Asians attempting to enter, and to hand out anti-compliance literature to those turned away. Some small amount of molestation was recorded, and perhaps a little over-vigilance on the part of the police, but in general each side went about its business peacefully, and with due courtesy to the other.
Three months later, having registered only a handful of Indians, the registration office moved to Johannesburg, the economic capital of the colony, and the home of the vast majority of the territories Indians. Here too, with very few exceptions, no registration took place. Indians went about their business, with many crossing illegally between Natal and the Transvaal, and in other ways openly courting arrest, but maintaining a passive attitude throughout.
Gandhi was frustrated a little, if the truth be told, by Smuts’ refusal to arrest, perhaps deploying his own version of passive resistance, but perhaps also in response to murmurings of concern that were beginning to emanate from his own camp. In a way the empire was on trial, for not only was India watching, but also a native population poised to begin asserting its own political maturity. Smuts was uncomfortably positioned between the demands of the British imperial government that had allowed him to reclaim his country, and the white voting public of the Transvaal that had given him the power to run it. He was urged to tread with caution, and he did.
Gandhi, on the other hand, acted entirely without caution, maintaining a frenetic pace of correspondence, and moving between the colonies in defiance of the law, actively courting arrest. Then, suddenly, Smuts’ forbearance cracked, and Gandhi was detained in a sweep that netted over 100 Satyagrahis. Within a few days the entire group appeared before a Transvaal magistrate and each was asked to show cause why he should not be deported from the Transvaal for non-compliance with local immigration laws. None did, and each was granted various terms of grace to leave the Transvaal. This again was ignored, and within a week Gandhi and his fellow Satyagrahis were led into Johannesburg’s Fort Prison to serve relatively light terms of simple imprisonment.
The Old Fort was a mixed facility, and at first the Indians were housed in the native wing alongside black prisoners, which prompted a bitter protest, and aware of the delicacy of the situation, as soon as the fact became known, Smuts ordered that a separate wing be created, and there, Indian meal preferences and religious facilities were attended to, and in general an effort made to check any possibility that Gandhi might find cause to protest specific disabilities imposed on his followers.
Gandhi found the opportunity during his first term of imprisonment to consolidate the political gains of the weeks and months passed, during which the seeds of a mass movement had clearly been sown. He read prolifically, consuming such works as Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and writing no less prolifically. He submitted editorials to the Indian Opinion, and communicated with his many well-wishers and supporters both locally and overseas, and at the same time began to formulate the essential canons of his Satyagraha movement.
The rules and doctrines of Satyagraha tended to evolve and mutate for as long as Gandhi lived, but the elemental facts required essentially a pattern on non-compliance under the core belief that passive resistance could not generate or perpetuate violence. Satyagraha was, according to his analogy, the Ganga River, and the contribution of its adherents the tributaries that fed it. However, as Tolstoy and Thoreau, never granted the opportunity to mount a revolution, pictured a revolutionary outcome in a conventional sense, Gandhi saw the conversion of erring establishments to a full appreciation of the ‘Truth’. The facts of that truth, of course, have tended to be fluid, and as he was the primary architect of all aspect of the philosophy, its intent varied with his mood. He did, however, at that moment, conclude that a revolution of Satyagraha could not be respectful of law and constitution, for that simply favoured the oppressor. A true Satyagrahi must possess the translucence of spirt to enable him to observe and recognise the transgressions of the majority, and be fearless to oppose those transgressions.
This, of course, under different circumstances might overlap into dogma and arrogance, which, of course, Gandhi was not infrequently accused of, but when word reached him through the agency of a liberal newspaper editor that Smuts might be willing to negotiate, he embraced the opportunity with both hands.
The two men met again soon afterwards, and although once again the meeting was cordial, and perhaps even friendly, it was also businesslike and stern. The only record of what was discussed, and thereafter agreed, was Gandhi’s own account in his memoir of the episode, Satyagraha in South Africa, written two decades after the fact. In it Gandhi states: ‘The substance of the proposed agreement was that Indians should register voluntarily, and not under any law […] and that if a majority of Indians underwent voluntary registration, government would repeal the Black Act, and take steps with a view to legalize the voluntary registration.’
Bearing in mind the legalistic complexion of Smuts’ mind, it is very unlikely that he explicitly stated this, but perhaps he thought aloud on occasion, enough, no doubt, to allow Gandhi to construct his own inferences. Nonetheless, the two men parted with Gandhi believing that he had secured a commitment from Smuts to accept voluntary registration in lieu of a repeal of the law.
Smuts immediately contacted the Attorney general, ordering the release of all Indians currently imprisoned on public order offenses, and then lending Gandhi three shillings for the train back to Johannesburg. Thus the two men parted on extremely cordial terms, and curiously Gandhi appeared to genuinely believe that he had scored a victory. Moreover, he attempted to present this view of things to the active community.
To voluntarily wash a man’s feet, he explained, is an honourable submission, while to be forced to wash a man’s feet is a humiliation.
While he was congratulated by his most determined supporters, a majority of Indians appeared unconvinced. The following day Gandhi left his offices in Johannesburg and made his way on foot to the Asiatic registration office to be the first to volunteer. He was intercepted en-route by a small party of Punjabis and Pathan who accused him of betraying the movement, and then immediately set upon him with sticks and clubs.
The attack was so sudden, and so violent that Gandhi was felled almost immediately. A companion attempted to defend him with an umbrella, but it was only the timely arrival of a pair of policemen that saved him from either severe injury or death.
Although shaken and bruised, Gandhi managed to submit himself to registration, after which the community followed suit with little persuasion. The effect of the action had been sobering on both sides, and there can be no doubt that a largely trading community breathed a sigh of the relief. The Transvaal government, had it chosen to do so, could have rendered the environment for Indian trade very difficult indeed, and this was no doubt close to the minds of most of the major families.
Smuts, in the meanwhile, bided his time for a few weeks before issuing an announcement that the window of opportunity for voluntary registration would close within three months, after which the demands of the law would again apply. When he heard this Gandhi was stunned, and indeed, humiliated, for he had been warned not to trust the Colonial Secretary. His protests to Smuts were outraged. He accused him of a breach of faith. Smuts, however, reminded him that as a lawyer he must surely understand that a law could only be repealed by an act of parliament, and no debate had been scheduled. Indians would be required to register, and the law would remain in place.
Soon Afterwards, at the Hamidia Masjid mosque in Johannesburg, a fire was stocked under a large three-legged cauldron, within which some 2,000 registration documents were solemnly burned. This was a powerful protest, deeply provocative, and with a flourish of Gandhiesque theatrics.
The following morning Gandhi was summoned once again to Smuts office, where he was met by a delegation of government officials, including the prime minister. Discussions were as usual cordial and friendly, but no less businesslike. The government, Gandhi was informed, was disposed towards some minor easing of conditions. Permitting the return and registration of pre-war Indian residents, for example, exempting children under sixteen and accepting a thumbprint or signature instead of a full set of prints. Upon the substantive issues, however, it remained firm. The law would stand, and both immigrants and residents would register according to the law, and thereafter remain subject to its terms.
Gandhi then suggested that educated Indians be granted access into the colony, accepting by that a moratorium on low caste Indians. But even this was rejected. Barring a few minor adjustments, the law would remain unaltered, and no good could come of embarrassing the government with these histrionics.
The Satyagraha protest, albeit without universal enthusiasm, began again. A reduced cohort of satyagrahi provoked arrest, and soon enough Gandhi was himself arrested at the frontier, brought before a magistrate and sentenced to two months with hard labour. The year was 1909, and South Africa was edging towards union. The four colonies were engaged with one another, attempting to merge, and now growing impatient of Gandhi’s vexatious protests. What was agreed between the territories was that union would proceed without agreement on native suffrage. The liberal Cape argued for conditional but colour blind adult suffrage while the conservative Orange River demanded absolute and perpetual native exclusion.
The British government observed these difficulties, and when it was agreed that the colour issue be deferred to a federal parliament, no objection was made. By steady increments, the imperial government was abandoning the Victorian code of empire, and adopting a more pragmatic series of policies in the light of a pending war. The British appeared no longer to have an appetite for rule. It was widely acknowledged that India was lost, with nothing remaining but to devise a viable program for disengagement. It was clear to all that the face of the globe was changing, and the sun was setting on the imperial age.
In the end agreement for a union of South Africa was reached by the four colonies. A federal style constitution was drafted, and according to the conventions of empire, the prime ministers of all four colonies prepared to travel to London for the formality of its passage through the British parliament. This change of constitutional status in South Africa would have little direct bearing on the Indians, since it was an agreement between the white races of South Africa, and its direct ramifications fell more on black than brown.
At this point too, Gandhi was beginning to put matters into perspective. The Indian struggle in South Africa could not stand alone. It was linked to the wider Indian struggle, and as such it was located in South Africa merely by happenstance. South Africa was the tripwire for a far greater conflagration that would take place in India. The African struggle would succeed the Indian. Blacks were emerging politically, but they were not yet at a level to challenge white superintendentship in quite the way that Indians were. The best course of action was to set limits on what could be achieved in Africa, and thereafter leave the continent on a high note.
Gandhi, however, and not yet achieved much in real terms. His ambition was to influence matters in India, but he was uncertain where he sat in the Indian hierarchy, if indeed he sat on it all. He had a political obligation to follow the white prime ministers to Britain in order to protest the passage of a federal constitution. His arguments for this are irrelevant, for in fact he did not much care at that point. In London he met Naoroji Dadabahi and other Indian activists and intellectuals, and he was welcomed into the inner circle of Indian nationalism as a colleague. He went through the motions of petitioning the colonial office for this or that, but the question of South African unity had by then a larger momentum that could be arrested. In Gandhi’s wake, however, came a delegation of black nationalists led by a white liberal, which had about it a futuristic flavour. This delegation had more believable grounds to protest the passage of an act of union in South Africa, for it definitely would inhibit black political development, but when an alliance was requested between Indian and black, Gandhi refused. The black movement at that point had nothing to offer the Indian.
Gandhi returned to South Africa inspired. His seminal discovery was that he was indeed numbered among the first tier of Indian nationalists. During the fortnight sea passage between Southampton and Cape Town, he wrote his first book, Hind Swaraj, or Home Rule. He was commenting now on Indian affairs, and he approached the situation in South Africa with a much more critical eye. The revolution had been hasty an ill planned. The moneyed elite had no interest in a lengthy struggle and the inner core of satyagrahis had dwindled to a handful. Gandhi needed to organise a system, and to quickly identify a cause.
He experimented with a handful of issues, but failed to excite the same outrage in the community as had the Black Act. In the meanwhile, he organised the movement along more conventional, revolutionary lines. He established a collectivised community on a property owned by a wealthy Jewish supporter, known as Tolstoy Farm, and there he established a core of committed satyagrahi for frontline activity. These were supported by the financial resources of the trading community, thereafter relieved of any obligation to active service. He maintained through the Indian Opinion a steady output of propaganda, and linked the organisation through a prolific correspondence with all and any interested party. His name began to feature in editorials in Britain and India, and indeed, as far afield as the United States.
And then, in March of 1913, a court judgement was published in the Cape which offered Gandhi a cause célèbre that he seized upon immediately. An Indian Muslim, legally resident in the Cape, applied for legal entry into the colony for a woman that he had recently married in India. The application was rejected based on the fact that the marriage had been solemnised in the Muslim faith, under which polygamy was practiced, and could not therefore be recognised as a legitimate marriage under a local Marriage Order in Council. The implication of this was that all non-Christian marriages were effectively invalidated, although the opportunity existed for any unorthodox marriage to be registered by the registrar of marriages.
Gandhi immediately applied to this the interpretation that henceforth, in the eyes of the law, all Indian wives were concubines and all Indian children bastards. This was rather disingenuous, for under native, customary law, polygamy was widely practiced, and the rationalisation of a monogamous marriage, if such was required, could be achieved through the normal channels of secular registration. Polygamy was illegal under constitutional law, and if Indians were governed in the colony according to that law, then they were subject to its terms.
Nonetheless, Gandhi arose, and the movement was at last motivated. The emotional potential in an issue such as this was almost unlimited, and Gandhi wrung from it its very last drop of pathos. Smuts was shocked, and prepared himself for another inevitable wave of passive resistance, but this time with the potential that women would join the movement in significant numbers. If the mass arrest and detention of Indian men had proved a public relations disaster, then the mass imprisonment of woman promised and ever greater backlash.
The situation for Smuts was complicated by the fact that white labour in South Africa had begun to react against an emerging policy on the mines to recruit cheap, semi-skilled black labour in preference to more highly paid white labour. This struck an immediate black/white aspect upon an already complex series of race conflicts in the region. Through the development of independent churches, a vibrant native press and a series of vigilance associations and social clubs, the first shoots of organised black political activity were coalescing, and the threat of white labour action, coupled with a mass Indian protest, held the potential to trigger widespread black industrial action.
In addition to the question of Indian marriages, Gandhi added an additional issue in the form of a £3 tax imposed upon indentured workers who chose to remain in the colony after the expiry of their contracts. This had been implemented either to discourage the permanent settlement of Indians or to persuade them to enter into a new contract. By then Indians in large numbers had been imported for labour on the Natal coal mines, which was an allied industry to the Transvaal goldfields, and indeed to almost every industry in a rapidly industrialising colony.
Besides all of this, the Indian diaspora, increasingly vocal and militant, stood firmly behind the Transvaal Indians, and with the strategic position of the Cape more or less secure, the next British preoccupation in the light of a pending war was to secure India, or more particularly, to ensure the availability of mass reserves of military manpower that only India had the capacity to provide.
Smuts, therefore, was under enormous pressure from all sides, and when news reached him that a group of Indian women, attempting to illegally cross from Natal to the Transvaal, had been arrested and imprisoned, he knew that he had a fight on his hands. One of those women was Kasturba Gandhi, Gandhi’s wife, and notwithstanding that fact that he had engineered her arrest, Gandhi unleashed a storm of protest, which began a movement of women, Hindi and Muslim, to court arrest.
Smuts, of course, issued immediate orders that no arrests were to be made except under the most egregious circumstances. Gandhi then ordered the women to make their way to Newcastle, the centre of the Natal coal mining industry, and there they were to lodge themselves with the Indian indentured workers, and if possible stir up some agitation over the matter of the £3 tax. This they did, and somewhat to Gandhi’s surprise, a sector of Indian labour force in Newcastle downed tools and struck.
This was the moment that triggered the revolution, and Gandhi recognised its significance before Smuts. He was at the time in the Transvaal, but at the moment that he heard of the industrial action in Newcastle, he caught the earliest train and sped east from Johannesburg, just hours ahead of the issue of an arrest warrant that Smuts had ordered to prevent him doing precisely that. Within days Gandhi appeared among the strikers, dressed in the simple calico pyjamas of the Indian labourer, his head shaved and his feet clad in sandals.
His presence galvanised the strike, and it spread rapidly from the mining sector to the sugar estates, until, with a few weeks, both industries were crippled. Gandhi then attempted to remove the Indian miners from the influence of the mine bosses by leading them out of the mine compounds and onto the highways. However, without the means to house or feed them, he simply set off on foot towards Tolstoy Farm in the Transvaal, a distance of some hundreds of miles, marching at the head of a growing army of Satyagraha.
At what point this group of semi-organised strikers evolved into freedom marchers, it is hard to say, but this, the final element of Satyagraha, evolved quickly. Gandhi realised its power immediately, as did Smuts. As Gandhi courted the inevitable publicity that this growing movement arrested, Smuts allowed the march it to continue unmolested, gnawing his fingernails as it daily grew in momentum. Indians in every town along the way provided foot and comforts, and as the movement gathered in strength, its symbolic impact galvanized the Indian diaspora, pitched the British political establishment into a fit of anxiety and challenged Smuts to respond.
In an indication of Smuts’ indecision and complete lack of viable strategy to deal with the outbreak, Gandhi was several times arrested and released, before eventually, as the march crossed into the Transvaal, he was charged and sentenced to the harsh term of a year with hard labour.
That marked the end of the march, but also the beginning of the end of Gandhi’s South African action. The Indian government demanded a commission of inquiry, supported by the British government, which proved to be something of a formality, for by then Smuts and the South African cabinet had reached the conclusion that they had no choice other than to deal with Gandhi. Gandhi was released under Smuts’ orders and a partial capitulation was announced. The £3 tax would be repealed, all Indian marriages would be recognised and the Black Act integrated into a more general immigration act. An Indian Relief Act was published in the last week of May, 1914, which marked the formal end to the matter.
Smuts and Gandhi met briefly for the last time in the midst of the turmoil of white labour unrest on the mines, and as the preamble to war in Europe had begun its momentum. Less than two months later, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, and within months the major European power blocs were at one another’s throats.
Smuts went on to lead South Africa into the war, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General in the British army, and claiming for the British crown the two flagship territories of German West and German East Africa. He contributed significantly to the terms of peace, and as the world adjusted to the collapse of the Ottoman, Russian and German empires, he was instrumental in forming the League of Nations, and later the United Nations.
He would serve two terms as Prime Minister of South Africa, but would be toppled in 1948 by the final triumph of Afrikaner nationalism, which established the basis of statuary racism in South Africa, or the divisive system of race separation known as Apartheid.
Gandhi returned to India, and entered the Indian political movement as one of its principal members. Although he would lead Congress between 1924 and 1925, it would prove an unsuccessful reign, primarily because of his attempts at unity between opposing Hindu and Muslim interests.
He would eventually be estranged from Congress, and although he would deploy his Satyagraha concept with devastating effect in India, typified perhaps best by the Salt March of 1930, his ideals were often found too eccentric, and too impractical to be included in much of the rational policy formation and negotiation that led to eventual independence. He was eventually assassinated in 1948, precisely because of his advocacy of Hindu/Muslim unity, after which India would go on to endure a violent and at time genocidal period of separation before the two states of Pakistan and India emerged as independent nations.
At Gandhi’s passing, Smuts wrote: ‘A prince has passed away and we grieve with India in her irreparable loss.’
Two years later, Jan Smuts himself would pass. He died two years after the declaration of a republic in South Africa, and was thus never directly implicated in the establishment of Apartheid. His legacy as an architect of South African race policy, however, has always been marked by his inability to formulate a policy of inclusion that took into account the aspirations of the black majority. As all great men contain contradictions, Smuts’ contradiction was his forceful advocacy of national and international union, underwritten by his philosophy of Holism, but with a parallel inability to acknowledge any black right of inclusion in that process.
Smuts, however, remains one of the monumental British statesmen of that age, and quite as he suffered great disillusion over the gulf between British ideals and British action, he was able to recognise and acknowledge facets of the British empire that were of great and lasting benefit to the world. Both Dadabahi Naoroji and Mohandas Gandhi did likewise. Each revered the British, and celebrated the British Empire, and their recognition of British failures did no fatal damage to that reverence. The age of empire passed, however, and India was granted independence, and under layers of history, the facts have often been truncated and distorted. However, the Anglo/Indian relationship of the present is founded on mutual reverence and understanding that could not have been possible without centuries of shared history.