THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. II - SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA > The Boer War
09. The Boer War
The reader has sbeen in the previous chapters what was the condition of the Indians in South Africa at the outbreak of the Boer War and what were the steps taken so far in order to ameliorate it.
In 1899, Dr. Jameson carried out his raid on Johannesburg in pursuance of the conspiracy, which he had entered into with the owners of the gold mines. The conspirators had expected that the Boer Government would come to know of the raid only after they captured Johannesburg. Dr. Jameson and his associates badly blundered in this calculation of theirs. They fell into another error when they imagined that even in a case of the plot being discovered, untrained Boer farmers could do nothing against sharpshooters trained in Rhodesia. The raiders had likewise expected that a large majority of the population of Johannesburg would receive them with open arms. Here too the good Doctor was reckoning without his host. President Kruger had full information beforehand. With great deliberation, skill and secrecy he made preparations to meet Dr. Jameson and simultaneously arranged to arrest his fellow conspirators. Dr. Jameson, therefore, was greeted by the Boers with gunfire before he had reached anywhere near Johannesburg. The Doctor’s party was in no position to try conclusions with the army which faced them. Arrangements were similarly complete for preventing a rising in Johannesburg. None dared raise their heads and the millionaires of Johannesburg were dumbfounded in consequence of President Kruger’s action. The result of his excellent preparations was that the raid was disposed of with a minimum of loss in men as well as money.
Dr. Jameson and his friends, the owners of gold mines, were arrested and placed on their trial without delay. Some were sentenced to be hanged. Most of these convicts were millionaires; but the Imperial Government could do nothing for them, as they were guilty of a raid in broad daylight. President Kruger became an important man all at once. Mr. Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, sent a humble cablegram to him, and appealed to his sense of mercy on behalf of the convicted magnates. President Kruger was perfect master of his own game. He had no apprehension of his independence being challenged by any powser in South Africa. The conspiracy of Dr. Jameson and his friends was a well-planned affair in their own eyes, but to President Kruger it seemed to be an act of insensate folly. He therefore complied with Mr. Chamberlain’s humble request and not only did not enforce the sentence of death against any of the convicts but granted them all full pardon and set them free.
But things could not go on like this for any length of time. President Kruger knew that the Jameson raid was only a minor symptom o f a serious malady. It was impossible that the millionaires of Johannesburg should not endeavour to wipe out their disgrace by all means in their power. Again, nothing had been done to carry out the reforms for which the Jameson raid purported to have been organized. The millionaires, therefore, were not likely to hold their peace. Lord Milner, the British High Commissioner in South Africa, had full sympathy with their demands. Mr. Chamberlain, too, while expressing his appreciation of President Kruger’s magnanimity towards the Jameson raiders, had drawn his attention to the necessity for reforms. Everyone believed that an appeal to the sword was inevitable. The demands of the Uitlanders were calculated in the end to extinguish Boer domination in the Transvaal. Both the parties were aware that the ultimate result would be war, and both were therefore preparing for it. The war of words which ensued was worthy of note. When President Kruger ordered out arms and ammunition, the British Agent warned him that the British would be compelled to bring troops arrived into South Africa, in self defence. When British troops arrived in South Africa, President Kruger taunted the British and pushed forwards his preparations for war. Thus each side was protesting against the other’s activities and strengthening its own preparations.
When President Kruger had completed his preparations, he saw that to delay any longer was to play into the hands of his enemies. The British had an inexhaustible supply of men and money. They could, therefore, afford to bide their time, gradually preparing for war and in the meantime ask President Kruger to redress the grievances of Uitlanders, and thus show to the world that they could not help waging war as he refused to grant redress. Then they would enter the war with such grand preparations that the Boers could not stand the shock and would have to accept British demands in a spirit of humiliation. Every Boer man between eighteen and sixty years in age was a skilled fighter. Boer women, too, were capable of fighting if they chose. National independence had with the Boers all the force of a religious principle. Such a brave people would not suffer humiliation even at the hands of a world empire.
President Kruger had already arrived at an understanding with the Orange Free State. Both the Boer republics followed an identical policy. President Kruger had not the slightest intention of accepting the British demands whether in full or even to the extent of satisfying the Uitlanders. Both the republics, therefore, thought that war being inevitable, for them to give any more timeitem to the British was only to give them a chance of advancing their preparations. President Kruger thereupon delivered an ultimatum to Lord Milner, and at the same time mobilized troops on the frontiers of the Transvaal as well as the Free State. The result of such action was a foregone conclusion. A world empire like the British would not take a threat lying down. The time limit laid down in the ultimatum expired and Boers, advancing with lightning speed, laid siege to ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking. This great war thus broke out in 1899. The reader will remember that one of the causes of the war alleged by the British was the treatment accorded to the Indians by the Boers
The great question, as to what the Indians in South Africa should do on this occasion, now presented itself for solutions. Among the Boers, the entire male population joined the war. Lawyers gave up their practice, farmers their farmsfirms, traders their trade and servants left their service. The British in South Africa did not join the war in anything like the same proportion as the Boers. However, a large number of civilians in cape Colony, Natal and Rhodesia enrolled themselves as volunteers. Many distinguished English traders and lawyers followed suit., I now found very few lawyers in the court where I was practicing as an advocate. Most of the senior members of the bar were engaged in war work. One of the charges laid against the Indians was, that they went to South Africa only for money-grubbing and were merely a dead weight upon the British. Like worms which settle inside wood and eat it up hollow, the Indians were in South Africa only to fatten themselves upon them. The Indians would not render them the slightest aid if the country was invaded or if their homes were raided. The British in such a case would have not only to defend themselves against the enemy but at the same time to protect the Indians. We Indians carefully considered this charge. All of us felt that this was a golden opportunity for us to prove that it was baseless. But on the other hand the following considerations were also urged by some:
“The British oppress us equally with the Boers. If we are subjected to hardships in the Transvaal, we are not very much better off in Natal or the Cape Colony. The difference, if any, is only one of the degree. Again we are more or less a community of slaves; knowing as we do that a small nation like the Boers is fighting for its very existence, why should we be instrumental in their destruction? Finally, from a practical point of view, no one will take it upon himself to predict a defeat for the Boers. And if they win, they will never fail to wreak vengeance upon us.”
There was a powerful party among us, which strongly advanced the above argument. I could understand it and allowed it due weight. However, it did not command itself to me and, I refuted it to myself and to the community as follows:
“Our existence in south Africa is only in our capacity as British subjects. In every memorial we have presented, we have asserted our rights as such. We have been proud of our British citizenship, or have given our rulers and the world to believe that we are so proud. Our rulers profess to safeguard our rights because we are British subjects, and what little rights we still retain, we retain because we are British subjects. It would be unbecoming to our dignity as a nation to look on with folded hands at a time when ruin stared the British in the face as well as ourselves, simply because they ill-treat us here. And such criminal inaction could only aggravate our difficulties. If we missed this opportunity, which had come to us unsought, of proving the falsity of a charge which we believed to be false, we should stand self-condemned, and it would be no matter for surprise if then the English treated us worse than before and sneered at us more than ever. The fault in such a case would lie entirely at our door. To say, that the charges preferred against ourselves had no foundation in fact and were absolutely untenable, would only be to deceive ourselves. It is true that we are helots in the Empire, but so far we have tried to better our condition, continuing the while to remain in the Empire. That has been the policy o f all our leaders in India, and ours too. And if we desire to win our freedom and achieve our welfare as members of the British Empire, here is a golden opportunity for us to do so by helping the British inus the war by all means at our disposal. It must largely be conceded that justice== is on the side of the Boers. But every single subject of a state must not hope to enforce his private opinion in all cases. The authorities may not always be right, but so long as the subjects own allegiance to a state, it is their clear duty generally to accommodate themselves, and to accord their support, to acts of the state.
“Again, if any class among the subjects considers that the action of a government is immoral from a religious standpoint, before they help or hinder it, they must endeavour fully and even at the risk of their lives to dissuade the government from pursuing such a course. We have does nothing of the kind. Such a moral crisis is not present before us, and no one says that we wish to hold aloof from this war for any such universal and comprehensive reason. Our ordinary duty as subjects, therefore, is not to enter into the merits of the war, but when war has actually broken out, to render such assistance as we possibly can. Finally, to suggest that in case the Boers won, and a Boer victory was well within, the range of possibility, our last state well within, the range of possibility, our last state would be worse than our first, and the Boers would exact frightful revenge, would be doing injustice to the chivalrous Boers as well as to ourselves. To waste the slightest thought upon such a contingency would only be a sign of our effeminacy and a reflection on our loyalty. wWould an Englishman think for a moment what would happen to himself if the English lost the war? A man about to join a war cannot advance such an argument without forfeiting his manhood.”
I advanced these arguments in 1899, and even today I do not see any reason for modifying them. That is to say, if I had today the faith in the British Empire which I can then entertained, and if I now cherished the hope, which I did at that time, of achieving our freedom hope, which I did at that time, of achieving go our freedom under its aegis, I would advance the same arguments, word for word, in South Africa, and in similar circumstances, even in India. I heard many attempted refutations of these arguments in South Africa, and subsequently in England. But I discovered no ground for changing my views. I know that my present opinions have no bearing on the subject of this volume, but there are two valid reasons why I have adverted to the matter here. I have, in the first place, no right to except that the reader who takes up this book in a hurry will give it a patient and attentive perusal, and such a reader will find it difficult to reconcile the above views with my present activities. Secondly, the underlying, principle in the above arguments in Satyagraha, insistence on truth. That one should appear to be as one really is and should act accordingly, is not the last, but the first step to practical religion. The building up of a religious life is impossible without such a foundation.
To return to our narrative.
My arguments commended themselves to many. The readers must not suppose that I was the only one to advance them. Moreover, even before these views were set forth, there were many Indians who held that we should do our bit in the war. But now the practical question arose: Who would lend an ear to the weak voice of the Indians when there was raging this terrible whirlwind of war? What weight would this offer of help carry? None of us had ever wielded a weapon of war. Even the work performed by non-combatants in war required training. None of us knew even how to march required training. None of us knew even how to march in step. It was no easy task to perform long marches with one’s baggage on one’s own shoulders. Again, the whites would treat us all as ‘coolies’, insult us and look down upon us. How was all this to be borne? And if we volunteered for service, how could we induce the Government to accept our offer? Finally, we came to the conclusion, that we should make earnest endeavours to get our offer accepted, that the experience of our work would teach us to do more work, that if we had the will, God would grant us the ability to serve, that we need not worry how we could do the work entrusted but should train ourselves for it as best we might, and that having once decided to serve, we could cease to think of discriminating between dignified work and other and serve, putting up even with insults if it came to that.
We encountered formidable difficulties in getting our offer favourably entertained. The story is interesting but this is not the place to detail it. Suffice it to say that the leaders among us received training in nursing the wounded and the sick, obtained medical certificates of physical fitness and sent a formal letter to the Government. This letter and the eagerness we evinced to serve in whatever capacity the gGovernment would accept us created a very good impression. The Government thanked us in reply but rejected our offer for the time. Meanwhile the Boers continued to advance like a great flood, and it was feared that they might reach Durban. There were heaps of wounded and dead everywhere. We were continually renewing our offer, and sanction was given at last for the formation of an Indian ambulance Corps. We had expressed our willingness even to do sweepers’ or scavengers’ work in hospitals. No, wonder, therefore, that the idea of an Ambulance Corps was perfectly welcome to us. Our offer had been made, in the first instance, in respect of free and ex indentured Indians, but we had suggested the desirability of permitting the indentured Indians too to join the rest. As Government was then in need of as many men as they could get, they approached the employers of indentured labourers to allow their men to volunteer. Thus a large and splendid corps composed of nearly eleven hundred Indians left Durban for the front. At the time of our departure, we received the congratulations and the blessings of Mr. Escombe, whose name is already familiar to the reader and who was the head to the Europeans volunteers in Natal.
All this was a complete revelation to the English newspapers. No one expected that the Indians would take any part in the war. An Englishman wrote in a leading newspaper a poem eulogistic of the Indians with the following line as a refrain: ‘We are sons of the Empire after all.’
There were between three and four hundred ex-indentured Indians in the Crops, Who had been recruited by the efforts of the free Indians. in the crops, who had been recruited by the efforts of the free Indians. Of these, thirty-seven were looked upon as leaders, as the offer to Government had been sent under their signatures and as they had brought the others together, among the leaders there were barristers and accountants, while the rest were either artisans such as masons or carpenters or ordinary laborers’. Hindus and Musalmans, Madras is and upcountry men, all classes and creeds were well represented. There was hardly any trader in the crops, but the traders subscribed considerable sums of money. The crops had needs which were not adequately met by the military ration, and which, if satisfied, might provide them with some amenities in their hard camp life. The traders undertook to supply such comforts, and likewise --rendered good assistance in entertaining the wounded in our charge with sweets, cigarette and such other things. Whenever we camped near towns, the local traders did their best to look after us.
The indentured laborers, who joined this Corps, were under the charge of English overseers from their respective factories. But the work for them was the same as for ourselves and as we were all to live together, they were highly pleased at the prospect, and the management of the entire Crops naturally passed in to our hands. Thus the whole Crops were described as the Indian Crops, and the community received the credit for its work. As a matter of fact the Indians were not entitled to the credit for the inclusion of indentured laborers in the corps, which should rightly have gone to the planters. But there is no doubt that the free Indians, That is to say, the Indian community, deserved credit for the excellent management of the Corps when once it was formed and this was acknowledged by general Builler in his deispatches.
Doctor Booth, under whom we had placed ourselves for training in first aid, joined the Corps in the capacity of medical Superintendent. He was a pious clergyman, and though his work chiefly lay among the Indian Christians, he freely mixed with Indians of all denominations. Most of the thirty- seven leaders mentioned above had received their training at his hands.
There was a European Ambulance Crops as well as the Indian, and both worked side by side in the same place.
Our offer to Government was absolutely unconditional, but the letter by which they accepted it granted us immunity from service within the firing line. This meaint that the permanent Ambulance Crops attached to the army was to bear far away the soldiers as they got wounded and leave them behind the army outside the line of fire. The temporary ambulance Crops of Europeans as well as Indians were formed in view of the great effort, which General Buller was to put forth for the relief of General White in Ladysmith and in which, it was apprehended, there might be more wounded than could be dealt with by the permanent Corps. In the country where the armies were operating there were no made roads between the battlefield and the base-hospitable and it was therefore impossible to carry the wounded by means of ordinary transport. The base-hospital was always situated near a railway station and at a distance of between seven and twenty-five miles from the battlefield.
We soon got work and that too harder than we had expected. To carry the wounded seven or eight miles was part of our ordinary routine. But sometimes we had to carry badly wounded soldiers and officers over a distance of twenty-five miles. The march would commence at eight in the morning. Medicines must be administered on the way, and we were required to reach the base- hospital at five. This was very hard work indeed. It was only once that we had to carry the wounded twenty-five miles in a single day. Again the British army met with reverse after reverse in the beginning of the war and large numbers were wounded. The officers therefore were compelled to give up their idea of not taking us within the firing line. But it must be stated that when such as emergency arose we were told that as the terms of our contract included immunity from such service, General Builler had no intention of forcing us to work under fire if we were not prepared to accept such risk, but if we undertook it voluntarily, it would be greatly appreciated. We were only too willing to enter the danger zone and had never liked a remain outside. We therefore welcomed this opportunity. But none of us received a bullet wound or any other injury.
The Corps had many pleasant experiences into which I may not enter here. It must however be placed on record, that although our Corps, including the indentured laborers who might be supposed to be rather uncouth, often came in contact with the members of the temporary Ambulance Corps composed of Europeans as well as with the Europeans soldiers, none of us felt that Europeans treated us with contempt or even with discourtesy. The temporary Corps was composed of South African Europeans, who had taken part in the anti-Indian agitation before the war. But the knowledge that the Indians, forgetful of their wrongs, were out to help them in the hour of their need, had melted their hearts for the timethem being. I have stated already that our work was mentioned by the General Buller in his deispatches. War medals too were conferred on the thirty-seven leaders.
When General Buller’s operations in connection with the relief of Ladysmith were over, that is in about two months time, our Corps was disbanded as well as the Europeans. The war continued long after this. We were always prepared to rejoin, and it was stated in the order disbanding our Corps that Government would certainly utilize our services if operations on a long scale were again necessary.
This contribution of the Indians in South Africa to the war was comparatively insignificant. They suffered hardly any loss of life. Yet even a sincere desire to be of help is bound to impress the other party, and is doubly appreciated when it is quite unexpected. Such fine feeling for the Indians lasted during the continuance of the war.
Before closing this chapter, I must place a note-worthy incident on record. Among those who were in Ladysmith when it was invested by the Boers, there were besides Englishmen a few stray Indian settlers. Some of these were traders, while the rest were indentured laborers, working on the railways or as servants to English gentlemen, one o f whom was Parbhusingh. The office in command at Ladysmith assigned various duties to every resident of the place. The most dangerous and most responsible work was assigned to Parbhusingh who was a ‘coolie’. On a hill near Ladysmith the Boers had stationed a pom-pom, whose operations destroyed many buildings and even occasioned some loss of life. An interval of a minute or two must pass before a shell which had been fired from the gun reached a distant objective. If the besieged got even such a short notice, they could take cover before the shell dropped in the town and thus save themselves. Parbhusingh was to sit pearched up in a tree, all the time that the gun was working, with his eyes fixed on the hill and to ring a bell the moment he observed a flash, on hearing on the bell, the residents of Ladysmith instantly took cover and saved themselves from the deadly cannon ball whose approach was thus announced.
The officer in charge of Ladysmith, in eulogizing the invaluable services rendered by Parbhusingh, stated that he worked so zealously that not once had he failed to ring the bell. It need hardly be said that his own life was constantly in peril. The story of his bravery came to be known in Natal and at last reached the ears of Lord Curzon, then his bravery came to known in Natal and at last reached the ears of Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, who sent a Kashmir robe for presentation to Parbhusingh and wrote to the Natal Government, asking them to carry out the presentation ceremony with all possible publicity. This duty was assigned to the Mayor of Durban who held a public meeting in the Town Hall for the purpose. This incident has a twofold lesson for us. First, we should not despise any man, however humble or insignificant-looking he may be. Secondly, no matter how timid a man is, he is capable of the loftiest heroism when he is put to the test.