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
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
“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.