THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. II - SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA > A Stream of Labourers
41. A Stream of Labourers
The women’s imprisonment worked like a charm upon the labourers on the mines near Newcastle who downed their tools and entered the city in succeeding batches. As soon as I received the news, I left Phoenix for Newcastle.
These labourers have no houses of their own. The mine-owners erect houses for them, set up lights upon their roads, and supply them with water, with the result that the labourers are reduced to a state of utter dependence. And as Tulsidas put it, a dependent cannot hope for happiness even in a dream.
The strikers brought quite a host of complaints to me. Some said the mine-owners had stopped their lights or their water, while others stated that they had thrown away strikers’ household chattels from their quarters. Saiyad Ibrahim, a Pathan, showed his back to me and said, “Look here, how severely they have thrashed me. I have let the rascals go for your sake, as such are your orders. I am a Pathan, and Pathans never take but give a beating.”
“Well done, brother,” I replied. “I look upon such conduct alone as pure bravery. We will win through people of your type.”
I thus congratulated him, but thought to myself that the strike could not continue if many received the same treatment as the Pathan did. Leaving the question of flogging aside, there was not much room for complaint if the collieries cut off the lights, the water supply and other amenities enjoyed by the strikers. But whether or not complaint was justified, the strikers could not hold on the circumstances, and I must find a way out of the difficulty, or else it was very much to be preferred that they should own themselves to be defeated and return to work after a period of weary waiting. But defeatist counsel was not in my line. I therefore suggested that the only possible course was for the labourers to leave their masters’ quarters, to fare in fact like pilgrims.
The labouers were not to be counted by tens but by hundreds. And their number might easily swell into thousands. How was I to house and feed this ever-growing multitude? I would not appeal to India for monetary help. The river of gold, which later on flowed from the motherland had not yet started on its course. Indian traders were mortally afraid and not at all ready to help me publicly, as they had trading relations with the coal-owners and other Europeans. Whether I went to Newcastle, I used to stop with them. But this time, as I would place them in an awkward position, I resolved to put up at another place.
As I have already stated, the Transvaal sisters were most of them Tamilians. They had taken up their quarters in Newcastle with Mr. D. Lazarus, a middle class Christians Tamilian, who owned a small plot of land and a house consisting of two or three rooms. I also decided to put up with this family, who received me with open arms. The poor have no fears. My host belonged to a family of indentured laboures, and hence he or his relations would be liable to pay the three-pound tax. No wonder he and his people would be familiar with the woes of indentured labourers and would therefore deeply sympathize with them. It has never been easy for friends to harbor me under their roof, but to receive me now was tantamount to inviting financial ruin upon one’s head or perhaps even to facing imprisonment. Very few well to do traders would like to place themselves in a like predicament. I realized their limitations as well as my own, and therefore remained at a respectable distance from them. Poor Lazarus would sacrifice some wages if it came to that. He would be willingly cast into prison, but how could he tolerate the wrongs heaped upon indentured labourers still poorer than himself? Lazarus saw that the Transvaal sisters who had been his guests went to the indentured labouers’ succor and suffered imprisonment in the act of doing so. He realized that he owned a debt of duty to the labouers too and therefore gave me shelter at his place. He not only sheltered me but he devoted his house in to a caravanserai. All sorts and conditions of men would come and go and the premises at all times would present the appearance of an ocean of heads. The kitchen fire would know no rest day and night. Mrs. Lazarus would drudge like a slave all day long, and yet her face as well as her husband’s would always be lit up with a smile as with perpetual sunshine.
But Lazarus could not feed hundreds of labourers. I suggested to the labourers, that they should take it that their strike was to last for all time and leave the quarters provided by their masters. They must sell such of their belongings, but if with a view to wreak further revenge upon them they threw them away on the streets, the labourers must take that risk as well. When they came to me, they should bring nothing with them except their wearing apparel and blankets. I promised to live and have my meals with them so long as the strike lasted and so long as they were outside jail. They could sustain their strike and win a victory if and only if they came out on these conditions. Those who would not summon courage enough to take this line of action should return to work. None should despise or harass those who thus resumed their work. None of the labourers demurred to my conditions. From the very day that I made this announcement, there was a continuous stream of pilgrims who ‘retired from the household life to the houseless one’ along with their wives and children with boundless of clothes upon their heads.
I had no means of housing them; the sky was the only roof over their heads. Luckily for us the weather was favorable, there being neither rain nor cold. I was confident that the trader class would not fail to feed us. The traders on Newcastle supplied cooking pots and bags of rice and dal. Other places also showered rice, dal vegetables, condiments and other things upon us. The contribution exceeded my expectations. Not all were ready to go to jail, but all felt for the cause, and all were willing to bring their quota to the movement to the best of their ability. Those who could not give anything served as volunteer workers. Well-known and intelligent volunteers were required to look after these obscure and uneducated men, and they were forthcoming. They rendered priceless help, and many of them were arrested. Thus everyone did what he could, and smoothed our path.
There was a huge concourse of men, which was continuously received accessions. It was a dangerous, if not an impossible, task to keep them in one place and look after them while they had no employment. They were generally ignorant of the laws of sanitation. Some of them had been to jail for criminal offences such as murder, theft or adultery. But I did not consider myself fit to sit in judgment over the morality of the strikers. It would have been silly for me to attempt at distinguishing between the goats and the sheep. My business was only to conduct the strike, which could not be mixed up with any other reforming activity. I was indeed bound to see that the rules of morality were observed in the camp, but it was not for me to inquire into the antecedents of each striker. There were bound to be crimes if such a heterogeneous multitude was pinned down to one place without any work to do. The wonder was that the few days that we stopped here like that passed without any incident. All were quite as if they had thoroughly grasped the gravity of the situation.
I thought out a solution of my problem. I must take this ‘army’ to the Transvaal and see them safety deposited in jail like the Phoenix party. The army should be divided into small batches, each of which should cross the border separately. But I dropped this last idea as soon as it was formed as it would have taken too long a time in its execution, and the successive imprisonment of small batches would not produce the normal effect of a mass movement.
The strength of the ‘army was about five thousand. I had not the money to pay the railway fare for such a large number of persons, and therefore they could not all be taken by rail. And if they were taken by rail, I would be without the means of putting their morale to the test. The Transvaal border is 36 miles from Newcastle. The border villages of Natal and the Transvaal are Charlestown and Volksrust respectively. I finally decided to march on foot. I consulted the labourers who had their wives and children with then and some of whom therefore hesitated to agree to my proposal. I had no alternative except to harden my heart, and declared that these who wished were free to return to the mines. But none of them would avail themselves of this liberty. We decided that those who were disable-bodied persons announced their readiness to go to Charlestown on foot. The march was to be accomplished in two days. In the end everyone was glad that the move was made. The labourers realized that it would be some relief to poor Lazarus and his family. The Europeans in Newcastle anticipated an outbreak of plague, and were anxious to take all manner of steps in order to prevent it. By making a move we restored to them their peace of mind and also saved ourselves from the irksome measures to which they would have subjected us.
While preparations for the march were on foot, I received an invitation to meet the coal-owners and I went to Durban. This conference and the events subsequent thereto will be considered in the next chapter.