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
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
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.