At their invitation, I saw the mine-owners in Durban. I observed that they were somewhat impressed by the strike, but I did not expect anything big to come out of the conference. The humility of a Satyagrahi however knows no bounds. He does not let slip a single opportunity, for settlement, and he does not mind if anyone therefore looks upon him as timid. The man who has faith in him and the strength, which flows from faith, does not care if others look him down upon. He relies solely upon his internal strength. He is therefore courteous to all, and thus cultivates and enlists world opinion in favour of his own cause.
I therefore welcomed the coal-owners’ invitation and when I met
them, I saw that the atmosphere was surcharged with the heat and passion
of the moment. Instead of hearing me explain the situation, their representative
proceeded to cross-examine me. I gave him suitable answers.
‘It is in your hands to bring the strike to an end,’ I said.
‘We are not officials,’ was the reply.
‘You can do a deal though you are not officials,’ I said.
‘You can fight the labourers’ battle from them. If you ask
the Government to take off the three-pound tax, I do not think they will
refuse to repeal it. You can also educate European opinion on the question.
‘But what has the three pound tax to do with the strike? If the
labourers have any grievance against the coal-owners, you approach them
for redress in due form.’
‘I do not see that the labourers have any other weapon except a
strike in their hands. The three-pound tax too has been imposed in the
interest of the mine-owners who went the labourers to work for them but
do not wish that they should work as free men. If therefore the labourers
strike work in order to secure a repeal of the three-pound tax, I do not
see that it involves and impropriety or injustice to the mine-owners.
‘You will not them advice the labourers to return to work?’
‘I am sorry I can’t.’
‘Do you know what will be the consequences?’
‘I know, I have a full sense of my responsibility.’
‘Yes, indeed. You have nothing to lose. But will you compensate
the misguided labourers for the damage you will cause them?’
‘The labourers have gone on strike after due deliberation, and with
a full consciousness of the losses which would accrue to them. I cannot
conceive a greater loss to a man than the loss of his self-respect, and
if is a matter of deep satisfaction to me that the labourers have realized
this fundamental principle.’
And so on. I cannot now remember the whole of the conversation. I have
put down in brief the points, which I do remember. I saw that the mine-owners
understood the weakness of their case, for they had already put themselves
in communication with the Government.
During my journey to Durban and back I saw that the strike and the strike
and the peaceful behavior of the strikers had produced an excellent impression
upon the railway guards and others. I travelled in third class as usual,
but even there the guard and other officers would surround me, make diligent
inquiries and wish me success. They would provide me with various minor
facilities. I scrupulously maintained the spotless purity of my relations
with them. I did not hold out any inducement to the4m for a single amenity.
I was delighted if they were courteous of their own free will, but no
attempt was made to purchase courtesy. These officers were astonished
to find that poor, illiterate and ignorant labourers made such a splendid
display of firmness. Firmness and courage are qualities, which are bound
to leave their impress even upon the adversary.
I returned to Newcastle. Labourers were still pouring in from all directions.
I clearly explained the whole situation to the ‘army’. I said
they were still free to return to work if they wished. I told them about
the threats held out by the coal-owners and pictured before them the risks
of the future. I pointed out that no one could tell them when the struggle
would end. I described to the men the hardships of jail, and yet they
would not flinch. They fearlessly replied, that they would never be down-hearted
so long as I was fighting by their side, and they asked me not to be anxious
about them as they were inured to hardships.
It was now only left for us to march. The labourers were informed one
evening that they were to commence the march early next morning (October
28, 1913), and the rules to be observed on the march were read to them.
It was no joke to control a multitude of five or six thousand men. I had
no idea of the exact number, nor did I know their names or places of residence.
I was merely content with as many of them as chose to remain. I could
not afford to give anything on the road beyond a daily ration of one pound
and a half of bread and an ounce of sugar to each ‘soldier’
.I planned to get something more from the Indian traders on the way. But
if I failed they must rest content with bread and sugar. My experience
of the Boer War and the Zulu ‘rebellion’ stood me in good
stead on the present occasion. None of the ‘invaders’ was
to keep with him any more clothes than necessary. None was to touch anyone’s
property on the way. They were to bear it patiently if any official or
nor-official European met them and abused or even flogged them. They were
to allow themselves to be arrested if the police offered to arrest them.
The march must continue even if I was arrested. All these points were
explained to the men and I also announced the names of those who should
successively lead the ‘army’ in my place.
The men understood the instructions issued to them, and our caravan safely
reached Charlestown where the traders rendered us great help. They gave
us the use of their houses, and permitted us to make our cooking arrangements
on the ground of the mosque. The ration supplied on the march would be
exhausted when camp was reached and therefore we were in need of cooking
pots, which were cheerfully supplied by the traders. We had with us a
plentiful store of rice, etc. to which also the traders contributed their
Charlestown was a small village with a population of hardly 1,000 souls,
and could never accommodate the several thousands of pilgrims. Only women
and children were lodged in houses. All the rest camped in the open.
There are many sweet and some bitter reminiscences of our stay in Charlestown.
The pleasant memories are connected with the sanitary department and the
District Health Officer, Dr. Briscoe, who was rather alarmed at the phenomenal
increase in the population, but who, instead of adopting any stringent
measures, met me, made some suggestions and offered to help me. Europeans
are careful and we are careless about three things, the purity of the
water supply, and keeping roads and sanitary conveniences clean. Dr. Briscoe
asked me to see that no water was thrown on the roads and to prevent our
men from dirtying the place or throwing away refuse promiscuously. He
further suggested that the men should be confined to the area he assigned
to us and that I should hold myself responsible for keeping that area
clean. I thankfully accepted his suggestions and was then at perfect ease.
It was very difficult to have our people observed these rules. But the
pilgrims and co-workers lightened my task. It has been my constant experience
that much can be done if the servant actually serves and does not dictate
to the people. If the servant puts in body-labour himself, others will
follow in his wake. And such was my experience on the present occasion.
My co-workers and I never hesitated to do sweeping, scavenging and similar
work, with the result that others also took it up enthusiastically. In
the absence of such sensible procedure, it is no good issuing orders to
others. All would assume leadership and dictate to others and there would
be nothing done in the end. But where the leader himself becomes a servant,
there are no rival claimants for leadership.
Of co-workers Kallenbach was already in Charlsetown. And so was Miss Schlesin,
whose industry, accuracy and honesty were beyond all praise. Of the Indians
I now remember the late Shri P. K. Naidoo and Shri Albert Christopher.
There were others besides who worked hard and rendered valuable help.
The ration consisted of rice and dal. We had a large stock vegetable,
which could not be cooked, separately for want of time and cooking pots
and was therefore mixed with dal. The kitchen was active all the twenty-four
hours, as hungry men would arrive at any time of the day or night. No
labourers were to stop at Newcastle. All knew what way to go and therefore
they would make for Charlestown directly they left the mines.
As I think of the patience and endurance of the men, I am overpowered
by a sense of the greatness of God. I was the leader among the cooks.
Sometimes there was too much water in the dal, at other times it was insufficiently
cooked. The vegetable and even the rice was sometimes ill-cooked. I have
not seen many people in the world who would cheerfully gulp down such
food. On the other hand, I have observed in the South African jails that
even those who pass as well-educated men lose their temper if they are
given food somewhat less than sufficient or oil-cooked, or even if they
get it a little late.
Serving the food was if possible even more difficult than cooking it,
and was in my sole charge. I shouldered the responsibility for the food
being well or ill-cooked. Even so, it rested with me to satisfy all present
by cutting down the individual ration when there was too little food and
more than the expected number of diners. I can never forget the angry
look which the sisters gave me for a moment when I gave them too little
food and which was at once transformed into a smile as they understood
the thanklessness of my self-chosen tasks. ‘I am helpless,’
I would say. ‘The quantity cooked is small, and as I have to feed
many, I must divide it equally between them.’ Upon this, they would
grasp the situation and go away smiling, saying that they were content.
Thus far, I have dealt with the pleasant memories. As for the unpleasant,
I found that when the men had a little leisure, they occupied it with
internal squabbles. What was worse, there were cases of adultery. There
was terrible overcrowding and men and women had to be kept together. Animal
passion knows no shame. As soon as the cases occurred, I arrived on the
scene. The guilty parties were abashed and they were segregated. But who
can say how many such cases occurred which never came to my knowledge?
It is no use dwelling any further upon this topic, which I have brought
in the order to show that everything was not in perfect order that even
when someone did go wrong there was no exhibition of insolence. On many
similar occasions, I have seen how well-behaved people become in a good
atmosphere even when they are originally semi-barbarous and not over-observant
of the dictates of morality, and it is more essential and profitable to
realize this truth.