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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > THE STORY OF MY LIFE > PART VI : BACK IN SOUTH AFRICA > Stormy arrival in South Africa

 

25. Stormy arrival in South Africa

The two ships cast anchor in the port of Durban on or about the 18th of December. No passengers are allowed to land at any of the South African ports before being subjected to a thorough medical examination. If the ship has any passenger suffering from contagious disease, she has to undergo a period of quarantine. As there had been plague in Bombay when we set sail, we feared that we might have to go through a brief quarantine. The doctor came and examined us. He ordered a five days' quarantine because, in his opinion, plague germs took twenty-three days at the most to develop. Our ship was therefore ordered to be put in quarantine until the twentythird day of our sailing from Bombay. But this quarantine order had more than health reasons behind it.

The white residents of Durban had been agitating for our repatriation, and the agitation was one of the reasons for the order. Dada Abdulla and Co. kept us regularly informed about the daily happenings in the town. The whites were holding monster meetings every day. On one side there was a handful of poor Indians and a few of their English friends, and on the other were ranged the white men, strong in arms, in numbers, in education and in wealth. They had also the backing of the State, for the Natal Government openly helped them.

We arranged all sorts of games on the ships for the entertainment of the passengers. I took part in the merriment, but my heart was in the combat that was going on in Durban. For I was the real target. There were two charges against me :

1. that whilst in India I had indulged in unmerited condemnation of the Natal whites;
2. that with a view to swamping Natal with Indians I had specially brought the two shiploads of passengers to settle there.

But I was absolutely innocent. I had induced no one to go to Natal. I did not know the passengers when they embarked. And with the exception of a couple of relatives, I did not know the name and address of even one of the hundreds of passengers on board. Neither had I said, whilst in India, a word about the whites in Natal that I had not already said in Natal itself. And I had ample evidence in support of all that I had said.

Thus the days dragged on their weary length.

At the end of twenty-three days the ships were permitted to enter the harbour, and orders permitting the passengers to land were passed.

So the ships were brought into the dock and the passengers began to go ashore. But Mr. Escombe, a member of the Cabinet, had sent word to the captain that, as the whites were highly enraged against me and my life was in danger, my family and I should be advised to land at dusk, when the Port Superintendent, Mr. Tatum, would escort us home. The captain communicated the message to me, and I agreed to act accordingly. But scarcely half an hour after this, Mr. Laughton, a friend and advocate of the Indian community in Durban, came to the captain. He said : “I would like to take Mr. Gandhi with me, should he have no objection. As the legal adviser of the Agent Company I tell you that you are not bound to carry out the message you have received from Mr. Escombe.” After this he came to me and said somewhat to this effect : “If you are not afraid, I suggest that Mrs. Gandhi and the children should drive to Mr. Rustomji’s house, whilst you and I follow them on foot. I do not at all like the idea of your entering the city like a thief in the night. I do not think there is any fear of anyone hurting you. Everything is quiet now. The whites have all dispersed.

But in any case I am convinced that you ought not to enter the city stealthily.” I readily agreed. My wife and children drove safely to Mr. Rustomji’s place. With the captain's permission I went ashore with Mr. Laughton. Mr. Rustomji’s house was about two miles from the dock.

As soon as we landed, some youngsters recognized me and shouted “Gandhi, Gandhi.” About half a dozen men rushed to the spot and joined in the shouting. Mr. Laughton feared that the crowd might swell and hailed a rickshaw. I had never liked the idea of being in a rickshaw. This was to be my first experience. But the youngsters would not let me get into it. They frightened the rickshaw boy out of his life, and he took to his heels. As we went ahead the crowd continued to swell, until it became impossible to proceed further. They first caught hold of Mr. Laughton and separated us. Then they pelted me with stones, brickbats and rotten eggs. Someone snatched away my turban, whilst others began to beat and kick me. I fainted and caught hold of the front railings of a house and stood there to get my breath. But it was impossible.

They came upon me boxing and beating. The wife of the Police Superintendent, who knew me, happened to be passing by. The brave lady came up, opened her umbrella though there was no sun then, and stood between the crowd and me. This checked the fury of the mob, as it was difficult for them to deliver blows on me without harming
Mrs. Alexander.

Meanwhile an Indian youth who witnessed the incident had run to the police station. The Police Superintendent, Mr. Alexander, sent a few men to ring me round and take me safely to my destination.

They arrived in time. The police station lay on our way. As we reached there, the Superintendent asked me to take refuge in the station, but I gratefully declined the offer. “They are sure to quiet down when they realize their mistake,” I said. “I have trust in their sense of fairness.” Escorted by the police, I arrived without further harm at Mr. Rustomji's place. I had bruises all over, but no wounds except in one place. Dr. Dadibarjor, the ship's doctor, who was on the spot, rendered the best possible help.

There was quiet inside, but outside the whites surrounded the house. Night was coming on, and the yelling crowd was shouting, “We must have Gandhi.” The quick-sighted Police Superintendent was already there trying to keep the crowd under control, not by threats, but by humouring them. But he was not entirely free from anxiety. He sent me a message to this effect : “If you would save your friend's house and property and also your family, you should escape from the house in disguise, as I suggest.”

As suggested by the Sperintendent, I put on an Indian constable's uniform and wore on my head a Madrasi scarf, wrapped round a plate to serve as a helmet. Two detectives accompanied me, one of them disguised as an Indian merchant and with his face painted to resemble that of an Indian. I forget the disguise of the other. We reached a neighbouring shop by a by-lane and, making our way through the gunny bags piled in the godown, escaped by the gate of the shop and made our way through the crowd to a carriage that had been kept for me at the end of the street. In this we drove off to the same police station where Mr. Alexander had offered me refuge a short time before, and I thanked him and the detective officers.

Whilst I had been thus effecting my escape, Mr. Alexander had kept the crowd amused by singing the tune :

“Hang old Gandhi !

On the sour apple tree.”

When he was informed of my safe arrival at the police station, he thus broke the news to the crowd :

“Well, your victim has made good his escape through a neighbouring shop. You had better go home now.” Some of them were angry, others laughed, some refused to believe the story.

“Well then,” said the Superintendent, “if you do not believe me, you may appoint one or two representatives, whom I am ready to take inside the house. If they succeed in finding out Gandhi, I will gladly deliver him to you. But if they fail, you must disperse. I am sure that you have no intention of destroying Mr. Rustomji's house or of harming Mr. Gandhi's wife and children.”

The crowd sent their representatives to search the house. They soon returned with disappointing news, and the crowd broke up at last, most of them admiring the Superintendent's tactful handling of the situation, and a few fretting and fuming.

The late Mr. Chamberlain, who was then Secretary of State for the Colonies, cabled asking the Natal Government to prosecute my assailants. Mr. Escombe sent for me, expressed his regret for the injuries I had sustained, and said : “Believe me, I cannot feel happy over the least little injury done to your person. You had a right to accept Mr. Laughton's advice and to face the worst, but I am sure that, if you had considered my suggestion favourably, these sad occurrences would not have happened. If you can identify the assailants, I am prepared to arrest and prosecute them. Mr. Chamberlain also desires me to do so.” To which I gave the following reply :

“I do not want to prosecute anyone. It is possible that I may be able to identify one or two of them, but what is the use of getting them punished? Besides, I do not hold the assailants to blame. They were given to understand that I had made exaggerated and damaging statements in India about the whites in Natal. If they believed these reports, it is no wonder that they were enraged. The leaders and, if you will permit me to say so, you are to blame. You could have guided the people properly, but you also believed Reuter and assumed that I must have indulged in exaggeration. I do not want to prosecute anyone. I am sure that, when the truth becomes known, they will be sorry for their conduct.” “Would you mind giving me this in writing ?” said Mr. Escombe. “Because I shall have to cable to Mr. Chamberlain to that effect. I do not want you to make any statement in haste. You may, if you like, consult Mr. Laughton and your other friends, before you come to a final decision. I may confess, however, that, if you set aside the right of prosecuting your assailants, you will considerably help me in restoring quiet, besides increasing your own reputation.” “Thank you,” said I. “I need not consult anyone. I had made my decision in the matter before I came to you. It is my conviction that I should not prosecute the assailants, and I am prepared this moment to reduce my decision to writing.” With this I gave him the necessary statement.

On the day of landing, a representation of the Natal Advertiser had come to interview me. He had asked me a number of questions, and in reply I had been able to refute every one of the charges that had been levelled against me. This interview and my refusal to prosecute the assailants produced such a profound impression that the Europeans of Durban were ashamed of their conduct. The press declared me to be innocent and condemned the mob. Thus the lynching ultimately proved to be a blessing for me, that is, for the cause. It increased the prestige of the Indian community in South Africa and made my work easier. In three or four days I went to my house, and it was not long before I settled down again.