Diaspora : History

LEGAL EAGLE: Gandhi (center) with his secretary, Miss Schlesin, and his colleague 
Mr. Polak in front of his Law Office, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1913

Indians Abroad: 

Gandhi at war

At the beginning of the Boers War in South Africa in 1899, Mahatma Gandhi found himself in a dilemma. While he did not want to be a part of the war, he donned the uniform of the Indian Ambulance Corps. This was a volunteer group of 300 free Indians and 800 indentured workers. It was one of the very few medical units to serve wounded black South Africans, left mostly unattended by the warring racist groups, the British and the Boerst

— Empire Bureau

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a young man of 24 when he arrived in South Africa in 1893. Gandhi’s work in South Africa dramatically changed him, as he faced the discrimination commonly directed at blacks and Indians. One day in court at Durban, the magistrate asked him to remove his turban. Gandhi refused and stormed out of the courtroom. He was thrown off a train at Standerton in the Transvaal after refusing to move from the first class to a third class coach while holding a valid first class ticket. Travelling further on by stagecoach, he suffered other hardships on the journey as well, including being barred from many hotels. These incidents have been acknowledged by several biographers as a turning point in his life, explaining his later social activism. It was through witnessing firsthand the racism, prejudice and injustice against Indians in South Africa that Gandhi started to question his people's status, and his own place in society. However, these events by no means explain why he advocated non-violence instead of aggressive revolution.

BRASS TACKS: Gandhi in the uniform of a stretcher bearer of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War (1899).

At the end of his contract, Gandhi prepared to return to India. However, at a farewell party in his honour in Durban, he happened to glance at a newspaper and learned that a bill to deny the right to vote to Indians was being considered by the Natal Legislative Assembly. When he brought this up with his hosts, they lamented that they did not have the expertise necessary to oppose the bill, and implored Gandhi to stay and help them. He circulated several petitions to both the Natal Legislature and the British Government in opposition to the bill. Though unable to halt the bill's passage, his campaign was successful in drawing attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa.

Supporters convinced him to remain in Durban to continue fighting against the injustices levied against Indians in South Africa. He founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, with himself as the secretary. Through this organisation, he moulded the Indian community of South Africa into a homogeneous political force, publishing documents detailing Indian grievances and evidence of British discrimination in South Africa. Gandhi returned briefly to India in 1896 to bring his wife and children to live with him in South Africa. When he returned in January 1897, a white mob attacked and tried to lynch him. In an early indication of the personal values that would shape his later campaigns, he refused to press charges against any member of the mob, stating it was one of his principles not to seek redress for a personal wrong in a court of law.

At the onset of the South African War, Gandhi argued that Indians must support the war effort in order to legitimize their claims to full citizenship, organizing a volunteer ambulance corps of 300 free Indians and 800 indentured labourers called the Indian Ambulance Corps, one of the few medical units to serve wounded black South Africans. He himself was a stretcher-bearer at the Battle of Spion Kop, and was decorated. At the conclusion of the war, however, the situation for the Indians did not improve, but continued to deteriorate. In 1906, the Transvaal government promulgated a new Act compelling registration of the colony's Indian population. At a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg on September 11 that year, Gandhi adopted his methodology of satyagraha (devotion to the truth), or non-violent protest, for the first time, calling on his fellow Indians to defy the new law and suffer the punishments for doing so, rather than resist through violent means. This plan was adopted, leading to a seven-year struggle in which thousands of Indians were jailed (including Gandhi himself on many occasions), flogged, or even shot, for striking, refusing to register, burning their registration cards, or engaging in other forms of non-violent resistance. 

While the government was successful in repressing the Indian protesters, the public outcry stemming from the harsh methods employed by the South African government in the face of peaceful Indian protesters finally forced South African General Jan Christiaan Smuts to negotiate a compromise with Gandhi.

From then on, colonialism was living on borrowed time.


Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts was a prominent South African statesman, military leader and philosopher. In addition to holding various cabinet posts, he served as Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919 until 1924 and from 1939 until 1948.

For most of his public life, Smuts, like many other native South Africans of white Afrikaner heritage, advocated segregation between the races and was opposed to the unilateral enfranchisement of the black majority in South Africa. One of his greatest international accomplishments was the establishment of the League of Nations. He sought to redefine the relationship between the UK and its colonies by establishing the British Commonwealth. 

In 1946 the Smuts government was strongly condemned by a large majority in the United Nations for its discriminatory racial policies.

As Colonial Secretary, he was forced to confront Asian workers—the very people whose plight he had exploited in London—led by Gandhi.

April 2009

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