By Hassim Seedat
Mr. Hassim Seedat, the author of this article, brings to our attention a slice of history which may have remain hidden all these years quoting from various South African newspapers of that time. He has given us facts as they happened and leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions about the harmful effects of racism and violence. He emphasizes the fact that black Africans could be incited to act violently by the very race who were their subjugators and therein lay great danger.
A hundred years ago an incident took place in Durban that demonstrated tangibly for the first time in all its ugliness the racialism of the white colonist against the Indians.
It could have been forgotten save for the fact that Gandhi had become the focus of the agitation and against whom all the pent up racial emotionalism and hatred was vented.
Returning to Durban with his family from India in January 1897, Gandhi and the Indian passengers aboard the Courtland and Naderi met with a hostile reception.
The white agitators alleged that Gandhi had, whilst abroad, maligned and lowered the fair name of the whites in Natal through calumny.
Furthermore, he was now flooding Natal with undesirable Indian settlers loaded on two ships. On both scores they were wrong, but then racialism and truth have never been compatible companions.
After a long quarantine period and receiving assurance that it was safe to land, Gandhi disembarked. At the Ship Hotel in West Street he was assaulted and worse could have befallen him had it not been for the timely arrival at the scene of the wife of the Chief Constable Richard Alexander.
She shamed the white pack that had knocked Gandhi to the ground to retreat after having protected him from the missiles being hurled at Gandhi with her parasol.
The other incident outside Parsee Rustomjee’s house in Field Street has also become famous. The saving of Gandhi’s life from a baying mob by Chief Constable Alexander who secreted Gandhi out of the house dressed as an Indian constable is well known. This incident has been quoted extensively. The Indian community as a token of thanks and appreciation gave gifts to both the Alexanders for their deeds.
But other details of the incident reveal the intense racial bigotry of the whites against the Indians. It reveals that it could have ended in tragedy of a greater proportion than just the loss of Gandhi’s life.
Firstly, a closer look at the dramatis personae; A muster of those who had gathered at Alexandra Square to destruct the landing of the Indians reflected that there were nearly a thousand railway men. The yacht club, the point club and rowing club had 150 in attendance, carpenters and joiners 450, printers 80, shop assistants about 400, tailors and saddlers 70,builders and bricklayers 200 and from the general public, about a 1,000.
But far more ominous was the recruitment by the whites of over 500 blacks armed with sticks which they brandished whilst singing war songs.
(Natal Advertiser, January 15, 1897).
Before the meeting this crowd of over 5,000 had lined the entire waterfront and as the Naderi and the Courtland approached, the crowd moved to the North Pier and thereafter moved to Alexander Square.
The leaders of these contingents were some of the most prominent members of society. Solicitor Mr. J. S. Wylie and Captain of the Durban Light Infantry Dr. Mackenzie, Captain of the Naval Carbiners and Harry Sparks, Captain of the Natal Mounted Rifles of the Volunteer Force were the driving spirit behind the formation of the demonstration committee.
The names of the other prominent citizens are recorded in The Natal Advertiser of January 16, 1897, that reflect a virtual who’s who of the time.
At the meetings held earlier in the Town Hall, inflammatory and racist speeches were made by these men.
Dr. Mackenzie’s remarks for example, that “Gandhi had returned to India and dragged them (the whites) in the gutters and painted them as black and filthy as his own skin” and “the hold of the British on South Africa would not be maintained by slumming them with the miserable refuse of the social gutters of India” met with such applause and so did the other derogatory remarks of the other speakers. This aroused the emotions of the public to fever pitch.
Tension was running so high in the town in the first week of January 1897 that the memorial that was later sent to the Secretary of State Joseph Chamberlain by Abdul Carim Hajee Adam and thirty-one others who represented the Indian community stated that “it was the time of terror and anxiety for the Indian residents, and collision between the two communities was to be feared at any moment.”
The demonstration itself proved in the words of one of the newspapers an utter fiasco and came to an ignominious termination.
But the recruitment of Africans against the Indians was a matter of grave concern to some of the more responsible members of the community.
Mr. G. A. Labistour, a leading burgess writing to the Town Council, said that he, together with other burgesses, had viewed with concern the rowdy behaviour of the Africans who took part in the demonstration.
The race hatred he said must not be countenanced and other gatherings of a large force of Africans was a source of great danger to the town.
He called for an enquiry to be made as to who was responsible for the massing of the Africans and that the town should pass special by-laws if they were to “cope with the evil.”
The Natal Mercury (Jan. 16, 1897) commenting on Labistour’s letter said rather surprisingly that it believed that the demonstration committee was not responsible for the impi being at the Point and since the Africans did not go there on their own initiative the matter should be fully investigated.
It agreed with Labistour that the African element at the demonstration “was a blot on the fair name of Durban and might have been productive of the most dire results.” The Mercury also commented on another incident that has not been generally known. It said “An even more disgraceful incident was inciting the natives to attack Indians after Mr. Gandhi landed and was lodged in Field Street.”
“Had the police not been on the alert and succeeded in dispersing the natives, Wednesday night would have ended in one of the most disgraceful riots any British Colony ever witnessed.”
And to twist the racial dagger in the wound it added “In so far that a savage warlike race had been set upon a more civilised, peaceful people by men of a higher race than either.”
The inciting of racial prejudice covertly and overtly by the whites against the Indians continued in one form or other, leading to a terrible sequel to the 1897 episode.
In January 1949 the so called ‘Durban Riots’ took place.
Space does not permit an in-depth analysis of that unfortunate occurrence where 147 lives were lost, thousands were injured and massive destruction of property and looting took place. Except for one white, the rest who died were Africans and Indians.
The Riots Inquiry Commission set up after the ‘riots’ failed to address the question of the tardiness of the authorities and the police to quench the tide of killings.
It found that the white looters and inciters, many of them women who went dancing up the streets in encouragement, were “degraded specimens of their race.”
One is loath to draw comparisons of that kind to the 1897 incident but one fact stares us all in the face.
Racial prejudice is a destructive force and whatever form it takes it must not be allowed to suppurate.
There was an intervening period of fifty-two years between the two incidents. The zeal of the Natal whites to legislate against Indians to curb their development, never diminished over the years and paved the Nationalists’ path too and gave meaning to apartheid long before that word was introduced into the lexicons of the world.
This article by Hassim Seedat was published by The Leader, a weekly in Durban, South Africa, on 31 January 1997 in connection with the centenary of the attack on Gandhi by a European mob.