History rolled from a railway station platform in 1893 “
ASTONE’S throw from the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, champion of the underdog, who campaigned so successfully for equal rights for Indians in South Africa that he became one of the great men of the 20th century.
But had it not been for a twist of fate at the Pietermaritzburg railway station on the evening of June 7, 1893, Indians might not have become full citizens of their adopted country – and India could still be ruled by Britain.
Nobody could have foreseen that the forcible ejection from a train of a young lawyer 125 years ago would have such far-reaching consequences. Today, the Gandhi statue and the station foyer are places of pilgrimage for Indian tourists and other admirers of the man called Mahatma (Great Soul).
Gandhi landed in Durban 33 years after the first immigrants from India had arrived to develop the British colony’s coastal sugar belt. Natal’s white sugar farmers were desperately short of cane cutters because the Zulus preferred their tribal economy to working in the cane fields.
India offered a solution to their dilemma when peasants and craftsmen were persuaded by unscrupulous recruiting agents to fill vacancies created by emancipated slaves on the world’s tropical plantations. It was a new form of slavery as Indians were loaded into ships and dispatched to British, Dutch and French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Ceylon, Fiji, South America, Kenya, Mauritius and Natal. The system was only abolished in 1920 following agitation led by Gandhi.
The first ship to arrive in Durban from Madras on November 16, 1860, was the paddle-steamer SS Truro, and the next day the immigrants disembarked. There were 342 of them, mainly South Indian Hindus with a sprinkling of Christians and Muslims. Ten days later, on November 26, the SS Belvedere docked in Durban from Calcutta with 351 Indians, most of them from the south and east of India. Shiploads of immigrants continued to arrive at regular intervals, sometimes sailing for 30 days and often for as long as two months.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in Durban in May 1893. After completing his legal training in England he had been engaged to defend a Durban Indian in a court case in Pretoria.
Gandhi wrote in his memoirs: “I was going by train as far as Charlestown and then had to take a coach to Pretoria. On the train I had a first-class ticket but not a bed ticket. At Maritzburg, when the beds were issued, the guard asked me to go to the van compartment. I would not go.”
The Natal Government Railways guard called a police constable who pushed the young lawyer and his luggage out of the compartment on to the station platform.
“The train steamed away, leaving me shivering in the cold,” Gandhi recalled. “This was the experience that changed my life. I entered the station’s dark waiting room and asked myself whether I should go back to India or go forward with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me. I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date.”
The telegram of protest he sent next morning to the general manager of the Natal Government Railways launched his public career.
Back in Durban, he discovered that the indignities he experienced were a daily occurrence for Indians who merely wanted to be left in peace to pursue their business. Concerned that they seemed immune to racial humiliations, Gandhi soon sharpened their sensitivities and encouraged them to react to bad treatment by the colonial authorities. He told them that human dignity was fundamental and viewed their disenfranchisement in 1896 as permanently relegating them to an inferior position in South African life.
His investigations into anti-Indian discrimination revealed a shocking state of affairs on the sugar farms. There were no written contracts and verbal promises rarely coincided with actual practice. Payment was paltry and the men and women worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week and sometimes on Sundays.
Soon after his humiliating experience at the station, he galvanised them into peaceful protest – “satyagraha” – and launched an intensive propaganda campaign. Gandhi coined the word from truth
implying love, while firmness was a synonym for force.
He became secretary of the Natal Indian Congress and, in 1902, founded the Indian newspaper, The Indian Opinion, which played a significant political role until its closure in 1960. From 1894, the Natal Indian Congress and its associate body, the Transvaal British Indian Association, protected Indian rights and promoted Indian interests in South Africa.
Gandhi influenced the political and ideological orientation of both organisations, insisting that equality was a fundamental human right. He emphasised that the government was bound by treaty obligations to extend equal citizen rights to Indians – and every discriminatory measure was opposed on these grounds.
Gandhi led many peaceful protest marches between 1906 and 1913, against the imposition of passes on Indians by the British Transvaal government, as well as with 6 000 striking coal miners in Natal. Returning to India in July 1914 after almost 21 years of active campaigning, Gandhi was destined to do the same in the country of his birth, building on the foundation of his South African experience to begin a new struggle for human freedom.
The Great Soul returned to its Source on January 30, 1948 when Gandhi was shot in the chest three times by an assassin. THERE are few, if any, better places to walk in the footsteps of Gandhi and Mandela than in Pietermaritzburg and, what’s more, it is precisely because this is a quieter, some say sleepier, city that Pietermaritzburg’s fine collection of historic buildings, in which Gandhi and Mandela spoke, have remained largely unaltered.
It is possible, therefore, to quite literally walk in the footsteps of the two icons of the 20th century.
Hopefully, you all know that on June 7, 1893, a young Indian barrister, despite having a first-class ticket, was thrown off a train at the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station.
But, do you know that the station building is much the same, apart from some blue modern signs, as it was 125 years ago? The original Maritzburg red bricks are now an orangey-pink, but they still stand, as do the original iron poles.
Therefore, with the help of railway historians, who know how long the passenger trains were in 1893, and that first class was at the back to avoid all the smoke and coal dust, it was possible to pinpoint quite accurately where Gandhi fell.
Then, in his own words: “The train steamed away leaving me shivering in the cold. I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting room.
“There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty, I asked myself ? Should I go back to India, or should I go forward with God as my helper, and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date.”
An old plan of the station shows us which was the waiting room that Gandhi entered, and in which he spent the night.
Thus, when you walk from where he fell to the waiting room you are indeed walking in his footsteps.
As if that isn’t historically significant and deeply moving enough, the waiting room is now a small museum, which outlines Gandhi’s life, and the inspiration he was to Nelson Mandela and to Dr Martin Luther King jr, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the US.
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that Gandhi’s decision, taken in that dark waiting room, was to change the course of history, in South Africa, India and the US.
Without Gandhi would there have been a Mandela, a Martin Luther King, a Barack Obama? It is a rhetorical question worth thinking about.
One thing is certain: the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station is truly a building of international importance, and if we manage and market it better, visitors from many parts of the world would come to experience its ambience. By the way, since we have OR Tambo and King Shaka Airports, why not the Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Railway Station?
Gandhi lived in South Africa for 21 years, living mainly in Phoenix, near Durban, and on Tolstoy Farm, near Johannesburg, but because Pietermaritzburg was the capital of the British Colony of Natal, and therefore where the racially oppressive laws were introduced and debated, his political focus was on Pietermaritzburg, particularly the Colonial Parliament Building, which still stands, behind a statue of Queen Victoria, in Langalibalele Street.
Right alongside is the Tatham Art Gallery, which used to house the Supreme Court, which Gandhi appeared in on several occasions. In 1897, Gandhi stayed in the original Imperial Hotel.
On November 7, 1912, he addressed a jam-packed meeting in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall.
In 1913, his wife, Kasturba, who was a formidable activist in her own right, was imprisoned in Pietermaritzburg’s Burger Street Prison for protesting against a law that declared traditional Indian marriages to be null and void. When the prison authorities refused to supply ghee she went on a hunger strike. She won and Gandhi came to meet her upon her release on December 22, 1913.
On June 6, 1993, Archbishop Desmond Tutu unveiled the Gandhi Statue in Church Street, and said: “What is extraordinary is that the statue of a black man is installed in the middle of a white city.”
The Gandhi statue in the Church Street Mall is close to the Pietermaritzburg City Hall.