Selected and adapted from the author’s book Atlantic Gandhi: The Mahatma Overseas (New Delhi and London: Sage, 2013)
On January 1,1920, a century ago, the last Indian indentured laborer was freed. While studies show that grassroots resistance in all the overseas sites of indenture played an important part in its ending (see for instance Mahase Radica, 2008) this piece is concerned with the M.K Gandhi/C.F Andrews combined role in the ending of indenture. I have used historians who compiled Andrews’ letters and other primary sources, but have attempted to read the narrative of a remarkable association across the colonial divide: that between M.K. Gandhi and C.F. Andrews. Noting that British historians did highlight Andrews’ pioneering work on indenture over others’, Banarsidas Chaturvedi’s sources do testify to its import.
Gandhi’s campaign in South Africa is most often seen within the nationalist paradigm. The general narrative is that his legal action on behalf of the Indian traders there securing greater rights led to Gandhi’s awareness of a worse off sector, the indentured. Thus, a unification of castes and classes under the banner of “Indianness” became the first concerted campaign overseas, of an anti-colonial struggle. The preoccupation of Indic historians with Indian independence to the exclusion of much discussion of pan-Atlantic or Caribbean anti-colonial thought or anti-slavery ideologies from the Americas, which were picking up steam around the same time, is a grave omission. For it delinks Gandhi’s struggle from what was a global struggle at the time: a struggle against the racialization of labour, a political categorizing of all non-white peoples as marked for servitude. Focusing only on Indic struggles exposes the caste, communal and class struggles within India, but does nothing to see Gandhi’s South African struggle for the rights of ‘coolies’ as part of the great racial (not just colonial) struggles of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean worlds. There is a visceral visibility to the color issue not identical to colonial exploitation though resonant with it.
True, Gandhi’s geographical presence was only in Africa, but he had an accomplice, Deenabandhu C.F. Andrews.
The moment at which their lives begin to intersect is dramatically suggested by Hugh Tinker’s account of how C.F. Andrews, convalescing near the Vice Regal Palace at Mashobra, Simla, in the company of Viceroy Lord Hardinge and Lady Hardinge, first hears of Gandhi’s struggles in South Africa. Hugh Tinker describes the precise moment when Gandhi first entered Andrews’s consciousness:
After leaving hospital, Andrews stayed at Mashobra, at a rest-house near the Viceregal retreat. All around were the whispering pines and afar the shining snows of Nanga Parbat and the great Himalayan peaks. Peace was everywhere; but not in Andrews’ mind, for he was disturbed to read the news from South Africa and about the protest campaign of the Indians, led by Gandhi—a name new to everybody— in what was described as passive resistance against the savage discrimination practices by white South Africa. (Tinker 1979: 76)
Following Gokhale’s lead, Andrews throws himself into the struggle. Andrews agonizes over the news and his responses are symptomatic of his inner struggles regarding India. At Lord Hardinge and Gokhale’s behest Andrews begins his second diasporic phase in South Africa.
It was perhaps Andrews who first explicitly linked Gandhi to the worldwide system of indenture and developed it in his book. C.L.R James, accustomed to seeing ‘Indians’ in Trinidad as a negligible footnote in the Emancipation struggles of Africans says:
...[Now, upon reading Andrews book about Gandhi], when I meet the average unwashed scantily clad East Indian crouching by the side of the street, I see in him much more than I did formerly, for I realize that in that frail and unkempt body move spiritual powers far beyond me. (Trinidadian C.L.R. James, The Beacon, 1, 5 (August 1931), 19)
James mentions spiritual power because Andrews’ discourse as an Anglican minister was religious, but in fact it’s the dismantling of the system of indenture in which Andrews saw Gandhi as an important node
Andrews met Gandhi for the first time on New Year’s Day, 1914, on Durban’s quay, as he stepped off the ship, S.S. Umtali. Anglican minister and voyage-weary C.F. Andrews, arriving from India after a decade long involvement in the anti-indenture campaign, meets recently imprisoned and released Satyagraha activist M.K. Gandhi. Andrews remembers the moment vividly. When he asks Henry Polak where Gandhi was:
He [Henry Polak] pointed to an ascetic figure with head shaven, dressed in a white dhoti and kurta of such coarse material as an indentured laborer might wear, looking as though in mourning, and said: ‘Here is Mr. Gandhi.’ I stooped at once instinctively and touched his feet, and he said in a low tone ‘Pray do not do that, it is a humiliation to me.’ (C.F.Andrews, quoted from Modern Review ‘Letter from Natal’ March 1914 in Tinker 1979: 84); Chaturvedi and Sykes (1950: 94) quote the same words of Andrews.
Andrews, with his prior knowledge of indenture, recognized that Gandhi was dressed in the clothing of indenture, and much to the chagrin of the white community there, swiftly bent down and touched his feet in respect. Gandhi’s famous costume, generally associated with peasant India, is here acknowledged as a ‘coolie’s’—a transplanted indentured worker’s costume. Gandhi adopted it when imprisoned with other coolies in South Africa protesting racist law
Dress might seem like a trivial thing but breaking the sign systems of colonialism involved external appearance. Skin color, phenotype, dress, were signs of whether or not one participated in the ruling ideology. For Andrews, an Englishman dressed as he was, to stoop down and touch the feet of a seeming ‘coolie,’ is a tremendous moment.
This flouting of dress codes continued with Andrews’ own garb: while Gandhi dressed in ‘langoti and shawl’, Andrews often dressed like a Hindu sanyasi. Nathaniel Sircar, the Bengali catechist in charge of the church, reported that Andrew ‘dresses as a Bengali gentleman, with dhoti, shirt, chuddar, and slippers. He was able to take Holy Communion in Bengali and is learning that language’ (Tinker 1979: 95).
While he wore swadeshi and kurta in Santiniketan (170), however, Andrews departed from Gandhi’s sartorial revolution through the burning of English cloth. ‘Civil Disobedience treads
on the very brink of violence the whole time’(190); because he disliked the violence of cloth burning, he addressed Congress in European clothes (190). This is significant, for Andrews used his position both as Englishman and as a ‘Deshbandhu’ to help the indentured.
Together they worked like John Donne’s metaphysical conceit of a compass. Gandhi the fixed foot was stationary and engaged in local action in South Africa, and Andrews moved like the other foot of the compass, circumnavigating the world of “coolies” in Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana and others. While it is true as recent studies have shown that opposition was fermenting against colonial power in the great capitals of Empire, indenture was never given the attention it deserved until Andrews pulled his colonial weight as a member of the ruling classes. This entry is about that weight.
The first great project on which they worked together took them to the many lands of indentured Indian servitude. In time both begin to understand the resilience and strength of the transplanted and indigenous underclasses in the face of great human humiliation and privation. From mundane things like Andrews’s seasickness, to Gandhi’s humiliation, coolie-like, on trains, the rejection of both from their immediate communities (Gandhi was declared ‘outcaste’ by the Modh Banias and Andrews shunned by the Anglican clergy) both would have understood that in their diasporic trajectory they shared the indentured experience of ostracism.
His constant motion in trains and ships led gradually to a shared and productive isolation and alienation that underlay his socio-religious cosmopolitanism and his passionate activism in the cause of others whom history had thrust into social, religious and cultural void: the helpless trans- planted of India. At the same time, his exposure to these transplanted people strengthened his own highly idiosyncratic visions of a kind of ‘philosophy of the oppressed’. In Andrews’s terms, these people became versions of a ‘suffering Christ’.1
Of Trains and Travel
Both travelled incessantly, on ships, on trains and when located within the borders of one country—India, South Africa—across different parts. Tinker speaks of the role of the railway station in Andrews’s life, especially trains that took him from Delhi to Shimla. The proximity of Shimla to Delhi was to link Andrews to the upper echelons of British India. Tinker outlines the geography of Andrews’s life, in relation to the incomplete modernity of Delhi, still very much a city living on the ruins of its medieval Mughal glory. Tinker says:
In one respect only was Delhi part of the India of the early twentieth century. Its location made it an important railway junction, linking together lines from Calcutta and the Gangetic plain, Bombay and the West coast, and central India, with Punjab and the North West frontier. In the peripatetic life Andrews was to lead, the Delhi Railway station was to be the scene for commencement of most of the important journeys of his life. (Tinker 1979: 26)
The following description connects colonial architecture and transport systems and the role they played in Andrews’s life, as he visited India’s Governors general in Shimla.
Each night, the mail train from Calcutta reached Delhi at ten o clock; from there it steamed on through the night, through Southern Punjab, to arrive soon after daybreak at Kalka in the foothills of the Himalayas. From Kalka, a light railway, newly erected at the bidding of Lord Curzon, wound through the ascending hills up to Simla, the summer capital of India. By noon, the snake-like miniature train had reached Simla from Kalka. The proximity of Simla to Delhi was to link Andrews to the highest level of the official world of British India: a strange metamorphosis for an unknown politically naïve missionary. The nighttime journey was on several occasions the means whereby Andrews made a small but indelible mark upon policy and public affairs. (Tinker 1979: 26)
The Viceregal Lodge at Mashobra was where Tinker often communed with the men who ruled India.
Trains took Andrews to high places, but Gandhi experienced his first life-changing public humiliation on a South African train. For Andrews, Delhi, Simla and Kolkata formed part of his general route in India, just as for Gandhi, Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Transvaal were routinely traversed. These were places that Andrews also visited. He travelled the geography of the rulers’ routes, and that of the transplanted.
As Andrews’s reputation grew among the diasporic poor and disenfranchised—as an Englishman who shared the confidence of Viceroys like Lord Hardinge, cultural figures like Tagore, spiritual leaders like Munshi Ram and Gandhi—he commanded a charisma comparable to Gandhi himself. Indeed his journals offer a kind of mirror image to Gandhi’s. In a particular train-related incident in March 1923, like Gandhi he too was evicted from a train from Nairobi to Uganda at Nakoru railway station at midnight. White settlers were angered at his reception by Indians and Africans and accused him of betraying Christianity due to his friendship with Hindus and Muslims. They ‘entered his compartment, dragged him by the beard’ and verbally taunted him (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 191–92). Tinker notes that he was twice dragged by, then assaulted by a European from the train (188). Testament to the global reach in high places, of news about Andrews, his treatment came to the notice of Winston Churchill, who regretted the behaviour of the miscreants: Andrews refused to name them (Tinker 1979: 189).
Travelling in Africa, while making his way from Uganda and Nile territories to the Southern regions of Zanzibar and Mozambique, Andrews experiences Gandhian treatment: ‘Lanterns would be brought to my railway carriage window...and Indian men and women, with their children, would wistfully greet me through the darkness of the night’ (Tinker 1979: 162). But trains are also associated with violence and death. Andrews is on a train, and mediating railwaymen’s disputes, when a European train driver attacks an Indian fireman (191).
The traumatic role of railways in Andrews’s (and Gandhi’s life) takes a tragic turn when his friend Pearson dies in a freak train accident (204). Travelling by train from Switzerland, Pearson leans out of an unfastened carriage door, breaks his spine and dies a painful death. Lives are lost too in the relentless technological march towards labour saving and efficiency. Pearson’s sad death brings to mind Gandhi’s railing against the railway.
Andrews travelled along the trail of indenture: Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, Trinidad and Guyana. These journeys were not merely changes of location. Each location brought with it an expansion of consciousness; be it an awareness of the predicament of migrant Indians in Fiji or Tamil miners in the Transvaal.
Andrews’s letters and journals give a strong impression of loneliness and often frustrated love. Diasporic life at the time involved long periods away from family and friends, separation from women or other emotional ties. He was able to understand the plight of the indentured, an empathy with their social and sexual loneliness, transplanted as they were, away from family and the rural fabric of man-woman relations they were comfortable with. More than history books, this angst echoes loudly in Indo-Caribbean literature. Naipaul’s Biswas’s peevish, almost misogynist relationship with his wife Shama in House for Mr. Biswas, the brutal incestuous narratives in Shani Mootoo’s Cerues Blooms at Night, the empty Indo-Guyanese family life in Wilson Harris’s Guyana Quartet, hint at the socio-sexual deprivation against which the coolies struggled as they erected a new transplanted society.
Andrews’s loneliness is exacerbated by his isolation from family life. At one point, after spending time with his sister’s family Andrews says: ‘I was surely born for marriage and a home’ (Tinker 1979: 122). But he feels out of synchrony with Western mores in male-female
relations: he notes the ‘unwomanly’ absorption in sexual passion of Australian women he encountered on his way to Fiji (120). He writes to Tagore that he is closer to the Indian marriage-ideal which was ‘bound up with motherhood’, and the custom of ‘growing into love’ (125). He thinks of marrying an Indian wife, Miss Dutt (121).
Location between two worlds brought with it its own kind of alienation. Andrews, as an Englishman in India, belonged to the ruling race, and was entitled to its privileges. Gandhi, in whom the whites of South Africa only saw a despised, ‘coolie’ suddenly found himself, in diaspora, displaced from his secure cultural status as the son of a Kathiawari state official reared on millennial religious traditions like Jainism-inflected Hindu Vaishnavism. While Gandhi began to be viewed as ‘troublesome’ in the United Kingdom (Tinker 1979) but venerated like a God in his native India, Andrews was so appreciated in India (Tinker 1979: 58) that a Delhi suburb Andrews Ganj was named after him.
He was so unknown in England, however that Radio Birmingham, when asked to celebrate his centenary said they had never heard of him (Tinker 1979: xii). Like Gandhi, Andrews faces ostracism. The Natal community shuns him for inverting racial hierarchies by touching Gandhi’s feet; in Delhi (Tinker 1979: 92) and the Chief Commissioner of Police in Delhi treats him with hauteur. As for Simla society, ‘they have made me an outcaste and a pariah and I am most grateful for the compliment’ (93). At the colonial HQ, India Office, London, people could not ‘stand’ C.F. Andrews (126). Andrews is ill at ease with England and the English; on one occasion after a trip there,’ it was a relief to leave England where he found ‘neither intelligent interest nor understanding sympathy’ (92).
While most poor Indians loved Andrews, significantly, Indians in the United States (members of the Indian National Congress) resented his opposition to a move to recognize Indians as ‘Aryans’ and therefore ‘white’ (237). Andrews replied with an equally facile generalization to say such a move would leave out ‘non-Aryan’ South India.2 It would also leave out huge sections of the indentured, as places like South Africa and Guyana. No doubt motivated by a desire to increase Indian immigration by ‘playing’ into the facile race theories of the period (to be later politicized genocidally by Hitler) and into the racial binary of the United States, these complaints appeared in The Mahratta. Sikhs on the other hand, whose struggles he had supported, loved him (Chaturvedi and Sykes, 1950: 238). This racist divide still plagues US NRI attitudes to former migrants from the indenture lands.
Thus Andrews’s and Gandhi’s synchronous yet conversely inter-locking travels across a half century suggest two giant elliptical trajectories, both intersecting in South Africa. Most importantly, their intense, often nervously exhausting, spiritual accommodation to the demands of their respective diasporic environments formed an important part of their political leadership of their times.
After they meet and the incident at the quay, Gandhi immediately adopts Andrews as a confidante. Opportunities drop in his lap easily, in some ways owing to his unique position as an Englishman with Indian sympathies, just as Gandhi’s Anglicized Hindu-ness opened doors to him in England, and in some ways helped him as a mediator in South Africa. Tinker speaks of how Andrews often impressed people who then helped him in his campaign, for example the Governor of Fiji (123). Andrews’s consciousness of how ‘race’ works differently in the colonies, that is, the colonial construction of race (Tinker 1979) is very significant in this regard.
His diasporic movement has political implications. His comments to a friend that Hong Kong should be returned to China by letter, was opened by a censor and relayed to authorities (127). While he liked Japan’s exotic charm (128) he objected to ‘the stink of dollars’ in America (132, 140–41).
Crucial to the indenture struggle, was the quality they share, which may be termed religious/spiritual cosmopolitanism. Andrews’s writings record the effect his meeting Indian spiritual figures such as Munshi Ram, Tagore and while in Japan, the effect Buddhist influence as ‘a living religious force’ had on him (see Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 119). Coming as they did, at the ‘fin-de-siècle,’ the ongoing struggle between Hinduism and Christianity for the soul of India’s masses, was by no means resolved. From Brahmo, through Arya Samaj, through Swami Vivekananda’s spectacular address at the Parliament of World Religions, it had a seesawing history. The liberalism of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and the Brahmos seemed to introduce a Puritan element, while seemingly modernizing Hinduism; the Arya Samaj while seeming to echo Christian social equality by abolishing caste, nevertheless went back to an ‘Aryan’ Hinduism. Gandhi and Andrews, in different ways, reflected the religious confusion of their class: as a middle class Indian ruled by a Christian power, Gandhi would have to contend with the challenge of Christianity and Andrews, as a colonial missionary in predominantly Hindu India, would have to contend with the challenge of Hinduism. Both eventually came to accept, as I showed in the last chapters, displaced subaltern folk Hinduism, reinvented in early diaspora, and redefined in Phoenix Settlement, as the expedient religion for India. Destabilized by it all, Andrews gave up the ministry (Tinker 1979: 95). He was no longer satisfied with the Trinitarian concept of God. Buddha too was divine, and that ‘all men were divine and lived out the agony of Christ’ (Tinker 1979: 96; see Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 102). Many of Andrews’s letters to Gandhi, incidentally, between continents and religions, and on board ship, is a dialogue between Hinduism and Christianity, through an idea of the ‘Indian Christ’ (Tinker 1979: 89–90).
Andrews’s diasporic religious cosmopolitanism, like Gandhi’s, is strongly inflected by issues of race. Newly arrived in Durban, Andrews is invited to preach at the pulpit to the people of Natal. Gandhi, however, is not allowed into the Whites-Only Church. Andrews sees Christianity’s imperial face, and decides, that ‘except for Tolstoy and the Quakers, the West was ignoring Jesus’, and that the life of Jesus ‘cannot have been independent of the Hindu- Buddhist stream.’ He dubs Hinduism the mother of Christianity (Tinker 1979: 89).
Andrews’s realization of how colonial dynamics inflected Christianity (earlier he had never thought of Christianity as a ‘racial’ problem ) is similar to Gandhi’s awareness of the cruelty of caste Hindu ‘Untouchability’ once he encountered racial exclusion and prejudice in South Africa. For both, diasporic experience opened eyes to the exclusions of their own society through contact with another’s prejudices.
Andrews’s work in indenture is directly a result of his diasporic empathy with the trauma of journeying across rough seas, the deculturation induced by mechanistic plantation life and the misery of repeated uprooting and unbelonging. His is a many pronged attack: it is, first an understanding and dissemination of the ills of indenture: focusing on recruitment trickery and the conditions on plantations. Second, campaigns against it directed at planters and government, and third, the aftermath of rebuilding communities, as well as dealing with the post-indenture, the miseries of repatriation. Andrews was active in all aspects.
The regions covered were Fiji and Mauritius; Kenya, Uganda and South Africa; and Guyana/Trinidad at different points in his life, his work there weaving in and out of his work with Gandhi in South Africa and India.
While Gandhi’s activism was centred on South Africa, Andrews brought his global experience with and knowledge of, indenture to the struggle. As he wrote to Gandhi constantly, one could conclude that Gandhi too learnt lessons from Andrews’s experience. His is a more global approach where he has experience of many kinds of indenture as well as many kinds of diaspora.
Andrews’s work in Fiji, which began after he had met Gandhi in South Africa was a blueprint for much of his work in other places. In Fiji (1916–17), he met with the Planters’ Association and argued against indenture. In a Victorian reformist voice (social historians like Laurence take this approach), he speaks of inefficiency of present conditions: ‘the more money the Indian gets the more he will gamble and use in vice’ (Tinker 1979: 123). He argues for allowing
them to migrate freely with their families would make them law- abiding (123). Andrews spoke of disintegration of caste codes of conduct and family in the ‘coolie lines’ (123). Andrews’s 1916 report is described by Tinker:
The report placed great emphasis upon the moral degradation resulting from indenture, whereby the women were condemned to promiscuity, the men became brutes and the coolie lines were ‘more like stables than human dwellings’. Indian culture was destroyed: ‘Everything that could be recognized as Hindu has departed.’ Yet despite the wrongs inflicted upon the Indian laborers, ‘Their patience and fortitude won their continual a regard’. (Tinker 1979: 125)
Chaturvedi and Sykes describe in great detail how Andrews, even after his battle to end indenture was won, set himself the task of painfully rebuilding the shattered communities. He travelled every- where, working in public health and education, sometimes in the course of his inspections, sharing the labourers tiny hovels. It is now that he was called ‘Deenabandhu’, friend of the poor. He wanted to reconstitute the solidarity of the Indian village community in Fiji (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 123).
Andrews, according to most accounts, succeeded, miraculously, in transforming this decultured, demoralized, diseased, illiterate community into a ‘wonderfully transform[ed]’ (124) life. He started village schools in Hindi, had the daily wage increased, tried to persuade planters to end the practice of keeping women as labourers even after their husbands terms had expired. The planters, ever greedy for labour, agreed to have the couples work together, not to let the women go early. Their intransigence on this little point gives an idea of the rapacity he had to work against (122). The campaign for the raising of marriage age, practical health and education reforms, helped glue back shattered lives.
Andrews does credit the labourers with resilience and recent writers descended from immigrants stress the fortitude of the labourers even during the crushing indenture terms, and their adherence to the crumbling Hindu ways of life even under duress (Brij Lal in Rai and Reeves, Chapter 6). No doubt it is a combination of Andrews’s efforts and the grateful, reverent and hardworking spirit of the labourers that brought about the wonderland Fiji later became for Indians (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 125). Today’s builders of shattered communities may do well to learn from Andrews’s attention to the nitty-gritty of everyday life and the role of government policy in it, along with a deep understanding of the virtues and strengths of the people who live in it.
Andrews role in mitigating indenture, I have tried to argue, is profoundly human as well as politically activist: perhaps this is best seen in how, even the great triumph of ending indenture (which is the climax of this piece) did not allow him to rest. His task was unfinished as long as the laborers were unhappy.
For the sequel to the ending of indenture was disheartening. Following post-war economic depression, many labourers from Fiji and Guyana returned to India. Andrews once again found himself as their only recourse. With typical indomitability he tried to alleviate their misery. Chaturvedi and Sykes describe his work: founding committees to meet ships, provide homes, protect from thieving money-changers. But sadly ‘They had been transplanted too often; they could not take root again’ (184).
Reabsorption into their natal villages was an economic and cultural impossibility. Many of them were robbed in the big bad city of Kolkata, and they were labelled outcaste in their original villages. In Fiji, Andrews had demanded that they be repatriated for free, but many were unable to adapt. They drifted to shantytowns, mud-flats near the Calcutta docks, called Matiaburz (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 183). When Andrews visited them, he shed tears for their life in the no-man’s land of the marooned diaspore (Tinker 1979). Andrews describes then as ‘crying’ and ‘weeping’ (193–94). He tells friends that the marooned coolies come to see him in Bolpur and distraught, he pays their train tickets back. They did not want to settle in India
and begged Andrews: ‘Shoot us or get rid of us’ (193). Many threatened to commit suicide. This sad sequel to indenture underlies the enormity of the displacement undergone by the ‘coolies’: now they had no home. Fiji had released them but India would not accept them. Even Andrews, himself dangling between two cultures at odds with each other, is in those days living the life of a tramp as he helps the repatriated (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 185). He cadges meals
and lodging with his friends. By sheer dint of perseverance and innate kindness, Andrews has managed to forge pathways where none had been, but is himself in despair at the miseries of repatriation.
The sufferings of the returning migrants were unlikely to end as long as India was a colonial economy: the plight of the repatriated coolie was, if anything worse than that of the impoverished ryot. At the same time arguing for end of indenture and repatriation would
mean accepting the temporary status and hence lack of citizenship rights (right of free movement, repudiation of unnecessary taxation; acknowledgement of rights due to those born there; social rights such as recognition of Hindu marriages and so on). Citizenship rights in
South Africa were argued for by an acknowledgement of the resilient capacity for survival and success for the Indian migrants in South Africa. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is directly related to this innate Indian cultural strength. The liminal status of the ‘coolie’ could only be mitigated by a two-pronged approach: nationalism in the home country and citizenship in the adopted one. Each was dependent on the other.
The contradiction was of the evils of indenture and the fortitude of the labourers (125) Andrews suggested African and Indian kinship ‘Africa in many ways belongs to the East’ (Tinker 1979: 235).
On 12 January 1917, he wrote to Sushil Rudra:
The impelling force within me drove me to take some action yesterday. I had been feeling for weeks the misery of the indenture system having to go on...after all this terrible exposure which has proved it to be legalized prostitution, and I could not bear to think of chaste and pure Indian woman inveigled out. (133)
When Mauritius wanted cheap labour, Andrews said only ‘self- supporting people’ like ‘small farmers’ should go (191). He wrote to Banarsidas Chaturvedi:
The weaklings of any country are no good for emigration and only break down in the country in which they emigrate....The only people who are always trying to get such people are the capitalists who are eager to get cheap labour. We must not accept the capitalists’ position, but follow the Canadian model. A beautiful fertile island like Mauritius...should only take the best. It should on no account take the worst. (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 191)
These oscillations occur in both Andrews’s and Gandhi’s thought -- indenture as degrading, yet as indicative of resilience. From the former notion would follow a project of repatriation, which was also double-edged: it caused misery, yet to stay was also humiliating. It seemed like the only solution was a two-fold project: to restore dignity overseas through dignity at home. For as late as 1918, Gandhi was not an opponent of British rule: he only wanted Indian national dignity in order to bolster the Indo-South African struggle for rights (Tinker 1979: 139).
When Andrews is in Kenya, he says the ‘poor Indians were mostly in the remote areas: labourers, artisans and petty traders (dukanwalas) with stores in far-off areas. The Kenyan whites saw the merchant class as competition (like Uganda). Indians claimed Tanganyika was their own colony!’ (162–63).
Andrews in Kenya works on the Indian image—both its negative aspect—as ‘immoral’ and tied to ‘money indeed’ (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 140–41). Andrews visited Africa—Tanganyika—where he saw a different group—middle class merchants. They wished for
political power, unlike the Fijian Indians who were engaged in a struggle for survival. From the experiences of the Fijian migrants who returned too, Andrews might have seen how problematic return was too.
Andrews’s indenture experience stays with him, and informs his Indian work. He helps philanthropist Stokes with hill peasant exploitation on hunting trips (free labour or ‘beggar’); intervenes in plight of Industrial workers in British Buckingham and Carnatic mills in
Madras (179); he connects these mills with sugar estates in Fiji.
Andrews in South Africa is naturally eclipsed by Gandhi. On the other hand, scholars claim that Andrews’s intervention in South Africa had brought about the Gandhi-Smuts agreement and that his visits to Fiji had been almost the sole cause for abolishing indenture (Tinker tends to overplay the role of the Englishman: the above might be overstating Andrews’s role).
The voyage to South Africa had been traumatic for Andrews and made him aware of the sufferings of the transplanted. While on the voyage an Indian cook from Calcutta, jumped overboard and killed himself. Andrews’s own seasickness and feeling of being in a void gave him an existential insight into the fate of the indentured (Andrews seasickness, Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 124).
In Durban, in Gandhi’s Phoenix farm he was witness to the misery of a runaway Tamil coolie, who bore on his body the marks of a brutal beating and was comforted by Gandhi. Apparently, the scene moved Andrews to tears (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 95).
In the incident I referred to, above, this coolie recurs in a later vision Andrews sees:
Seated on the hill of Inverarm one morning, he experienced a sudden vision in which a beaten coolie appeared to him, frightened and desperate, his face merging into the face of Jesus Christ. The coolie he had actually encountered in Natal. (Tinker 1979: 109)
But it was not only coolie misery that Andrews witnessed. In South Africa, Andrews saw the merchants as ‘compromisers’ and the poor as ‘resisters’. One of Gandhi’s followers Thambi Naidoo said:
No doubt sir, during your stay in South Africa one section of the merchant class will entertain you in a very grand style, their richly furnished houses and motor cars will be at your disposal... all these are humbug....The Indian community, especially the poor, will be grateful and thankful to you...if you will conquer the Indian merchants by love and persuade the merchants to sell their rice...at a reasonable price. (From Naidoo’s letters to Andrews, preserved by Banarsidas) (Tinker 1979: 162)
Even though Andrews was a personal friend of the Governor General Gladstone, and was invited to the luxurious homes of British South African elites, he chose to live in the ‘squalid’ Indian section on the outskirts of Pretoria. He noted their hospitality, their graciousness, their cleanliness:
The dhobis (washermen) of Pretoria became my great friends.... Their great delight was to give me a ‘khana’, either a breakfast or a dinner. They also gave me clothes to wear; they fitted me up with shoes and slippers, they were eager to wash and iron my white summer suits every day. (From August 1914, Modern Review, Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 96)
It is this hidden subtext, the extraordinary capacity for grace and survival in the midst of inhuman conditions that touched Andrews and which I want to emphasize. Back in India, working with Gokhale’s anti-indenture campaign and committing himself to working in Fiji,
Andrews read Totiram Sanadhya’s account in Hindi My twenty-one years in Fiji and informed himself about the anti-indenture campaign spearheaded by the Australian colonial sugar refining company. He personally visited every immigration depot between Allahabad and Kolkata and realized the extent of the trickery and subterfuge used by the recruiters to lure labour to Fiji (Chaturvedi and Sykes1950: 113). In 1915, North Indian labourers’ wages were higher than those in Fiji (112–15).
Some claim it was in Fiji in 1917 that he was given the title ‘Dinabandhu’, or friend of the poor. During his five weeks in Fiji, Andrews worked to ensure land settlements for the indentured, liquor controls, labour contracts as opposed to the prevailing coerced con- tracts, the campaign for recruiting whole families, housing, a public steamer service instead of ‘coolie’ ships, and village schools in Hindi (113–24). These demands became the model for his later work in many indenture situations, culminating in his visit to the Caribbean- Guyana. While Gandhi’s work addressed the politico-socio-moral side of indenture, Andrews focused on the legal-material side, and he used his nationality to negotiate successfully with the planters.
Later, Andrews travelled to the Caribbean region, to Guyana. He noted both the wretched conditions in which the coolies lived, and the tremendous potential for their prosperity in the beautiful landscapes of the Caribbean. En route to Guyana, Andrews’s ‘ship called at the Bermudas, Santa Lucia, and Port of Spain, and everywhere Andrews went ashore and gathered information about the numbers and welfare of the Indian setters.’ Chaturvedi and Sykes (1950: 239).
The very morning after he landed, Andrews visited the sugar plantations on the East Coast of Demerara (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 239).
where Indians were still living in the ruinous, unhealthy old indentured labor quarters. Morning and evening he spoke in Hindi at church services to which the Hindu people crowded hungry for Indian news and the sound of their own language. (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 240).
However, here Andrews’s impression that the isolation from India of the community and the consequent religious decline with an increase in social vices such as rum-drinking and gambling, is not offset by any sense of cultural resilience derived from folk memory. In this, he is similar to Gandhi. Looking closely at Andrew’s journal, it seems possible that he did play a significant role in such resilience.
As he had done in Fiji, Andrews discussed crucial aspects of Indian life with the community: the improvement of communications with India, the registration of Indian marriages, the land grants to substitute for return to India, cooperation between Africans and Indians in matters such as the control of alcohol and gambling, cooperative credit to facilitate the growing of rice, the induction of Indians into education (Andrews was instrumental in the dream of a University of the West Indies ) and the police force, and social reform within the Hindu community on issues such as child marriage (242–43). He notes the casual way marriages were contracted (236) and addresses a group of pundits to raise marriage age from 13 to 16 (236).
A significant direction of Andrews’s work, both in Fiji and in Guyana, was the attempt to heal the breach in Indians’ relations with other exploited peoples: the native Fijians and the Afro-Guyanese. Colonial policies of divide and rule had kept Indians in the country and Africans in the town in Guyana. In Fiji, Indians were tenants in tribal land, causing rifts (123). On an extended visit to Guyana, Andrews put all of his powers of cross-cultural understanding to work. Meeting with Indian gentry as well as the very poor, with African educators and English planters, he threaded his way through the different issues.
He negotiated for conditions that would at once gain the Indians means of livelihood, a means to a way of life conducive to their agricultural background, and affording them dignity. The answer was one word: rice. Rice was to replace sugar in some of the swampy districts. He convinced planters that this way, Africans would not be threatened by Indians who would continue in the rice areas. Though this plan might have worked at the time, it is likely that in the long run, it impeded Indians’ assimilation into urban Guyana, which was the future. Still, it was a great improvement on their lot at the time. Andrews’s contribution to Guyana is detailed in collections of letters in Chaturvedi and Sykes (1950: 240–50).
The rice issue followed on a debate about how Indians and Africans could co-exist. The prevailing impression was that Africans were dynamic entrepreneurs while Indians were ‘cultivators.’ To split their spheres by immersing Indians in paddy fields seemed the way to keep mutual antagonism at bay. The Governor General himself thanked Andrews for his initiative. But on another aspect of the Indian/African divide, Andrews was, rightly, uncompromising. He noticed that there were no ‘East Indian’ teachers, the profession being dominated by Africans. Education, especially for women, was absolutely necessary and Andrews worked tirelessly for it. In what was undoubtedly a remarkable debate, the Anglican Andrews met with Guyana’s Hindu pundits to convince them against child marriage. He won.
Very importantly, as indicated by the epigraph at the beginning of this chapter, Andrews seems to have facilitated a key, indeed the only role, India and the great struggle for independence, played in the literary circles of Trinidad. On Indo-African friendship, a little-known fact is that, quite some years after his Guyana visit of 1916–17, Andrews collaborated with the Trinidadian radical writers’ (mostly Afro-Trinidadian) group called The Beacon. At the time, he was virtually, it appears their only first-hand source of knowledge about India and Gandhi. By extension, Andrews’s dissemination of India- related knowledge, led to a less dismissive attitude by Trinidad’s radical C.L.R. James to the Indian labourers in their own backyard. Reinhard Sander says that until Andrews wrote in The Beacon, the East Indian presence in Trinidad was virtually ignored. The exception was a review by C.L.R James of C.F. Andrews’s Mahatma Gandhi: His Own Story. In his review, James puts forward his own assessment of Gandhi as ‘the greatest figure in world affairs today’ and praises the Indian nationalist for his theory and practice of nonviolence in South Africa and India (Sander 1988: 37). Apparently, Gandhi’s spiritual strength impressed James and he even recognized some of it in his hitherto abject Indian countrymen, a people he had completely ignored until then. In a moving passage quoted in the epigraph, James says:
The book leaves me with...impressions which are likely to remain with me for a long time...[Now], when I meet the average unwashed scantily-clad East Indian crouching by the side of the street, I see in him much more than I did formerly, for I realize that in that frail and unkempt body move spiritual powers far beyond me. (The Beacon, 1, 5 [August 1931], 19)
Andrews’s association with this very avant-garde literary group no doubt contributed to his work on a University that reflected the population of the West Indies, the University of the West Indies
Impressed by the beauty of Guyana, Andrews wishes for indentured Indians the kind of tropical comfort found in South East Asia, once again utilizing his knowledge of many worlds for the betterment of each. Of housing, he asks: ‘Why should the houses on even the best estates be set up in rows like beans on a bean stalk?...Why should not the Indian choose his own type of house, provided that sanitary requirements were met?’ (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 242–43).
Narratives by Indo-Caribbeans do testify to the effects of Andrews’s visit, in writers such as Maya Tiwari, Lakshmi Persaud and others. Writing of the period after Andrews is observing, for instance (1929 or so), here is Lakshmi Persaud’s description of the 1930s and 1940s.
At dusk it was easy to believe you were in India: shadows and sounds of bullock carts, the aromas of roties on chulhas; fresh water in buckets and cut grass in bales; off-white houses with thatched roofs and glowing wood fires in the yards; the soft gentle sounds of Hindi in the night carried by warm winds along red earth tracks. Even as late as the 1930s it was easy to believe. Persaud (1990: 81–86)
Persuad describes Andrews’s dream of the Indian style house achieving fruition (82–83).
It has been said that Andrews’s single ‘greatest service to the Indian people’ (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 126) and to mankind was the end of indenture. The drama of it is brought home in an interview Andrews has with the Viceroy and Mr Montague, Secretary of State, in March 1918. Andrews lays on the table, before these august personages, a medical report from Fiji, stunning in its clarity of what indenture meant to India’s transplanted women and also men! Andrews said:
When one indentured Indian woman has to serve three indentured men as well as various outsiders, the results as regards syphilis and gonorrhoea cannot be in doubt. (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 123)
Chaturvedi and Sykes describe the reaction thus.
‘That settles it.’said Montagu. ‘Ask what you like.’
On January 1st, 1920, the last indentured laborer was free. (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 123)
Andrews’s shrewd focus on women and disease, at a time when the contagious diseases issue was in popular focus, both in India and Britain, highlighted the double standards that had long propelled indenture. A ‘British Raj’ whose public discourse promised sanitation and health to ‘the colonies’ kept so many of its subjects in less than degrading human conditions. Women were always the primary focus in the anti-indenture movement. The incident also showed the easy access Andrews had to the top echelons of India’s rulers.
Andrews’s devoted attention to practical matters and influence in the higher colonial echelons provides the material backbone to the Gandhian alchemy of changing wretchedness into cultural strength, of drawing from the affliction of the body into a struggle for deliverance and welding this alchemy into shaping the indentured Indian into a national. A scene narrated by C.F. Andrews is a visual reminder of how the ‘nation’ is never far away in this Creole
place of Hindus, Muslims and Zulus: and in Gandhi and Andrews’s consciousness of migrant suffering:
The strain of a long day of unwearied ministry among the poor was over. In the still after-glow of twilight, Mahatma Gandhi was seated under the open sky. He nursed a sick child on his lap, a little Muslim boy, and next to him was a Christian Zulu girl from the mission across the hill. He read us some Guajarati verses about the love of God and explained them in English...Then these Gujarati hymns were sung by the children’s voices. ‘What is India like?’ said a young Hindu to me with eager eyes. ‘India,’ I replied, ‘is just like this. We have all of us been in India tonight.’ (Chaturvedi and Sykes 1950: 99)
Author: Nalini Natarajan is Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.
C.F Andrews. Mahatma Gandhi: His Own Story. George Allen & Unwin, London, 1930
Chaturvedi, Benarsidas and Marjorie Sykes. Charles Freer Andrews. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950
Tinker Hugh. The Ordeal of Love: C.F. Andrews and India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Mahase Radica (2008) ‘Plenty a dem run away’ – resistance by Indian indentured labourers in Trinidad, 1870–1920, Labor History, 49:4, 465-480, DOI: 10.1080/00236560802376946
Persaud, Lakshmi. Butterfly in the Wind. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1990.
C.L.R. James The Beacon, 1, 5 (August 1931), 19 quoted in Sander, Reinhard. The Trinidad Awakening; West Indian Literature of the Nineteen Thirties. Westport, 1988.
1 Andrews writes a poem called ‘The Indentured Coolie’ after he sees a vision of a coolie he had seen beaten in South Africa merge into the face of Jesus Christ (see Tinker 1979: 109).