SA Indian Stretcher Bearers

Reading about Gandhi by Yogesh Chadha, I was reminded of the stretcher bearer contingents he raised during his time in Africa and beyond.

During the 2nd Anglo-Boer, South African or 1899-1902 War, he raised 300 volunteer Indians and 800 indentured labourers who had been furloughed by their masters into the Indian Ambulance Corps. It seems that raising this Corps was rather a challenge as the Natal government initially refused their help. Dr Lancelot Parker Booth trained the volunteers. They were Hindu, Muslim and Christian and served for 6 weeks. They were noticeably involved at Spion Kop in January 1900. They were awarded war medals for their services. On hearing of Queen Victoria’s death, they sent a letter of condolence.  Heather Brown has written a more detailed history of the Indian Ambulance Corps.

Later, in the 1906 Zulu uprising (Bambatha Rebellion), Gandhi offered to raise a stretcher bearer company which was accepted with far less hassle than his first. This company consisted of 20 men. Little is known about this group of stretcher bearers although I see that Goolam Vahed, the SA expert on Indian history, has co-authored a book on Gandhi in South Africa which addresses the topic. It understandably has mixed reviews as myths are being challenged. (Another overview of Gandhi’s work with the SA military.)

Gandhi left South Africa just before the outbreak of World War One, on 18 July 1914, arriving in England after the declaration. In line with his earlier support of the empire, he became involved with forming the Indian Ambulance Corps at Netley. The plan was that when his health recovered, he would take command of the unit, but this was not to be as Gandhi was encouraged to leave for India to protect his own health. The Corps initially consisted of 80 Indian volunteers who were mostly students in London. Due to differences with Gandhi, not all proceeded to Netley Hospital. George Paxton gives a brief overview of events. The Ambulance Corps was to serve at Brighton, Brockenhurst and on hospital ships. It was not just the Indian Ambulance Corps which served, there were other Ambulance units such as that of the Maharaja of Barwani who served in Europe.

Back in South Africa, the practice started by Gandhi of Indians supporting armed conflict by proving medical assistance was continued with the South African Indian community offering to raise 250 men for service where required. They were to join the South African forces in East Africa where there were various medical forces serving.

In working through Chadha, it became apparent that the South African Indian community was/is far more diverse than it appears. For example, it included: Hindu, Muslim (Gujarati), Nathan, Tamil and South Indians (Madrasis) amongst others including Tagaru. No doubt there are other local differences which to the outsider (South African and other), are not apparent, but are recognised to those of Indian heritage. Yet, despite these differences, they came together to work in unity at a time of need.

Finally, it was rather interesting to discover was that the South African Immigration Act of 1913 was based on that agreed for Australia. This had been one of Gandhi’s bug-bears: the restrictions on Indian immigration into the Union. One of Smuts’ reasons for accepting the offer of an Indian stretcher bearer company for service in World War 1 was that they would see the benefit of leaving South Africa especially if they were to serve in Asia, rather than in East Africa where the War Office sent them. I wonder how much else in terms of SA policy had been tried and tested in other parts of the empire and vice versa?

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