Is this why colonisation happens?

I was intrigued to read in A letter to a Hindu by Tolstoy (1908) the following:

“You say that the English have enslaved your people and hold them in subjection because the latter have not resisted resolutely enough and have not met force by force.
But the case is just the opposite. If the English have enslaved the people of India it is just because the latter recognized, and still recognize, force as the fundamental principle of the social order. In accord with that principle they submitted to their little rajahs, and on their behalf struggled against one another, fought the Europeans, the English, and are now trying to fight with them again.
A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred million. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men, not athletes but rather weak and ordinary people, have subdued two hundred million vigorous, clever, capable, and freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that this is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?”

Tolstoy continues with an analogy of drunkards complaining that ‘the spirit-dealers who have settled among them have enslaved them.’ When told to give up drinking, they refuse because they are so accustomed to it.

Tolstoy’s argument or case is rather simple. By loving one another and not giving into the superstitions that various religions have foisted upon us, we will all live in peace and harmony. He seems to forget some fundamentals about human nature although he does touch upon the issue of continuation through being ‘accustomed’.

Tolstoy’s descriptor of Indian colonisation can be applied to other societies too and across the centuries, as he notes. Looking at photos of the East Africa campaign, in particular those of the Lake Tanganyika expedition, I was struck by the notion that 28 white men could control 50-100 black men as easily as what they did, especially when the white men are otherwise occupied with no firearms in sight. Were there other armed forces keeping watch who were not captured on camera? There is suggestion that the Belgian Force Publique accompanied the expedition through the Congo. Similarly, there are the columns and columns of porters who are under the supervision of a few armed men – yes these men were at greater risk of being fired upon by those accompanying them than the Lake Tanganyika group, but there were still overwhelming numbers of unarmed men adhering to what a few armed men instructed.

This is not to move the responsibility for colonisation (being colonised) to the other side, but rather to raise questions about why we as people allow ourselves to get into situations which subjugate us on such a scale. We allow it too at a local level as expressed by Herman Charles Bosman in A Bekkersdal Marathon.

A day or so before reading Tolstoy’s response to MK Gandhi in this letter, I had read, in vol 1 of Creswicke’s South Africa and the Transvaal War, Alfred Milner’s conditions presented at the Bloemfontein Conference in 1899 to Paul Kruger which resulted in the Boer ultimatum being issued:

“15. The Civil Service shall be completely reorganised, and all corrupt officials shall be dismissed from office, and be ineligible for office in the future.”

This was the perception of the Transvaal administration – a corrupt government where again, a few held sway over thousands. Milner’s demand was a decade before Tolstoy’s letter. The Boer government naturally rejected the demand, but by all accounts the Reformers who had been involved in the Jameson Raid of 1896 had not wanted reform under the British flag but under the Transvaal flag. They were, so they said, prepared to remain under Boer control providing certain practices were changed. Again, this is simplified, but the question remains, how did the uitlanders or reformers who held economic power get themselves into this situation without doing something earlier?

A century after Tolstoy’s letter, in 2009 Wangari Maathai had The Challenge for Africa published. It’s a more sophisticated argument/case than Tolstoy’s as it addresses why people allow themselves to be controlled by others. And as with Tolstoy’s ‘simple’ solution, Maathai’s also seems to be too challenging for today’s generations across the globe. We seem to know what to do, but something keeps us from doing so… will historians examining the past ever discover what this obstacle is and if so, will we be able to overcome it?

Drawing the line

One of the things that struck me whilst working on Kitchener: the man not the myth was his distinction between faith and religion. A man of faith himself, he saw how religions were used to control people, especially in illiterate or oral tradition communities. Realising that those being suppressed would eventually try to have their shackles overthrown, he looked to alleviate inequalities through education, improving health and work conditions. To do this he encouraged British control (as he saw this as the most liberal at the time) however, he refused to allow Christian missionaries to set up in places where Islam was successfully embedded. He also learnt Turkish or Islamic law to address inequalities whilst he was in Egypt recognising that to tackle the issue from a British or Christian approach would not work as the cultures and underpinning values were different.

So, it was with interest that I came across the following quote by Jinnah in March 1940. In declaring the Muslim League’s decision to call for a separate state of Pakistan, Jinnah observed that: the real nature of Islam and of Hinduism [are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but they are in fact, different and distinct social orders, and it is a dream that the Hindus and the Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality.

More significantly, he noted that they derive inspiration from different sources of history. They have different episodes. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other… (in Gandhi: A life by Yogesh Chadha, p368)

Lord Wavell, one time Viceroy of united India, on hearing of Gandhi’s death wrote: but who am I to judge, and how can an Englishman estimate a Hindu? Our standards are poles apart; and by Hindu standards Gandhi may have been a saint; but by any standards he was a very remarkable man. (in Gandhi: A life by Yogesh Chadha, p468)

For these men, the recognition was difference, not inequality. The challenge was how to reconcile these differences in a way that would not lead to conflict but to peace. Where does the give and take lie?

Gandhi in 1942 observed that: Whether my master of yesterday becomes my equal and lives in my house on my own terms, surely his presence cannot detract from my freedom. Nay, I may profit by his presence which I have permitted. (in Gandhi: a life by Yogesh Chadha, p379)

This brings us back to migrations and people moving in and settling into new territories as discussed in Journey to the Mayflower, and many other instances of cultures meeting and mixing, sometimes successfully and living in harmony whilst on other occasions friction and conflict eventually erupt. Perhaps the latter as a result of not being genuine or fair in striving for equality as Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse tried to explain in his 5-hour explanation of his actions. The history of the African continent (and no doubt others too) is riddled with such examples.

In this political time, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from the above. For myself, I think there’s a clue to how we can move forward to live together in peace and harmony.

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?