XIII. WHAT IT IS TO
BE A 'COOLIE'
It would be out of place here to describe fully the
condition of Indians in the Transvaal and the Orange Free
State. I would suggest that those who wish to have a full
idea of it may turn to my History of Satyagraha in
South Africa. It is, however, necessary to give here
a brief outline.
In the Orange Free State the Indians were deprived of
all their rights by a special law enacted in 1888 or even
earlier. If they chose to stay there, they could do so
only to serve as waiters in hotels or to pursue some
other such menial calling. The traders were driven away
with a nominal compensation. They made representations
and petitions, but in vain.
A very stringent enactment was passed in the Transvaal
in 1885. It was slightly amended in 1886, and it was
provided under the amended law that all Indians should
pay a poll tax of ?3 as fee for entry into the
Transvaal. They might not own land except in locations
set apart for them, and in practice even that was not to
be ownership. They had no franchise. All this was under
the special law for Asiatics, to whom the laws for the
coloured people were also applied. Under these latter,
Indians might not walk on public footpaths, and might not
move out of doors after 9 P. M. without a permit. The
enforcement of this last regulation was elastic so far as
the Indians were concerned. Those who passed as 'Arabs'
were, as a matter of favour, exempted from it. The
exemption thus naturally depended on the sweet will of
I had to experience the effect of both these
regulations. I often went out at night for a walk with
Mr. Coates, and we rarely got back home much before ten
o'clock. What if the police arrested me? Mr. Coates was
more concerned about this than I. He had to issue passes
to his Negro servants. But how could he give one to me?
Only a master might issue a permit to a servant. If I had
wanted one, and even if Mr. Coates had been ready to give
it, he could not have done so, for it would have been
So Mr. Coates or some friend of his took me to the
State Attorney, Dr. Krause. We turned out to be
barristers of the same Inn. The fact that I needed a pass
to enable me to be out of doors after 9 P.M. was too much
for him. He expressed sympathy for me. Instead of
ordering for me a pass, he gave me a letter authorizing
me to be out of doors at all hours without police
interference. I always kept this letter on me whenever I
went out. The fact that I never had to make use of it was
a mere accident.
Dr. Krause invited me to his place, and we may be said
to have become friends. I occasionally called on him, and
it was through him that I was introduced to his more
famous brother, who was public Prosecutor in
Johannesburg. During the Boer War he was court-martialled
for conspiring to murder an English officer, and was
sentenced to imprisonment for seven years. He was also
disbarred by the Benchers. On the termination of
hostilities he was released and being honourably
readmitted to the Transvaal bar, resumed practice.
These connections were useful to me later on in my
public life, and simplified much of my work.
The consequences of the regulation regarding the use
of footpaths were rather serious for me. I always went
out for a walk through President Street to an open plain.
President Kruger's house was in this street a very
modest, unostentatious building, without a garden, and
not distinguishable from other houses in its
neighbourhood. The houses of many of the millionaires in
Pretoria were far more pretentious, and were surrounded
by gardens. Indeed President Kruger's simplicity was
proverbial. Only the presence of a police patrol before
the house indicated that it belonged to some official. I
nearly always went along the footpath past this patrol
without the slightest hitch or hindrance.
Now the man on duty used to be changed from time to
time. Once one of these men, without giving me the
slightest warning, without even asking me to leave the
footpath, pushed and kicked me into the street. I was
dismayed. Before I could question him as to his
behaviour, Mr. Coates, who happened to be passing the
spot on horseback, hailed me and said:
'Gandhi, I have seen everything. I shall gladly be
your witness in court if you proceed against the man. I
am very sorry you have been so rudely assaulted.'
'You need not be sorry,' I said. 'What does the poor
man know? All coloured people are the same to him. He no
doubt treats Negroes just as he has treated me. I have
made it a rule not go to court in respect of any personal
grievance. So I do not intend to proceed against him.'
'That is just like you,' said Mr. Coates, but do think
it over again. We must teach such men a lesson.' He then
spoke to the policeman and reprimanded him. I could not
follow their talk, as it was in Dutch, the policeman
being a Boer. But he apologized to me, for which there
was no need. I had already forgiven him.
But I never again went through this street. There
would be other men coming in this man's place and,
ignorant of the incident, they would behave likewise. Why
should I unnecessarily court another kick? I therefore
selected a different walk.
The incident deepened my feeling for the Indian
settlers. I discussed with them the advisability of
making a test case, if it were found necessary to do so,
after having seen the British Agent in the matter of
I thus made an intimate study of the hard condition of
the Indian settlers, not only by reading and hearing
about it, but by personal experience. I saw that South
Africa was no country for a self- respecting Indian, and
my mind became more and more occupied with the question
as to how this state of things might be improved.
But my principal duty for the moment was to attend to
the case of Dada Abdulla.