Sheth Haji Muhammad Haji Dada was regarded as the
foremost leader of the Indian community in Natal in 1893.
Financially Sheth Abdulla Haji Adam was the chief among
them, but he and others always gave the first place to
Sheth Haji Muhammad in public affairs. A meeting was
therefore, held under his presidentship at the house of
Abdulla Sheth, at which it was resolved to offer
opposition to the Franchise Bill.
Volunteers were enrolled. Natal-born Indians, that is,
mostly Christian Indian youths, had been invited to
attend this meeting Mr. Paul, the Durban Court
Interpreter, and Mr. Subhan Godfrey, Headmaster of a
mission school, were present, and it was they who were
responsible for bringing together at the meeting a good
number of Christian youths. All these enrolled themselves
Many of the local merchants were of course enrolled,
noteworthy among them Sheths Dawud Muhammad, Muhammad
Kasam Kamruddin, Adamji Miyakhan, A. Kolandavellu Pillai,
C. Lachhiram, Rangasami Padiachi, and Amad Jiva. Parsi
Rustomji was of course there. From among the clerks were
Messrs Manekji, Joshi, Narsinhram and others, employees
of Dada Abdulla and Co. and other big firms. They were
all agreeably surprised to find themselves taking a share
in public work. To be invited thus to take part was a new
experience the community, all distinctions such as high
and low, small and great, master and servant, Hindus,
Musalmans, Parsis, Christians, Gujaratis, Madrasis,
Sindhis, etc., were forgotten. All were alike the
children and servants of the motherland.
The Bill had already passed, or was about to pass, its
second reading. In the speeches on the occasion the fact
that Indians had expressed no opposition the stringent
Bill was urged as proof of their unfitness for the
I explained the situation to the meeting. The first
thing we did was to despatch a telegram to the Speaker of
the Assembly requesting him to postpone further
discussion of the Bill. A similar telegram was sent to
the Premier, Sir John Robinson, and another to Mr.
Escombe, as a friend of Dada Abdulla's. The Speaker
promptly replied that discussion of the Bill would be
postponed for two days. This gladdened our hearts.
The petition to be presented to the Legislative
Assembly was drawn up. Three copies had to be prepared
and one extra was needed for the press. It was also
proposed to obtain as many signatures to it as possible,
and all this work had to be done in the course of a
night. The volunteers with a knowledge of English and
several others sat up the whole night. Mr. Arthur, an old
man, who was known for his calligraphy, wrote principal
copy. The rest were written by others to someone's
dictation. Five copies were thus got ready
simultaneously. Merchant volunteers went out in their own
carriages, or carriages whose hire they had paid, to
obtain signatures to the petition was despatched. The
newspapers published it with favourable comments. It
likewise created an impression on the Assembly. It was
discussed in the House. Partisans of the Bill offered a
defence, an admittedly lame one, in reply to the
arguments advanced in the petition. The Bill, however,
We all knew that this was a foregone conclusion, but
the agitation had infused new life into the community and
had brought home to them the conviction that the
community was one and indivisible, and that it was as
much their duty to fight for its political rights as for
its trading rights.
Lord Ripon was at this time Secretary of State for the
Colonies. It was decided to submit to him a monster
petition. This was no small task and could not be done in
a day. Volunteers were enlisted, and all did their due
share of the work.
I took considerable pains over drawing up this
petition. I read all the literature available on the
subject. My argument centred round a principle and an
expedience. I argued that we had a right to the franchise
in Natal, as we had a kind of franchise in India. I urged
that it was expedient to retain it, as the Indian
population capable of using the franchise was very small.
Ten thousand signatures were obtained in the course of
a fortnight. To secure this number of signatures from the
whole of the province was no light task, especially when
we consider that the men were perfect strangers to the
work. Specially competent volunteers had to be selected
for the work, as it had been decided not to take a single
signature without the signatory fully understanding the
petition. The villages were scattered at long distances.
The work could be done promptly only if a number of
workers put their whole heart into it. And this they did.
All carried out their allotted task figures of Sheth
Dawud Muhammad, Rustomji, Adamji Miyakhan, and Amad Jiva
rise clearly before my mind. They brought in the largest
number of signatures. Dawud Sheth kept going about in his
carriage the whole day. And it was all a labour of love,
not one of them asking for even his out-of-pocket
expenses. Dada Abdulla's house became at once a
caravanserai and a public office. A number of educated
fiends who helped me and many others had their food
there. Thus every helper was put to considerable expense.
The petition was at last submitted. A thousand copies
had been printed for circulation and distribution. It
acquainted the Indian public for the first time with
conditions in Natal. I sent copies to all the newspapers
and publicists I knew.
The Times of Inida, in a leading article on
the petition, strongly supported the Indian demands.
Copies were sent to journals and publicists in England
representing different parties. The London Times
supported our claims, and we began to entertain hopes of
the Bill being vetoed.
It was now impossible for me to leave Natal. The
Indian friends surrounded me on all sides and importuned
me to remain there permanently. I expressed my
difficulties. I had made up my mind not to stay at public
expense. I felt it necessary to set up an independent
household. I thought that the house should be good and
situated in a good locality of the community, unless I
lived in a style usual for barristers. And it seemed to
me to be impossible to run such a household with anything
less than 300 a year. I therefore decided that I could
stay only if the members of the community guaranteed
legal work to the extent of that minimum, and I
communicated my decision to them.
'But,' said they, 'we should like you to draw that
amount for public work, and we can easily collect it. Of
course this is apart from the fees you must charge for
private legal work.'
'No, I could not thus charge you for public work,'
said I. 'The work would not involve the exercise on my
part of much skill as barrister. My work would be mainly
to make you all work. And how could I charge you for
that? And then I should have to appeal to you frequently
for funds for the work, and if I were to draw my
maintenance from you, I should find myself at a
disadvantage in making an appeal for large amounts, and
we should ultimately find ourselves at a standstill.
Besides I want the community to find more than 300
annually for public work.'
'But we have now known you for some time, and are sure
you would not draw anything you do not need. And if we
wanted you to stay here, should we not find your
'It is your love and present enthusiasm that make you
talk like this. How can we be sure that this love and
enthusiasm will endure for ever? And as your friend and
servant, I should occasionally have to say hard things to
you. Heaven only knows whether I should then retain your
affection. But the fact is that I must not accept any
salary for public work. It is enough for me that you
should all agree to entrust me with your legal work. Even
that may be hard for you. For one thing I am not a white
barrister. How can I be sure that the court will respond
to me? Nor can I be sure how I shall fare as a lawyer. So
even in giving me retainers you may be running some risk.
I should regard even the fact of your giving them to me
as the reward of my public work.'
The upshot of this discussion was that about twenty
merchants gave me retainers for one year for their legal
work. Besides this, Dada Abdulla purchased me the
necessary furniture in lieu of a purse he had intended to
give me on my departure,
Thus I settled in Natal.