Gandhi had arrived in Durban, South Africa, in 1893 to serve as legal counsel to the merchant Dada Abdulla. In June, he was asked by Dada Abdulla to undertake a trip to Pretoria in the Transvaal, a journey which first took Gandhi to Pietermaritzburg. There, Gandhi was seated in the first-class compartment, since he had purchased a first-class ticket. A European who entered the compartment hastened to summon railway officials, who ordered Gandhi to remove himself to the van compartment, since ‘coolies’ and non-whites were apparently not permitted in first-class compartments. Gandhi protested and produced his ticket, but was warned that he would be forcibly removed if he did not make a gracious exit. As Gandhi refused to comply with the order, he was summarily pushed out of the train, and his luggage was tossed out on to the platform. The train steamed away, and Gandhi withdrew to the waiting room. “It was winter,” Gandhi was to write in his autobiography, and “the cold was extremely bitter. My over-coat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered” (Part II, Ch. 8). He says he began to think of his “duty”: ought he to stay back and fight for his “rights”, or should he return to India? His own “hardship was superficial”, “only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice.”
In such circumstances did Gandhi first become aware of racism and of the grave inequities to which people are subjected on the grounds of color; and consequently Gandhi was to embark on a journey that would take him far beyond Pretoria. In other ways, too, this train journey, initially aborted, from Durban to Pretoria was to be symbolic of the manner in which Gandhi would cause other transgressions, and Gandhi’s endeavors to reach all his countrywomen and men. Upon his permanent return to India in early 1915, Gandhi would use trains to travel the length and breadth of India, and he always traveled by third-class. Few Indians of his time, or indeed since, acquired the knowledge of India that Gandhi was to gain by his travels, and there can scarcely be any Indian who had criss-crossed the country by train as much as Gandhi had done.
The story of Gandhi’s travails at Pietermaritzburg Railway Station has now acquired another life. In a moving ceremony at Pietermaritzburg Railway Station presided over by Nelson Mandela, the President of South Africa, the Freedom of Pietermaritzburg was conferred posthumously on Mahatma Gandhi on April 25, 1997. Gathered together to right a century-old wrong, President Mandela recalled “Gandhi’s magnificent example of personal sacrifice and dedication in the face of oppression”. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, India’s High Commissioner to South Africa, received the Freedom of Pietermaritzburg on behalf of his grandfather and noted that Gandhi’s experience at the railway station was something like a second birth: “When Gandhi was evicted from the train, an Indian visiting South Africa fell but when Gandhi rose, an Indian South African rose.”
Gandhi, M. K. Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Trans. from Gujarati by Mahadev Desai. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1927; many editions in print [Dover, Navajivan, Beacon Books, Penguin]
Mandela, Nelson. Righting a Wrong
Gandhi, Gopalkrishna. The Acceptance Speech. Mainstream (7 June 1997), pp. 30-32.