"Thrown away 10 years of my life to prevent inevitable" Read the full letter

A|B|C|D|E|F|G|H|I|J|K|L|M|N|O|P|Q|R|S|T|U|V|W|X|Y|Z|All

Mohandas Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand (later given the title of Mahatma) Gandhi (1869 - 1948), Indian political leader and social reformer, was prominent in campaigning for improved political rights for Indians in South Africa, and subsequently in leading the independence movement in India itself. A lawyer by training and practice with his degree from University College London, and an Inner Temple barrister, the younger Gandhi was something of a Victorian dandy and also a very upper class member of the Brahmin class. Removing from a practice in Bombay to Durban in South Africa, Gandhi was shocked, outraged and militantly determined to take on the ingrained segregationist forms of racism he met there. His political activities in South Africa were later more focused in the Transvaal and Free State.

Although there is only one extant letter from Schreiner to Gandhi (discussed below and archived with her letters to Hermann Kallenbach), it is clear from her letters to other people, as well as comments by Gandhi himself, that Schreiner and Gandhi knew one another well and collaborated politically in a 'behind the scenes' way. Gandhi himself wrote of her:

'...Olive Schreiner, was a gifted lady popular in South Africa and well known wherever the English language is spoken...  Although she belonged to such a distinguished family and was a learned lady, she was so simple in habits that she cleaned utensils in her house herself... the Schreiners had always espoused the cause of the Negroes. Whenever the rights of the Negroes were in danger, they stoutly stood up in their defence. They had kindly feelings for the Indians as well, though they made a distinction between Negroes and Indians. Their argument was that as the Negroes had been the inhabitants of South Africa long before the European settlers, the latter could not deprive them of their natural rights. But as for the Indians, it would not be unfair if laws calculated to remove the danger of their undue competition were enacted. All the same they had a warm corner in their hearts for Indians.'  (MK Gandhi, 1926, 'A review of grievances in the Transvaal', The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 1926, vol. 34, p. 33)

In 1908 Gandhi was jailed in South Africa for encouraging the burning of the registration certificates which Indians were required to carry following the Transvaal's 1908 Registration Act, and then in 1909 for failing to produce his own certificate. He and Schreiner met in connection with the ensuing campaigns and also the associated satyagarha passive resistance movement. In mid 1912 legal recognition was withdrawn from immigrant Indian polygamous marriages in an Immigration Bill, following another Bill that required registration and in effect passes for Indians in South Africa. Opposition to these and to the registration legislation, extended across South Africa after its Union in 1910, through the satyagraha movement led by Gandhi. As is well known, a compromise deal was eventually struck between Union Prime Minister Botha and Gandhi in early 1914. What is not well known is that a minor role was played in this through Schreiner networks around her introduction to Gandhi of her close friend Betty Molteno. Molteno and Emily Hobhouse (also introduced to Gandhi by Schreiner) oiled the wheels by enabling Gandhi to meet Annie Botha (wife of Louis Botha) and Lady Gladstone (wife of Herbert Gladstone, Governor-General of South Africa), for these women had somewhat more sympathetic politics and might indirectly influence their husbands (see Stanley and Dampier 2010). During these activities, Schreiner and her sister Ettie Stakesby Lewis like many other people went to meet Gandhi and show their solidarity with the political cause being advocated. Schreiner publically and warmly shook hands with Gandhi, an act which scandalised white South Africa, involving as it did a white woman touching a non-white man and doing so before a host of people in a very public context, and it is commented upon in memoirs as well as newspaper accounts.

Schreiner's continuing involvement with Gandhi's networks and political activities is amply demonstrated by her remarks in letters to others. In 1912 she comments in a letter to Will Schreiner, 'I had a wire from my friend Kallenbach asking me to meet Gandhi at the station... I should have liked a long talk with Gandhi, but I fear they'll only stop a few minutes. I shall however try to go down.' Later, after Schreiner and Gandhi had both arrived in Britain (she at the end of 1913 and he in June 1914), their social and other shared meetings and activities increased. Schreiner's comments in her letters to other people at this time provide an interesting outline of such meetings. To Will Schreiner she writes in September 1914, 'Ghandi & Callenback came to see me today but I was out; they are coming again tomorrow', and in the same month, ?Ghandi & Callenback came to see me & yesterday I went to see them & Mrs Ghandi. They came over third class & will be here for two months. It was a great comfort to me to see them.' To Kallenbach she wrote in 1914, 'I was sorry you did not come to Miss Hobhouse's yesterday. I was glad to see Mr Gandhi looking much better... Could you ask Mr Gandhi if he could get me the address of that Mahamedan Judge I was speaking of: he lives near London', and in November 1914 to Alice Greene, 'I went to see dear old Ghandi the other day: he looks very ill & weak. The damp & fog try him too.'

Schreiner's letters also indicate there was more than acquaintanceship and sociability going on. Relatedly, Gandhi and his colleagues must have seen her as a significant asset in their cause to have asked her to speak on important public occasions, which included Gandhi's arrival in Britain, and also the farewell gatherings that took place when he left for India. In a letter to Will Schreiner in December 1914, she writes that 'I was so well this afternoon I went to Gandhi's goodbye gathering at the Westminster Hotel. To my surprise they asked me to speak. I stood up & said ten or twelve words, but the wonderful thing is, it didn't tell on me at all; I had none of that awful fluttering & faintness I always have when I try to speak in public, & don?t feel ill at all tonight.'

While Schreiner and Gandhi worked together on matters concerning 'race' politics, her only extant letter to him is in fact concerned with the outbreak of the First World War and pacifism. In it in effect she ticks him off for reneging on his principles. In the letter Schreiner expresses her surprise on hearing that Gandhi 'and other Indian friends had offered to serve this the English Government in this evil war in any way they might demand of you.' She adds, 'Surely you, who would not take up arms even in the cause of your own oppressed people cannot be willing to shed blood in this wicked cause.' In effect Schreiner is taking Gandhi to task on what she regarded as a break with his pacifist and non-violence principles. Gandhi and his wife left Britain at the end of 1914 and there are no further mentions of him in Schreiner's letters.

For further information see:
The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes, http://www.gandhiserve.org/cwmg/cwmg.html, and selected correspondence (but still some 35,000 items) to and from Gandhi at http://www.gandhiserve.org/correspondence/correspondence.html 
Judith M. Brown (2004) 'Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma Gandhi) (1869-1948)' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33318
Joseph Lelyveld (2011) Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India New York: Knopf
Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier (2010) 'I trust that our brief acquaintance may ripen into sincere friendship': Networks across the race divide in South Africa in conceptualising Olive Schreiner's letters 1890-1920 OSLP Working Papers on Letters, Letterness & Epistolary Networks, No. 2. http://www.oliveschreinerletters.ed.ac.uk/GiantRaceArticlePDF.pdf
Back to top


recipient icon Recipient Of
collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
Back to top


mentioned icon Mentioned In
collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University of Cape Town, Historical Manuscripts: Manuscripts & Archives at the University of Cape Town is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many per... Show/Hide Collection Letters
Back to top