Gandhi and the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps

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As the British fought pitched battles against the Boers in South Africa in the late 19th century, they were supported by an unusual corps of men, on and off the battlefield. These volunteers were a logistical godsend to British forces, as they tended to the wounded, evacuated the dead, and made sure supplies were transported safely, among other things.

That’s why it might surprise you to know that the corps was set up by a young Mohandas Gandhi, to specifically serve the Imperial British as it pushed its colonial ambitions in South Africa.

Fight for Civil Liberties

Gandhi was working as a lawyer in South Africa since 1893 while also leading the fight for civil liberties for people of colour in that country. He had seen firsthand, the plight of Indian immigrants there, and had also experienced racial discrimination himself, multiple times. A few years later, he would go on to lead the freedom movement in his own homeland, India.

So why did Gandhi serve the colonial British, who were oppressors in South Africa and in India, both colonies of the Empire?

One must view Gandhi’s decision to set up the ambulance corps in the context of the 21 years he spent in South Africa (1893 - 1914), where his philosophy and politics of non-violence and civil disobedience evolved and began to take shape.

One of the political moves he made then was to help found the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, and it was through this organisation that Gandhi shaped the Indian community in South Africa into a unified political force.

British Versus Boers

All this while, as the British kept expanding its Empire in South Africa, it fought two wars with the Boers (descendants of the early Dutch settlers). During the second conflict, Boer militias and irregular forces invaded the British colony of Natal in October 1899. The war ended in 1902.

Historian and author Ramachandra Guha writes in his book, Gandhi Before India, that it was this invasion that led Gandhi to believe he could secure increased rights and civil liberties for Indians in South Africa by demonstrating their commitment to serving the Empire by participating in the conflict. Of course, this service would have to be non-violent, and an ambulance corps was most appropriate.

Further interpreting Gandhi’s rationale, Guha says that by helping the British in this conflict, Gandhi also believed it would refute the charge that Indians were only interested in “money-grubbing and were mainly a deadweight upon the British”. Gandhi, still only aged 30 then, saw this as a “golden opportunity” to prove these charges false.

In his autobiography The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Gandhi says that despite his sympathies being with the Boers and their cause for independence from British rule, he remained a loyal subject of the British Empire. He further goes on to say, “I felt that if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire. I held then that India could achieve her complete emancipation only within and through the British Empire.”

Birth of the Ambulance Corps

Gandhi thus wrote to the Colonial Secretary of Natal, enclosing a list of Indians who had volunteered to serve in the proposed ambulance corps. Since these men had no military training, he insisted that they be put to service in duties that are no less essential on the battlefield - an ambulance corps.

Indian Stretcher Bearers of the unit led by Mahatma Gandhi
Indian Stretcher Bearers of the unit led by Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi thus established the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps in October 1899, consisting of 1,100 Indians – 300 free Indians and 800 indentured labourers. They received basic medical training and served as stretcher bearers, administered first aid, dressed wounds, operated ambulances and administered medicine.

Gandhi as a warrant officer in 1899
Gandhi as a warrant officer in 1899

The ambulance corps first served in the Battle of Colenso (1899), which ended in an ignominious defeat for the British. The corps performed well beyond British expectations, who had thought Indians were incapable of such actions. There were a great many casualties at Colenso and the Indian volunteers evacuated the wounded and also followed the soldiers from camp to camp, taking care of stragglers along the way. They had to march up to 20-25 miles a day, go hours without food and water, and sleep out in the open. They also handled the mule trains, which carried all the supplies, like food rations and ammunition, to and from the front line.

British dead at Spion Kop
British dead at Spion Kop

The next time the corps went into action was in January 1900, at the Battle of Spion Kop. Just like Colenso, the British were badly mauled here too, with more than 1,500 casualties. Gandhi, in his autobiography, says that although the Indian ambulance corps was never meant to serve in the firing line, they were asked to do so at a critical moment, after successive assaults by the British were repulsed up the hill. The corps served with full distinction in the thick of the fighting, amid exploding shells and a hail of rifle fire.

Ambulance of the Indian Stretcher Bearer Corps
Ambulance of the Indian Stretcher Bearer Corps

They also kept evacuating the wounded and collecting the dead on stretchers down the hill, towards the British camp, where the survivors were cared for by the trained medical volunteers of the corps. In his autobiography, Gandhi mentions that among the wounded evacuated from the field was Major-General Edward Woodgate, Commander of a large British force tasked with the capture of Spion Kop.

Appreciation for their Corps

The contribution of the Indian volunteer corps was immortalised during these two battles, and it played a modest part in the ultimate British victory in the Second Boer War, which dragged on for two more years, until 1902. Their contributions were lauded by the colonial administration of Natal and this enhanced the perception of Indians in South Africa.

The actions of the corps at Spion Kop were also recorded by none other than the future Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, who was then a War Correspondent for the London-based Morning Post. He talks about the stretcher bearers who worked quickly and efficiently to remove the wounded from the field. His anti-Gandhi and anti-Indian sentiments are well known, but his newspaper reports make it clear that even he was pleasantly astonished at what he witnessed.

Boers in front of the Spion Kop hill, after their victory.
Boers in front of the Spion Kop hill, after their victory.

The Natal Indian Ambulance Corps was disbanded soon after the Battle of Spion Kop. A total of 37 volunteers, including Gandhi, received a war medal. He was later awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal for his humanitarian work in South Africa and the Zulu War Medal for the services of the ambulance corps. He would return these awards in protest after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919.

Did the gamble pay off?

Gandhi’s belief that the work of the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps would lead to increased civil rights and garner political favour for Indians was misplaced. For the British, equality was nowhere on the horizon and self-rule was still a distant dream. Several more million Indians would have to shed their blood through protests, movements, other wars, and eventually World War 2.

In his autobiography, Gandhi speaks about how serving in the ambulance corps brought about a great awakening among the culturally diverse Indian community. They began to realise how they were all children of the same motherland. Therefore, the will to keep fighting for equal status in the Empire never stopped.

Eventually, the demand for equal status would evolve into a demand for full and complete independence from British rule in India. Thus, the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps played its part, even if only a modest one, in shaping India’s march to freedom.

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