The Chocolate Men

When the corps disbanded on 14 February 1900, Gandhi raised the issue of the ‘Queen’s Chocolate’ that had been given as a gift to (white) soldiers. He wrote to Chamberlain on 22 February to request a chocolate each for the Ambulance Corps leaders who had ‘volunteered without pay’ and would ‘prize it as a treasure’ (NAB, CSO, Vol. 1641, 1462/1900, 22 February 1900). The colonial secretary declined this request because the chocolate was for non-commissioned officers only (NAB, CSO, Vol. 1641, 1462/1900, 9 March 1900).

Despite this snub, Gandhi offered his ‘respectful congratulations’ on this ‘brilliant victory’ when General Buller ended the siege of Ladysmith on 28 February 1900 (NAB, CSO, Vol. 1641, 1605/1900, 1 March 1900). There was a great deal of celebration in Durban where Indians ‘vied with the Europeans in their patriotic zeal to celebrate the occasion by decorating their stores, etc’ (TOI: 16 June 1900; CWMG 2: 348). A mass meeting was organised by Deputy Mayor Ellis Brown in front of the Town Hall to mark the occasion. Thirty white dignitaries sat on the pedestal but not a single black person was invited (NM: 2 March 1900). The NIC arranged a public meeting at Congress Hall on 14 March 1900 to ‘demonstrate their loyalty to the Crown’. Sir John Robinson, former prime minister of Natal, under whose rule a spate of anti-Indian laws was passed, presided. The building and its vicinity were decorated with ‘bunting and national colours’ (NM: 15 March 1900). The letters of invitation bore the heading ‘Long Live Kaiser-I-Hind’ (Emperor of India) with pictures of Queen Victoria and three British Generals who were taking part in the war (CWMG 2: 341). The sixty white guests included B.W. Greenacre, member of the Natal Legislative Assembly, W. Broome, borough magistrate, and J. Nicol, mayor of Durban. The national anthem was played when Robinson entered the hall. Robinson’s remark that ‘the grand old flag of England—(applause)—beneath whose folds every man commands and enjoys full and equal security … must in future float unchallenged from Cape Town to Zambesi’ was met with great applause from the very people who lived under a welter of discriminatory laws and the constant threat of more (NM: 15 March 1900).

The meeting adopted resolutions congratulating the British generals on their success and ‘brilliant victory in the face of insurmountable difficulties … thus vindicating the might of the British Empire and valour of the British soldier’ (NM: 15 March 1900). Advocate R.K. Khan opined that the

distinguished representatives of the West assembled on a common platform with the sons of the East to respond to a call of duty owed to a common Sovereign … showed that the proud boast of an Empire in which many millions of Her Majesty’s subjects lived in harmony and contentment was being realised (NA: 15 March 1900).

Gandhi, after thanking whites for attending in large numbers, said that ‘it was the Indians’ proudest boast that they were British subjects. If they were not, they would not have had a footing in South Africa’ (NA: 15 March 1900).

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‘This is a big book – a serious challenge to the way we have been taught to think about Gandhi’ – Arundhati Roy


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