This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
On the afternoon of 27 October 1888, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a shy 18-year-old, stepped foot on British soil for the first time, after a long sea voyage from Bombay. Gandhi had never been to a big city before and, as he made his way to the Victoria Hotel in London from Tilbury Docks, he was stunned by the grandeur, the electric lights and by the experience of going in a lift – a contraption that he had never seen and did not know how to use. “I was quite dazzled by the splendour of the hotel. I had never in my life seen such pomp.” He was also excited to finally reach the heart of the British empire and recorded that he was “all the time smiling within myself”.
Gandhi had come to Britain to study law (and would pass his exams at the Inner Temple in 1891). Yet it had taken all of his characteristic stubbornness and resourcefulness just to reach the country in the first place. He had travelled against the wishes of his family and his wider caste group, who had refused him permission to leave home.
This stay from 1888 to 1891, the first of Gandhi’s five visits to London, was the longest and most significant. It was not unusual for Indians to study and work in Britain in the 19th century, but Gandhi would draw exceptionally deeply on his experiences. And these experiences were formative in shaping his political and moral thought. For the rest of his life, Gandhi’s relationship with Britain would be both important and deeply ambiguous.
The young student’s initial excitement passed and he was soon homesick and preoccupied with food and money. Britain was more expensive than he expected, and he was unsettled by his early attempts to live as an English gentleman. “Everything was strange – the people, their ways, and even their dwellings. I was a complete novice in the matter of English etiquette and continually had to be on my guard,” he later recalled. Dining out as a vegetarian was troublesome – he had promised his mother before he left not to eat meat, not to touch alcohol and to stay faithful to his wife who had remained in India. He walked 8 or 10 miles a day, rather than spending money on the bus.
But he soon began to soak up many new experiences. He experimented with ballroom dancing classes, tried elocution lessons and learnt Latin. While studying law, he also became attracted to London’s radical politics, meeting freethinkers, theosophists (who believe that knowledge from the distant past offers a route to enlightenment), artists, politicians and writers, many of whom were highly critical of Victorian society. He went to see the great radical leader Annie Besant, met the theosophist leader Madame Blavatsky and attended the funeral of the politician Charles Bradlaugh. He also made excursions, including to Paris and to Brighton. He found a modest foothold as a committee leader of the Vegetarian Society, where he honed his journalistic and campaigning skills.
Gandhi developed a deep fondness for British people during these years, which he would retain all his life. At the same time, as an outsider, with time on his hands, he came to understand the British from afar, and was able to use these insights to develop a unique analysis of imperial and racial injustices.
By the time of his next visit, sailing from the Cape in 1906, he had become a prominent leader of the south Asian community in South Africa. Back in London, Gandhi met with Lord Elgin at the colonial office as part of a delegation to petition against the Black Act, which required finger printing and compulsory registration for Indians and Chinese working in South Africa.
Gandhi was still styling himself as a barrister, in coat, jacket and tie. But his strengths as an outspoken campaigner were already evident. He used every minute of his short visit, staying up most nights until three o’clock in the morning, to lobby, persuade and campaign on the issue of the Black Act. He spoke to a delegation of politicians in the House of Commons and wrote hundreds of letters. Although his petition was refused, Gandhi’s political standing among the Indian diaspora was growing and his propaganda skills sharpening.
This visit to London also showed how important it was for Gandhi to meet his opponents face to face, and to physically travel to the centre of the empire. After all, decisions in London affected millions of imperial subjects.
By now, Gandhi’s talents were increasingly making waves in Britain. George Birdwood, the Anglo-Indian keeper of the Victoria and Albert Museum, wrote of the delight he felt reading Gandhi’s petition, and the “ability and wisdom” of some “young Hindoos”.
When Gandhi returned to Britain once again, in 1909, he would create even more of a stir. His tireless campaigning had already landed him in a South African prison – and now, back in London, he had the empire’s harsh racial hierarchies firmly in his sights. While in the imperial capital, he lobbied for south Asian resident rights in South Africa, held meetings, wrote letters and petitions and read the newspapers.
All the while, Gandhi watched the actions of the suffragettes in London with a mixture of admiration and frustration. He admired their resolve and hunger strikes, but abhorred their impatience and use of violence. “If demoralised by suffering, they take to extreme measures and resort to violence, they will lose whatever sympathy they have won and set the people against themselves,” he wrote.
Gandhi also visited friends in Lincolnshire and the Cotswolds and, in a bid to harness the power of educated Indians abroad, met students at Cambridge University.
On his way back, he penned Hind Swaraj, a fiery and explicit statement of his views, one that rejected western ways of living and consuming in strident language. This was a political manifesto, from which his major political campaigns took root. Once again, time in Britain had shaped Gandhi’s politics.
By the time of his fourth visit, in 1914, the First World War had erupted. Now Gandhi’s earlier furies were tempered with concern about the war, and his thoughts turned to helping injured soldiers. While in Britain he established the Indian Volunteers Corps to try and recruit Indians to the British war effort. He also trained in first aid and helped to nurse the wounded.
Although his fellow Indians didn’t recognise him as a great national leader, Gandhi was, on the international stage at least, now a figure of some standing. (Indeed, a reception was held for him at the Cecil Hotel in London, at which one of the other guests was MA Jinnah, at that time another member of the Indian National Congress but later his arch-rival as leader of the Muslim League.)
Some of Gandhi’s allies questioned his sympathy with Britain at this time of war. But this was characteristic of his feelings towards British people, which were often warm and empathetic. It also revealed his sense of imperial belonging, which he still felt keenly.
“I found that, living in England, I was in a way participating in the war,” he wrote. “Whilst many Englishmen, leaving their ordinary vocation in life, are responding to the imperial call, those Indians who are residing in the United Kingdom and who can at all do so, should place themselves unconditionally at the disposal of the Authorities.” This touch of imperial loyalism speaks again to Gandhi’s profoundly ambivalent relationship with Britain at a time of international crisis. He was, at this point, a serious critic of empire, and spoke of home rule for Indians. But he was not yet a champion of complete Indian independence.
Many years would pass before Gandhi made his final, and most celebrated, visit to Britain. When he returned – in 1931, aged 61 – the world had changed dramatically, and so had Gandhi. He arrived as the ‘Mahatma’ or Great Soul, and was a figure of international stature, widely recognised as the greatest anti-colonial leader of the 20th century.
Since his last visit, he had become a passionate nationalist, one who had led the non-co-operation movements against the British in India, and had emerged as a philosopher of non-violence. Now he wanted freedom for India, and he was unrelenting in pointing out racial discrimination and imperial misrule.
Gandhi was in Britain to speak at the Round Table Conference, a crucial meeting designed to address constitutional reform in India. He claimed to represent all Indians, and refused to acknowledge political differences between different Indian castes and religions.
As propaganda, Gandhi’s visit to London was a masterstroke. He was photographed and recorded everywhere he went, most famously on the steps of 10 Downing Street. He wore his khadi (home spun) loincloth and carried his walking stick, a striking sight in depression-era England.
Gandhi also reached out to the working classes of Britain, and built bridges with the people. In return, they welcomed him with great warmth and enthusiasm. He made it clear that his demands were against the colonial state, not the ordinary people of Britain, and built new alliances with the poor.
In Darwen, Lancashire, at the very centre of the industrial textiles production that he had boycotted (as part of his protest against British rule), Gandhi met with factory workers, and was photographed with women and children. “He looked down at me, stroked my hair, grinned and walked away. He never said one single word,” recalled Gusta Green who was 10 years old at the time.
In London he stayed at Kingsley Hall in the East End, spoke to American journalists, gave sermons and mixed freely with local people.
Admiration for Gandhi wasn’t restricted to the working classes. Although there were some lasting personal antagonisms among Britain’s political class – Winston Churchill dubbed him a “half-naked fakir”– Gandhi won over many influential British MPs to the cause.
The Indian leader also preserved close friendships with many Britons. These included the men and women who lived alongside him on his Indian ashrams (spiritual retreats) – figures such as the Church of England priest Charles Andrews and the aristocrat Madeleine Slade.
During his final visit to Britain, Gandhi also offered an insight into what he regarded as the most salient differences between India and Britain. “I love the East End, particularly the little urchins in the streets,” he said. “They give me such friendly greetings. I have seen a tremendous change in social conditions since I was in London 40 years ago.
“The poverty in London is nothing to what it is in India. I go down the streets here and I see outside each house a bottle of milk, and inside the door there is a strip of carpet, perhaps a piano in the sitting room. In India, several millions wear only a loin-cloth. That is why I wear a loin-cloth myself. They call me half-naked. I do it deliberately in order to identify myself with the poorest of the poor in India.”
Through his visits to Britain, we can trace Gandhi’s evolution from a poor, curious student to one of the prophets of his age. In London, he learned how British political systems operated – and, conversely, how he might subvert them.
This duality captures perfectly Gandhi’s view of Britain and the British. It was a relationship riven by contradictions and clouded by mixed emotions. He professed as much when questioned on the subject in 1948, a year after India gained its independence, and a few weeks before his death. “I hold extreme views about British connection,” he said. “In spite of my love of the British people, I think that their imperialism has been their greatest crime against humanity.”
Timeline: Gandhi’s extraordinary journey
Gandhi is born in Porbandar. His father is the adviser to the ruler of a small princely state in western India. Gandhi will become a shy and unpromising school pupil.
During his first stay in Britain, Gandhi studies in London and qualifies as a barrister at the Inner Temple. He becomes active in the Vegetarian Society and meets a number of British radicals.
Gandhi lives in South Africa and works as a lawyer. He campaigns for the rights of Asians living in South Africa, and develops his political and spiritual beliefs.
9 January 1915
Gandhi and his family return to live and work in India. He is welcomed as a hero for his work in South Africa, but it will be two years before he starts his first civil disobedience campaigns in India.
Gandhi’s programme of non-violent, non-co-operation against the British Raj leads to mass resignations from government positions, marches and demonstrations across the country.
1920s & 1930s
He dedicates much of his time to campaigns against caste discrimination and to experiments in communal living at his ashrams.
12 March 1930
Gandhi calls for widespread civil disobedience in demanding complete self-rule, leading again to widespread movements in India.
He arrives in London to represent Indians in discussions about the future of India’s independence. This will be his last visit to Britain.
In the last of many jail terms, Gandhi spends much of the Second World War in prison as the British fear opposition to the war effort. He calls for the British to quit India and fasts to near death as a protest against all forms of violence.
30 January 1948
Gandhi is murdered in Delhi by a Hindu nationalist and his funeral is broadcast across the world.
Yasmin Khan is associate history professor at the department for continuing education at the University of Oxford
Radio 4’s series Incarnations covered the lives of 50 notable Indians. To listen to the episode on Gandhi, go to: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072mvvr