Radical Objects

Radical Object: A Fragile Commemoration of a Brutal Deportation

This souvenir was produced to commemorate a brutal attack on trade unionists just prior to the First World War. The event is today all but forgotten, but this fragile artefact has somehow survived. Approximately 40cms by 30cms it was printed on tissue paper. It commemorates the trade union protest against the deportation from South Africa to Britain of nine white union leaders, who had confronted the government of Generals Smuts and Botha. It marked a demonstration on 1stMarch 1914 that brought half a million British trade union members to Hyde Park. The event was so vast that the march stretched for seven miles. The engineering workers’ union’s publication described the gathering as ‘the greatest and most impressive of its kind that has ever taken place in the heart of the Empire.’

Clashes on the gold mines

The background to these events was the industry on which the wealth of South Africa depended: the gold mines. With the Anglo-Boer war (1899 – 1902) behind them, the owners attempted to get the mines working once more, but the geology was against them.  At the start of the mining in 1886 the rich seams of the Witwatersrand were close to the surface, but as they were excavated the seams dived deeper underground. They also produced ore that was of a lower grade, even though it was plentiful. To bring this to the surface in sufficient quantities the mines required vast numbers of labourers. This undermined the viability of the operations and as mining profits were squeezed the mine-owners looked for ways to reduce costs. They first attempted to reduce the wages of the black workforce, but African miners, already hard hit by droughts and floods in the rural areas, resisted. From 1912 a series of strikes took place, but they were brutally repressed. The South African National Native Congress (later the ANC) was sympathetic, but urged restraint. Black miners had been defeated; white miners were the next to confront the mine owners.

Most unions were extensions of the British union movement, but unlike their counterparts in the Cape, the mining unions were exclusively white. When Keir Hardie visited the Transvaal in 1907, he called for unions to organise workers irrespective of race. He was forced to flee from a hall by a mob, baying for his blood. The white unions were supported by a party that backed their cause – the South African Labour Party.

The spark that ignited the clash between the unions and the government was a dispute over the working hours of five white miners who were sacked in May 1913. There was a powerful reaction and by July there was a general strike. Jan Smuts, a former Boer war general and the Minister of Defence, called out the army. By 5th of July 19,000 miners were out on strike. They attacked the offices of ‘The Star’– the paper that had backed the owners. Fierce fighting broke out between miners and troops and in the first two days more than 100 miners were killed. Prime Minister Botha, together with Smuts, were persuaded by the mining companies to try to achieve negotiated a settlement. A meeting was arranged at the Carlton Hotel. Strikers surged around the venue and the troops guarding the hotel appeared about to fire into the crowd. It was James Thomas Bain, a British unionist, who had settled in South Africa, who seized centre stage. Acting as the secretary of the strike committee, Bain is reported to have held a revolver in General Smuts’ and General Botha’s faces, threatening to kill them if they ordered the troops around the hotel to open fire.  Botha and Smuts were forced to capitulate, signing a non-victimisation agreement.


The Afrikaner leaders were furious and plotted their revenge. Fresh legislation was enacted allowing meetings to be banned. When a railway strike erupted in January 1914 Smuts acted. He mobilised 70,000 troops, arrested two members of parliament, including the leader of the Labour Party, Frederick Cresswell, and seized union leaders. Nine of them, including Bain, were rushed to Durban and put on board the SS Umgeni, and deported to Britain. Smuts admitted there was little legal basis for this action.

The British union movement rallied to the cause of their comrades. The mighty demonstration in Hyde Park was just one of many events held around the country. The Hull Labour Party monthly, Dawn, called for mass support for the rally they planned in the town. ‘Turn up in your thousands, workers of Hull, that our city, which prides itself upon its love of liberty, and still glories in the name of Wilberforce, may fittingly welcome our brothers who are the victims of this oppression, and demonstrate our willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder to defend the liberty of labour the world over’. The meeting on Sunday 29 March 1914 was described by the local labour press as ‘the greatest rally of trade unionists Hull has ever known.’ Bain told the Hull rally: ‘We have done nothing worse in South Africa than what the trade unionists of this country are doing every day.’ Others of the deportees took the campaign to the continent. Hessel Poutsma, secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railways and Harbour Servants, spoke in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

The First World War put paid to much of the activities of the labour and union movement, but the 1913-1914 strikes were by no means the last time the white working class clashed with the South African government. In 1922 they led a full-scale revolt that was only crushed with the use of tanks, aircraft and artillery. The Rand Revolt, as it was termed was the most serious assault a South African government ever faced, but that is a story for another day.

Gandhi and the Indian protests

There is one intriguing footnote to Smut’s battle with the unions. The railway strike took place at the height of Gandhi’s final attempt to win rights for the Indian community in the Transvaal and Natal. He had brought Natal almost to a halt, with mines and sugar plantations out on strikes and the military deployed to maintain control. Gandhi sought a meeting with Smuts to discuss the situation, travelling to Pretoria on 8 January 1914 and finally obtaining a meeting with Smuts on 16 January. The two men managed to make progress, with Gandhi offering to halt his protests while the government dealt with the strikes. The authorities were taken aback, but his stand won him friends in unexpected places. One of Smuts’s secretaries candidly informed Gandhi: ‘I do not like your people, and do not care to assist them at all. But what can I do? You help us in our days of need. How can we lay hands upon you? I often wish you took to violence like the English strikers, and then we would know at once how to dispose of you. But you will not injure even the enemy. You desire victory by self-suffering alone and never transgress your self-imposed limit of courtesy and chivalry. And this is what reduces us to sheer helplessness.’

The incident allowed the Secretary of State for India, Lord Crewe, a moment’s private amusement with the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, who had followed Gandhi’s protests very closely. ‘The rather startling action of the South African Government in placing the labour men on shipboard is going to arouse a sort of storm here, and Loulou [Lewis] Harcourt [Secretary of State for the Colonies] will have a lively time in the House of Commons,’ wrote Crewe. ‘With you, on the contrary, the news ought to have a soothing effect; it can be argued that Gandhi and Polak [one of Gandhi’s white supporters] have never been sent off to sea under the Jolly Roger; and that to be a white man is a positive disadvantage, unless one is prepared to sit still and make money. Quite seriously, I am disposed to ascribe the sweet reasonableness of the [South African] Union Ministers, at least to a certain extent, to the emergence of these bigger troubles; when a formidable gang of poachers is devastating your coverts, you cannot waste time over a labourer who is suspected of having snared a rabbit.’

If Lord Crewe was right, the South African government’s decision not to deport Gandhi and some of his supporters, and Smuts’s willingness to give some ground by establishing the commission of inquiry, may have been at least in part because he needed to concentrate on a larger enemy – the ‘gang of poachers’. In any event, Gandhi was able to claim victory after further intense negotiations and leave South Africa to begin his long campaign for Indian independence.

[Note: an earlier version of this article, which mistakenly suggested that the writer Robert Tressell witnessed the protests, was corrected on 3 July 2020.]

One Comment

  1. Dear Martin Plaut
    NB Robert Tressell/Noonan could not have witnessed the events described as occurring in 1913 because he was already dead. He died February 1911 in Liverpool whilst attempting to emigrate to Canada. He did live in South Africa from around 1891 to 1901. It has always baffled me as to why he did not try to novelise his experiences there, which were far more “positive” than those he put with in Hastings.

    Yours sincerely

    Glenn Meredith

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