A crowd numbering three to four thousand people assembled at Darwen Station … when the train was heard to be entering the station, there was babel of eager voices, and every eye was focused on the station exit, but hopes were quickly dashed to the ground and the crowd was greatly disappointed when the first passenger to see the gathering shouted, “You all can go home. He got off at Spring Vale [sic]”.
– The Darwen News, September 26, 1931 (quoted in Mr. Gandhi Visits Lancashire by Irina Spector-Marks)
The eagerly awaited visitor above is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; Darwen and Springvale were textile towns in Lancashire, England and the year was 1931 when Gandhi had been visiting England for the second Round table conference to discuss India’s future, as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress.
If one recalls, British cloth was burnt in heaps during the Non Cooperation and Civil Disobedience movements. And most likely, Lancashire would have been the place of its manufacture. Since the nineteenth century Lancashire had been the site of the world’s premier cotton-goods industry. The weaving towns of the region had flourished through trade, as the British empire had provided ever expanding markets for the goods produced by these cotton mills, along with ensuring a ready supply of cheap, raw cotton.
The Mills of Lancashire
In 1913, the year before World War I broke out, almost 60 per cent of Lancashire cotton products — three billion yards — were exported to India. The same profitable textile industry had a precipitous fall after World War I and in 1931 had been in economic depression for more than ten years and facing huge losses in its exports to India, when the Indian National Congress in 1929 called for a nation-wide boycott of British cotton goods.
Predominantly a textile hub, the income of many families in Lancashire depended entirely on work in the mills. Thousands of unemployed mill workers felt they had been targetedly impoverished due to the Swadeshi boycott of their goods. In reality, retrospect revealed that the Indian boycott was less important than other factors for decline such as the Lancashire industry’s lack of innovation and rising foreign competition, but it received by far the most blame perhaps since it was an external event of high visibility. However, given the clear conflict and distress perceived as being a result of Gandhi’s initiative, his rousing reception in Lancashire is recalled as a particularly awe-inspiring event.
As the influential leader of India, Gandhi had been invited by the Davies family, who were prominent socialists, quakers and owners of Greenfield mill in Darwen, Lancashire. The Davies “firmly believed that the Mahatma might understand the suffering through mill towns such as Bolton, Oldham, Burnley and Blackburn” and that they might be able to influence him to call off the boycott, explains local Darwen historian Harold Heys, in a BBC report. The mayor of Darwen, who was a former trade union leader, had also said that “if Gandhi could see for himself the devastating effect of his policy among the Lancashire cotton operatives…he, as a humanitarian and a deeply religious man, would realise what our grievance is.” The workers believed that Gandhi would understand their hardships and call off the boycott, hence allowing them to return to their old days of business — which at that point was still considered a temporary aberration by the weaving community.
Gandhi, for his part, had readily accepted the invitation to engage in a “frank and friendly discussion” of the problems surrounding Lancashire and India’s economic relationship.
Gandhi’s disciple Madeline Slade (Mira behn) recalls in her autobiography The Spirit’s Pilgrimage their visit to a Lancashire mill with mostly women workers. The mill manager, with Gandhi’s permission, rung the bell so the workers could meet him. “Immediately the machinery stopped and the building was filled with the sound of running feet … by the time we ourselves got outside, there was a large crowd of workers waiting. Bapu said a few words, then two of the women workers suddenly hooked him by the arms, one on each side, and throwing up their un-engaged arms, shouted. ‘Three cheers for Mr Gandeye, hip, hip..’ Hurrah! shouted the crowd, and then again and once more, for the third and loudest time…” (This is the image on top)
As labour historian Dilip Simeon writes in his blog, “There are few, if any, examples of a leader of an anti-colonial struggle whom the citizens of the colonial power held in such affection”. American journalist William Shirer, in his despatch on September 26, 1931 for the Chicago Tribune, attributed this differing nature to the fundamental economic and class divisions between north and the south-east of England. To the sophisticated London, Gandhi was the butt of jokes in the newspapers — a funny-looking old man who had the strange audacity to make demands from the British empire. By comparison, “the industrial north, simple and hard working and not caring much about politics, received him differently … Lancashire liked him. Cotton magnates sat at his feet and listened to him as he talked. They argued. They questioned. They explained,” he wrote.
Gandhi’s mission in England
In challenging a mighty empire, Gandhi saw the importance of having public opinion in Britain, and later in the US, press upon the minds of the Raj. It is apparent from Gandhi’s various writings that he did not have high expectations from the Round Table Conference [RTC] to yield a lot for the Indian cause; instead, his plans for the England visit were primarily aimed at exposing an English audience to his ideas of Indian nationalism and explaining his point of view. Thus, instead of staying in a hotel in London like other delegates, he chose to stay in the working class neighborhoods of East London and engaged extensively with the people and the press.
Narendra Singh Sarila, in his memoir, notes that his father, the Raja of Sarila, who was representing 250 princely states at the RTC observed how it was Gandhi who received the “loudest cheer” from the crowds lined outside the conference venue and was “surprised that the British should applaud loudest the person who wanted to snatch from them their most precious jewel”.
Thus Gandhi treated the invitation to Lancashire as an opportunity to alleviate bitterness and educate the British electorate, especially the working class, about his ideas of Swaraj and Swadeshi. He was sensitive and sympathetic to the distress of the textile workers, but encouraged them to think about Indian hardships as well. In his Lancashire speeches, he tried to explain to his audience that the spinning wheel was “for India’s starving millions the symbol of salvation”, that he regretted the effects of the boycott on their lives, but consoled himself as it was “a result of the steps” that he “had to take” in order for Indian peasants to regain their calling.
He attempted to provide an alternate history of British rule and the role of economic imperialism in India, insisting that “England must not build her happiness on the tombs of millions as she had done.”
The differing worldviews of Gandhi and Lancashire workers
Lancashire expected Gandhi to turn the tide and return their bygone days of comfortable livelihood, but the latter did not have any intention of calling off the boycott. “We believe it is only on a basis of reconciliation and co-operation that the future well-being of both Lancashire and India can be built,” read the statement posted on the doors of the Greenfield Mill in advance of Gandhi’s visit. As history scholar Irina Spector-Marks found from her analysis of the newspapers at the time, Lancashire in its version of history, understood their trade as “benevolent, natural economic relations within an imperial framework in which both India and Lancashire benefited and in which the nationalist boycott was an unnatural aberration from traditional trade relations”.
In the end, Gandhi was to leave Lancashire without giving them the “fair trade” concessions that they hoped to get out of the “friendly talks”. Harold Heyes relayed to the BBC that when some of the old weavers tried to tell him how bad things were, he simply replied: “My dear, you have no idea what poverty is.” The spokesmen had been impressed by “the earnestness of the little man in the loin cloth,” but they failed to comprehend the other aspects of his argument and persisted in believing that the boycott was a thoughtless, misguided impulse which targeted them unfairly.
In spite of being sympathetic to Gandhi’s cause of what they understood was a programme of peasant upliftment (swadeshi), from their vantage point, they were not willing or primed to conceive and grasp imperialism as a subjugating, exploitative machinery. Gandhi’s explanations, to a considerable extent, were lost in translation, in the gulf of sharply differing interests and understandings of the past and the future.