It was in Pietermaritzburg in 1893 that a young Indian lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, took a decision that irrevocably committed him to his political and religious destiny as a leader. After he left South Africa in 1914 he led the struggle for the national independence of India, and the non-violent methods he used earned him world-wide recognition as one of the greatest men of this century. Just before his seventieth birthday in 1939, Gandhi was asked by the missionary, Dr John R. Mott, to single out the most creative experience of his life. This was Gandhi's reply:


‘Such experiences are a multitude. But as you put the question to me, I recalled particularly one experience that changed the course of life. That fell to my lot seven days after I had arrived in South Africa. I had gone there on a purely mundane and selfish mission. I was just a boy returned from England, wanting to make some money. Suddenly the client who had taken me there asked me to go to Pretoria from Durban. It was not an easy journey. There was the railway journey as far as Charlestown and the coach to Johannesburg. On the train I had a first-class ticket, but not a bed ticket. At Maritzburg when the beds were issued, the guard came and turned me out, and asked me to go into the van compartment. I would not go, and the train steamed away leaving me shivering in the cold.


Now the creative experience comes there. I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-room . There was a white man in the room, I was afraid of him. What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date’.

The event Gandhi described had taken place nearly forty-six years before, on the night of 7 June 1893. It is not surprising that after all that time there should have been some errors in Gandhi's recollection. He had arrived in Durban from India earlier than he remembered, on 23 May 1893, and it was not the railway guard that had turned him off the train at Pietermaritzburg station. In fact, the guard had summoned the aid of a police constable when Gandhi had refused to budge from his seat, and the constable had unceremoniously pushed him out of the compartment and pitched his luggage after him.

That wintry night in the waiting-room of the Pietermaritzburg station, Gandhi made the fateful decision not to accept his ignominious treatment but to stay on and fight racial injustice. In the morning he sent a telegram of protest from the Pietermaritzburg Post Office to the General Manager of the Railways. Gandhi had initiated his public career.




March 2012. Reported by Charmaine Naidoo – Museologist at Project Gateway during the research for the Old Prsion Museum.

I have been corresponding with a leading researcher, Enuga Reddy who was the Director of the  United Nations Centre against Apartheid from 1963 to 1984 and Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, 1983 - 1985. Since his retirement from the United Nations in 1985, he has been a senior Fellow at the United Nations Institute  for Training and Research.


I have asked Mr Reddy if he had proof of Gandhi's imprisonment, and he has kindly given me information that confirms Gandhi was indeed in pmb prison.


Dear Charmaine,
Here is a passage from Sushila Nayar, Mahatma Gandhi, Volume IV, Satyagraha at Work. Published by Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, December 1989. You can take it as authoritative.

“On November 18 he was therefore transferred to Maritzburg gaol where he was treated worse than he had ever been treated before. He was at first made to dig stones and sweep the compound. Later he was confined in a cell just ten feet by eight feet, which at night was lit only when the guard came on his periodic rounds. He was not allowed to have even a bench in the cell, not was he allowed to take any exercise. He was in general harassed, and all efforts were made to humiliate him. When he was summoned to give evidence in another case, he was marched to court handcuffed and legs manacled.
    “Later he was sent to gaol in Bloemfontein…” (pages 663-64)


"Mahatma Gandhi: A Chronology", compiled by K.P. Goswami, and published by the Publications Division of the Government of India, says that Gandhi was transferred to Maritzburg Gaol on November 18, 1913.. It does not say when he was moved out of Maritzburg to Bloemfontein.