India’s First Diplomat
V.S. Srinivasa Sastri and the Making of Liberal Internationalism

4: The Silver-Tongued Orator


On 26 August 1919, the South African Minister of Defence, Jan Smuts, was in the coastal town of Durban in the Natal province. Informally referred to as ‘the largest Indian city outside India’, it was, as it is now, a place abundant with South Africans of Indian descent.1 They had first arrived as indentured labour in the colony of Natal in 1860, followed a few decades later by traders, or ‘passenger Indians’. The Union of South Africa, a state formed in 1910 out of the four colonies of the Transvaal, Natal, the Cape Colony and the Orange Free State, treated its non-white subjects as second-class citizens, although the degree of discrimination differed from province to province; the Orange Free State being the most racist and the Cape Colony the most liberal.

In his address to local Indians that day, Smuts assured them of ‘fair treatment in all parts of the Union’. A frisson of excitement ran among the crowd, as Smuts summoned empire sentiment to appeal for conciliation between whites and Indians. He announced: ‘We have to live side by side in conciliation … so that we may live together and grow together. We are members of one family … the same Empire.’2

For an Afrikaner leader, let alone a former Boer War general who had fought a brutal war against the British Empire, this could seem an odd choice of words. However, Smuts was the most empire-loving of all Afrikaner leaders, and the empire loved him back. In fact, he had just returned from England after two and half years.

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