In March 1922, a New York pastor named John Haynes Holmes gave a sermon on “Gandhi, His World Significance.” The Mahatma, he said, “deserves the support of every true American,” for he was “doing in India for his people exactly what George Washington did for us.” Holmes continued that the Indian was “far more, infinitely greater, than a nationalistic leader.” His was a “movement for world redemption.” Gandhi, in fact, was “undertaking to do exactly what Jesus did when He proclaimed the kingdom of God on earth.”
At this stage, John Haynes Holmes had not been to India nor seen the Mahatma. And Gandhi himself never visited America. Yet the pastor’s eulogy was representative. While in India the Mahatma often faced stinging criticism, in the United States he was almost always spoken of with affection and admiration. Time magazine chose him as Man of the Year. The New York Times wrote extensively and appreciatively of the man and his movement. A Christian group in Chicago repeatedly nominated him (alas, unsuccessfully) for a Nobel Peace Prize. A string of curious Americans, male and female, white and black, went to India to visit Gandhi in his ashram.
Between 1920, the year he launched a countrywide struggle for freedom, and 1948, the year of his death, tens of thousands of articles were written about Gandhi in the American press. The fascination with the man—and his methods—has endured long after his death. The great Martin Luther King Jr. read him closely and visited India to study his legacy. Other civil rights leaders were also deeply influenced by Gandhi. The environmental movement often invokes him as an icon. As a lowly state senator in Chicago, Barack Obama had a portrait of Gandhi in his office. Later, after he became president and was asked which person, dead or alive, he would like to have a meal with, he chose Gandhi (adding that it would be a frugal meal).
The American obsession with Gandhi has been written about by some fine historians, among then Sudarshan Kapur, Nico Slate and Leonard Gordon. But here I want to report a striking recent finding. The first mention of Gandhi in the American press occurred well before he became a leader of the Indian national movement. And it was printed in this journal, which first wrote about Gandhi when he was a young and struggling lawyer in South Africa’s Natal, and scarcely known in his own homeland.
Working in the India Office Collections of the British Library, I came across a clipping from The Nation dated May 6, 1897, titled “East Indians in South Africa.” It was written by “D.B.,” the pseudonym of an Anglo-Irish MP named Alfred Webb, who had a strong interest in Indian affairs. Four months earlier, Gandhi had been attacked by a white mob in Durban, angry that he had criticized, in public and in print, the discrimination faced by his fellow Indians in Natal. He suffered serious injuries, and he may have died had he not been rescued by the (white) superintendent of police.
Arriving in Durban in the aftermath of the attack, D.B. was able to place it in context. It was, he argued, a manifestation of the growing racism in the British Empire. In the early nineteenth century, the empire was “free to every nationality, and within its confines was known no distinction, ‘Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free.’ ” This openness and liberal spirit encouraged the British to consider themselves “innately superior to other peoples, guided by clearer reason, impelled by loftier motives.”