The Richard Attenborough film left out a near lynching of Gandhi that was far more dramatic than any South African scene depicted in the Gandhi film.
Ships bearing several hundred Indians-indentured laborers, new immigrants, and returning Natal residents-docked at the port city of Durban. The British colony of Natal (part of present-day South Africa) was home to this port city and the site of already heightened xenophobia directed specifically at Indians. In many panicked meetings that followed, the alarm was sounded of “flood-gates opened” to hordes of “useless” Indians invading Natal. Fear of Indians taking control of more property and eventually political power in Natal was whipped up. Demands to block further Indian immigration bellowed.
In mid-December 1896, the SS Courland and SS Naderi were forced to wait out at sea just outside Durban with their 600 passengers. Their passengers were medically inspected for the bubonic plague which had recently broken out in Bombay, India. The Natal Advertiser whipped up a frenzy about one of the passengers writing, “the great Gandhi has arrived at the head of the advanced guard of the Indian army of invasion–the army that is to dispossess us of our country and homes.” The paper announced the plan to meet the disembarking Indians with “human lines three or four deep” to bar the immigrants’ entry.
On January 12th, Durban authorities finally allowed the Indian passengers ashore after three weeks waiting aboard their ships. A mob of 5,000 Europeans meant to meet the passengers with violence. Natal’s Attorney-General had to make a speech to disperse the mob peacefully. This enabled Gandhi’s wife and children as well most other passengers to safely head to Indian areas of Durban. Refusing to ender Durban “like a thief in the night,” Gandhi and Durban attorney F.A. Laughton (Gandhi’s friend) disembarked later that afternoon. White boys nearby recognized Gandhi landing. The boys alerted the remaining mob who returned to confront Gandhi. Gandhi and Laughton hailed one rickshaw driver and then another. But both were intimidated by the mob into refusing the attorneys and their luggage a ride. So the two men walked. The two were followed by the evergrowing mob.
When the two attorneys reached the Ship’s Hotel, they were surrounded. Gandhi was kicked and punched and struck with a riding-whip. With blood flowing down his neck, eyewitnesses admired him for remaining stoic through the whole ordeal. Then Jane Alexander, the wife of the Superintendent of Police, burst in using her umbrella to shield Gandhi from the mob. Then constables evacuated Gandhi to Parsee Rustomjee’s (a local Indian) store and locked the growing mob out. The deputy mayor and Superintendent of Police, R.C. Alexander, tried unsuccessfully to convince the mob to leave. Instead, the mob broke into a song beginning with “We’ll hang old Gandhi on a sour apple tree.”
Alexander resorted to trickery. Gandhi swapped clothes with a government employee. His face blackened and covered with a muffler. He and two detectives exited through a side door unnoticed, then fled in a carriage to the police station. Alexander then announced to the crowd that Gandhi was no longer in the building. A three-man delegation from the mob confirmed this. The mob was dispersed and Gandhi’s lynching averted.
Ricksha boys in Durban, South Africa
More can be read on this in the following book:
Guha, Ramachandra. Gandhi Before India. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014: p. 107-119.