Dora B. Montefiore Justice, April 1912

Across the Indian Ocean

Source: Justice, p.5, 6 April 1912;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

From Perth in Western Australia to Durban in South Africa is just a fortnight’s run, and the hearty welcome from my Western Australian comrades, and their ringing cheers of good-speed on my journey, were still warming my heart and singing in my ears when the good ship Themistocles swept under the bluff, and tied hip at her moorings at Durban Wharf. After a fortnight at sea there is a fascination about everything that appertains to the shore, and on this summer evening of February 23, it was a real joy to feel oneself once more in touch with trees and flowers, and fixed, steady lights that don’t bob up and down in a capricious sea, and to enjoy intervals of stillness unalloyed by the throb of the tireless engines.

I was leaning over the rail, trying to make out by the brilliant cross sections of electric lights the outlines of the smart new watering place and the older part of Durban, when a passenger’s voice at my elbow remarked, “There are some visitors inquiring for you.” And the next moment I was welcomed by three or four comrades, one of whom belonged to the old Bristol Socialist Society, and had often heard me speak.

They had prepared a welcome and reception for me on the following evening – a Saturday – at one of the restaurants in the town, and on Sunday I was to speak in the Public Gardens, all of which programme we faithfully carried out during the week-end. Comrade Norrey, who for years has borne the brunt of keeping together the little band of stalwarts, took me also to see the native market, and the municipal eating-house for the natives, for Natal has added to its other race problems that of importing masses of indentured coolie labour, which labour is now competing with white labour on the beach and in the office and shop. The coloured problem divides itself into three sections: that of the Kaffirs, Zulus, and other native races, who are physically fine, and are rapidly developing mentally. They were holding their first native Congress in Durban while I was there, and have formulated a series of resolutions demanding from the white races better treatment, which resolutions the capitalist papers characterise as insolent. They have their native newspaper, partly in the Kaffir and partly in the English language, and their labour union is the largest in South Africa. Then there are the imported coolies and other Indians, who in Durban, Maritzburg, and that corner of Natal, work as tailors, waiters, house-servants and clerks and thirdly there are what is known as “coloured people,” who come from St, Helena and Mauritius. And these various races, with their many-coloured costumes, their draped and veiled women, and their swarming children, make up a picturesque crowd with a psychology about which one feels it is vain for the white man or woman to speculate. Capitalism has herded them into the towns and suburbs for the purposes of exploitation; but this bringing together of the natives from the ends of the earth is in reality playing the game of evolution and of Socialism. Just as the United States have been for years the melting-pot of the European races, whom in their backwardness under agricultural and semi-feudal conditions our propaganda would have taken much longer to reach had they remained in Europe, so the greed of South African capitalists has thrown together in industrial competition races and peoples who would scarcely have heard of each other had they not been forced to struggle against each other for bread and shelter in this, perhaps the most wonderful and the most perplexing of all the continents.

On Monday evening a good contingent of comrades came to the station to see me off for Maritzburg, where comrade Green and his wife gave me charming and cheering hospitality for two days. On Tuesday evening I gave our Socialist message in a public hall in Maritzburg, and on Wednesday I left by the night train for Johannesburg. Up and up climbs the railway line between Durban and the great new capital of the Rand. Maritzburg is about 3,000 feet above sea level; Johannesburg is over 6,000 feet. On either side of the line, once one has crossed the Vaal, stretches the green, billowy veldt, for all the world like hundreds of miles of Sussex South Downs. The soil is either red or deep black, and, as far as agriculture goes, appears at present to be merely scratched.

Up and up, from the lower veldt to the higher veldt, past the little graveyards of three who fell in the Boer War, past homesteads and mealie plots, and countless herds of sheep and oxen, and still the rolling, endless veldt. Then towards four in the afternoon comes a change, and on the far distant horizon one sees the long line of the Rand chimneys belching smoke, and telling the tale of the supreme and crowning exploitation of the workers in the gold mines of Johannesburg. The average miner dies of miner’s phthisis after eight or nine years’ work in the mines, and miner’s phthisis is a hardening and solidifying of the lung from the dust in which the miner works. I have told the tale since I have been in South Africa of the death in life of the Rhondda Valley workers, of the scarred and blasted Welsh Valleys, where the infant mortality under a year old is over 200 in the thousand, and where neither tree nor plants will grow; and, and where at the present time they are really striking against the great coal combines for the right to live. And the great throb of a common wrong, of common exploitation, has caught at the throat of my listeners, and they have understood that our message of international Socialist solidarity is the only message in the world of any use to them.

More, and many more, eager bands of comrades to meet me at Germiston just outside Johannesburg. There was Mrs. Fitzgerald, the heroine of the recent tram strike, and of the “Pickhandle” tactics, by which she and her followers defeated in the Municipal elections those who had forcibly helped to break the strike. There was our comrade Crawford, whose latest exploit is the showing up of the Russian spies on the Rand, for which valiant deed, undertaken in the interests of our oppressed Russian comrades, he will stand his trial this week for criminal libel; there were dozens of other comrades, each eager and anxious to show their goodwill to their visiting comrade, and to make a firm and lasting reality of the coming solidarity and brotherhood of men.

Dora B. Montefiore.