Mahatma on Madeira

UNTIL AIR TRAVEL really ‘took off’, travelling between South Africa and London involved a long sea voyage, either via the Suez Canal or via the Atlantic Ocean. Boats carrying passengers up and down the Atlantic often called in at Funchal in Madeira. Aged three, I travelled with my parents to South Africa by sea. I have seen a photograph of me dressed in a toga made from a sheet from our cabin. I was taking part in a fancy dress party to celebrate crossing the Equator.

Many years before that – in 1906 – a barrister, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, travelled by ship from London to South Africa. He was on his way back to South Africa, having petitioned young Winston Churchill, then Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, against the Black Act – a law promoting racial segregation. Apparently, when his ship docked in Funchal, the future Mahatma received news that his efforts had been successful, but this news turned out to be false.

On the 5th of September 2019, a bust of Gandhi was unveiled on the seafront in Funchal, close to the harbour where liners dock today. The bust, which unusually shows Gandhi without his characteristic round lens spectacles, was sculpted by Ram Vanaji Sutar (born 1925 in Gondur, Maharashtra). Sutar is also the sculptor of the massive Statue of Unity, depicting Sardar Vallabhai Patel in Gujarat. Beneath the bust there is a quotation incorrectly attributed to Gandhi; it was actually said or written by the Dutch American pacifist AJ Muste (1885-1967). The artwork was unveiled by HE Miguel Albuquerque, President of the Regional Government of Madeira and HE Nandini Singla, Ambassador of India to Portugal. It celebrates the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.

I am grateful to our friend Claus for telling us about the bust, which is not easily visible despite its position so near the waterfront: it is partially hidden by plants.

Over the years, I have visited Porbandar where the Mahatma was born; Rajkot where he went to school; Bhavnagar where he went to college; West Kensington where he lodged when studying for the Bar; Mumbai where he attempted to work as a lawyer; and the Gujarat Club in Ahmedabad where he first met Vallabhai Patel, and also set up his ashrams. So seeing him on Funchal has added to my attempts to follow in his footsteps.

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