Gabriel Isaac, Gandhi’s forgotten lieutenant

It is not easy to trace Isaac’s biography, and one has to collect fragments and pieces of evidence from different sources, although there is still missing information

Mohandas Gandhi at his law office in Johannesburg (now called Gandhi Square), with his Jewish secretary Sonja Schlesin on one side and Henry Polak on the other (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Mohandas Gandhi at his law office in Johannesburg (now called Gandhi Square), with his Jewish secretary Sonja Schlesin on one side and Henry Polak on the other
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
During the Round Table Conference, which took place in London in 1931, Mahatma Gandhi told a reporter from London’s Jewish Chronicle, “I have a world of Jewish friends among the Jews. In South Africa, I was surrounded by Jews.”
This indeed was true since some Jews became Gandhi’s closest and most important Europeans supporters during his long formative years in South Africa. Most of these Jews were theosophists and Gandhi understood that his best recruiting ground for European followers was the Johannesburg Lodge of the Theosophical Society. In recent years, a growing number of studies have focused on this unique phenomenon. Books and articles have been published about his relationship with architect Hermann Kallenbach, his secretary Sonja Schlesin and, recently, also about an English Jew named Henry Polak.
But one virtually forgotten English-Jewish supporter of Gandhi was the Johannesburg jeweler, Gabriel Isaac (1874-1914). The fact that he is unknown, and even deleted from history, is troubling, since closer research about him reveals that in fact he was the only European to sacrifice his life for the sake of Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa. Gandhi didn’t even bother to mention him in his popular autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
So who was Gabriel Isaac?
It is not easy to trace Isaac’s biography, and one has to collect fragments and pieces of evidence from different sources, although there is still missing information.
Isaac was born in Leeds, England, on November 6, 1874 and died at the age of 40, a few months after being released from a Pinetown jail during the Satyagraha struggle in South Africa.
His father owned a large jewelry business and Isaac was brought up in the same occupation. As noted in the only “In Memoriam” published in Gandhi’s journal, Indian Opinion, after his death, Isaac decided to move to South Africa “feeling the need for greater freedom that he could not get in England.”
He arrived in South Africa before the Second Boer War, which started in 1899, and it is not clear what he did for living. During the war he joined the Kaffrarian Rifles and was among the besieged in the town of Wepener in April 1900. Probably as a result of the war, he came in contact with the Theosophical Society in South Africa. The Johannesburg Lodge was founded in 1895 by an English Jew, Louis Walter Ritch. Ritch became the first and closest supporter of Gandhi in his early years in South Africa, arriving in 1893 and leaving in 1914.
Isaac, Ritch, Polak and Kallenbach met at the various activities that took place at the Johannesburg Lodge. Polak recounted his first meeting with Isaac in the lodge in “a personal note” after his death, describing their friendship and his “cheery presence, his serenity of mind and character.”
For Polak, Isaac was his first intimate friend in Johannesburg at a time when he “ached for the friendship and the understanding of one moved by motives like one’s own.” The two greeted each other at the Johannesburg Lodge as fellow Jews, theosophists, vegetarians and later fellow workers for the Indian cause. This acquaintance developed into a close friendship and Isaac lived with the Polaks for three years. To Millie Polak, Henry’s wife, he became “dearer then her brother.”
Isaac became an ardent theosophist, a staunch vegetarian, and an active member of the South Africa Theosophical Society. He was one of the South African theosophists who asked Annie Besant to become president of the society in 1907, which she refused. He read papers before various theosophical lodges, and conducted conversations in which he emphasized “the need to live in accordance with one’s beliefs.”
As a vegetarian, Isaac frequented the Johannesburg vegetarian restaurant that Gandhi often visited, and through this the two became closely associated. In fact, it was Isaac who helped introduce Polak to Gandhi.
Polak recalled in his book, “I soon learnt that Gabriel Isaac knew Gandhiji well, and when I became one of the latter’s articled clerks, Gabriel used to join us at lunch-time, when we consumed homemade Kuhne bread spread with peanut butter and whatever fruits in season. He [Isaac] had been for some time importuning me to join the [Theosophical] society, but not wishing to become a member of any religious organization, having gone away from orthodoxy, I had refused. Learning that Gandhiji was a frequent lecturer at the Lodge, I mentioned this to him, he strongly urged me to become one, for, he said, as a good theosophist I should become a better Jew.
“Realizing the broadmindedness of this Hindu, I accepted his advice and have never regretted doing so. Except, perhaps, in a very general sense I cannot say that I have become ‘a better Jew.’ I regard myself as a brother, in the deeper sense, of a true Jew, Christian, Musulman or Parsi.”
Isaac was never an Orthodox Jew but “took the highest pride in calling himself a Jew.” For him to be a Jew was to live the “inner spirituality of Judaism.” Like Ritch, Polak and Kallenbach, he also emphasized that “as a Jew, he could not rest while another people was being subjected to persecution of a type with which he was familiar.” This was Isaac’s reason to devote his energies to overcome popular prejudice against the Indian community by arguments, conversations, and lectures.
Isaac and the Indian struggle
Isaac became a member of the Phoenix settlement near Durban founded by Gandhi in 1905 and later a frequent visitor, though he continued to live in Johannesburg. As a jeweler he traveled all over South Africa, collecting subscriptions and advertisements for the Indian Opinion, the newspaper Gandhi founded in 1903. In 1908, Isaac proposed himself as a nominal owner for some of the shops of Satyagrahis, Gandhi’s passive resistance followers, after the government’s policy of auctioning their goods in order to break the Indian Satyagrahis’ spirit.
Isaac’s name appears in a letter published by The Times in the first week of 1909 by 26 “Europeans” (whites) living in Transvaal, emphasizing that “there is an important body of sympathizers in the European section of the community who are grieved and hurt at the treatment being meted out to the Asiatics [Indians] for no apparent purpose at all.”
These Europeans saluted the “courage and self-sacrifice of a movement in which all faiths and castes are represented.” Morality and the imperial interest mandated that their demands be conceded, since passive resisters deported to India from Transvaal would “not be slow to ventilate [their grievance] amidst the sympathetic surroundings of their native land.”
Isaac regularly participated in the farewell and other joint Indian-European banquets, receptions and meals organized by the British Indian Association (BIA), and visited the Satyagrahis in jail.
Gandhi was proud to report that Isaac and Polak, recipients of gifts of money given to them in May 1908 in gratitude for their service to the Indian community, decided to use it for the benefit of the Indian community instead of spending the money on themselves. Isaac used the money to further the cause of Indian education. Gandhi emphasized “that this way of using one’s gifts clearly deserves to be admired and emulated.”
During the height of the 1909 Indian Passive Resistance Struggle, the government was deporting passive resisters to Delgoa Bay (Maputo Bay, Mozambique) in an effort to break down Gandhi’s Satyagraha struggle. When the situation in Delgoa Bay became critical, Isaac was sent there in June 1909 in order to clear up the position and also to collect some funds along the US east coast for the struggle. During that time he suffered a severe illness from which, however, he duly recovered. The Indian Opinion reported that “Indian friends at Mozambique rendered excellent help to Mr. Isaac.”
Toward the end of 1912, Isaac returned to England in order to pay a visit to his widowed mother.
When the Indian struggle was renewed in 1913, Isaac decided to return to South Africa and at once threw himself “heart and soul” into the movement. In November 1913, during the “Big March” he was arrested and sent to prison in Pinetown while in charge of the temporary marcher’s camp at New Germany. He was sentenced in January 1914 to two months imprisonment with hard labor. Apparently, the trial had already taken place when the successful negotiation between the Smuts and Gandhi was already going on full speed. This might explain the silence in Gandhi’s journal, The Indian Opinion, about Isaac’s trial, especially compared to the coverage it gave to Polak’s and Kallenbach’s trial. Their speeches in court were fully reported by the paper.
As a strict vegetarian, Isaac’s diet in prison obviously was very limited – “a starvation diet.” Isaac was released following a provisional statement on February 13, 1914, after serving three weeks of hard labor. Although according to Gandhi, Isaac was “a freelancer Jewish friend... [who] cheerfully shared imprisonment with us,” when he came out from imprisonment he was a broken man, physically and mentally.
Gandhi took charge of him at the Phoenix settlement and apparently, according to Gandhi researcher Dinna Patel, Gandhi even took on himself a secret private fast after Isaac could not stick to his own oath regarding the diet Gandhi imposed on him.
A hint of the responsibility Gandhi felt for Isaac can be traced in a letter written to Kallenbach in May 1914, dealing with the arrangements due to be taken before their final departure to India. Gandhi did not know what to do with Isaac, to whom he felt obliged under his tragic situation. Gandhi wrote: “Isaac, I fancy, is going to Johannesburg. He will not be allowed to come to India. He is just now at Phoenix.”
When Gandhi, his wife Kasturba and Kallenbach sailed for London on the way to India, Isaac stayed for some more time in Phoenix Farm but then left to Johannesburg. Soon Isaac had a serious breakdown, mentally and physically, from which he never entirely recovered. A month before his death, he fell ill again with a severe attack of malaria fever and died early on November 8, 1914.
Isaac was buried in the Jewish section of the Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg according to Jewish ritual. The mourners came from different communities, which reflected the life of Isaac. There were Jews, among them his brother, M. Isaac, and Gandhi’s Jewish supporters, Polak, Schlesin and others. There were many Indians from the different sections of the Indian communities – Hindus and Muslims, as well as people from the small Chinese communities. They were theosophists, businessmen, making for a very unusual funeral scene in South Africa at that time.
An account describing the character of Gabriel Isaac appears in Prabhudas Gandhi’s unique memories My Childhood with Gandhiji: “Mr. Isaac was one of those English guests on whose coming to Phoenix all the children would be happy. He was very amusing. He was always finding ways of making us laugh. Sometimes he would jump like a frog, or surprise us with a bark. When he told us animal stories it was as if those animals were really before us.” Prabhudas Gandhi wrote in a book written in Gujarati about the dramatic change he noticed in Isaac’s behavior after he was released from jail. As Prabhudas recalled, before the arrest Isaac was a man full of energy, full of humor, and happy, who was never tired of making jokes – but after his release he was skinny and sick. No one of the farm’s children dared to approach him while he sat for hours, lonely and in despair under one of the farm’s trees or on the porch.
When Isaac passed away, Gandhi and Kallenbach were in London. On November 13, 1913, Polak informed Kallenbach of the sudden death of Isaac. Polak wrote:
“You must, I know, have been distressed to learn of the sudden demise of Poor Gabriel Isaac. You will, I suppose, have seen my letter to G. [I was not able yet to trace this letter] giving all the details. You know how dear he was to Mrs. Polak and all of us, and you can therefore imagine how deeply we feel the loss.”
Unfortunately, we can’t find Gandhi’s reaction upon hearing of Isaac’s death in the collected works. A month later, Polak reported to Kallenbach: “We have now more or less recovered from the shock of poor Isaac’s passing away. At the moment the blow was very heavy, but one learns not to allow oneself to be rendered impotent by private grief. Polak added, “It is perfectly true, we who surround Gandhi are a queer crowd.”
Years later, when Gandhi published his autobiography, Henry Polak was not satisfied with the way Gandhi presented Isaac and omitted him from his autobiography. Polak pointed out some inaccuracies in Gandhi’s book in a letter to Gandhi in 1928, criticizing him for that, as did Schlesin in sevreal other letters. Schlesin offered to replaced the title of Ghandi’s book with “My Experiments with Untruth.” But Polak’s most severe rebuke was that Gandhi omitted Gabriel Isaac’s name and did not give him the appropriate credit he deserved.
Gandhi replied somewhat apologetically claiming that it was an “unintentional omission.” Gandhi wrote:
“And for your rebuke about the omission of Gabriel Isaac, I don’t know that the name was omitted. I have just looked up in the index of the English translation. I missed his name in the index. But of course that is no proof of the fact that the name is not to be found in the History. But even if it is omitted, of course it is an unintentional omission. I have often talked about him and his sacrifice to the Ashram people. I often think of him and his goodness and simplicity. But I can’t account for the omission if there is an omission. I dare say that some other dear names also have been omitted quite unintentionally.”
Gandhi’s sense of his history was probably wrong, since until today we are still missing biographical information about Isaac, and one can assume that his name was almost forgotten due to his death shortly after Gandhi left South Africa.
To the best of my knowledge, Isaac was the only European to sacrifice his life for the sake of Gandhi and the Indian Satyagraha struggle in South Africa. It is time to do historical justice for the forgotten and omitted from history, Gandhi’s important Jewish supporter