I am certainly not the first to have uncovered the importance of Andrews work. The sixteen or so books written about him suggest that a great many people have fallen unsuspecting on his work and been amazed at what they have found. My discovery of him fits the normal pattern: one chances upon him through his connection with Gandhiji, soon realising that he did not play a mere passing role in the Indian independence struggle, eventually coming to the conclusion that were it not for the greatness of the Mahatma himself, Andrews would certainly have been remembered as one of the greatest humanitarians of the twentieth century. Consider his achievements for a moment: simultaneously a very close friend both of Gandhi and at least one Viceroy, trusted and loved by both sides in the conflict — despite being monitored by the British secret police.
There was almost no country in the British Empire which Andrews did not visit in his work to publicise the plight of indentured Indian labourers. Wherever he went there were difficult encounters with British officials, plantation owners and other interests who did not take kindly to his exposure of their sins. There were people to help, sometimes it was said, literally pulling people from flooding rivers and nursing the sick. And on top of that, finding time to correspond almost weekly with British newspapers, and author 24 books. Here is what the contemporary Sikh writer T. Sher Singh says of him:
“You and I have been taught about William Wilberforce who helped abolish the idea of slavery. Well, I believe that the history books should also similarly sing about Charles Freer Andrews because he helped abolish the idea of Indentured Labour, which was then as much of a plague as slavery had been (and to a large extent continued to be in some parts of the world).”
Not surprisingly, Andrews is remembered by many in India, for his work in the Indian Trades Union Congress took him to all parts of the Indian subcontinent and indeed throughout the British Empire. There are many places in India named after him, schools colleges, villages, and the area of Delhi known as Andrewsganj, and the centenary of his birth was commemorated on a stamp. Though Andrews was born in Elswick in Newcastle he is not remembered here, a remarkable fact considering the people of Newcastle are normally so keen to celebrate their heroes.
So I have put together a few boards outlining the importance of “Deenabandhu” (the name means friend of the poor), in the hope that interest in his life might grow. This exhibition will become part of the City of Peace initiative, which celebrates the cultural, religious and racial diversity of Newcastle. The initiative was the idea of Dr. Hari Shukla, a prominent member of the Hindu Temple and the Newcastle Council of Faiths, and the exhibition will begin its tour of public places in Newcastle at the Hindu Temple on Saturday 18th April.
I understand that attempts have been made to interest people in the idea of a film of Andrews life. I would imagine this is a very hard idea to sell to people. Andrews was a deeply likeable person — the Viceroy said of him that
“I have always liked him. I always feel about him that however much I might have to put him in prison I should still respect his character.”
And though Andrews deeds might have been, as Gandhi thought, “heroic”, they do not readily lend themselves to cinema scripts. However Lord Attenborough says that before his film, many thought the same of Gandhi. And therefore I propose not to give up publicising dear Charlie and his work. A quick search on Amazon will reveal many of the books written on Charlie, though a very readable short introduction might be found in T. Sher Singh’s lecture C.F. ANDREWS: Eye-Witness To Sikh History, which is available in several places on the internet.