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From Cambridge to Calcutta: C. F. Andrews

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Sir Ben Kingsley and Ian Charleson in the 1982 film Gandhi (© Columbia Pictures)

Charles Freer Andrews (1890) was a priest and social reformer who studied Classics and Theology at Pembroke. He worked for a time at the Pembroke College Mission in London and then travelled to India, where he became an advocate for Indian independence and a supporter and friend of Mahatma Gandhi.

Andrews was born on the February 12th, 1871, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The poverty he experienced growing up encouraged Andrews and his family ‘to find our true pleasure in personal affections rather than in external possessions’, as he wrote in his 1932 publication, What I Owe to Christ. He underwent a deep religious experience shortly before going up to Cambridge and became determined to devote himself to working with the poor and to removing the social causes of poverty. At Pembroke College, he worked hard and was awarded a First in the Classics tripos, followed by a Distinction in Theology two years later. He joined the staff of the College’s mission-house in Walworth, South London, and worked there for three years. He became ill in 1989 and returned to Cambridge, where he was made a Fellow of Pembroke and became Chaplain.

At around this time, Andrews was informed of the death of one of his friends, Basil Westcott, who had been working as a missionary in India. Andrews felt compelled to travel to India and work as Basil’s replacement at St Stephen’s College in Delhi. He arrived in 1904, learned some Urdu and began teaching, in a style which was no doubt influenced by his time at Cambridge – he spent time with his students outside of class, participating in games of cricket and hockey, walks, and picnics. Among his fellow teachers, Andrews was apparently known for being ‘quite indifferent to rights of ownership’ and would frequently wear clothes belonging to the other staff (displaying an attitude doubtless familiar to anyone who has shared a fridge at Pembroke).

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© Pembroke College Library

In 1913, Andrews made the decision to travel to South Africa. He had been following the efforts of Mohandas K. Gandhi to improve conditions for the Indian labourers working in Natal, and to end the racial discrimination which Gandhi himself had frequently experienced. Upon landing at Durban on January 1st 1914, Andrews immediately approached Gandhi, who had recently been released from prison, and stooped down to touch his feet, a gesture which ‘horrified the Europeans on the quayside’. Gandhi later said of his friendship with Andrews, ‘Nobody probably knew Charlie Andrews as well as I did. When we met in South Africa we simply met as brothers and remained as such to the end.’

Andrews spent the next six weeks with Gandhi, visiting Indian labourers and observing their conditions. He wrote of his time in South Africa, ‘If I go down the street talking with one of my new Indian friends, everyone turns around to have a big stare, and I am buttonholed afterwards by someone who tells me, “Look here, you know. This really won’t do, you know. We don’t do these things in this country.”’

On returning to India later that year, Andrews decided to abandon his role as a missionary; he felt it was incompatible with the wider sphere of work he wished to undertake. He travelled to Fiji in 1915, having heard about the appalling conditions being imposed on Indian labourers on the sugar estates there. Gandhi, in an article in 1919, described the indentured labour system as ‘a state of semi-slavery’, and Andrews, living among the labourers, became convinced that the system had to be abolished. Andrews campaigned steadily for the next decade, and in 1929 the system was finally dismantled. Returning to Fiji in 1936. Andrews joyfully described the change in conditions there: ‘It was as if some great weight had been lifted, and people were breathing again.’ The workers in Fiji nicknamed him Deenabandhu, ‘Friend of the Poor’.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Andrews supported his friend Gandhi in the non-violent struggle for Indian independence. He was at Gandhi’s side during the latter’s ‘Great Fast’ of 1924, prompted by tensions between Muslims and Hindus and the subsequent interventions by the British. In 1931 he accompanied Gandhi on a visit to England, during which Gandhi visited Andrews’s old college and was photographed outside the Master’s Lodge.

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Andrews’s gravestone in Calcutta (CC)

Andrews continued to travel throughout the next decade, working in South Africa, Rhodesia, Zanzibar, and New Zealand. He was offered an Honorary Fellowship at Pembroke College in 1935, and accepted in the hope that it would allow him more time to write. In reality, he found himself caught up in domestic problems such as sourcing tea, marmalade and a sixpenny iron, in addition to preparing his lecture series. He did, however, greatly enjoy working with the students and passing down his ideas and vision to the next generation. His love of teaching perhaps prompted him to resume his Anglican ministry in 1936.

In 1937, Andrews returned to India for the last time, accompanying a sick student. He worked in India for the next three years until becoming ill, in March 1940, and being admitted to the Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta. He died there on April 5th, with Gandhi by his side. His last words reportedly were: ‘Swaraj [‘self-rule’, or ‘independence’] is coming, Mohan. Both Englishmen and Indians can make it come if they will.’

Andrews was buried in the Lower Circular Road Cemetery, Calcutta, where he is commemorated by his nickname of Deenabandhu. He is remembered for his commitment to ending inequality, his work both in Britain and in India in support of Indian independence, and his lifelong stand against racism. His role as Gandhi’s friend and closest supporter is included in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi, where Andrews was portrayed by Ian Charleson.

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