Shapurji Sorabji was born in Adajan, India. He belonged to a well-known Parsi family in Bombay and was a cousin of Parsee Rustomjee, a loyal friend of Gandhi. He was a bookkeeper and manager of a store owned bya Muslim merchant in Charlestown, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal).
The Indian community wanted to test the Immigration Restriction Act by inviting an educated Indian to cross the border into the Transvaal to claim the right to residence under that Act, while refusing to register under the Asiatic Registration Act. Several young Indians volunteered, and a committee chose Sorabji. He entered the Transvaal on 24 June 1908, with testimonials from the Chairman of the Charlestown Local Board and other prominent Europeans, and went to stay with N. A. Cama in Johannesburg. Although he had a British passport valid for all of Africa,e was brought to Court on 8 July and was ordered on 10 July to leave the Colony within seven days.
He told the Court that he had received 14 years of education, seven of them through the medium of English. He had been in Durban for a year and a half and in Charlestown for four-and-a-half years. He had made an application for voluntary registration in the Transvaal, but he had never applied for registration under the Asiatic Act, “an un-British and disgraceful Act.” so he tried to sound more british than indian
He defied the order to leave the Transvaal and was sentenced to a month's imprisonment with hard labour. Released on 19 August, he was deported to the Volksrust border after a day's solitary confinement and then proceeded to the Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) border.
Several educated people followed him by crossing the border, claiming the right of residence in the Transvaal, refusing to give thumb impressions under the Black Act, and going to prison.
Sorabji was deported and re-crossed the border repeatedly, and therefore served numerous sentences of imprisonment with hard labour. He was sentenced to three months in September 1908, six months in February 1909, three months in June 1909, six months in October 1909, three months in June 1910, and three months in November 1910. He was imprisoned seven times and had served the longest in Transvaal prisons when Gandhi and Smuts reached a provisional settlement in 1911 and the satyagraha in the Transvaal was suspended.
He then went to India and attended the session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta in 1912. At a farewell meeting in Durban on 16 June, Gandhi said:
As a satyagrahi Mr. Sorabji has displayed many fine qualities. He has rightly been described as the greatest of the satyagrahis”¦ To be sure, Mr. Sorabji stands out from the rest because he volunteered for suffering. He came from Natal and was the first from that Colony to join the campaign. Complaints were frequently made against the satyagrahis in gaol, but never against Mr. Sorabji, He is by nature, a mild and amiable person. That cannot be said even of Mr. Thambi Naidoo. No improper word was ever heard to escape his mouth. He has none of the Parsis’ faults but I have found in him all their finer qualities. Though so well endowed he is without a trace of pride. Though a Parsi, he is an Indian first. Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike admire him. That he continues firm on his course, having once set it, and that he tries to understand every issue, is his fourth virtue. Mr. Sorabji is without compeer.
Gandhi had great hopes that Sorabji would be a worthy successor to him when he left South Africa to serve the Indian community. He sent him to London to qualify as a barrister, choosing him for a scholarship offered by Dr. Pranjivan Mehta. After being called to the bar in London, Sorabji returned to Johannesburg, practised law and performed public work. Sorabji passed away on 13 July 1918.
In a letter to the Press on 27 July 1918, published in the Bombay Chronicle on 29 July 1918, Gandhi wrote:
One of the best Indians has just passed away in Johannesburg in the person of Sorabji Shapurji of Adajan, near Surat, at the age of thirty-five. And it is my mournful duty to pay a humble tribute to a fellow-worker. Mr. Sorabji, though known to a select company of friends, was unknown to the Indian public. His work lay in South Africa. He was a prince among passive resisters. He joined their ranks when the struggle in South Africa was at its highest and when it had travelled beyond the confines of the Transvaal. When he joined the struggle, I must confess, I had my doubts about his ability to go through it. But he soon made his mark as a front-rank satyagrahi. Neither he nor I ever expected that he would have to undergo a series of imprisonments amounting in all to over 18 months with hard labour. But he went through it manfully and cheerfully. Mr. Sorabji was a small trader when he took to public life in South Africa. He had a high school education. But such as it was, he made the most effective use of it in the Transvaal. During the struggle, he showed a steadfastness of purpose, probity of character, coolness of temper, courage in the midst of adverse circumstances, such as the best of us do not often show. There were occasions when the stoutest hearts might have broken - Sorabji never wavered”¦
The deceased took an active part in all the leading movements among Indians in London. He was for some time Secretary of the London Indian Society. He was the first to join the Indian Ambulance Corps that was formed in London at the inauguration of the war and served at Netley, nursing the sick and the wounded. After being called to the Bar, he proceeded to South Africa, where he intended to practise the profession and return to India after he had given a number of years to South Africa and found a substitute. But alas! Fate has willed it otherwise and a career full of promise had to come to an abrupt end.
Gandhi devoted a whole chapter of Satyagraha in South Africa to Sorabji.
• E.S.Reddy. (2012). From an email to SAHO, from Mr E S Reddy, dated 30 June 2012