Fiji: Recognising Sufferings of Indentured Labourers

By Ravindra Singh Prasad

SUVA (IDN) — Every year on May 14 Fiji’s Indian community mark the day when the first shipment of their ancestors came here as indentured labourers to work in British sugarcane plantations established in their Pacific Ocean colony.

Girmitiya is how they came to be known over time—the name derived from the term Girmit, a corruption of the English word, agreement.

This indentured system of virtual slavery began in the 19th century to meet the shortage of labour supply caused by the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. In the 37 years spanning 1879 to 1916, nearly 60,500 Indian labourers would be transported to Fiji Islands on 42 ships making nearly 87 trips.

The history that has now been documented by descendants of Indo-Fijians who are today well educated and dominate many professions here, especially the academia, shows that for most passengers, seeing a ship, let alone travelling on one for weeks on end, was displacing and disturbing, both to their physical and mental well-being. Oral history accounts record emigrants likening conditions on the ship to being treated like machli—fish packed tightly like sardines.

They had to undertake a torturous trip sometimes up to 90 days and many perished on the way due to sickness and were thrown overboard—a largely undocumented part of colonial history and the British who like to lecture others about human rights today should be hiding their heads in shame.

This year was the 143rd year since the arrival of the first ship and with an election looming in the next few months, politicians of all persuasions were present at various festivals across the Islands over the weekend to mark the occasion.

Former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who led a coup in 1987 that toppled a democratically elected government that was dominated by Indo-Fijians (about 35 per cent of Fiji’s population that are descendants of Indian indentured labour) speaking at a ceremony to mark “Girmit Day’ went so far as to promise that if his party is elected to power, he will declare May 14 a national holiday.

Rabuka, who is trying to make a political comeback, says he knows many Fijians of Indian ancestry feel their Girmit history has been sidelined. So, the planned public holiday would help to reclaim and retrieve what has been missing and reconnect it to the current generation and to all the people of Fiji.

Ironically Rabuka’s 1987 was instrumental in driving many Indo-Fijians out of Fiji to seek refuge in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada because they felt threatened in the country of their birth.

Since coming to power in 2006 through another military coup, the then Navy Commander Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama has moved to repair the relation between Indo-Fijian and indigenous Fijians known here as iTaukei. A new constitution his government adopted in 2013 while recognising the “ownership of iTaukei lands, their unique culture, customs, traditions and language”; it also recognised the “descendants of the indentured labourers from British India” and their culture, customs, traditions and language; and declared that “all Fijians united by common and equal citizenry”.

This constitution has helped to defuse the tension between the Indo-Fijians and iTaukei community that has been simmering for generations and made worse by the 1987 military coup by Rabuka.

Speaking at the Girmit Remembrance Day ceremony in the canefarming area of Ba, Minister for Youth and Sports Parveen Kumar said that it was a plot of the White men (British) to keep the Indo-Fijians and iTaukei communities separated during the girmit era.

“The sad truth is that our girmit history, our Indian culture and tradition was never properly known to the iTaukei community because the white men wanted to divide and rule for their benefit from the booming sugarcane plantations,” said Kumar. 

He told the predominantly Indo-Fijian audience that the government of Prime Minister Bainimarama is doing everything possible now to bridge that gap. He added that in the coming months the Government would incorporate the historical facts of the girmit period in the school curriculum so that children of all the different ethnicities are aware of the struggle of our girmitya forefathers.

“The pain, struggle and the savagery of the girmit period was deliberately hushed by the white men with the intention that our future generations should not be aware of their ancestors’ struggle,” Kumar noted.

Addressing another girmit day ceremony in the capital Suva, Education Minister Premila Kumar reminded the audience that it was the 2013 constitution that provided the right for everyone born in Fiji regardless of their race, religion, or socio-economic status to call themselves Fijian. “We should not take these things for granted” she added, pointing out to the 1987 and 2000 coups that targeted the Indo-Fijian community. Interestingly the 1987 coup took place on May 14.

This year, to mark the ‘Girmit Day’ Fiji Times ran a 10-page special supplement on Sunday. Professor Bimal Prasad, National Federation Party (main political party of Indo-Fijians) leader and opposition MP in a special message pointed out that his ancestors did not come here to conquer or colonise but with a belief in a better life and a future.

“Most of the labourers did not take the option of returning to India upon completion of their indentured period (usually 5-7 years) and decided to make Fiji their home and start their livelihood” noted Prof Prasad. “They primarily continued strengthening the sugar industry to Fiji’s largest foreign exchange earner for more than 100 years until tourism and remittances from overseas took over.”

He also added that while the atrocities, trials and tribulations of the indenture system in Fiji are well documented, the decedents of grimitiyas have moved on and their third and fourth generations have integrated well into the Fijian society and lives peacefully with others. “We need to move away from the rhetoric of the past,” he argues, calling on political leaders to develop a new culture of dialogue, unity and cooperation.

“We live in a country that was shaped through hard work, through blood, sweat and tears. Tightly woven in there is the history of our girmitiya,” noted Fiji Times in an editorial on Sunday. “There would have been a sense of uncertainty, frustration maybe, fear and shock when the first lot of indentured labourers sailed away from their motherland. They were headed for a new beginning…. In the end, though, they survived, and adapted to their new life.”

“We have grown as a nation and as a nation, we must be appreciative of the place of the girmitiya in our history,” added The Fiji Times. “Today we acknowledge their sacrifice, hard work, and contribution to the development of a young nation.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 May 2022]

Photo: Fiji Indians have made a significant contribution to the economy of Fiji. Pictured here are some Fiji Indian women with Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama. Source: Stuff, NZ

IDN is the Flagship Agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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