Fiji’s girmit history – The enigma of its exclusion revealed!

Girmitiya in Fiji. Picture: Ministry of External Affairs / Government of India

Fiji recognised the 143rd anniversary of girmit as never before in recent history, marking the arrival of Indian indentured workers in Fiji on May 14, 1879.

The first ship Leonidas followed other 86 ships that landed 60,965 Girmitiyas in Fiji from 1879 to 1916. Girmit in Fiji ended on January 1, 1920, which liberated them from the fetters of slavery.

The term “indentured worker” was a misnomer, as it was slavery by another name.

It comprised a contractual agreement for a five-year term, but working and living conditions largely replicated slavery. In reality, it was a product of slavery that emerged in 1834, following the abolition of the system of slavery in 1833.

Deceitful recruitment

Immediately, after its abolition, there was an acute shortage of labour in the colonies and Fiji opted to obtain Indian indentured workers to work in the emergent sugarcane plantations of Fiji.

At this time, India was under British rule and it had the ultimate say in deciding the fate of its people.

When the recruitment process began, the British targeted largely the poor and illiterate peasants from and around the UP area, as they were renowned for hard work and were skilled in farming.

In addition, they were poor, and compliant.

As illiteracy was rife among them, it became easy for the deceitful (aarkathis) recruiters to trick them to enlist for recruitment under the indenture system. Most were told that Fiji was in India or near India and they could return in five years laden with wealth.

Once trapped by the aarkathis, they restrained them in the depots and later shipped them to Fiji only to discover that Fiji was not part of India, not even near India and the working and living conditions were hellish.

Suicide highest in the world

The wage rates per day were one shilling (10 cents) for a male worker and 9 pence (9 cents) for a female worker.

Generally, their daily work began at 3am when they were awakened by the loud beating of empty drums.

The early rise meant that the girmitiya could prepare their food, have their breakfast and leave for the distant farms at the break of dawn.

According to a report by Rev C.F. Andrews, the highest number of girmitiya committed suicide between 3am and 4am, as they cringed to face another working day in the gruelling sugarcane fields, suffering the beatings with fists, sticks, kicks and whips from the European overseers.

He also disclosed that for those who hung from the low rafters of their homes, their legs touched the ground, but they folded the legs to die! Such cruelty epitomised the life of a girmitiya in Fiji.

Justice denied

The majority endured the pain and suffering of girmit in Fiji and it lasted for forty years (1879-1920). It is not my intention to recount the tragedies and sufferings of girmit, as most of what could be captured are now in the public domain. Sadly, the girmitiya left this world in sorrow and sadness and were never able to receive justice within their lifetime, as the British justice system was regulated to deliver selective justice that always favoured the Europeans, the perpetrators of some of the most atrocious crimes against them. For example, an overseer kicked a girmitiya so hard in the stomach that he died, but in his defense he told the court that it was not him, but his horse that had kicked the deceased! His version was upheld by the court. Venkata Reddy was heading to a meeting of the farmers in Lautoka when he was shot and killed by an overseer as he passed his house. In his defence, he told the court that he was shooting at a pigeon and the killing was accidental. The court upheld his version.

Brutalising and dehumanising experience For the girmitiya, the girmit was a brutalising and dehumanising experience.

The atrocities and indignities visited on them were numerous, but the colonial authorities including the CSR Company, the largest and most cruel employer of the girmitiya, simply walked away with or erased the records to ensure that they were not implicated at any time in the future for the commission of most monstrous crimes against them.

The British had a monopoly over the historians, largely British apologists, who deliberately avoided writing and exposing the British and the CSR Company for their crimes against the girmitiya.

Books on girmit banned

In addition, the colonial government, in an attempt to cover the excesses of girmit, had banned two books, one written by Girmitiya Totaram, “Fiji Desh Mein Mere Ikees Warsh” (1915) (My Twenty-One Years in the Fiji Islands) and another by Banarsidas Chaturvedi, “Fiji ki Samasya” (1921) (Fiji’s Problems).

Both books gave horrific accounts of the ill-treatment of girmitiya in Fiji. All copies of these books in Fiji were confiscated and destroyed and anyone holding on to them risked severe punishment.

However, girmitiya Totaram’s book is now available in Fiji – both the Hindi and English versions.

I am unsure about the availability of Banarsidas Chaturvedi’s book, but I did have access to it, lent to me by someone whose family held on to it.

Both the books were of enormous assistance to me in writing my book, “Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2006”.

Indeed, Tears in Paradise is not an academic discourse like most books are, but written for the ordinary person, the descendants of the girmitiya, in particular, to feel the girmit experience, which has emotionally moved many to reconnect with their girmitiya ancestors and their foundational girmit history.

It is tragic but fascinating how ordinary
people suffered and sacrificed their lives
to carve a better future for future generations.

Girmit history concealed

However, more needs to be done and both, the British and the CSR Company, exposed for hiding their crimes against the girmitiya in Fiji.

The British had a simple motive – having committed the atrocious crimes it successfully engineered to hide or erase the girmit history to escape being cited and held accountable for crimes against the poor, illiterate and helpless victims.

During that period, Fiji not only recorded the highest rate of suicide in the world, but it also recorded the highest rate of infanticide among countries that engaged indentured labour, testifying to the horrid working and living conditions in Fiji endured by the victims.

History manipulated

For the British, it was important to protect and promote its international image as a nation that was at the forefront in protecting, promoting and defending human rights across the world!

They succeeded but in attaining this dubious distinction, they unconscionably destroyed Fiji’s girmit history.

In addition, the British had monopoly in what was taught in Fiji’s schools and chose to teach British history and early indigenous Fijian history, highlighting an uncivilised race that practiced paganism, engaged in ruthless tribal wars and cannibalism.

In this choice, it raised the British international profile immensely, claiming to civilise a savage race through the introduction of Christianity and elimination of cannibalism.

These achievements and plaudits could have paled if the girmit history ran parallel to it. So, at the altar of justice, the girmitiya became the sacrificial lambs,

Fiji’s history incomplete

Unarguably, Fiji’s history is incomplete without the girmit history.

The girmitiya history is not only for the descendants of the girmitiya, but for all Fijians, which should be looked upon with gratitude and compassion, as they laid the foundation of Fiji’s progressive future through their blood, sweat and tears. And yet, they have been cruelly denied their rightful place in Fiji’s early history, which even the successive governments, following independence, ignored.

However, the greatest blame and shame for it must go to the Indo-Fijian leaders of the past who not even once raised this serious anomaly at any public forum.

Disconnection from history

Successive generations of Indo-Fijians have grown in ignorance of their history so much so that the disconnection has created a mindset among some that our girmit history was unimportant and that they had nothing to gain from it!

This is the ultimate insult to the memory of the girmitiya when their descendants dishonour them. The gains that successive generations and, indeed, Fiji received is inestimable.

However, they are not to be fully blamed, as they are the victims of British design, which meant to disinherit them of their history.

A nation’s gratitude

Fiji, as a nation, owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the girmitiya, which should be acknowledged not as a favour but as of right to assert their place in Fiji’s history and the Government must ensure that girmit history is taught in Fiji’s schools anduniversities.

Fiji’s history is missing a vital piece, which cannot and must not be ignored, as it belongs to all Fijians.

The voices of the oppressed and the suppressed must find utterance and echo through generations, eliminating the sanitised version of history written or excluded by the oppressor!

  • RAJENDRA PRASAD is the former town clerk of Ba and author of Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004 (2004) and Enslaved in Paradise – A History of Mammoth Betrayals of Fijians by the British, Chiefs and Leaders of Fiji 1876-2006 (2018). The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.

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