Celebrating the contribution of Indians to the development of Fiji, my birthplace, with this brief historical piece commemorating May 14. 

“You say you are Indian from Fiji. How can you be Indian?”

“Yes. My parents are Indians who were born in Fiji. I’m fourth-generation Fiji Indian born in New Zealand.

A conversation between two teenage college classmates, one with Fiji Indian descent born in New Zealand and the other who migrated from India to New Zealand, demonstrates the ignorance and lack of knowledge about this historical migration wave that created the Indian Diaspora in the nineteenth century and that gave rise to a new method of employment – a temporary agreement for work.

The reality is that they are both children of the new Diaspora, as it is sometimes referred to. They may both have children who will have similar conversations about their heritage. The difference is that in the era of speedy communication, faster travel and learning from a click on Google or other communication channels that may eventuate, their children will be able to explore and discover knowledge that the Girmitiyas nor their next generation had access to. Today, however, the social media such as Facebook (FB) has become a knowledge portal that transports history, opinions, conversations, experiences, stories about political and social atrocities against Indians of Girmitiya heritage, to those who may be connected to FB.

In a similar vein a large majority of the Indian population is unaware of the Indians in the first Diaspora, often referred to as the ‘old Diaspora’. It’s the historical and cultural legacy, in varying degrees impacts the Girmit children of the globe.

“Cast adrift from their familiar cultural moorings, trapped in indenture, illiterate and poor, they struggled against great odds to preserve fragments of their ancestral culture in alien surroundings for reassurance, comfort, security and memory. It is a moving story of defiance and resistance.”

Brij Lal, Chalo Jahaji p 239

This quote from Professor Brij Lal’s Chalo Jahaji” aptly wraps up the experiences of the Indian Indentured labourers, although I’d like to add ‘resilience’ to his last line.

Indenture was a world-wide phenomenon which started in the nineteenth century. It was initially tested in Mauritius, from 1834, by the British and was considered ‘the great experiment’. This was an experiment to confirm how Indenture would be superior to slave labour.

While Mauritius was the first country to receive indentured labourers, Fiji was the last, beginning on 14 May 1879.  Other British, French and Dutch colonies followed suit after its success in Mauritius and began recruiting Indian labourers, initially from the 'hill coolies' or 'Adivasi' areas of Bihar and Chota Nagpur. Labourers were sought from the specific regions of North-Western provinces, Oudh and Central Bengal. Bihar became a large labour supply region by the mid-19th century as a result of the severe socio-economic issues,  such as the revenue and land settlements, heavy taxation and the money lending practices. Conditions worsened with harvest failures due to droughts and famine which became the push factor for people to look for employment out of their villages and towns, and finally for some to emigration to unknown places.

Britain started recruiting Indian labourers for plantation owners in Mauritius, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica, South Africa, Suriname, Fiji, Belize and many of the smaller islands in the Caribbean. Dutch and French colonies included Suriname, Reunion, Guadeloupe and several islands in the Caribbean.  Some 19 colonies received over a million Indian indentured labourers between 1834 and 1917.

To sign up for indentureship the Indians had to appear before a magistrate, hold a government permit and fully understand the conditions of the labour contract. The contracts were in English and often explained in English. The labourers simply put their thumb marks on the required line, without any true understanding of what awaited them following their journey across the oceans.

A Protector of Immigrants appointed in the country of indenture. Their job was to look after the welfare of the Indian labourers. Unfortunately, as the Protector was never an Indian national, he tended to be more interested in the welfare of the employers than the labourers, ­ a sign that the life would be one of hardship for the labourers. The experiences of the labourers were so miserable and harsh that High Tinker in his book A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830–1920, labels the system as another form of slavery.

As we mark 141 years of Indian arrival in Fiji, we can now only imagine the lives of our ancestors through the eyes of historians, biographers and storytellers who have expressed emotions and experiences through characters in their stories.