When I first began to research the history of Fijian girmit for my doctoral dissertation at the Australian National University in 1977, the subject, by and large, was an area of darkness. There was little consciousness of the past among our people. Girmit, it was widely believed, was a subject shrouded in sorrow, a subject best left unexplored in the forgotten pages of our history. People had made something of themselves, they had moved on, and they did not need to be reminded, usually by their political foes, of their humble beginnings and of their place at the bottom of the colonial hierarchy.
Prof Brij Lal is an eminent scholar and authority on Girmit issues.
And then there was the economic reality to contend with, working to just keep afloat. Education was a scarce commodity for most people and utilitarian in nature. The colonial bureaucracy wanted pliant cogs in the bureaucratic wheel, not half-baked babus asking tricky questions. History was for no-hopers (like myself, I was constantly reminded much to my discomfort).
But things have been changing in recent decades, especially since 1979 when Indo-Fijians marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of indentured emigration to Fiji. For the first time, the surviving girmitiyas were put on display, so to speak, their voices heard, their trials appreciated. They briefly had their place in the sun in their twilight years. These, we learned, were ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things, often without a helping hand and in the face of the most difficult of circumstances.
In more recent times, the subject has moved from the university classrooms to the domain of public discourse, facilitated in large part by the advent of recent technology and a silent but genuine desire to know the historical contours of their journeys. But all this has come at a cost. The subject has moved on from the domain of historical enquiry to the domain of heritage studies, from remembrance to reverence. The girmitiyas in this version are a venerated people without blemish or blame, victims of history who had no hand in shaping their destiny.
And so we hear of endless tales of hardship and brutality, of death and decay. All this was undoubtedly a part of the odyssey of indenture, but it was by no means the whole story. Indenture in Fiji, compared to, say, the Caribbean, was a limited detention of five or at most ten years; it was not a life sentence. Our contact with India was never completely severed as Totaram Sanadhya reminds us. Our cultural and social organisations emerged early to shield us from the asperities and alienations of the outside world (Arya Samaj, Sanatan Dharma, Muslim League, Sangam). Old customs perforce had to give way to newer ones in a new environment.
Girmit was a great leveller of social hierarchy and protocol. From the debris of girmit emerged a new society, more pragmatic, more resilient, more egalitarian. We became a self-made people. It is this accomplishment we celebrate.
Last year, 2017, marked the centenary of the abolition of indentured emigration, though not the indenture system itself which, in Fiji, ended on January 1, 1920. All the former sugar colonies marked the occasion with conferences, workshops, seminars and publications, the latest being a Commonwealth Foundation book of creative writing, ‘’We Mark your Memory: Writings by the descendants of indenture.’ The process of reckoning with the past, complex and contested as it was, is gaining momentum.
Education has a very large part to play in this, education based on research and critical enquiry, not on the assertions of nostalgia. Memorials are important, but they cannot be the sum total of our memory of history. Sadly, there is little about girmit in the Fijian curricula that deal with this foundational aspect of Fiji’s history. There little appreciation of the fact that the fates of the two principal communities are intertwined, and they have been thus. Indian indentured labourers were introduced into Fiji so that the Fijian people, already under pressure from contact with the outside world, could be spared the ordeal of hard plantation labour. There was borrowing and adaptation where the two communities lived near each other.
There is nothing about this, and about many other things, in what our children read and remember no overarching narrative about our common ordeals and triumphs. For far too long, Fiji has languished in the cul-de-sac of division and distrust, a sense of separation and difference. All this has inevitably fractured our national spirit, our sense of common identity as a people. Let us move beyond the ideology of grief and grievance, beyond mourning, to embrace the true legacy of girmit: the triumph of the human spirit over the harshest of adversities inflicted by man and nature alike. And that is something worth remembering, worth celebrating.
Brij V Lal is an Emeritus Professor of The Australian National University and an Honorary Professor of the University of Queensland. Among many other awards, he has received the Centenary Medal of the Government of Australia for his contributions to the Humanities there, and a Member of the Order of Australia for his scholarship. He now lives in Brisbane. His next book to be published later this year is ‘Levelling Wind: Remembering Fiji.’ He is now writing a book in Fiji-Hindi.