It was on May 14, 1879, that the first steam ship Leonidas had arrived in the port of Levuka in Fiji with 522 Indian indentured labourers – a moment that has been permanently scripted into the psyche of the Fiji-Indian community and generates myriad of emotions.
What if the date of May 14, 1879, would not have existed in the calendar?
Or the first ship bringing Indian settlers lured into the deceitful trap of ‘Girmit’ had not arrived in Fiji?
These are the questions that might traverse across some naively imaginative and emotional descendants of those first generation girmitiyas, who continue to look toward that abominable past of their ancestors with a shared sense of pain and reverence, for all the deprivations they were subjected under the irrepressible British colonial rule.
Sadly though, these questions had little meaning today or offer little solace to their respective insatiable minds, which rightly yearns for resurrecting that past.
For, if not May 14, 1879, then some other day, the ship of Indian indentured labourers would have definitely arrived as the might of British colonial rule at those times was too brute and irrepressible, to be halted by mere wish list.
The first ship on May 14, 1879, was followed by 87 more voyages made by 42 ships in the next 35 years bringing around 60,000 Indian indentured labourers.
Regrettably, the month of May has more mournful memories on the psyche of the Fiji-Indian community.
On May 11, 1884, the ship Syria had run aground on Naselai reef killing 59 hapless Indian indentured labourers in the tragedy.
In more recent memories, May 14, 1987, had an unpleasant memory of the first coup, which removed the democratically elected Government that comprised Indian majority.
However, May 14 is marked as Girmit Remembrance Day to acknowledge the arrival of the first ship bringing Indian indentured labourers to the South Pacific heaven of Fiji, commencing a process of creating of new heritage and history for the people deceitfully removed from their original home – India.
What was Indenture System?
Indenture system was designed by the British colonial empire as an alternate system of supplying labour force after the end of slavery in 1834.
Unlike in slavery, where the servitude was institutionalised, without having any right of any type, the indenture system was designed, at least at face value, as a contract, between two seemingly equal and willing partners, where one agrees to do physical work in lieu of some form of payment in return.
The contract was known as ‘agreement’ which was widely mispronounced by Indian indentured labours as ‘Girmit’. The people entering into such agreements or Girmit were called Girmitiyas.
The system was initially started with the labourers being sent to work in Mauritius, Uganda and Nigeria for an initial five year period.
When did Girmit start in Fiji?
Fiji became a part of the British Empire in 1874 with the signing of Fiji’s deed of Cessation to Britain.
The first British Governor of Fiji, Arthur Gordon, who had previously served as Governor in Mauritius and Trinidad, where the indenture system was already in operation was therefore keen to replicate and introduce that system in Fiji thereby capitalising on the cheap labour from India. There is broad unanimity among researchers and scholars of Fiji-Girmit history that this preference towards Indian indentured labourers was driven by an unwillingness to employ native labours on the grounds that it will disrupt village life, who were already in strain with the relatively recent contact with the modern life.
Girmitiya Heritage – The ships
A peek into the Girmit heritage will not be complete without a mention of ships that transported a huge mass of humanity, often against their will, in a journey plagued by deprivation, confinement, and sufferings, which had left a notable mark on the collective psyche of the descendants of Girmitiyas. The sense of pain and suffering that is often associated with Girmit started at the ships, with many shuddering with the very prospect of sailing through the un-sailable oceans.
It is now widely documented that a lot of scared passengers had then chosen to jump from ships, dying in the process, to just escape from the prospect of sailing in unknown oceans without their much conscious consent.
The voyage by ship was always a horrific one due to treating humans like sardines, where they were crammed in microscopic spaces, without much access to basic amenities as we understand in today’s relatively free world.
Indeed, the much dreaded and painfully remembered Girmit experience began with the horrific travelling experiences in the ships ferrying them to their new destinations.
The sugarcane farms
A peek into Girmit heritage will be incomplete without a mention of life in sugarcane farms of Fiji, because it was in these plantations, where impersonality and drudgery were the rules, vice was rampant and hugely exploitative living conditions prevailed, with little respect for basic human right and dignity.
The food and medical attention were inadequate for most of the period, and so was the personal living space made available to each individual in the ‘lines’ where workers lived.
The pain and plight of Girmitiyas in those sugarcane farms is best reflected in an emotional outcry expressed in the form of Bidesia – an oral folk tradition.
Bipati humari suniyo re daiya
Rom rom mein ab chhitke hai chingariyan
Bipati humari suniyo re daiya
Khunwa pasinwa se seenche ham CSR ki bagiya
Phir bhi chaabuk maar khaye re bidesia
Bipati humari suniyo re daiya
Kolkata Garden Reach Memorial – a tribute to the Girmitiyas
A revisit into Girmit heritage will be incomplete without a mention of a memorial monument constructed back in India, dedicated to the people who were sent as indentured labour to various countries around the world, during the British colonial period in India.
The Kolkata Garden Reach Memorial was unveiled at Kolkata Port, India, by the then Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), with support from the West Bengal government and the Ministry of Shipping, on January 11, 2011, to pay tribute to all those people who had been deceitfully removed from their original home India.