Girmit - The Indentrue Experience in Fiji
Introduced by Ahmed Ali, Director, Institute of
Social and Administrative Studies, University of the South Pacific
Bulletin of the FIJI MUSEUM, No. 5, 1979
Between 1879 and 1916 some 60,537 Indians
arrived in Fiji as indentured labourers. Of these approximately 75%
boarded their ship in Calcutta and the rest in Madras.
Among the migrants
from Calcutta there were 85.3% Hindus, 14.6% Muslims and 0.1%
The Hindus were from
a variety of castes; Brahmins and other high castes comprised 16% of
those who came to Fiji through Calcutta, the agricultural castes,
31.3%, artisans 6.7%, low castes 31.2%.
An analysis of ages
reveals 68.7% of those who left from Calcutta were between twenty
and thirty years old and 17.9% between ten and twenty; those between
thirty and forty comprised 4.9%; those over forty, 0.2%.
In fathoming the
reasons for migration to Fiji, one needs to consider both the
general and the specific. First, the indenture system was a response
to the labour needs of the British Empire; especially of plantation
agriculture. The new system followed on the heels of the abolition
of slavery when ‘the basic principle of … private enterprise
economy was to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the
The employer sought
his labour at the lowest cost and desired from it the highest
productivity. This desire to maximize profit was part not only of
the planter ethos but also of the forces that created and sustained
economic imperialism. The plantations of the British Empire
satisfied some of its needs for raw material, and one of their
essentials was a cheap and plentiful supply of labour which, if not
available locally, had to be imported. The end of slavery resulted
in a labour shortage. A former indentured labourer wrote: ‘Negroes
refused to be ensnared a second time so European glances were cast
towards India and China as alternative sources’. 
Since India was part
of the British Empire and had a large population, a substantial
proportion of which was in a state of poverty, it was not surprising
that it provided a pool of men and women likely to go abroad to
serve the needs of the plantations of the Empire in a manner similar
to Indian soldiers, who were recruited in India and died in foreign
battlefields to preserve the same Empire.
When one turns to
the Fiji case specifically Indian indentured labourers arrived in
this Pacific archipelago after its annexation by Britain in 1874 and
through the efforts of its first Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, who
had had experience with such labourers while Governor of Trinidad
and Mauritius. There had been a request to India to provide
labourers in the pre-Cession period but this had been declined. The
Government of India was not prepared to send its subjects to the
territory of an unknown government. Yet when Fiji became part of the
Empire of which India was itself a colony, then the same authorities
had no hesitation in permitting recruiting for Fiji.
Sir Arthur Gordon in
seeking indentured labourers was not simply influenced by his
previous experience, his decision was also dictated by local needs.
He had to provide European planters with a regular supply of labour
when it became apparent that they could not rely on their previous
source, the other Pacific Islands. Also, Gordon's native policy was
based on the premise that Fijian society for its future betterment
should be disturbed as little as possible and under no circumstances
should Fijians be encouraged to desert their villages to become
serfs of planters. Yet he had to guarantee the economic growth of
Fiji, and since the major means to that end was considered to be
plantation agriculture, he had to find a regular labour pool.
Neither Fiji nor the Pacific could or would contribute hence
recourse to an existing system in the Empire was not unexpected.
The demands of the
Empire provided an opportunity for migration and Indians in need
capitalised on the chance. Panchanan Saha after examining a variety
of issues suggested that in spite of social and religious obstacles,
thousands of Hindus, both upper and lower castes, emigrated to the
colonies because of the economic conditions in their recruiting
He concluded, that
the causes of emigration of indentured labourers to the sugar
colonies in the nineteenth century were complex and varied ‘from
the declining of handicrafts to the “failure of crops, debts,
pressure .... of zamindars”
and the absence of work and the pressure of population’. 
Looking at factors
within Indian, K.L. Gillion and Hugh Tinker also concluded that it
was the push factor that was of prime importance in the migration of
Indians to other lands. 
suggests that it was easier to recruit in years of adverse
conditions than when circumstances seemed on the mend. Nonetheless
the push factor alone was not the cause. One must note that the life
of Indian rural peasants did not begin to deteriorate in the 19th
century, the vicissitudes they encountered were evident in earlier
periods. They had not then moved abroad in such large numbers. It
was India's subjection to the British Empire that provided both
outlet and inducement for Indians; colonialism provided places where
labour was desired and encouraged it to exploit opportunities
offered for cash employment in far-off colonies.
Those whose task was
to recruit labourers painted glorious pictures of the would-be
destination and those in penurious circumstances fell prey to such
descriptions. All who have written about the indenture system have
been consistent in emphasising the role of the arkati or the
recruiter's agent in enticing Indian peasants away from village life
in quest of wealth.
recorded here, though they are the accounts of those who came as
labourers towards the end of the system, nevertheless substantiate
the claim that labourers entered into a contract in order to earn
money. Hugh Tinker is accurate in asserting “that it was the pay
alone which had induced [them] to leave [their] home-place and
labour in an alien land”. 
The arkati showed the way but he was assisted in some degree by the
peasant's ignorance and gullibility amidst tales of easy work and
quick money, which promised a better future. Even if it were not
heaven, it was an escape from misery and deprivation. The arkati
used deception, but one needs to explain why peasants responded
Their simplicity, limited knowledge or a lack of it, or
credulousness, provide only a partial exposition. To regard it as
complete would be to dismiss thousands of labourers as simpletons.
This they were not. Most of them were, in fact, young enterprising
men and women, otherwise they would not have overcome the rigours
that awaited them.
In the interviews recorded the arkati
emerges as a crucial link in the chain of the indenture system. He
provided the pull through suggesting how those in despair might
extricate themselves from despondency. The average peasant might not
have found alternatives without the assistance or cajolement of the arkati.
While arkatis misled by
suggestions such as Fiji being near Calcutta, those inveigled were
willing partners in the scheme. As S.N. Eisenstadt has suggested,
migrants are often motivated by the desire to seek security and
Indians who became indentured labourers provide evidence to
substantiate this thesis. What the arkatis
did was to offer a solution that would-be emigrants found timely
and. appropriate. 
Having persuaded an
individual to migrate, the arkati
usually had him sent to either Calcutta or Madras, the two ports of
exit. There, as Kanan from Malabar, stated, “in the depot all one
did was eat, drink and make merry”. There were others, like
Pahalad, who remembered:
All ate together,
people slept with others' wives. I did not like such behaviour. All
Hindus and Muslims, and all castes, were mixed. I refused to eat for
Some, like Pancham,
enquired about caste during meals and refrained from eating near
chamars. Whatever one's feelings the reality was that one had to
survive, so one must eat and drink, and in the depot this had to be
done alongside others irrespective of creed or caste. In the
atmosphere of the depot commensality taboos could not flourish.
Those recruited had ceased to be individuals, they were all
labourers together, that was the only recognised common denominator;
caste, religion and status by birth were of little or no
The novel experience
of depot life was followed by the even newer encounter of travel by
ship across foreign seas.
How immigrants fared
varied. The experience described by Din Mohammed was common. The
reality for some was, as Govind Singh said, “the food on board the
ship was not very good but then what else could you do, you had to
eat”. Some like Devi Singh found the journey satisfactory with
living conditions adequate and the food reasonable. There were
others like Mahabir who felt sick all the time and for fifteen days
did not know what was happening. Lakhpat too found the journey
unpleasant. For him the trip began with weeping as they embarked in
their ship since they knew they were leaving their families and
their homes behind. Then on board life became painful. For a
fortnight he was not well and part of his body began to swell. When
given medicine and milk he refused to drink because he did not know
what sort of milk it was and the Brahmin in him advised caution even
however, endured the toss and roll of the ship, its crammed
conditions, and the heat of passing through the tropics. The
uncertainty and the pain were all traumatic as they arrived in Fiji
to face a new reality. They had come in search of money and
opportunities for prosperity; once in Fiji they would have to earn
one and seek the other.
The initial reaction
of Indians to Fijians seems amply illustrated by the remarks of
Pancham who saw them as rachaks
who, according to Indian tradition were cannibals, and of Mahadeo
who stated that Indians referred to Fijians as jungalees,
again a term derogatory in its connotation. It was a typically
arrogant attitude of one cultural group towards another, based on
ignorance and prejudice. Fijian responses were hostile. In the
plantations where Indians and Fijians worked together there was
conflict sometimes resulting in physical exchange.
Fear existed on both
sides. Rahim Buksh explained that Indians travelled in groups of
seven or eight with sticks because they were frightened of Fijians.
Lotan too indicated that when his group first saw Fijians they were
scared. Some feared that they might become like Fijians,
particularly when they saw their hair. But it seems that in daily
contact there existed mutual tolerance and according to Lotan
sometimes Fijians provided succour for Indians running away from
work. Devi Singh found that initially neither side appreciated the
food of -the other. Gradually the situation changed but generally he
found Fijians friendly, even though he could recite an occasion of
strife with them.
Fijian fears were
based on what might become of their land, an example being given at
the meeting of the Council of Chiefs held at Sawaieke in May 1888. 
stated they did not intend to be inhospitable but they were
concerned about what they alleged were the thieving propensities of
Indians and their customs which Fijians found different and
Governor Sir John
Bates Thurston dismissed their anxiety by suggesting that there was
still land lying idle in Fiji, the colony's population was very
small, and there would be ample for the use of all. But he warned
Fijians not to shelter those Indians who were absconding from work.
The colonial regime wanted Indians as labourers in Fiji and hoped
that after they had served their contract they would remain to help
Fiji's economic progress. It envisaged Indians alongside but
separate from Fijians; it visualised interdependence, not
assimilation or even integration. Government view was that it needed
Indian labourers who in return would receive an opportunity to
advance materially in a manner unavailable to persons of their kind
There was, however,
another element: the European settlers. Originally they did not
favour the introduction of Indians. Their mouthpiece, the “Fiji
Times” spoke of India for Indians and Fiji for Fijians. 
Later when Indians
had arrived it bemoaned the ever increasing expense to the colony of
indentured labour. 
There was concern that “smallpox, the scourge of asiatics”
would sooner or later descend upon Fiji and the Fijians. 
It was only later
that Europeans came to accept this form of labour. With the advent
of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia in 1880, and its
rapid expansion thereafter in Fiji, Indian labour acquired the
status of being indispensable to Fiji's economic viability. And as
was hoped most of these Indians remained in Fiji.
But neither the British rulers, European settlers, nor
Fijians had in advance planned to accommodate these newcomers as
permanent dwellers. Before Indians set foot in Fiji, Sir Arthur
Gordon had decreed that in the new colony the rights of the
indigenous Fijians would be paramount. While this remained so, in
practice under colonial rule, European interests and aspirations,
where they did not seek to undermine the Fiji-an position, also
established a position of both prominence and dominance.
Further, in social
matters European exclusiveness based on the concept of a superior
race prevailed. And into this mix the British introduced Indians
with a promise of equality.
Such was the broader
society which surrounded indentured labourers who, however, spent
the days of their contract, girmit,
in the narrower confines of a plantation, usually growing sugar
Girmit was for five years, with a provision for renewal, if desired.
After a sojourn of ten years in Fiji labourers were entitled to
repatriation at the expense of the government unless they chose to
settle permanently in Fiji; this option was provided as a condition
of their recruitment.
While on girmit the labourers found themselves housed in a room 10 feet by 7
feet or, after 1908, 10 feet by 12 feet, in a barrack of sixteen
rooms, eight on each side.
A room housed either three single persons or a married couple
with not more than two children. The rooms had doors but not windows
and sometimes no floors. The partitions did not reach the ceiling;
there was instead a wire netting link for ventilation. The room was
a store-house, kitchen, a living-room and bedroom; it was the place
where a labourer spent his life when not outdoors. One's privacy was
in inverse proportion to ones' neighbour's curiosity. Sometimes
married couples lived in rooms adjacent to single men.
The day began at
4.00 a.m. or 5.00 a.m. with preparation for work and frequently one
returned to one’s room in the afternoon, more often late than
early. Work was hard and energy was sapped not only by such toil but
also through debilitating illnesses, poor and insufficient food, and
inadequate sanitation. Added to precarious social relations these
contributed to depression and conflict. Hence the gloomy picture
painted by those whose interviews are recorded in the following
pages. They reflect experiences which were recapitulated years after
the events had occurred and while in the details memory might have
played some tricks, generally their accounts are supported by other
itself constituted a system in its own right. In a short study Eric
Wolf called the plantation ‘a class-structured system of
organization’ where the labourer sold his ‘muscular energy and
was 'paid for its use in the services of surplus production’. 
Wolf holds that
where a plantation has existed it has destroyed the existing
cultural values and imposed its own dictates, sometimes by the use
of compulsion. For him the plantation ‘is an instrument of force,
wielded to create and maintain a class-structure of workers and
owners, connected hierarchically by a staff-line of overseers and
In Fiji plantations
were owned mostly by Europeans but by far the largest employer of
indentured labourers was C.S.R., which quickly acquired a monopoly
in the production of sugar. Its managers and overseers were always
white, predominantly Australian in origin. Of relevance in this
situation are the following remarks of Edgar Thompson:
Another feature of
the plantation originates from the fact that it affects an
accommodation between different racial groups and settles them upon
the land together. The plantation is an incident of ethnic contact
in a certain sort of situation. The resulting power structure has
for its primary purposes the production of the staple, but it gives
the plantation all or many of the characteristics of a small state
with the classification of people into different statuses together
with the formal definition of the relationship between them. The
inter-relationships and personal habits, the philosophy of life, all
mark the plantation as a political institution. The myth of race is
usually generated as part of the power structure. Plantation
societies are notoriously areas of race problems. 
contain evidence which harmonizes with Thompson's assertions.
In Fiji the planters
and owners were whites, while the labourers were blacks. Both were
products of different cultural systems. For the labourers, the white
planters, the Australian Company, and the colonial officials were
all kinsmen linked by colour, race and culture. Besides the Company
appeared to them as powerful as the government of the colony.
Though a commercial enterprise, from the behaviour of its
managers locally and in the stance of its formidable Director,
Edward Knox in Sydney, the C.S.R, seemed to have all the trappings
of a colonial state.
polarized along racial lines and even when it did not immediately,
it was nonetheless interpreted in those terms. This does not mean
that the class structure that Eric Wolf mentioned was non-existent,
it was there, but in the plantation system class and race were
synonymous. The employers belonged to the same race and class while
the workers belonged to another race and class. George Beckford
noted this link, which was as strong in Fiji as in plantations
anywhere else. 
Given the emphasis
on race both in plantation life and the colonial environment in
Fiji, one might suggest that Indian labourers who had fled caste
found themselves engulfed by another form of discrimination which
too was determined by the accident of birth and not through personal
choice or achievement.
Yet this was only
one of the aspects of the system under review. Of the more recent
writers, Hugh Tinker, who has examined the subject in its entirety
in the British Empire, has branded it ‘a lifeless system in which
human values always mattered less than the drive for production, for
Those who have
written about girmit in
specific places, like Eric Williams or K.O. Lawrence or Brigid
Brereton about the West Indies, or Hazaresingh about Mauritius, have
been equally condemning. 
Even K.L. Gillion,
writing specifically on Fiji and attempting to maintain a balance,
admitted that it was not without reason that Indians referred to
plantation life as narak
or hell. In a later work he speaks of ‘degredation in the filthy
plantation lines where the labourers were penned like animals.’ 
Walter Gill, a C.S.R,
overseer in the last days of the system in Fiji., by his
descriptions illustrates that the brutality in it survived to the
missionaries who saw it at first hand and had contact with, and the
confidence of indentured labourers in Fiji, were no less scathing in
their descriptions. 
Indeed the fault lay in the nature of the system itself as a
Dutch writer concluded:
The system of
contract labour, no matter how reasonable in theory .... led to most
unfavourable results in practice. The many serious abuses connected
with the recruiting, with the treatment in the colonies, and with
the practices after the completion of the contract period made of
the system a real plague for many years, and with penal sanctions
gave it a marked aspect of compulsory labour. 
referred specifically to the West Indies and Mauritius but they are
no less valid of girmit in
These are general
comments made by those who have researched and written on the
subject and they do not contradict the experience narrated by those
interviewed. One might explore the system further by focusing on
some specific aspects, for instance tasking, sexual problems and the
impact on social values.
The girmit contract stipulated that an individual had to work nine hours
on five consecutive days of every week, plus five hours on Saturday,
and for each full day's work he would receive a shilling. 
There was also provision for tasks where a person could be
given a piece of work on the completion of which he could return
home. For each completed task a male received a shilling, and an
adult female nine pence; adult being defined as over fifteen years
of age. A man's task was to be as much as any able-bodied male would
do in six hours of steady work, and a woman's task was
three-quarters that of a man's. Difficulty arose because it was the
employer's responsibility to fix what he considered to be the
equivalent of six hours work. It is not surprising that he should
want to ensure that he did not lose. The advantage of the task was
that it got done what was wanted within a particular time. In
practice it proved a far from satisfactory arrangement.
a problem for the labourers, their employers, and government
throughout the lifetime of the indenture system. It involved
disagreement about what was a fair task, and the remuneration of
incomplete tasks. Labourers continued dissatisfied and resentful;
employers asserted what they deemed their rights, and in the
quarrels, conflict and violence which ensued the law of the land had
One might begin with
an early illustration drawn from a report for December 1880 made by
A. Eastgate, Stipendiary Magistrate in Tailevu. 24
He wrote of being
occupied for five days in Naitasiri hearing charges brought by
Messrs Sahl & Co. against their Indian labourers, who created a
disturbance, contending that they were not engaged to do task work.
The Magistrate saw the episode as a test case which would decide
whether labourers would dictate terms to their employers or be
governed by them. Eastgate saw conviction as a decision that might
quieten what he considered a disposition on the part of the
labourers to violate their contracts. Such optimism proved
The Sahl plantations
remained places of strife for some time. In 1881, some Indian
labourers in Rewa assaulted W. Good, a managing partner in C.L. Sahl
& Co. ‘on account of the not very liberal treatment’ at that
Good struck three
Indians and they retaliated: the cause was tasking. Each labourer
had been required to clear bush 5 chains long and 2 fathoms wide. An
official noted, ‘this clearing heavy bush is an enormous task and
the day previous only 3 men completed their task’. 
To compound the
issue, labourers were paid only for completed tasks and they
reacted. Life on this plantation was rigorous: those in control were
unable to obtain Fijian workers though other neighbouring planters
could; even overseers did not stay for long; and there was
insufficient food, bad accommodation, over-heavy tasks, with the
‘mode of payment vicious’. 
In August 1881,
William Good was the centre of a Supreme Court trial in a case
involving twenty-five indentured labourers who had assaulted him on
12 July 1881 at Vunicibicibi. 
Ten of them were
convicted, of these five were given a sentence of two months each,
and the other five six months each, all with hard labour. The Chief
Justice also cancelled the contracts of these men. The Acting
Agent-General of Immigration noted:
The coolies were in
the most wretched, and miserable state quite justified. The men had
all the appearance of being half-starved, and had the despondent
look which is born of ill-treatment and discontent. 
The assault of Good
was partly caused by the labourers not being able to obtain adequate
redress through the charges they had brought against their employers
in April, when Good had been fined 50/- plus costs for overtasking
labourers who in turn were fined 1/- or had to do forty-eight hours
of hard labour for refusing to work. 
That month some
labourers also laid charges against Good for refusing to pay them
wages, but the case was dismissed..
The Chief Justice in
his review expressed his inability to understand the magistrate's
He held: ‘the men
are only by law to receive tasks as they are physically capable of
performing, and when the magistrate found that the men had been
overtasked, he ought to have charged their wages “by time” at a
shilling per day, which the men were promised when they left
In his view the
magistrate could have found from the records of the estate that the
complaints were well-founded. For him every page contradicted the
magistrate’s contention that wages had been paid for all tasks; he
felt the magistrate must have been dreaming when he came to his
conclusion. Also Good had admitted to not paying for incomplete
tasks. In his examination of the books of the estate the Chief
Justice found that from January to 11 July 1881, the legal amount
due to each labourer was eight pounds four shillings, but the
highest amount paid was six pounds seven shillings and the lowest
two pounds three shillings. He calculated rations at three pence per
day, a total of two pounds one shilling for the period and informed
the Governor, ‘Your Excellency may guess in what miserable
conditions these men were living’. He considered the conditions
‘to be both dangerous to the peace, and full of risks for the
lives of the labourers’ if they remained under Good. He cancelled
their contract with Good and requested. that they be re-indentured
Overtasking was not
confined to the Rewa area, it was wide-spread. It was a method of'
employment that lent itself to abuse in an authoritarian environment
like that- created by the plantation. Though the contract stipulated
what might he considered a reasonable task its determination lay
with the sardar and overseer. In a system which was motivated by the
principle of maximum profits at minimum costs, employers were bound
to apply pressure on labourers who in turn objected, especially when
they knew they could attempt to seek redress for their grievances
and tasking. Attitudes to work were often influenced by a range of
In Varoka, Ba,
complaints of overtasking were linked with anger over the separation
of husbands and wives. 
A number of men were
transferred permanently from Rarawai to Varoka but not their wives,
because no work was said to exist for -them in the latter
But it was the size
of tasks which was most frequently the issue and it became a means
of protesting against other forms of discomfort. Sometimes the
labourers were reluctant to work at a pace which would result in an
increase in their load. For instance, it was reported that ‘no
coolie in Penang ever takes up a second task in one day; knowing
well that if he did, his task would be increased next day’. 
affected the labourers’ physical condition and ability to adapt to
their surroundings. The New Zealand Sugar Company's Estate at Ba in
late 1886 provides adequate amplification. 
Here during October
and November of that year a diarrhoea/dysentry epidemic broke out.
It was followed by, as expected, various degrees of anaemia and
general debility. Those who suffered most were the recent arrivals.
The probable cause was thought to be the upturning of new soil while
bringing fresh fields into cultivation. But Henry Anson, the
Agent-General of Immigration, commented that bad management, faulty
treatment, underfeeding, overwork, and underpay were also
responsible.In fact the new labourers had been underfed during part
of 1886 and the Manager prosecuted for it.
Under these circumstances it would have been difficult for a
labourer to fulfil ordinary commitments and what might normally be
regarded a reasonable task would become onerous given the
debilitated constitution of the individual.
The issue of tasks
and labourer output remained a serious source of anxiety for the
government, particularly in the early years, and much energy was
used in compiling comparative statistics, not only among plantations
in Fiji but with other territories where Indian indentured labourers
were used. It was recorded that in Rewa in 1884 absence from work
averaged 8.98 days per month compared to 5.35 days in Mauritius in
1883, an annual absence in Fiji of 108 days as opposed to 64.2 in
Mauritius, and on an average 202.24 days per year were worked in
Fiji while for Mauritius the figure was 245.8 days.
35 An interpretation would be that life was less painful on the
plantations of this Indian Ocean island. One might equally contend
that the employers were more exacting and given greater support by
the authorities hence labourers were less inclined to resort to
absenteeism. It might also be suggested that the indenture system
existed in Mauritius since 1834 and those on girmit
there had already evolved a pattern while 1883 and 1884 were early
days of the system in Fiji and both sides, labourers and employers,
were passing through a testing period.
At so early a stage
Fiji fared unfavourably in comparisons, yet its position did not
improve subsequently. Later those clamouring for the abolition of
the system produced other statistics, for instance, of suicide
rates. Again Fiji's record was poor. And Fiji frequently appeared in
worse light than others regarding conditions of this new system of
The labourers had
their perception and points of view and these were expressed in a
variety of ways. There were attacks on oversee s and sardars,
there were even strikes in 1886, 1888 and 1907.
illness, slowly work and incomplete tasks were often deliberate
retaliatory devices against the system. Its advocates, employers and
officials, had their stances and evaluations as well. Thus B.G.
Corney, the Acting Agent-General of Immigration, wrote:
The coolies of Rewa
have now a fund, out of which are paid the fines inflicted for
desertion, absence from work, non-completion of tasks, and such like
offences against Immigration laws. This in itself evinces the
presence of a socialist element among the immigrants of that
district which threatens to set at nought the legally constituted
authority and to thwart the ends of justice.
official, Carruthers, wrote of Koronivia during the 1886 strike;
‘the lines and walls round them are filthy with human excrement
and altogether the
estate shows a want of personal care and sympathy’.
He went on to argue:
Even had the coolies
been able to show that they had Some grounds for their complaints of
overtasking, I am still inclined to think that I should have
supported the Manager in a strike conducted all through in so
irregular and so insubordinate a mariner.
And William Mune of
the Rewa Sugar Co. Ltd. in Koronivia held: ‘At the present moment
Rewa is simply a nest of rogues and vagabond coolies who are
combined for all purposes of illegal conduct and... they have
amongst them a large fund from which fines are paid and this enables
them to keep up the insubordination’.
The employer attitude was to place blame on labourers and on
government, the latter for not asserting adequate authority to
guarantee that labourers fulfilled their obligations. E. Knox of the
C.S.R. wrote to the Governor of Fiji: ‘Our fear is that in many
cases the labourers entertain the belief that the authorities are on
their side and against their employers, and until all assaults in
the Company .... are severely punished it does not seem probable
that this belief will be eradicated.’
The Governor, Sir
Henry Jackson, told the Secretary of State that his own examination
of reports from Labasa did not show the government siding with
labourers, but the opposite.
Magistrate, N. Chambers, ‘a man of the highest integrity [had] on
some occasions unconsciously shown his bias in favour of the
employers’. In Labasa, at the time, 1903, a Whitehall official
thought ‘a very discreditable state of affairs has arisen, the
local Inspector of Immigrants or the Police Sergeant Major helped in
cross-examination when during cases they felt that the evidence
against a labourer was incorrect’. This had led to very bad
relations between the Inspector of Immigrants and the C.S.R. staff,
Jackson thought fault existed on both sides.
In Nausori the C.S.R.
officers felt trouble was the result of the accessibility of
resident inspectors to labourers for complaints to be registered.
Jackson countered that reversion to the old method where inspectors
were occasional visitors to plantations would not be of advantage
since grievances would prevail without an awareness of their
existence and. culminate ‘in a dangerous outbreak, with far more
disastrous results than isolated assaults’.
Jackson was not
prepared to succumb to C.S.R. pressure. He argued that in Fiji,
unlike elsewhere, Indian indentured labourers were almost
exclusively employed by a single monopoly whose staff were ‘all
bound together by strong "esprit de corps" and responsible
to a single manager’.
Besides, C.S.R. was
a ‘very large and powerful corporation’ which did not pay
dividends beyond 10% and which at its previous half-year meeting had
put aside eighty-thousand pounds into a reserve fund. Jackson
concluded that ‘these favourable results cannot be obtained ...
without strict economy of system, and without ensuring that their
staff and their indentured labour are working to the utmost of their
ability’. Every part of the Company's operation was subjected to
the closest scrutiny and all costs were tabulated with the intention
of deducing the cheapest means of producing sugar, and this then
became the limit within which each overseer had to operate the
following year. And on his success depended his future prospects.
Hence the overseer had -to keep pressure on his labourers. While the
wage sheets did not indicate over-tasking this ‘occasionally
happen[ed]’.Even without over-tasking constant driving could
hardly fail to irritate indentured labourers who could not quit if
they found their work distasteful. The C.S.R. utilised the indenture
system with considerable profit to itself. Its official account of
its operations stated that ‘in Fiji, during the 1914-1924 period,
C.S.R. enjoyed the most spectacular monetary success in its
The same narrative
added: ‘the benefit to the company of the high sugar prices would
have been much greater if the ending of the Indian indentured labour
system had not reduced the production in Fiji before 1920, the year
of extraordinarily high prices; the labour shortage, however, had
its worst effects after 1920’.
Girmit was abolished
from the first day of 1920, and thereafter a new system had to be
devised. From its own account C.S.R. continued to profit immensely
till 1924, and thereafter less but not nil.
profit-oriented company like C.S.R. showed by its results that it
extracted work out of its labourers, whose own ' reminiscences do
not suggest otherwise. The issue of tasking could not be separated
in its implications from other facets of girmit.
It had relevance for the labourers' whole approach to their
existence in the lines of the plantation in a distant land which was
part of a vast empire. Fiji, though small and isolated, was
frequently in the limelight whenever girmit
in the Empire came under scrutiny.
It was the practice
to investigate and review various operations in the Empire, for a
variety of motives. Sometimes the exercise was followed by reform.
The indenture system proved no exception. Questions about social
life and human relations under girmit
came to the attention of inquiries, official and private. The
reports of Lord Sanderson and later McNeill and Chimmanlal, though
recognising weaknesses in the indenture system, came to the
conclusion that material gain out-weighed disadvantages.
On the other hand, in their investigations C.F. Andrews, W. Pearson,
and Florence Garnham, an Australian missionary, concentrated on
social issues and came to a different conclusion. The picture they
painted of indenture was one of human degradation.
They saw it as an
evil beyond reform, for them the only solution lay in abolition.
Of the shortcomings
found they dwelt at length on the disproportion of the sexes, which
led to a breakdown of social control. The non-recognition of
religious marriages, the prevalence of illness and the incidence of
depression leading to suicide received detailed attention in their
work. These difficulties were wide-spread in the Empire and a recent
evaluation of girmit in the Caribbean reports:
The imbalance of the
sexes, and the breakdown of traditional restraints of caste or of
the village led. to many kinds of violence against unfaithful wives.
And Indian customary marriages, Hindu or Muslim, were considered
illegal throughout the indenture period, unless registered with the
District Registrar, and virtually no Indian marriages were so
registered. Indians failed to see the need for civil registration;
in their eyes, religious ceremony alone could make a marriage
legitimate, and legal formalities were to be avoided whenever
possible. It was an example of the Indians' indifference to the
colonial super-structure. This meant that the children were, in the
eyes of the law, illegitimate. One of the most monstrous features of
the immigration system, it seems fair to say, was a gross disparity
between the sexes, and the resulting tension, personal suffering,
and even violence, among the immigration community.
The above remarks
equally well describe the situation in Fiji. Tinker has pointed out,
‘of all the aspects of sickness and morality on the plantation,
the most sombre was that of suicide’.He argues that suicide is
strange to Hindu tradition and its incidence in India was
considerably lower than in Europe. In the case of Fiji it was higher
than not only India but also any of the other colonies where the
indenture system existed. This tendency to suicide is clearly
evident in the comments of some of the indentured labourers
themselves. Associated with suicide was another form of violence,
that of murder. Again this can be substantiated by use of
documentary evidence, not merely from the views of the labourers
themselves, but from comments of officials. The Agent-General of
Immigration in December 1898 was in ‘no doubt that the relatively
small number of women is the cause of frequent murderous assaults on
women and that a larger proportion will tend to minimize this
Of those who embarked at Calcutta between 1893 and. 1897, women
comprised 49.18% of those bound for Trinidad, 42.26% for British
Guiana, 41.5% for Natal and 40.3% for Fiji. The Agent-General
regretted that in Fiji, unlike in the West Indies where Negro women
accepted Indian men:
… there is no
affinity, or anything whatsoever in common, between the Coolie and
the Fijian. The habits of the two races are diametrically opposed.
Only two cases have come under my notice of a coolie living with a
Fijian woman. It is therefore hopeless to look to the Fijian to help
us, and we must work out our own salvation altogether irrespective
Efforts to improve
the ratio of women to men was opposed by employers for costs would
increase without a commensurate upswing in productivity and profits.
A Resident Inspector
of Immigrants, W.E. Russell, in Labasa advised that ‘the primary,
and perhaps irremediable cause of murder ... [is]the disproportion
of the sexes’.
He added, ‘the mixture of bachelor quarters with male and
female cohabitant quarters - their, continguity - I believe to be an
He went on to explain his thesis diagrammatically.
As a remedy Russell
proposed the introduction of immigrants for settlement, but surmised
that this may not be practicable. He hoped that a high birth rate
among Indians might in the end equalise the sexes. He recommended
that the living quarters of the labourers should be so divided as to
keep separate the three categories of inhabitants: legally married
couples and their children, other cohabiting male and female
couples, and single men. Where possible he favoured separate
buildings for each group. On no account should single men have rooms
between legally married and/or cohabiting couples. These proposals
might have reduced violence leading to the murder of women, but they
were generally not implemented.
Violence was not
directed solely at women but extended towards sardars and overseers,
who were considered guilty of meddling with Indian women,
overtasking, or resorting to physical coercion to obtain work.
Violence was the outcome of the rigid hierarchy in the plantation
system where those at the top forced their will and desires upon
those below. Again these features were not peculiar to Fiji but
characteristic of plantation life, as reference to Eric Wolf earlier
has already shown.
The case of a C.S.R.
overseer J. Gore Jones provides apt illustration of the use of
Gore Jones was
convicted on three occasions for assault on labourers and in May
1897 he was fined 30/-, July 1898 S/-, and August 1900 three pounds.
Of an assault by Gore Jones on Baksi, a labourer who had arrived by
the Erne (24 April 1896), the Police Sergeant reported:
He had been
assaulted by J.G. Jones and struck on head and eye with a stick. I
examined complainant and found he had a cut about 1 1/2 inches long
on right side of head. Bruised left eye and cut on outer angle. Said
Jones threatened to murder him if he reported to Police. No
prosecution, enquiries made but witnesses afraid to speak. The
wounds were such s would be made by a stick or riding crop.
By August 1900 there were nine complaints made
to police of assaults on Indians on the plantation where Gore Jones
was over-seer. Though the complainants in most cases showed marks of
violence, only three were used for prosecution since six were
unsupported by evidence, which witnesses were afraid to provide.
Another report stated that certain Europeans were appalled at the
beatings inflicted by Jones and one couple was prepared to give
evidence on oath.
When the names of
these Europeans were submitted to C.S.R., they fared adversely. One
of them, Snelling, was dismissed from his job for drunkenness. He
was manager for Morgan and Smith whose store was on C.S.R. land at
And of the couple,
the husband, who had worked with Snelling, was transferred to the
main store of the firm and admonished for interfering in plantation
affairs. The Governor, on learning of' the three pounds fine on Gore
Jones in August 1900, requested that the Stipendiary Magistrate who
had heard the case should be informed that he had been surprised
that a fine of three pounds was seen as sufficient punishment ‘for
an assault of a very serious character by an overseer who had been
twice previously convicted of assaulting coolies under him’.
the episode with grave concern and recommended that Jones stay at
that plantation for no more than another three months.
The indenture system
involved human beings and their behaviour towards one another,
dictated by a hierarchy imposed through a rigid division of labour,
in which class mattered, and was supplemented, in creating
distinction by the biological accident of race.
It was this
combination which contributed to the type of behaviour exhibited by
overseer Turby in Tamavua (1893), Forrest in Ba (1907), or William
Good in Rewa (1881) in the early days, or even led to the murder in
1916 of Kemp in Tavua.
Though in the
plantation world, as in the broader environment of the colonial
regime, the relationship between the white and black man was that of
master and servant and never the reverse, violence during girmit
was not perpetuated solely by Europeans or even directed only at
them. The lynchpin of the system was the Indian sardar
who owed his position to his own wiles and the favour of the owner;
one was naught without the other. The over-seer needed the sardar
to communicate and enforce his instructions to a group of labourers
of alien speech and manners. In turn the sardar
required the authority of the overseer or owner to assert his will
and receive obedience. His place of refuge was the protection
afforded him by his overseer, who was the source of a livelihood
more lucrative than that of his fellow Indians. His posture towards
other Indians was not motivated by race, since in that he was like
them, but by a determination to succeed, not the least through
accumulation of wealth which would mark him off from the less
successful and place him on a higher, or the highest rung of the
status ladder of the new evolving society that his own community was
establishing in Fiji.
Since the stakes
were high sardars were not
reluctant to exploit their place in the plantation social structure
for their own benefit. Not infrequently they did so with the active
concurrence of their overseer. Among the Leonidas labourers, there
was a sardar, Abdulla, who
forced a number of' those working below him to a hut for gambling,
and extorted seventy pounds from them.
complained but the overseer took no notice of it. When it was
reported to the police, the overseer gave evidence in favour of
Abdulla and no enquiry was made. Subsequently the money was
deposited for the sardar
in the bank. Overseers tended to favour their sardars,
especially during charges brought against them in court by fellow
Indians. Had the sardar
been convicted on some of these occasions, it is not unlikely that
the overseer, too, would have been found guilty of complicity. There
were times and places where the overseer either willingly or
inadvertently through his own weakness or inexperience was not
completely in the control of his sardar.
For instance, in 1908 on a Navua plantation ‘trouble had arisen
owing to the employer entrusting his labour to a young and
inefficient overseer unable to keep a check on the sardar’.
For eleven weeks
this sardar collected 1/-
per week from each adult male and 6d from each woman after pay day
every Saturday. With his money he was able to buy an acre of land
nearby and by threats coerced those in his charge to work, for him
on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. The labourers involved refrained
from informing the overseer because they .realised. that the sardar
would retaliate. Only when the sardar assaulted a woman and the
incident was reported to the magistrate was his mischief exposed. In
Ba earlier, an official noted -that fines inflicted on sardars
for assaults on labourers were reimbursed by C.S.R. overseers; this
was known to the labourers.
system of girmit was a de-humanising
and brutalising experience judging from the practices that prevailed
there. To the labourer girmit was narak or hell
and the lines were kasbighar
or brothels, and a ‘total institution’ to use Goffman's phrase.
displayed traits such as infantilisation. The ‘boy’ syndrome
provides an example. One of the interviewees remembered that some of
his colleagues were delighted at being called ‘boys’. They
thought it was something good and soon they learnt to act like
children before their father, the overseer, to win his favour and
approval. They recognised that success depended upon humouring him,
while disobedience brought punishment. Tinker points out that in the
dealings between the planters or overseers and their labourers, it
was never a question of negotiation, the labourers had to be
petitioners. For labourers to do otherwise would be to invite
The narak of girmit might best
be captured in the words of Walter Gill, an overseer in the very
last years of the system:
On the estates,
cramped maggots, in cell-like hutments, the coolies ate, slept,
bickered, or pushed their children into corners in order to gain
room to copulate. On the pay-list pages were still the headings
Ganges, Sutlej, Fultala and other hellships by present standards,
which had brought them from the alleyways of Calcutta and Bombay,
from the clutches of rural and urban moneylenders; from famine
areas, or from a thousand other situations which said starve or go.
The indenture they signed was for five years' slavery in the cane
fields of his Britannic Majesty's Crown Colony of Fiji - to them it
was a girmit, an agreement
- and it contained some of the most pernicious clauses thought up by
man. There were such things expressed and inferred as 'a fixed
immigration ratio of four men to one woman', no choice of place or
method of employment; women to work in the fields for at least the
first seven months of their pregnancy; housing conditions worse if
anything than those from which they had escaped; working hours
unlimited. And all for a few pence a day.
If we, the overseers
and sardars caught up in
the rotten system of indenture servitude fathered by Big Business on
that most fecund of whores, cheap Asiatic labour, had managed to
survive in the tooth-and-claw jungle of the cane game, it was only
by out-animalizing the horde of near-human apes in our charge. And I
mean apes, because a percentage of the men and women, regardless of
what they were when they left India, had been changed by the terrors
and conditions of the sea journey, and their years of servitude,
into something like simian humans. It was also typical of the era
that we white men had no inkling of wrong-doing, and when it came to
coolie eating coolie, the sardar
system left the whites, as sadistic bullies, in the infant class. So
if ‘to excuse is to accuse,’ then I have done just that.
Walter Gill who saw
the worst in Lautoka in the last years of the system, had an
intimate view of girmit.
But there were other perspectives and responses. Many Europeans
reacted as did the Ba correspondent of a local newspaper:
One of the C.S.R.
Coy's officers was assaulted by one of the coolies a short time
back. He is now in the hospital and has been almost despaired of. In
any case I believe even if he survives the injury, one of his hands
will have to be amputated. This has given quite a shock to our small
community, as he is quite a young man and. one of, if not the most
popular officer in the C.S.R. Co. There is only one thing that will
stop these murderous assaults, and that is the use of the lash
Another comment worth noting came from the
voice of the planters:
It should not be
lost sight of that the time of indenture of an immigrant may, in
some respects, fairly be considered a period of apprenticeship. He
is well cared for, becomes acclimatised and learns all the work in
connection with cultivation of the sundry products of the country.
Then, when he becomes free, he is fit to strike out for himself,
and, if he has made proper use of his time and earnings, he has
every prospect of doing well. This would not be the case if he had
not at first worked as an indentured man.
Such optimism was
not shared by the labourers themselves. As indicated earlier they
adopted a range of devices in protest, but it was not until after
the first decade of the twentieth century that they began to seek an
end to girmit as a system.
The initiative and inspiration came from India itself. And criticism
of girmit and the
agitation for its demise became part of the rising tide finally
control of India in Indian hands. In the process the welfare of
Indians overseas became linked with that of Indians in the
including Fiji, lacked both leadership and leverage in an issue of
imperial dimension. The indentured labourers from among themselves
could provide no more than what Hugh Tinker has labelled ‘lackey
leadership’, which was of no value in any concerted struggle
against the rulers of the Empire or an Australian commercial
monopoly, or even a band of planters, all clamouring for more
considered indispensable to the economic solvency of Fiji.
In fact, ‘lackey
leadership’ provided Indian collaborators prepared to tolerate girmit. In Fiji, no leader appeared until the arrival of D.M.
Manilal whose condemnations of girmit
appeared ambivalent since he had two men indentured to himself. He
and those who joined him in voicing criticism had little impact.
Their role and value were nonetheless useful, illustrating the
labourers’ own wish, and the fact that Indians in Fiji were not
completely passive or indifferent. Among their efforts was an
interesting advertisement in the press:
FUNERAL ON THE REWA
On Saturday the
23rd. inst., at 2 p.m., at Nausori, will be cremated the dead body
of this old friend of European planters, and the enemy of Indian
national self-respect, national honour, national name and fame - a
hideous monster preying on Indian womanhood and torturing its
victims into a life of misery and shame, and bringing up its
offsprings in sin and filth.
Though efforts in
Fiji against girmit were
neither monumental nor of crucial significance, the indenture system
as it existed in Fiji provided invaluable evidence for its
opponents. First of note was The Fiji of Today, written by an
Australian Methodist missionary, J.W. Burton and published in 1910.
Though criticised by Fiji's Governor, Sir Henry May, and disowned by
Rev. A. Small, Chairman of the Methodist Mission in Fiji, as
representing, anything more than Burton's personal opinion, the
work's ‘impressionistic picture was closer than the official
portrait to the truth of life., if not to the statistics and the
Its impact was not
immediate though subsequently it was ‘read and used by the critics
of the indenture system’.
A summary of
Burton’s book along with a letter from Hannah Dudley, another
missionary in Fiji, was published in the Modern Review in Calcutta
in March 1913 and aroused considerable interest.
To this was added other evidence from Fiji, including a critical
account from Rev. Richard Piper in the Statesman in January 1914.
Earlier that eminent
Indian nationalist, G.K. Gokhale, had already acted as a member of
the Indian Legislative Council. In February 1910 he successfully
introduced a motion seeking the denial of indentured labourers to
Natal. Two years later (March 1912) he placed before the same
Council a resolution ‘asking -the Government of India to prohibit
all indentured recruitment, within India and abroad’.
forthright condemnation and that of his unofficial Indian colleagues
his motion was defeated by the unity of the officials (33) against
the unofficial bloc (22). This did not dishearten opposition for
‘the cause of the Indians overseas became inextricably linked with
the general freedom struggle of the Indian nationalists’.
To Gokhale's voice
were added those of M.K. Gandhi and Pundit M.M. Malaviya. Then in
May 1914 Totaram Sanadhya returned to India and joined the
agitation. He originally came to Fiji as an indentured labourer and
after serving his girmit remained. On his return he published his experience in a
pamphlet Fiji Dwip Men Mere Ikkish Varsh (My Twenty-one Years in
In this work, which
was widely circulated, he highlighted the abuses in the system,
including its sexual problems, and thus obtained unvacillating
support from indignant Indian women.
By the end of 1915,
the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge recognised girmit
as ‘thoroughly bad’. He was to acknowledge also that he could
not continue to repeatedly use his official majority in the
Legislative Council to override Indian demands for abolition.
In the end it was
not the economy of the sugar colonies but the political realities of
imperial control of India which counted most. As Hardinge's commerce
member minuted, ‘the political aspect of the question is such that
no one, who has at heart the Interests of British rule in India, can
afford to neglect it’.
There was in 1915 no
longer any doubt in official minds in India that the girmit
system must be terminated. It was however felt in the Colonial
Office that a five years’ delay in the interests of the employers
might occur between the decision to abolish and its implementation.
For the system’s
Indian adversaries, this was unacceptable. The ‘badge of
harlotry’ as they branded girmit
could not stigmatize Indians while employers and planters made
provisions to safeguard their profits. To press for immediate
abolition mass support was mobilised and in the campaign the most
reprehensible aspect of girmit was found to be the degradation of
women. The reports of C.F. Andrews and Pearson emphasising social
ills; plus examples cited by Sanadhya, proved invaluable as the
onslaught against girmit
used conditions in Fiji as its chief weapon. Indian mass outrage
could only be appeased by abolition. With the widespread publicity
given to denigrating evidence there was no alternative but to bring
this phase of history to a conclusion. In Fiji all indentures were
cancelled from the first day of 1920.
Girmit as a system
was abolished but its legacy could not be expunged with the same
rapidity. Indians who had migrated to Fiji- as :indentured labourers
had left the mire and misery of their village in search of something
better. Though their contract was for five years, nonetheless their
sojourn on the plantation was traumatic, destabilizing and
disorienting. After five years, freedom and new opportunities in a
new land awaited enterprising individuals. In this sense girmit for those who migrated was an inevitable purgatory towards an
earthly paradise, the fulfillment of their dharma and karma and the
path to moksha. It was all
part of kismet as some
labourers saw it. If one were a lowly peasant appearing predestined
to poverty, migration offered an escape towards the enjoyment of
some material benefits in the present life. Girmit
was part of the contradiction of human existence, where neither good
nor evil is total, but where pain, suffering and joy engage in a
contest out of which emerges profit and loss and the struggle for
survival. For a cynic it might have been an exercise in futility but
for most indentured labourers not so. They tried to make sense out
of their experience and when after 1S84 the ‘free’ and girmit became contemporaneous and as with time signs of prosperity
became evident in the former, the latter became bearable because it
was transitory; there seemed a future less bleak than the anguish of
Like other migrant
groups Indian labourers made an attempt to improve their security,
to reduce their risks and to preserve some of their cultural traits
in a new environment, with which they tried to come to terms. The
host cultures were hostile, but this was a spur towards survival and
not a deterrent. It underlined the necessity of consistent hard
work. Furthermore Indians like migrants elsewhere saw opportunities
and a room for manoeuvre in the Fiji situation in a way in which the
indigenous inhabitants could not under the shackles of colonial
paternalism. Indian dynamism and versatility once girmit
had been served resembled the efforts of European settlers in
frontier situations. Like them, Indians had little choice but to
strive for success. There was no room for complacency or self-pity.
They had to do their maximum otherwise they would have gone under.
They tried to adapt
without losing completely their cultural systems. They were assisted
by some of the changes which occurred in their social structure and
in their attitude to the new realities that challenged them. For
instance, at first some were concerned about their caste status as
in 1837, when some objected to the tasks of a night-soilsman.
Quickly they realised that caste and its trappings were of little
advantage in Fiji.
Then caste was swept
aside and men were prepared to take the chances that were available
and perform those jobs which brought money. Whether they would have
performed these in India soon became irrelevant. They tried to
retain institutions such as the panchayat
, but these too were modified and gradually fell into disuse.
retained a deep attachment to their religion, whether Hinduism or
Islam, and scrupulously observed its rituals for their spiritual
faith gave them their identity and a sense of security.
Though the indenture
system had undermined family ties no sooner was a man free than
efforts were made to re-establish a strong family unit, which, once
consolidated, proved invaluable in bringing about success and
prosperity for some. Family unity aided by hard work presented a
base for material advancement. In the earlier stages an adverse
consequence of this was an unwillingness of Indians to send their
children to schools because the extra hand on the plantation or the
farm was important. Then no sooner was it recognised that salvation
lay through western education than Indians changed their attitude,
and adjusted once more to capitalize on a new path to achievement.
A bond that had been
important in the indenture days was that of Jahaji
Bhai, the relationship between shipmates. This helped
co-operation and was similar to the relationship which Orlando
Paterson mentions existing among slaves.
But among Indians
this bond was less enduring for it was replaced by ties of blood
which acquired increasing significance as the nuclear family unit
grew in importance. Blood ties and education engineered the dramatic
advance of the new Indian society.
A new scale of
values too appeared. These were intensely egalitarian and
individualistic guiding people towards acquisitiveness aimed at
accumulating material possessions. The degrading experience of
indenture also incalculated an unvacillating desire for izzat
or self-respect, which became attached to the principle of equality
with a strong abhorrence for discrimination by others based on race.
Here too there was a contradiction in that while Indians resented
racial discrimination by others upon themselves, they were not
always reluctant, even if unwittingly, to practice their own version
of it on non-Indians.
indenture it is important to realise that it was a journey
undertaken to find security in this life, an ingredient largely
missing in village India. Narak and kasbighar ,were
landmarks on this trek. Girmit
was itself a fight for survival and it made Indians realise that
there was no room for sloth, since work-dodging brought retribution.
These lessons learnt in the crucible of girmit
instilled in Indians a loathing for circumstances which might lead
to a second girmit either
for themselves or their children.
For success the
spirit of individualism was of supreme value. Such an ethos was born
after girmit for
plantation life thwarted it. Once girmit
had been served the rules for survival and success in the ‘free’
and in Fiji's capitalist structure dictated for success the adoption
of individualism as the guiding light. Once individualism had become
accepted as the path to possible prosperity its influence was all
pervasive, it even affected the structure of the family unit. A
close-knit family was still desired; but it also recognised that not
only the collective family but that individuals within it too had to
exert maximum effort to realise the full potential. This paved the
way towards making the nuclear family of greater importance than the
extended one, though this did not mean that kinship ties were
discarded or counted for nothing, or even that the extended family
system was destroyed.
consequence of indenture was its impact on Fiji's race relations.
Indians originally regarded Fijians as rashaks
or hoos or jungalees, terms describing people lacking refinement and this bias
prevailed for some time. Girmit,
which made Indians subservient to Europeans and enforced a sense of
inferiority towards whites, made Indians feel the need to be
superior to others. This entrenched their early feelings towards
Fijians, which, based on ignorance and suspicion, characterised
initial culture contact. The experience of girmit
left an imprint of bitterness and hatred towards Europeans. This too
persisted for long and has been gradual in abating. Heirs of ancient
cultures, Indians found their degradation humiliating and could not
easily forgive those they considered the perpetrators of their
shame. Yet they recognised that success in their new world which was
dominated by Europeans, could only be negotiated through the white
man's magic, the key to which was western education. With insatiable
zest they sought it in order to emulate European values, but in the
quest they retained their pride in their race and culture equal to
that of others; in Fiji all communities desired the preservation and
perpetuation of their identity and culture. All favoured
co-existence and none cared for assimilation.
that accompanies migration was aggravated by the nature of girmit
which exacerbated feelings of insecurity. This influenced subsequent
Fiji Indian history. The enduring scars aroused an unfaltering
desire to find security. The continued emigration today from Fiji of
Indians because of their persisting sense of insecurity illustrates
that this ghost has not been exorcised. Uncertainty still exists
alongside a feeling that their worth and contribution have not been
given just credit. The forever-feeling of being cheated of their
rights has bred in many a persecution complex. Thus they often
demand complete redress even for trivial slights. This is a
consequence of the ambivalence towards girmit:
a sense of pride which demands recognition and equality as well as a
sense of shame which must be purged through the restoration of izzat,
which is considered to be undermined even if the slightest indignity
is ignored and the full compensation is not rendered.
The legacy of girmit
on the one hand left Indians acutely sensitive to the comments of
others, and on the other created in non-Indian minds stereotypes of
the girmitias and their
descendants. Europeans, who had originally desired to have Indians
as labourers and to keep them so, resented Indian aspirations to
break out of -the class defined for them. Fijians found Indians
contemptible because they saw them as ‘coolies’, a word which is
similar in sound in their language to the word for a dog. Indians
had a completely different culture and religion from theirs, usually
they attended different schools and there was limited contact
between them. Also Indians subjected them to similar racist
prejudices that Europeans were inclined towards. Mutual suspicion
was not eliminated by the colonial regime's paternalist designs to
protect Fijians from Indians.
Indians interpreted girmit
as their baptism of fire which gave them inalienable rights in Fiji,
where they desired and intended to remain permanently. Girmit
had been for them a struggle; its end did not mean the finish of
their quest for security and economic advancement. Besides Indian
aspirations towards these goals were not automatically acknowledged
by others, they had to be elicited from the rulers who considered
obligations to others as paramount. The contradictions of
colonialism thwarted the fulfilment of undertakings given to Indians
thus leaving them feeling deprived and disenchanted. For Indians,
rights meant opportunities and safeguards identical to those enjoyed
by others; this was in essence equal political rights. Equality was
imperative, not merely to satisfy the spirit of acquisitiveness
leading to material riches but also for individual security and the
perpetuation in Fiji of their community and cultures. Economic loot
on its own was a fleeting pleasure unless its enjoyment was
untrammelled, without of course contra-vening the rights of others.
The security desired
was at two levels. For the immediate present a regular job with a
liveable income was sought, and in a new growing economy this was
readily available; especially as Indians were welcomed for their
labour. For the long term, equal political rights and equality in
other spheres of life were essential. These were not intended for
political domination but for the removal of disabilities which
conflicted with izzat. For
Indians izzat translated
into equality with others especially in the realm of political
rights. The two were inseparable and Indians were attached to both.
Attempts to realize them caught Indians in a series of
paradoxes. They clamoured for common franchise as the panacea for
their political deprivation. For others this spelt insecurity,
inequality and Indian political domination of Fiji. Indians wanted
security of tenure for the leases of cane farms, the pressures they
applied Fijians saw as endangering their own security and survival.
In their insistence on equality they refused to enlist to serve
abroad during World War II when Fiji was threatened, unless given
terms and. conditions identical to those reserved for Europeans;
they considered other treatment a slur on their izzat.
Others interpreted their inaction as ingratitude; their boycott
became a millstone around their neck thereafter. They were inclined
to follow advice from India and some of this was insensitive to the
realities of Fiji and it created more problems than it solved for
them. While they could not ignore India because it acted as a
leverage for redress, others resented this intercession as a form of
individualism of Indians resulting in success in a capitalist system
conflicted with the colonial regime's paternalism, which was
reserved for Fijians, and created another set of problems for them.
While Indians seemed to derive benefits from the cash economy and
became competitors of Europeans and even displaced them in some
fields, Fijians generally continued to languish in their subsistence
sector. Indian success brought European and Fijian reaction for it
was interpreted as posing a threat to both, since it might undermine
the concept of racial balance, which has for long preoccupied the
thinking of policy-makers in Fiji. Another paradox was thus born:
Indians who through migration had escaped caste found themselves
plagued by race.
Just as caste laid down specific boundaries which could not
be transgressed and prevented integration, similarly race thwarted
Indians becoming part of the broader society of Fiji. Indian
individualism was offensive to Fijian communalism and competitive
towards European individualism; Fijians and Europeans together saw
it as a menace that had to be checked from running riot. Since
colonial rule itself was racist and had demarcated separate
compartments for the various communities, though in Fiji it did not
create legal apartheid, practices and gentlemen's agreements made
clear where one belonged. Indian resentment, often openly expressed,
on having to abide by such ‘rules’ or ‘arrangements’ brought
upon them the ire of others. Yet when conflict emerged it was not
one that took the form of Indian versus others only. Among Indians
themselves factionalism appeared, derived from sub-cultural
prejudices and phobias transferred by migrants themselves, and later
visiting priests, from India. These were aided by the new-found
individualism which intensified competition within the community for
gain and status.
For benefit some
resorted to the assistance of small solidarity groups to withstand
challenges. As each sub-culture mobilised and formed a variety of
associations for economic and religious propagation, conflict
increased though occasions of strife were limited and not evident in
Girmit constituted a forty-year phase, 1879 to 1919, in Fiji's
history. For Indians it was from 1884 to 1919 contemporaneous with
the emergence of Fiji Indian society based in the ‘free’ where
life had its fluctuations but was in contrast to the sullen misery
of the plantation lines at the mercy of the sardar
and overseer. The rewards of enterprise in the ‘free’ imparted
an influence in the development of Fiji Indians as much as the
rigours of girmit. Though girmit
remained an unforgettable and unforgotten adventure and ordeal, in
its proper perspective it represented a facet of Fiji Indian
experience, it did not comprise the whole experience, and it was by
no means the sole determinant of their future. The desire for
success in the material world of here and now as a motive force had
preceded girmit and
outlived it to strengthen the ethos of the community; one must
survive and the best means for it was capitalism where success
depended upon industry, intense individualism, and the magic of
The years after
1919, now nearly sixty, saw the lessons learnt and the ethos adopted
put into practice. The strikes of 1920, 1921, 1943, 1959 and 1960
were all part of the determination to obtain equality and to
maximise gains. The clamour for common roll was part of the journey
first begun in Calcutta or Madras. Demands for longer leases for
cane farms, opportunities in education, removal of differential
treatment on account of race were aspects of the Fiji Indian search
for security and the restoration and entrenchment of izzat
through equality. Divisions among Indians, whether inspired by
personal self-interest or fanatical adherence to sub-cultures of
religion or language or province of origin of one's ancestors, were
the agonies of ancient cultures adjusting to new soil. Conflicts and
peaceful exchanges of Indians with others especially since political
independence are the birthpangs of a multi-cultural nation;
in its delivery Fiji Indians must have a place and a journey
would then have ended.
Fiji's Indian Migrants.
A History to the end of indenture in 1920, (Melbourne
1962 p.209 for religion and caste and p.210 for ages of
E. Hobsbaum: Labouring Men. Studies in the History of
Labour (London 1964) p.344.
Totaram Sanadhya: The Coolie System (A pamphlet in Hindi,
Saha: Emigration of Indian
Labour (1834-1900), (Delhi 1970), chapter 2, pp. 28-77.
K.L. Gillion: op.cit., Hugh Tinker: A New System of
Slavery. The Export of Indian Labour Overseas 1830-1920 Oxford
University Press 1974).
Hugh Tinker: o .cit., pp. 186-187.
S.N. Eisenstadt: ‘The Absorption of Immigrants’ in
Gordon Bowker & John Carrier eds. Race and Ethnic Relations
Sociological Readings (London-1978) pp. 40-47.
Proceedings, Council of Chiefs, 1888.
Fiji Times: 27 October 1877•
Fiji Times: 31 May 1879.
Fiji Times: 29 June 1880.
E. Wolf: ‘Specific Aspects of Plantation Systems in the
New World: Community Sub-cultures and Social Classes’ in
Michael M. Horowitz ed.: Peoples and Cultures of the Caribbean
(New York 1971) p. 163.
Edgar T. Thompson: ‘The Plantation Cycle and Problems
of Typology’ in Vera Rubin ed. Caribbean Studies. A Symposium
(Seattle, 1960) p.31.
George L. Beckford: Persistent Poverty. Under-development
in ,plantation economics of the Third World New York 1972),
especially pp. 7-73
Hugh Tinker: op. cit., p. 60.
Eric Williams: History of the People of Trinidad and
Tobago (London 1964), K.O. Lawrence: Immigration into the West
Indies in the 19th Century (Barbados 1971). Brigid Brereton: äThe
Experience of Indentureship: 1845-1917’ in John Gaffar La
Guerre ed. Calcutta to Caroni. The East Indians of Trinidad
(Caribbean 1974 pp. 25-38. K. Hazaresingh: History of Indians in
Mauritius (London 1975)
K.L. Gillion: The Fiji Indians. Challenge to European
Dominance 1920-46, Canberra 1977, P.5•
Walter Gill: Turn
North-east at the Tombstone (Adelaide 1970)
For instance, Richard Piper in the Calcutta Statesman 16
January 1914. On the subject generally see: A.W. Thornley: The
Methodist Mission and the Indians in Fiji 1900-1920.
(Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Auckland, 1973).
W. Kloosterboer: Involuntary Labour since the Abolition
of Slavery. A Survey of Compulsory Labour Throughout the World,
Leiden, 1960, p.16.
K.L. Gillion: op.cit. (1962) pp. 210-212, contain ‘A
Form of Agreement for Intending Emigrants’
Fiji Colonial Secretary Office File No. 48 of 1881 and
No. 588 of 1881 (Henceforth C.S.O. no./year).
C.S.O. 1029/1887, 1550/1887.
ibid.; C.S.O. 1383/1887; Im Thurn to Colonial Office 55,
8 May 1907, C083/85; Gillion: op.cit. (1962); pp. 48-49, 83, 88.
Jackson to Colonial
Office, Confidential, 11 August 1903. C.O. 83/77.
South Pacific Enterprise.
The Colonial Sugar Refining Company Limited. (Sydney, 1956) P
Report of the Committee on Emigration from India to the
Crown Colonies and Protectorates (Cmd. $192/4); J. McNeil and
Chimman Lal: Report to the Government of India on the Conditions
of Indian Immigrants in Four British Colonies and Surinam (Cmd.
C.F. Andrews & W.W. Pearson: Indentured Labour in
Fiji: an Independent Enquiry (Calcutta 1917; Florence E. Garnham:
A Report on the Social and Moral Conditions of Indians in Fiji,
50. B. Brereton: on.cit.,
1354/188I; 2555;1893; 401-2/1907; 1846/1916; 1855/1916;
1863/1916; 1908/1916; 2827/1916; 5562/1916.
Erving Goffman: Asylums (Harmondsworth, 1968). Jay R.
Mandle: The Plantation Economy. Population and Economic Change
in Guiyana 1838-190 Philadelphia, 1973) calls the plantation
‘a total economic institution’ (p.13)•
Walter Gill: o .cit., p.38 and p.65
Western Pacific Herald: 3 December 1901.
The Planters' Journal Vol. I. No. 3, Sept. 1913.
It should, however, be noted that this issue did not
become a major factor in the development of Indian nationalism.
Girmit for its abolition needed national support in Indians but
for nationalism girmit was not indispensable for arousing the
Western Pacific Herald 21 June 1917•
K.L. Gillion: op.cit.
Hugh Tinker: op.cit. p. 320.
K.S. Sandhu: Indians in Malaya. Some Aspects of their
Immigration and Settlement 1786-1957 Cambridge university Press,
Fiji Legislative Council Paper No. 36 of 1916.
A.T. Yarwood: ‘The Overseas Indians as a Politics at
the end of World War I’, Australian Journal of Politics and
History Vol. XIV No. 2.
(August 1968, p.207)
A. Ali: ‘Coolies and
Kisans 1879-1919’ unpublished paper, 1978.
Fiji Times 2 November 1887.
On the breakdown of caste among Fiji Indians see, C.
Jayawardena: ‘The Disintegration of Caste in Fiji Indian Rural
Society’ in L.R. Hiatt and C. Jayawardena: Anthropology in
Oceania. Essays presented to Ian Hogbin (Sydney 1971 pp. 89-119.
The institution of panchayat survived until very
recently, see Adrian C. Mayer: Peasants in the Pacific. A Study
of Fiji Indian Rural Society, London 1961) pp. 116-120.
Orlando Patterson: ‘The Socialisation and Personality
Structure of the Slave’ in Lambros Comitas and David Lowenthal:
Slaves Free Men Citizens. West Indian Perspectives Anchor, New
York, 1973 pp. 21-45.