Lessons from the past
By Shobna Decloitre
Source: Wansolwara, June 2004
Publication of the University of the South Pacific Journalism Programme
WHEN children in Indo-Fijian homes appeared disinterested in their
schoolwork, there was one threat that never failed to revive their
interest - that of being banished to work in the cane fields.
Many second and third generation Indo-Fijian mothers used this
"blackmail" to get their children to work harder at school and aim for a life other
than toiling in the cane fields like their forefathers.
For children who had seen their parents wake up before dawn and work long and hard hours in the fields in the hot blazing sun, the threat worked
like a charm.
Combined with this were the horrific stories of the Girmityas
(indentured labourers) that the children heard. Stories of how their forefathers were virtual slaves toiling day-in and day-out for a pittance.
How they were physically abused, and of how they struggled to complete their five-year girmit agreements. Their lives were aptly described as
The Australian National Universityšs Professor Brij Lal is the world
authority on Fijišs girmit era. Most of this distinguished historian's
career was devoted to meticulously researching this period.
Professor Lal says the trials and tribulation of the Girmityas was the
motivating factor behind the Indo-Fijian' relentless quest for
"After the completion of their indenture contracts, the Indians settled
on 10- acre plots to farm sugar cane. Their only way to a better life was through the education of their children."
Professor Lal would be speaking from experience he is a descendent of a
Girmitya who grew up on a farming community in rural Labasa. This year
marks the 125th year of the arrival of the Indian indentured labourers in Fiji.
Celebrations, exhibitions, lectures and publication launches in various centres of Fiji took place to revive the memory of the girmityas. The Indenture system was implemented by the British in 1834, a year after slavery was officially abolished.
India, then a colony of the British Empire, provided an untapped source
of labour. Under the system, labourers signed an agreement committing to
work for five years. It is the mispronunciation of the word agreement that
gave birth to "Girmit" and this is how the Indenture System came to be known
The idea of bringing indentured labourers to work in Fiji came from the
first Governor General, Sir Arthur Gordon, who had prior experience of
Indian labourers in Mauritius and Trinidad.
And this is how on May 14, 1879, the Leonidas brought to Fiji the first group of Indians. Eighty six other ships followed until the end of the
Indenture system in 1916, bringing a total of 60,553 people.
About 45,000 came from the Eastern Uttar Pradesh region while the
remaining came from South India. Today, Indians make up 41 per cent of Fiji's
840,000 population. About a 120,000 have emigrated since the 1987 coups mainly to
Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
Lawyer and high chief Ratu Jone Madraiwiwi said the Girmityas had worked hard and changed the economic and social fabric of Fiji. At a special
lecture series on the Girmit era in May, he said Fiji should move away
from its painful 125-year history and ensure that the coming years were less painful.
For most of the younger generation of Girmityas descendents, the Girmit
era belongs to the pages of history.
But the celebrations that took place last month brought home the fact
that there were lessons of hope, tolerance, sacrifice and perseverance that
could be learnt from them.