Monday, October 10, 2011

Celebrating Independance Day.

Many of you have been to Fiji for a holiday: it is a popular destination world over and despite the political instability still seen as a safe destination. Many of you may not know the history of Fiji, so to celebrate independance day here is a brief outline on our history.

In 1874 Fiji ceded to Great Britain and remained a colony until the 10th of October 1970. The British did not conquer Fiji but the island asked to be ceded and it was only accepted on the condition that it had to govern itself.

The land was fertile and it was decided to use it for copra and sugar cane. There was a need for regular supply of labourers.
The first Governor of the Colony was determined to preserve Fijian culture and society and as a result no Fijian would be asked to work in the plantations as this would breakdown the village system. He also realised that the native population was more difficult to control.
The British had used Indian indentured labour systems in other colonies quite successfully and decided to do the same in Fiji. The labourers we bought in from India.
On the 14th of May 1879 the first ship from Calcutta – the Leonidas – arrived in Fiji carrying 464 passengers/indentured labourers. The boat was pest ridden with many suffering cholera and small pox.

All labourers were contracted to CSR, an Australian Company that ran the plantations in Fiji. Upon disembarkation they were allocated to a plantation and taken there.
Over the next 37 years over 61,000 were bought into Fiji. They became known as the Girmitiyas. My grandfather and his family were some of these labourers. They came from Patna and they left India on the 19th of July 1095 on board the SS Fultala. He was listed as a 6 years labourer No 328. They arrived on the 17/8 1905, disemabarked on the 18/8 and were sent to Drasa T Estate under the management of CSR.
They were housed in coolie lines that were 10ft by 7ft. Each line had 8-10 rooms with walls that did not reach the ceiling and each family, no matter how large, were given one room with no separate kitchen or latrines and rations were only provided for the first 6 months. From what I have found the total family that came over was my great grandfather, his wife and 3 kids aged 1, 6 and 9.
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. They were contracted to do 5 years with the promise of being sent back home- this of course did not occur.
Men and women did the same hours of work; however women then came home to cook and clean and tend to the home. Due to the fact that there were shortages of women they were also constantly in danger of being raped, taken as a mistress or killed by their husbands due to suspected infidelity.
In fact it was the news of the molestation and abuse of Indian women on the plantations that outraged India most. The campaigns in India to stop the degradation of Indian women in the colonies 'received wider public support than any other movement in Indian history, more even than the movement for independence'.
There are some amazing stories and you can read them on
The Girmitiyas are gone now, but their imprint is etched indelibly on the landscape of Fiji. When I tell people that my grandparents were part of this era many are surprised to hear of the history. My grandparents were part of a remarkable episode in modern history where slavery was given another name.  The Girmitiyas called it 'narak' which means hell, an experience which robbed them of 'izzat', honour, which denied them 'insaf', justice. The words are theirs, not mine.

In 1916 the Indenture system was officially abolished by Britain. The last shipload of labourers arrived in November aboard the Sutlej V. This is the 87th ship that brought labourers to Fiji.  In 1920, all indenture in Fiji was cancelled.
On the 10th of October 1970 we gained our independence and ended 96 years under British Rule.
I can only imagine what life for my grandparents was like, I remember stories my grandmother told me and sometimes I can still hear her voice in the distance reminding me of my heritage.
Independence day still resonates significance within my island home and plays an integral role in defining the culture and values of the nation that has a history that many do not know about.
*information from the book Girmitiyas