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% Christians.
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 dearest’.
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 area.
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.
Evidence further 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.
The interviews 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 readily. 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 arkatie merges 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 behavior. All Hindus and Muslims, and all castes, were mixed. I refused to eat for four days.
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 consequence.
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 in illness.
The majority, 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 traveled 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 succor 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.
Fijian leaders 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 distasteful.
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 in India.
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 cane.