I have read a lot of literature by historians and came across the writing of JW Burton through books and articles written by, Dr Brij Lal, Andrew Thornley, Ken Gillion, Dr Ahmed Ali, Rajendra Prasad (NZ), Dr Satish Rai, and Thakur Ranjit Singh. This discussion is based on the works of authors/historians mentioned here and also that of JW Burton.
Burton is known as the whistleblower on the Indian indenture in Fiji. I am sure many of you who were in high school in Fiji in the early 1980’s -1990’s, have read literature on the Methodist Missionaries, names that perhaps ring a bell would be Hannah Dudley, John Williams and of course John Burton who was a Methodist missionary to the Indians in Fiji from 1902 to 1911. He was based at Nausori.
During the early years of his mission, Burton was very approving of the Indenture system and the living conditions of the Indians. He shared the view of other Methodists and assumed that the Girmitiyas were low-caste and were of criminal backgrounds.
Research by many historians has proven that the Indians who emigrated to Fiji mostly came due to economic hardships and were led to believe that emigration meant prosperity. The Emigrants were selected in India by the agents of the Crown.
It is stated by Burton in his book “Our Indian work in Fiji”, the Crown demanded that the recruiters explain the conditions of the Indenture contract and in particular the life in Fiji. Evidence presented by many historians has suggested that in all cases this wasn’t done. The Indians were coerced into putting their thumbprints on documents written in English. The recruiters used many different methods to engage emigrants. Although most of the emigrants were villagers, recruitment wasn’t necessarily done in the villages, according to Gillian the reason for this was that the recruiters were afraid to go there for the fear of violence; due to this, emigrants were recruited in or near towns. The Recruiter would station himself on the side of the road or near water collection places. He would also wait at fairs and bazaars (Mela) and temples.
Gillian explains that in fact where there was a crowd and where strangers and travellers were to be found, the recruiters would keep a watchful eye out for the destitute, bemused or gullible villager. He would approach such a person and asked him if he wanted to work. According to Gillian emigration was not mentioned at this stage, depending on the recruiter’s assessment of the intelligence and sophistication of the recruit. Typical procedures were described by Andrews and Pearson in their book “Indian Indentured Labour in Fiji”:
On the same subject, Sir W Crooke in his book, “The North-Western Provinces of India” wrote (the North-western provinces is where most of the emigrants to Fiji came from):
Gillian also mentions that there was very strong resistance to emigration in North India and without the stimulus of organized recruiting; there wouldn’t be any prospective emigrants except Punjab. The Fiji Government Emigration Agent wrote in 1896:
Emigration of any kind, above all that to the colonies beyond the seas, is most -unpopular. In many villages, the recruiter dares not show himself for fear of personal violence, and everywhere he is the prey of the police and court officials of the lower grades. The Indian peasant will not emigrate accepting he is actually compelled by stress of circumstances; he prefers to struggle on in his native village, a victim of ever-present poverty varied by seasons of actual want. Bearing all this in mind it is to me almost surprising that the emigrant to the colonies is so satisfactory.
The minimal wages offered by the Crown to a Labourer was One shilling a day. In comparison, this was four to five times higher than those offered locally to unskilled labour. Gillian suggests that these nominal wages were not always earned by emigrants.
The attraction of the high wages undoubtedly acted as an inducement to emigrate when the recruiter approached the prospective emigrant. It’s interesting to note that by this time the Villager had already left his home, for reasons not connected with emigration or the level of wages.
It is the ordinary villager’s cupidity which is the lever most frequently used. If he is of the stupid, ignorant type, then Fiji is referred to as the district near to Calcutta were high wages are to be paid.
If the villager, on the other hand, is of the more intelligent type, then the full details of the indenture are revealed. But the work is made out to be very light indeed, and the most glowing prospects are offered.
Nothing is said about the penal laws, or the hard conditions of compulsory labour” (Andrews & Pearson, 1918)
The fact is that the Hindu has little of the migratory instinct, and all his prejudices tend to keep him at home. As a resident member of a tribe, caste or village, he occupies a definite social position, of which emigration is likely to deprive him. When he leaves his home, he loses the sympathy and support of his clansmen and neighbours; he misses the village council, which regulates his domestic affairs; the services of the family priest, which he considers essential to his salvation. Every village has its own local shrine, where the deities, in the main destructive, have been propitiated and controlled by the constant service of their votaries.
Once the wanderer leaves the hamlet where he was born, he enters the domain of new and unknown deities, who, being strangers, are of necessity hostile to him, and may resent his intrusion by sending famine, disease, or death upon the luckless stranger. The emigrant, again, to a distant land, finds extreme difficulty in selecting suitable husbands for his daughters. He must choose his sons-in-law within a narrow circle, and if he allows his daughter to ream womanhood unwed, he commits a grievous sin. Should be die in exile, he may fail to win the heaven of the gods, because no successor will make the due funeral obligations and no trusted family priest be there to arrange the last journey of his spirit. So, he may wander through the ages a starving, suffering, malignant ghost, because his obsequies have not been fully performed. (Crooke, 1897).
Travel, to an Indian villager, meant the risk of breaking caste rules, the emigrant would lose caste through crossing the Kala Pani. When Gillion spoke to the older Immigrants in Fiji, received the impression that the overwhelming majority had left their homes for non-economic reasons, including family arguments, the desire for adventure, the deaths of parents or the undertaking of a pilgrimage. Evidence, however, suggests that economic pressure was a strong factor in Indian emigration during the earlier years of emigration. It is also reasonable to assume that during the later years of immigration economic pressure was less since there was a rapid economic expansion in North India, wages were increased due to an increased demand for labour from public works and recruits were very scarce.
Upon arrival in Fiji, the immigrants were strictly quarantined as a precautionary measure against the introduction of infectious diseases into the colony. A medical examination took place and if an immigrant was not medically fit (below the standard), he or she was sent back in the same ship. An immigrant who was partially or temporarily inefficient were assigned “reduced tasks” with reduced earnings until such time he/she was qualified to commence normal tasks.
For 5 years the labourer is “indentured” to his employer and he is legally obliged to serve according to very definite and stringent conditions. The employer, on the other hand, is bound to provide sleeping accommodation of a required amount of space and also medical attention in time of sickness. At the end of 5 years, if the labourer had satisfactorily fulfilled his obligations and did not spend any time in jail, they become “free Indians”. They are released from the bonded labour obligation; they are then expected to settle in the colony for another five years. After serving the 10-year term, they are were given a free passage back to Indian or they could elect to remain in Fiji as permanent residents, which many chose to do.
TASKS AND ACCOMMODATION
The system of “tasks” was established on the estates. Sugar cane weeding or planting was defined as a “simple task”. For satisfactory completion of these simple tasks, if accomplished in a say and on the basis of the Labourer’s ability, the labourer received one shilling.
Women were placed on the same footing but their tasks were lighter and the payment was comparably less. If a labourer failed to perform the task assigned to him within the day, he was liable to be summoned to the court which would result in either a fine or imprisonment.
Some of the conditions imposed on the Labourers were biased and unjust. Every person has their own ability to perform tasks, the stronger and experienced could manage seven tasks in a week compared to the weak, or those who lacked the skill or physical inability, who could only accomplish less.
The labourer, however, had the right of appeal to the Inspector who was a Government Official, should the labourer deem a task too hard.
The issue with this, however, was that this Government Official was only seen once or twice in a year, or this “right of appeal” was somewhat a limited privilege. Then there was the Magistrate to whom complaints would be made, but the courthouse was practically at an impossible distance.
Under such conditions, the Labourer often took the law in his own hands and the feelings and thoughts of the Labourers can be understood when they assaulted the overseer considering the conditions imposed on them.
Burton in his books also mentioned that the Overseer took the extreme cases before the court, as it meant the loss of time both to the employer and the employee. Statistics presented by Gillion stated that in 1907, out of 11,689 adults under the Indenture, 1461 were in breach of the labour laws (Burton, 1909). The breach in the eyes of the law was they either were unable to complete the assigned task or they refused to perform the task. Meaning, 13% of the labour was obstinate.
In terms of their earnings, when converted to Indian annas, appeared high but it must be remembered that the cost of living in Fiji was probably three times higher than it was in India.
Nevertheless, even earning such fewer wages the Indians managed to save. Our own history is clearly evident that our forebears owned gold sovereigns, which he or she acquired upon completion of his indenture. Some of them has acquired at least 10 to 15 sovereigns.
The children were allowed to run around the lines, there were no education privileges. As soon as they turned 12, they had to work in the plantains. This occurred during the earlier years of Indenture. After a very stubborn fight, the Christian missionaries were given permission to teach children and also the adults. Surprisingly, the Immigration Department was in favour of the Missionaries and whatever opposition existed, it died out. It was evident that the companies were afraid that education, particularly in English, would pose a threat to the planters, especially if “Coolies” became Christians, they would have the absurd idea that all men were brothers! (Burton, 1910).
Burton together with other missionaries visited the Girmitiyas “lines” or more often referred to as the “Coolie Lines”. Burtons views changed from approving to that of sheer condemnation of the indenture system.
J W Burton, in his book, “Our Indian work in Fiji” wrote:
Many historians, authors, researchers, and the Christian missionaries have all very graphically described the living conditions of the Girmitiyas and it’s based on oral and documented history. The many researchers and authors who are the descendants of the Girmitiyas have had stories passed down from their forebears. On this website, there are links to stories as narrated by some of the Girmitiyas of Fiji. And I quote Samjhawan’s story that came to Fiji in 1910.
I went to Koronubu. There the kitchen was some distance from where the lines were and there was no place for bathing. We had to use the riverside for washing ourselves. On arrival at Koronubu we were given our foodstuffs to cook and on the next day the various tools with which we were going to work.
Those who did their work and completed their task got their full wages. After finishing our work we went homee, had a wash and a rest. Those who had not completed their tasks by 4pm sometimes earned only eightpence and some even four pence for that day. Some worked hard but their hands and feet became blistered and the next day they could not hold the hoe or the knife so they stayed home and shed tears.
Sardars would ask, “Is this all you came to do in Fiji?” then beat these people. I saw sardars beating people. On such occasions, the overseer would turn up and the sardar would inform him that the labourer was not doing any work. The overseer would usually call him a ‘bloody bastard’ and give him three lashes of the whip. In these circumstances, some Indians used to despair and resort to hanging themselves. This I know very well. But to whom could we then tell these sad tales?
The big and powerful sardars and the strong and sturdy overseers were all allies. Who would then listen to us? The overseers made sure that these physically powerful men were with them. When we were whipped we cried and were sorrowful but endured it and said nothing to anyone.
They were not very good towards women either. Women being women they were not always able to finish their tasks and therefore they were scolded by the overseers. Even when the task was unfinished we went back by 4 p.m. By the time we had washed, got our bucket of water, cooked, eaten and cleaned up, it was about 9pm.
Then the next morning again at three o’clock the water carrier would come calling everybody to wake up and get ready for work. We were awakened at 3 am so that we could be able to cook and have something for breakfast.
We used to be paid on Friday. We would go at about 8pm to collect our money. We often left our children sleeping behind and we were back by about ten o’clock. From mid-day Saturday and all day Sunday we had a break.
Some people used to sing and dance or read their kathas and it was in this way that we spent our leisure. We were not educated and did not have very much knowledge about these rituals which when performed made us happy. A katha was usually said by somebody amongst the group who made himself a pundit and was accepted as such.
When the katha used to take place everybody would sit quietly and listen and then sweets would be distributed; afterwards, everybody would have a meal before returning to their own lines. The man who heard the katha provided the meal. Everybody went to hear the katha whether he was a Hindu or not.
In 1910 the Methodist Missionary reported that the health of the free community (Indians were considered free, after 5 years of serving their indenture) is on the whole good. It also reported that the community were wretchedly dirty and skin diseases were common amongst them.
They also suffered from bowel and check problems to a considerable extent. The death-rate is reportedly low and considering the scarcity of women, the birth-rate was high. Between six and seven hundred more were born each year than those who passed away.
It is reported that in 1907 six thousand adult females gave birth to over a thousand children, this is excluding the unregistered number of births which would have brought this figure higher. The report also stated that the mortality among the children was significantly high due to ignorance, filth, sexual immorality, and carelessness being the main cause. Burton in his book reported that the people lived in unclean, unsanitary hovels, with animals kept in the house that increased the risk of disease. The Indians were to be pitied living in such conditions and the Government to be blamed for not providing the labourers with better accommodations
Notwithstanding such unfavourable conditions and every other obstacle, the Indian thrived.
As Burton suggested in his book:
One secret of the increase of the people is perhaps their tenacity of life. They have some purpose before them, and, unlike the Fijians, they have a deep interest in living. The Fijian is ready to lie down and die on the slightest provocation: the Indian simply will not die until the silver cord actually snaps. Men dying of consumption hold out with persistence remarkable even for those smitten with that disease. People suffering from incurable maladies defy death until the last – much to their own suffering and the annoyance of their friends. They are unkillable people.” (Burton, 1909).
Burton narrated a noteworthy story which I quote:
“Sahib, be merciful, and come and see a woman who is ill’
“What’s the matter with her?
“Oh, she’s swollen out to a terrible size—her legs and arms and body.”
The sahib went and found her a fearful object. Her body and limbs were swollen to more than double their normal proportions. The skin was tense and bright, and, in places, quite purple. Her face alone remained unaltered. She had been to the Suva hospital, and the doctors had diagnosed her case as one of acute appendicitis. They wanted to operate at once, but she refused to be “cut”. The doctors said she would die. She left the hospital in that state and walked over three miles. Since then the swelling had increased and had extended over the whole of her body. The sahib looked at her for a while and pressed the shining, taut skin.
“Daughter, you will die. You were foolish to leave the hospital. I cannot do anything for you. You ought to have let the doctors operate.”
“ Die ?” she screamed, raising her fearful hands.
“Die? I won’t die! Sahib, come closer. Look into my eyes—is death there?”
The eyes were keen and singularly lustrous.
Look at my face—is death there?
The face was particularly healthy-looking and the lips were full of resolve.
“’Sahib, when the doctors said the woman will die, I thought of my boy Sewak here, and I said, “If I die, who will take care of him?”
So I got the nurse to give me a little mirror and I looked into my eyes and I saw life laughing there. I saw my spirit—it was strong and fearless. They said that I couldn’t walk, and tried to stop me as I rose, but I did, and now I am home and I am going to get well. My mind is stronger than my body, and the house will not fall while the timbers are strong”