Introduced by Ahmed Ali, Director, Institute of Social and Administrative Studies, University of the South Pacific

Bulletin of the FIJI MUSEUM, No. 5, 1979

An Introduction

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.

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 records.

The plantation 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 managers’.

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.

The interviews 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.

Often conflict 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 exploitation’.

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 end.

Christian 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.

The comments referred specifically to the West Indies and Mauritius but they are no less valid of girmit in Fiji.

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.

Tasking constituted 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 to mediate.

One might begin with an early illustration drawn from a report for December 1880 made by A. Eastgate, Stipendiary Magistrate in Tailevu.

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 premature.

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 estate.

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 decision. 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 Calcutta’.

[box type=”bio”] 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 elsewhere. [/box]

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 thesardar 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 factors.

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 plantation.

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’.

Performance also 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.

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 paid slavery.

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.

Absenteeism, feigned 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.

Another immigration 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.

The Labasa 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 history’.

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.

A single-minded 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 evil’.

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 of him.

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 Exciting Cause’.

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 violent coercion.

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 Koronubu.

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’.

Government viewed 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 asardar, Abdulla, who forced a number of’ those working below him to a hut for gambling, and extorted seventy pounds from them.

The labourers 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 thesardar 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.

[quote] The plantation 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.

The labourer 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 violence. [/quote]

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, thesardar 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 freely dispensed.

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 home-land.

Indians abroad, 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 indentured  men 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:


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 statutes’.

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’.

Despite his 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 girmitremained. On his return he published his experience in a pamphlet Fiji Dwip Men Mere Ikkish Varsh (My Twenty-one Years in Fiji).

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 recognisedgirmit 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 girmitcould 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 girmitbecame 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 the present.

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.

Nevertheless they 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.

In assessing 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.

Another significant 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.

The deracination 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 external interference.

The assertive 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 daily affairs.

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 western education.

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.


K.L. Gillion:          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 emigrant.

  1. Hobsbaum: Labouring Men. Studies in the History of Labour (London 1964) p.344.

Totaram Sanadhya: The Coolie System (A pamphlet in Hindi, 1914).

Panchanan Saha: Emigration of Indian Labour (1834-1900), (Delhi 1970), chapter 2, pp. 28-77.

ibid., p.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.

  1. 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.

ibid., p.164

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).

  1. 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. 1300/1881.

C.S.O. 1354/1881.


C.S.O. 1936/1881.




C.S.O. 1050/1886.

C.S.O. 1029/1887, 1550/1887.

C.S.O. 1550/1887.

C.S.O. 3481/1887.

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.

C.S.O. 13481./1887.

Jackson to Colonial Office, Confidential, 11 August 1903. C.O. 83/77.

South Pacific Enterprise. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company Limited. (Sydney, 1956) P 299

ibid , pp. 299-300.

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. 77445–6).

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, Sydney 1918.

  1. B. Brereton: on.cit., p.31-32.

C.S.O. 5079/1908.

C.S.O. 3237/1900, 3491/1900.

C.S.O. 3237/1900.

C.S.O. 1300/1801; 1354/188I; 2555;1893; 401-2/1907; 1846/1916; 1855/1916; 1863/1916; 1908/1916; 2827/1916; 5562/1916.

C.S.O. 2026/1880.

C.S.O. 4431/1908.

C.S.O. 3291/1897.

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.

Hugh Tinker:        op.cit., p.226.

Western Pacific Herald 21 June 1917•

K.L. Gillion: op.cit. (1962) p.167.

ibid., p.172.

ibid., p.174.

Hugh Tinker: op.cit. p. 320.

K.S. Sandhu: Indians in Malaya. Some Aspects of their Immigration and Settlement 1786-1957 Cambridge university Press, 1969) p.144.

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)

  1. 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.