Many communities have a habit of remembering their heroes and people who have contributed or have made great or small sacrifices to the benefit of the community or the nation that a particular community belongs to. For example, those who fought for America’s independence, the war heroes of the first and second world wars, the victims of the Nazi holocaust, and even the victims of the 9/11 are remembered, each for its own reason.
However, there are millions of people who the history has chosen to ignore or forget, or both. The millions of people that I am referring to here are the victims of Europe’s colonial expansion since the so called discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
First the European conquerors slaughtered millions of the original owners of the lands in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and the Island countries in the Indian and Pacific oceans. After capturing their lands, with, as some scholars have stated, ‘gun in one hand and the bible in the other’, the Europeans sidelined the traumatized survivors to reserved lands. Then, in order to work on the vast areas of these captured lands, millions of ordinary African men, women and children were captured and transported to many parts of the colonised world. Some scholars have estimated that approximately forty million Africans were taken away from their homes, but majority of them died during transportation. Those who survived were traded and treated like animals in the colonies. Today not much is heard of the sacrifices of these slaves, upon whose blood and sweat the present day America is founded. The original owners of this so called great nation are still being confined to the reserves. However, the Americans celebrate fourth of July, the day they claimed their independence from Britain (1776), and when apparently, democracy was born there, with much vigor and penchant each year.
When the African slavery got abolished in the Americas, a great void in labour supply on the colonial plantations were created, because the former slaves refused to go back to the plantations. Then the cunning Europeans turned their attention on the vast pool of labour in India, much of which was under European domination at that time. From 1838 till the end of Indian indenture system (now known as the girmit system in Fiji and South Africa) in 1916, 1.2 million Indians were transported to European colonies, including Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, South Africa, the French Reunion, Surinam, Jamaica and Fiji. Many researchers now believe that the Indian indenture system was, in many aspects, akin to the African slavery. This is especially true in the way they were recruited, transported and treated during the indenture. In accordance to the terms of the indenture agreements, a significant percentage from the total returned to their homes in India. However, the majority of them could never return. Many views, mainly by the white writers, assert that the Indians chose to stay back in the colonies. However my own research in the case of Fiji, conducted since 1996, starkly reveals that the majority of Fiji’s girmitiyas were prevented from returning to the homes in India. In this way they became permanent slaves to the British colonial government and the Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia, which had virtual monopoly of the sugar industry and employed majority of the girmitiyas there.
It is about time that the pains and sufferings, as well as the unparallel contribution of the girmitiyas to Fiji, must be seen from the point of view of these exiled and enslaved people, who relentlessly toiled away from their homes in India. Spare a thought for these 35,000 human beings! Each day they were rudely awakened at the break of dawn, forced to do backbreaking tasks at the threat of whips and beatings from the Indian sardars and white overseers, and endure inhuman living conditions in the coolie lines or other shacks they called homes. They did all that with knowledge that they would never return to their homes in India. We must remember that the majority of the girmitiyas were plucked away from their homes by the recruiters in India and they did not even say good byes to their parents and other loved ones. Now in Fiji, each moment of their lives, the heart wrenching feeling that they would never see their loved ones back in India must have endlessly tormented them. Many committed suicides and many other developed adverse mental conditions. The bodies of these girmitiyas battled daily on the sugarcane farms, sugar mills, roads and tramlines of Fiji. The minds of them battled every second with the knowledge that their bodies will not get the last rites in the country of their birth. The physical and mental battle continued until each of these exiled girmitiyas drew their last breath in Fiji.