The Girmitiyas – We Shall Not Forget

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.

These girmitiyas may not have won any wars or captured any territories from the enemies. They did not ever fire a gun. But they battled everyday and conquered the hostile land of Fiji and planted sugarcane on it. From the same sugarcane they made sweet sugar, which turned Fiji, a country that had appeared to be so useless that England rejected to takeover twice, into a viable economy.

While they were doing that, they also sacrificed endlessly in order to ensure that their children did not have to suffer their plights. In a short time they built schools, temples and mosques. They instilled Indian culture and tradition to their children. The girmitiyas, who were brought to Fiji from many different states of India, with several religions among them, combined their efforts and achieved unparallel successes in these fields. They began speaking one single Indian dialect.

By the time the last girmitiya drew his last breath in Fiji, their children were reaping the benefits of their pains, sacrifices and hard work. But hardly any of them even remembered them. In the schools, many of them built by the girmitiyas, they were taught the history of the arrival of the native Fijians to Fiji, the arrival of the Europeans, and about the queen and her castles in England. They were even taught about the wheat farming in Australia and the sheep farming in New Zealand. But not a word about the arrival, the sacrifices and the contributions of the Indians, the girmitiyas! Fiji had forgotten them and consigned them to the dustbin of its history; just like people do to their worn-out and useless shoes.

Then the 1987 coups struck Fiji. Thousands of Indians, who had forgotten the way their ancestors were treated in Fiji, and thought Fiji was their home, had a rude awakening. Thousands fled Fiji. But after a while, they again began thinking Fiji as a home. What history teaches us is that we never learn from history. They were once again brought to reality in 2000. Thousands fled Fiji again! Even then majority of them failed to remember their Indian ancestors, how they were treated in Fiji. They refused to travel back into the history, study it, analyze it and learn from it. Another coup took place in 2006!

Slowly but surely, a very small number of Indians of Fiji; they are still not called Fijians in Fiji, began researching their girmit history. Some began traveling to India in search of their Indian ancestry. Rudely deprived off their Fijian identity, some even began searching their Indian identity. They began to realize that their identity is strongly linked to their girmit identity. It is the girmitiyas that link them to India, and her thousands of years of history and culture. Those who have found and visited their ancestral villages in India will tell you about the sense of fulfillment that this simple act brings to them.

It has taken more than one hundred year for a few children of the girmitiyas to start appreciating the sacrifices and contributions of the girmitiyas towards their own, and Fiji’s success. Each year this number is slowly growing. Some of them have started re-writing history from the perspective of the girmitiyas. Their efforts are now being appreciated and slowly but surely, the Fiji Indians, especially who are now living away from Fiji, are getting interested in their own history.  In countries like Australia, Indians from India are also learning, for the first time, that some of their own were transported to Fiji around a century ago. They are beginning to learn about their pains, sacrifices and contributions in Fiji.

The efforts of a few visionary and dedicated people will ensure that the history of the girmitiyas, that was grossly distorted and neglected in Fiji, will be deconstructed and the truth will be finally revealed. Ultimately, their work will ensure that the girmit history of Fiji will not be forgotten.