Gafur's story

I was a student in Bombay and was on my way home when I met some men who asked me if I were interested in work. They took me and my companion through Dawalpur. There I was registered. I was promised work in Jamaica but I had no idea where Jamaica was. When we went as far as Singapore then we were told we would be sent to Fiji.

We were told that Jamaica was far away, but that we would receive 10/- a day.     We were ten or twelve and fell into temptation that comes through greed for money; this is wily we migrated. I was only 18 then. My companions and I were all unmarried at that stage. I was at school studying to be a maulvi.

I came to Fiji in 1902 and served my indenture in Labasa. In India we were told that we would get any work that we desired but when we got to Labasa we were told that we would have to work in the canefields. My intention for coming here was to teach children. That is why I enlisted. I was given the impression that there were many Muslims in Fiji so I could teach them Arabic and Urdu and receive a good remuneration. When I got to Fiji I tried to pursue my intention but instead I had to work in the canefields. I had no idea of working as an agricultural labourer at all when I arrived here.

During the indenture period if you did not work you were punished by Europeans. A Whiteman once told me to work. He retorted that I would not work, either I would die or I would kill him. He punched me. I grabbed him and threw him to the ground. The Whiteman hit me and I retaliated; I struck him a blow and lie bled. Two other Europeans came and held me. I was given such a beating that I was unable to drink water for a week. No Indian came to my rescue. But none could. Had they interfered they too would have received the same treatment. Some people then advised me not to get into strife but to work. A European came and saw me and looked at my hands. He said my hands were soft as a woman’s and asked me what type of work I had been doing. I said I was a teacher. He then told me to do ploughing.

With hardships my days passed. The sardars used to give us a terrible time, Only God knows how evil they were. As an Indian I am ashamed to relate what these Indians did to other Indians in association with Europeans. Sometimes women too collaborated. They went and advised other women to go to Europeans, the reward was work that was not difficult.

Do not ask about religion in the indenture days. It is nonetheless true that no matter how hard the work was some of us did fast during girmit but it is not true at all to say that we said, our prayers in the field. It might have been possible to do this in other estates but certainly not on the one where I was. There, if anybody tried to say his prayers he would have got a kick on his behind from a European. It was just not possible to say your prayers on that estate. There was no talk of religion at all on my estate. There was nobody who used to read either the Koran or the Ramayana. There were no Kathas or anything of that kind. Even during the weekends we did not discuss religion. Hindus and Muslims got on very well without religious strife.  We did, however, discuss amongst ourselves the need to serve our period and then to become free. When we became free and I went to Suva, it was then that I practised my religion fully: saying prayers and observing festivals.

We had contact with people who lived in the settlements of time-expired indentured labourers. They advised us to serve our girmit and become free. We did not have dances or poetry-readings. ALL we did in the indentured days was work. We waited for freedom and then made sure that we left the place lest anything else unfortunate occurred to us.

There were days when we had nothing to eat, nor the money to buy anything. People helped us, irrespective of religion. In those days we were united, and stayed as one. Hindus helped through contributions, build Muslim mosques and Muslims likewise made donations towards the building of Hindu temples. In the indenture days Muslims tool: Hindu wives and vice-versa. All retained their religion during girmit.

There was a shortage of women in the indenture period and one could not be selective. There were occasions when there was one woman with two men interested in her, and this invariably led to strife. Sometimes one killed the other and faced the risk of being hanged afterwards.

How could we get back to India after girmit? We had no money. The money we earned under indenture was not enough. Earning 2/- or 3/- a week was hardly enough for food for a big man. So how could we save to go to India? There were times when our work became so tough that we thought death would be easier than some of the things we had to endure. For the married things were even more difficult at times. The divine injunction forbidding suicide saved us from taking our own life. It was our religion that saved us; and gave us incentive to live.

There were Christian missionaries who helped us by giving us medicine. I cannot say that they showed favouritism towards those Indians who were Christians.