Mahabir's story

I was about 16 and used to work as a lohar. Then I met a man who asked me whether I was looking for a job. When I answered that I was, he took me to a house and gave me something to do. He left me there.    Somebody else came and I complained and was told not to worry.

I was given foodstuff and asked to cook and eat for the next day all would be remedied.   While there a man who had been to Demerara, came and told us that we could all get work for 12 annas a day working where we were going. He added that we could all go to Fiji where we could accumulate money. Having left my own village I decided to make this trip.

And after some days people gathered there and I was told that we would all have to go to Calcutta. Once there we spent our days eating, drinking and sleeping, and others were singing and dancing. A European then asked us if we were willing to go to Fiji and I said “yes”. I was a-ain told that I would get 12 annas a day and would have to work in Fiji for five years. There I would get food for six months and then after I would have to earn my own livelihood.

I had come to the Ganges but when the doctor examined me he found I had a fever and he told me that I should not travel. I remained in Calcutta for another twelve weeks before embarking on a later ship.

During my journey I felt sick all the time. For fifteen days I did not know what was happening. I became aware of things after that time. The boat tossed from one side to the other and everything on board rattled. In the day time we stayed outside and at night we had to go inside.

The trip took a month and we arrived at Nukulau. From there I went to Lautoka with ten others. When our boat arrived in Lautoka the European to whom we had been allocated took us to a shop where he gave us utensils like pots and spoons and then he put us in a carriage that brought us to Nadi. On our arrival we cleaned the place. It took us two days and. on the second day we were given knives, hoes, etc. for our work.

At 3am the sardar awoke everyone of us and told us to cook and be ready to leave for work by 5am. We were paired off, one old hand with a newcomer. This was so that the newcomer could learn the work. Some labourers used to finish their work by 4 or 5pm. Others could not complete theirs and had to be given leave by thesardar. The work was hard but we were paid 5/6 a week.

There was a difference between the work in Fiji and that in India. In India we could finish when we wanted to, sometimes by ten o’clock or mid-day.

This was not possible here. Here it was work from 5am to 5pm.

I was taught how to handle horses and for the next couple of years I used horses for ploughing. I worked fairly hard so I was neither scolded nor punished by any overseer. But there were others who were lazy, who did not work well, they were given a beating. Normally, we were not hit but if we created trouble then the whip was used. There were some people from India who were rogues as well.

In Malolo, a European was beaten up but in the estate where I worked the European overseer was very good. He looked after us well and even helped those who had a wife and children. Because my work was good during the girmit days I became a sardar. As a sardarsometimes I used to quieten Europeans. There was no conflict on my estate but there were other places where there was a great deal of strife and there were occasions when women were chopped up.

During indenture one could sometimes obtain land on lease from Europeans and acquire cows and sell milk or grow vegetables for sale at the market. There were many Indians who banked their money with shop-keepers in those days, but once the shopkeepers, like Pillay, became bankrupt then these Indians lost all their savings.

There was no conflict with Fijians in those days. If you gave them something they reciprocated. During indenture days some Indians used to run away from work and go to a Fijian village, they were often given shelter there, as well as provided with food. If one took yagona into a village then all there would share what they had with you. In the very early days they used to smell the roti first and then throw it away. It was later that they learnt to eat it. Fijians were not fussy but there were some Indians who claimed to be Brahmins or other high castes who tended to be fastidious about certain matters.