Girmitiyas: Fiji’s forgotten Indentured Labourers
[Shradhanjali ke do phool (A Wreath) on GIRMIT REMEMBRANCE DAY ON 14 MAY.]
Thakur Ranjit Singh, Auckland, New Zealand
If I ask Indo-Fijians the significance of 14th May, you may say, yes, of course, Rabuka’s coup in 1987. No, not that. I was thinking of something over a century before the coup – I was thinking of 14th May, 1879 when the first ship load of Girmitiyas- Fiji’s indentured labourers – arrived in Fiji at Levuka in the historic vessel, the Leonidas. This article is intended to awaken the dead pride of Indo-Fijian Diaspora, and urge them to observe GIRMIT REMEMBRANCE DAY ON 14 MAY this year and every year henceforth.
|Leonidas, the first indenture ship to arrive at Levuka on 14 May, 1879 with the first ship-load of Girmitiyas or Indentured Labourers. That is why 14 May is dedicated as GIRMIT REMEMBRANCE DAY|
During this Ram Naumi, as the Hindu Indo-Fijian Diaspora in Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand gather at different Mandirs, temples, prayer houses and private homes to sing Ramayan and Ram Kirtans, please ponder this issue – how come you are singing Ramayan in Hindi and maintaining your culture? How come Indo-Fijian Diaspora is a pride to Hinduism among migrant Hindus? Who do you give credit for bringing and maintaining Hindi language and maintaining Hinduism in Fiji? What, if after suffering the hardship, atrocities and injustice of British and Australian colonists and Christian overseers in cane-fields, Girmitiyas had chosen the easy way out, and converted to Christianity? How about if they had abandoned Hinduism? What would have happened to the livelihood of so many Pundits and Purohits? Then today you would be singing hymns in a Church, and not Ramayan during Ram Naumi. Are you, and have you ever been thankful to your to your persevering forbears? Your Girmitiya grandfathers and great-grandfathers were indeed great gems, deserving some honour from their descendants.
You must thank our forbears- our Girmitiyas. When Indo Fijians nowadays come from Fiji, they will bring yagona and duty free liquor with them. But what did those Girmitiyas bring from India wrapped in their dhotis. No grog (kava) or duty free alcohol and cigarettes– but they brought Ramayan, Gita and their language and culture with them. And we are so thankful for that. However, as a race, we are so selfish and conceited to have forgotten their sacrifices and sufferings.
On Thanksgiving Day, Americans think of and honour those who sacrificed for America in creating a new homeland. On ANZAC Day (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) Kiwis and Aussies think of their soldiers who fought for their countries and gave their lives. On Waitangi Day, New Zealanders mark that as a nation-building day. Then why cannot we, Girmitiya descendant Indo-Fijians, set aside at least one day in a year to think and honour those who sacrificed their life for us and gave us this better lives than they ever dreamed of?
We should be thankful for the vision of our forbears for giving so much priority for education. One of the most important matters affecting new settlers during indenture was education. It was British policy to keep the farmers in bondage and the best way of doing this was to keep them uneducated and ignorant. However, after their long suffering in Fiji, the Girmitiyas realized the value of education and salvation through knowledge. They swore that never again would anybody subject their children and new generation to the indignity that they went through. You now settled in Developed Countries are the result of that pledge by your forbears- Girmitiya grandfathers and great-grandfathers you should be thankful to.
It is from such thoughts, views and vision that various religious groupings decided to establish schools for their communities. Hence started schools like Rarawai Muslim School, Vashist Muni School, Vunisamaloa Sangam School, DAV College, Vaqia Indian School, Khalsa College, Koronubu Indian School, and many rural community and religious based schools throughout Fiji. These schools were started with great deal of personal sacrifice and contributions. Some farmers donated land, while others assigned certain tonnage to go towards the school while others gave their labour to build schools in their respective localities. This was very unlike the schools set up by government for Europeans and indigenous Fijians where the full contribution was from the colonial government
It is because of this legacy that today, over 90% of Fiji’s students go to non-government schools and it is because of such vision that today’s third and fourth generation of Girmitiya children are sought after professionals and skilled people in Fiji, New Zealand, Canada USA and Australia and other parts of the world. But how have we repaid this debt?
The tragedy of Indo- Fijians is that they lack selfless political or other forms of benevolent leadership. We have our so called crusaders of cane farmers, multitudes of qualified academics and professors who benefited through taxpayers money to get their degrees, yet they remain deafeningly silent when troubles hit our community. In other progressive democracies and in oppressed regimes, it used to be its academic sons and daughters who took the fight on for their country. In the case of Fiji, it has not been a matter of pride. We have multitudes of prosperous Indo-Fijian lawyers made rich by a bickering Indo-Fijian community, yet how many have got the guts or human conscience to take the fight to seek redress from those who wronged us?
It is unfortunate that even Fiji's people settled in Developed Nations overseas, have been so immersed in their new found prosperity and material wealth that any thought of Girmit or Girmitiyas is considered blasphemy and a no no. Some six years ago I hoped to start marking Girmit Day on May 14 in Auckland, but was discouraged and shunned by the descendants of Girmitiyas. What a shame. Even a Mandir (temple) supported and frequented by Indo- Fijians in Manurewa in South Auckland with an appropriate hall refused to grant us free use as they said they had to pay a mortgage for their loan. How about the mortgage that we owe to the sacrifices and suffering of Girmitiyas that have landed us in this prosperity now? Can Indo-Fijians settled abroad be so thankless, conceited and selfish?
What I suggest is that we need to tell our children and grandchildren about the stories of Girmit so that they know where they have descended from and how full of suffering has been that first journey in 1869 to 1916 which saw some 60,000 Indians brought to Fiji. Even their descendants in Fiji went through great deal of suffering and discriminations by successive Fijian governments.
My blogsite, FIJI PUNDIT will dedicate a chain of articles in April and May dedicated to the memories of Girmitiyas-our forefathers the community has forgotten. This article is dedicated by FIJI PUNDIT to the 60,000 Bansi, Bhura and jahaji bhai (travelling shipmate) Bholai who transformed Fiji from a cannibalistic tribalism and jungle to a flourishing economic envy of the Pacific, which at one time was referred to as Crown Jewel of Pacific through sacrifices and suffering of Girmitiyas, in partnership with the I-Taukei and landowners..
Unfortunately, history fails to recognize or acknowledge this. As we mark the 134 years of the first arrival of indentured labourers to Fiji on 14 May, 1879,, this article is meant as a wreath on the graves of Girmitiyas (shradhanjali ke do phool ) to whom the whole of Fiji owes its gratitude. And so do us, the descendants of the Girmitiyas settled overseas. Why have we forgotten them? Let us mark 14 May as GIRMIT REMEMBRANCE DAY
May the soul of our departed Girmitiyas and our ancestors rest in peace!
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Await Next Posting: THE STOLEN HISTORY OF GIRMITIYAS