Sunday, September 27, 2015

The night the Syria ran aground ; Fiji Girmit Foundation New Zealand to go on a Pilgrimage to Naselai


This article is adopted from The Fiji Times of 28 May, 2013 by Avinesh Gopal, It is the intention of FIJI PUNDIT to create awareness in this history that is increasingly covered by dust. We wish to wipe away that dust, in advance of a delegation from Fiji Girmit Foundation New Zealand, making a thanksgiving trip to Naselai Village on 14 October, 2015. The delegation from New Zealand is led by its Trustee and President, Master Shiu Charan, Secretary, Thakur Ranjit Singh, and Trustees Harnam Singh Golian and Krishal Naidu, among a delegation comprising some ten from Auckland. The other non-travelling Trustee is author of Tears in Paradise, Rajendra Prasad.. Here is the first of the articles in the series leading to Naselai Thanksgiving Trip to Fiji on 14 October, 2015. The article below is to rekindle, rejuvenate, reclaim, and reconnect Indo-Fijian History, from The Fiji Times:]


The night the Syria ran aground - The Fiji Times 28th May 2013
(by Avinesh Gopal)

THEY died about a century ago but their spirits reportedly roam near their death spot.
And whenever they are seen, they say something which the iTaukei population of the area is not too familiar with.

Sometimes, their cries can also be heard from their "deathbed" — the sunken ship Syria — part of which is lying on Nasilai Reef off Nasilai Village in Nakelo, Tailevu.
It is the story of indentured labourers who were brought to Fiji from India when the ship met her fate on the night of May 11, 1884, claiming 59 lives.

Among those who died were women and children, including some babies.
The Syria was a 1010 tonne iron sailing ship with a length of 63.3 metres, breadth of 10.39 metres and depth of 6.33 metres.

Named after the Syria River in Karnataka in India and launched in 1868, she was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the British colonies.
Details of some of the ship's voyages available on the free encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, revealed that people died on board during trips to Trinidad, with the last trip to Fiji claiming most lives but in a different way.

The Syria left Calcutta in India on March 13, 1884 with 497 passengers in search of a better life in Fiji, like their fellow countrymen who first arrived here on May 14, 1879.
Records reveal that the ship had a crew of 43, of which 33 were lascars (Indians who were in Fiji before the first indentured labourers arrived here).
According to Wikipedia, the ship's journey was uneventful except that the route through the Indian Ocean and travelling south of Australia to utilise the prevailing winds took only 58 days, which was two weeks less than expected.

The theme of this year's Girmit Commemoration in Auckland on 17 May, 2015 was Syria Tragedy, where Fiji's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola was the Chief Guest. The Foundation had pledged to visit  Naselai Village on a Pilgrimage trip, and honour the villagers with a plaque. This trip from a New Zealand delegation, at the guidance of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will be on 14 October, 2015.

On sighting Kadavu at 9am on May 11, 1884, the captain failed to allow for the strong winds and currents and consequently, the ship was closer to Nasilai Reef than the captain believed, it states.
By 7pm, there was a full moon and had a lookout been posted on the masthead, disaster could have been averted as the breakers would have been visible from a long distance.
At 8:15pm, the ship was about half a mile from the reef when the breakers were sighted and despite the captain's desperate measures to turn her, the Syria ran aground at 8:30pm.
Wikipedia states that five of the six lifeboats were destroyed by heavy seas and four crew members went to look for assistance in the sixth lifeboat.

It states that the four crew members reached Nasilai Village at dawn but their inability to communicate with the natives resulted in them being taken to Levuka instead of Suva.
"On reaching Levuka at 5pm, a rescue party was organised and they reached the stricken ship at 9pm," the online encyclopedia states.

"Dr William MacGregor, the chief medical officer and acting colonial secretary, took charge of the rescue operations on the morning of Tuesday 13 May."
It is reported that when the first rescue boats reached the scene, the majority of the passengers were in the water on the reef, making it as far towards the land as they could.
But a considerable number was still in the wrecked vessel, mainly women and children, as the ship lay on her port side with everything thrown about in the breakers.
The encyclopedia states that the survivors were carried by boats and canoes to Nasilai Village, with the last rescue boat reaching the village at 8pm.

Some reports suggest that the captain of the Syria and the surgeon superintendent denied any knowledge of alcohol on board but the following day, several lascars were found drunk, some too drunk to save themselves.

Records from the Fiji Museum reveal that lascars were the first Indians to arrive in Fiji, at least 70 years before the arrival of the first group of indentured labourers and they even worked on the ships that brought Indians to Fiji.
According to The Wreck of the Syria, 1884 published on epress.anu.edu.au, the Fiji Marine Board met from June 4 to 17 that year and closely examined the crew, especially the captain and the first mate, and sought expert opinion of those familiar with Fiji waters.
The publication says the marine board found the captain severely wanting in the exercise of his duties and suspended his certificate for nine months.

The first mate was reprimanded for not having 'volunteered that interest in the navigation of that ship which might reasonably be expected from him', but no firm action was taken, it says.
Furthermore, the publication says that only one member of the crew, Second Mate Walter George Johnson was singled out for praise for doing his utmost for saving lives.
However, the villagers of Nasilai have a different version of the rescue efforts, as told to them by their ancestors and carried down the generations.
The chiefs and elders reportedly had their dinner and were relaxing on the night of May 11, 1884 when they heard people crying and yelling.

Although the shipwreck is about 500 metres away from the village, the villagers heard the noise because of the large number of people who were on board the ill-fated ship.
Story has it that the chief called all the villagers and told them to take canoes out to sea and check where the cries were coming from.

Jonetani Tawake Delai, an elder of the Methodist Church in Nasilai Village and a former soldier, said the villagers took two big canoes out to sea to check.
"When they reached the reef, they saw the ship broken and people scattered all over on the reef and in the water," Mr Delai said.

"The water was also yellowish and our ancestors didn't know whether it was from the curry powder, spices or something else that was on the ship.
"From the stories passed down the generations, we know that our ancestors started picking up the survivors and putting them in the canoes.
"Since the natives were very big people at that time, they picked two, three and even four people at once and put them in the canoes."

Mr Delai said the survivors from the wrecked ship were taken to Nasilai Village by his ancestors and the neighbouring villages were notified about the incident.
He said the dead bodies were washed on the beach at Nasilai the next day.
"Our ancestors went and buried the dead on the beach. They buried two or three people in one grave and the graves were marked with rocks from the reef.
"From what we know, those who died in the incident and were washed ashore on our village were accorded Christian funerals by our ancestors."

Mr Delai said the authorities at that time were notified about the survivors, who were taken away from the village, saying "and that was it".
"Our ancestors rescued the surviving passengers of the Syria because they were human beings, even though new faces.

"If an animal is struggling in the water, people with a good heart will try and rescue it. In the case of the Syria, they were human beings so our ancestors were obliged to help them.
"Even the dead were given a proper burial by our ancestors and the site of the wreck is something that we treasure because it has stories of what our ancestors did for people on the ship."
Mr Delai said Nasilai Village also had a treasured possession from the ship, something that was brought by their ancestors from the wreck.

He said Nasilai villagers and people from outside fish near the reef and the lighthouse, which is about 100 metres away from the shipwreck.

Story has it that what a person may experience when fishing alone near the reef may not be experienced in the presence of other fishermen in the area.
But the experience in the lighthouse is said to be the same, irrespective of you being there alone or with other people.