Thursday, October 8, 2015

I have a Dream: A Thanksgiving Pilgrimage to Syria Wreck in Fiji




The deathbed-Syria Wreck -What is left of Syria at Naselai Reef at Nakelo on Naselai reef in Tailevu, Fiji.

As a delegation from Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand is headed for Naselai Village on a thanksgiving trip on Wednesday 14 October, 2015, we cannot forget the historical events leading to this trip. Fiji’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola was the Chief Guest in Girmit Commemoration on May 17, 2015 in Auckland, with the theme of Syria Wreck. On a fateful night of 11 May, 1884, villagers of Naselai Village risked their own lives and courageously provided valuable and timely assistance, comfort and hospitality in saving many Indian lives.

Now, to honour the villagers, a delegation from Fiji Girmit Foundation, led by President/Trustee Master Shiu Charan, Secretary/Trustee, Thakur Ranjit Singh, Trustee Sardar Harnam Singh Golian and Krishal Naidu, with members Viren Lal and Vijendra Prasad, among others, are visiting Naselai Village and Naselai Reef on a thanksgiving pilgrimage. New Zealand National Party List MP, Kanwaljeet Bakshi is also part of the delegation. They will perform a sevu sevu ceremony, gift a plaque of thanks and initiate a project with ongoing assistance to the village school. Let us, for a moment, go in “flashback” historical mode.

This was the original ship- Leonidas, which brought first Indian Girmitiyas to Fiji on 14 May, 1879. Syria was a similar sailing ship which perished on Naselai Reef on 11 May, 1884.

Let us dust some pages of history for a better perspective to this incident. It was a fateful, eventful and a night full of tragedies in 1884, where a raging sea proved once more that in front of the force of nature, human beings are mere mortals.


On March 13, 1884, the Syria Ship, which had been named after Syria River in Karnataka in India, left Calcutta with 497 indentured labourers bound for Fiji. As the ship sailed into open seas the passengers saw their motherland for the last time.  Alas, no one knew what awaited ahead.
The captain and crew were happy and satisfied with the journey, as they entered Fiji waters. But tragedy awaited them. The wrath of nature saw a violent storm rage at sea as the ship made its way through a narrow channel. Later enquiries showed that somebody was sleeping on the job. The inexperienced crew allowed the ship to drift off course, and consequently, at 8.30 pm, the vessel went aground on Naselai reef at Nakelo in Tailevu, and the rest is history.

As Ram Prasad from Nakelo and Peniasi from Naselai Village, sat around their usual grog bowl at Nausori market on a Saturday morning, their talk centered around the legend of Syria tragedy.  Citing a newspaper article Prasad asked Peniasi whether those claims of Syria ghosts are true. Peniasi confirmed the tales of the villagers that despite their deaths over a century ago, their souls still seem to be haunting the place. They feel their spirits still roam near where the ship sank. At times, they say, their cries can also be heard from their "deathbed” in Hindi, the spot of Syria sinking, where a part of it is still lying on Naselai Reef off Naselai Village in Nakelo, Tailevu.

There are various version of the rescue efforts and tales of gallantry. But one thing is certain - the milk of human kindness so much in abundance in the ITaukei culture, won the day. It must have come as a shock when the chief and the villagers, first cast their eyes upon these strange people dressed in their traditional dhoti. The feeling was mutual - the survivors didn't know anything about the native people of this new land before they arrived –but their first meeting spoke the universal language – that of humanity and compassion, some 130 years ago! Human bond was formed between the two native people whose history spans thousands of years and they are tens of thousands of kilometers and thousands of years of civilization apart. Indian survivors were offered hospitality – warm food, water and shelter, until their transfer to the processing centers the following day.

I have a dream: Pundir Devakar Prasad initiated the theme of  Syria  tragedy in Girmit Day 2015 at Auckland. However, he passed away before fulfilling this dream of honoring Naselai Villagers. Now, a delegation from Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand is headed for Naselai to fulfill this dream.

Fiji Girmit Foundation in New Zealand decided to dust the pages of history, present a plaque and initiate assistance to their school to make such gratitude an ongoing experience. Its founding President, Pundit Devakar Prasad proposed the theme of Syria for 2015 Auckland Girmit Day to recognize Naselai Villagers for their kind gesture. He had undertaken extensive preparation to present a moving tribute. However, with his untimely passing away on 19 April, 2015, the Foundation decided to fulfil this dream he so tirelessly planned and worked towards.

When Fiji’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola attended the Auckland on 17 May, 2015 as the Chief Guest, it presented an opportune time for the Syria tragedy to be rekindled into limelight. It was also a time to sing praises of humanity, cooperation and goodwill that was witnessed over a century ago on a dark fateful night at a remote unfriendly raging Naselai Reef.

The president of the Foundation Mr Shiu Charan lamented the lack of historical recognition. He said:

"Unfortunately, Fijian history hasn’t resonated with such acts of ITaukei compassion and sacrifice. This has been a remarkable feat and human gesture that has been ignored by the White-Men’s version of Fiji History….. we have witnessed that both the Fijians and Indo- Fijians stand by for each other in times of need and disaster. Indeed, there is enormous reservoir of love, affection and goodwill between the two races that needs to be revealed, promoted and cherished.”  
President of Fiji Girmit Foundation New Zealand, Master Shiu Charan (left) with Fiji's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, who was the chief guest at Girmit Day 2015 in Auckland. Fiji Government was requested to declare 14 May as Girmit Day Public Holiday, and include Girmit History in Fiji curriculum, among others.. The Naselai Trip is facilitated and coordinated by Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Fiji.

The Minister responded in kind. He expressed sorrow at bias of history which failed to highlight such positive stories which were often lost in accounts that gave much credit and praise to the colonial masters while others were only mentioned in passing.

I am pleased that the organisers have chosen this focus, not so much to dwell in the tragedy of that event, but more importantly to highlight the face of hope and compassion that surfaced from it.”, Minister Kubuabola said.

He was requested and has kindly facilitated the pilgrimage by Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand to present a plaque as a thanksgiving gesture. This will be done in a moving ceremony on 14 October, 2015 at Naselai Village. A delegation of twelve has traveled from New Zealand, to be joined by an equal number from Fiji.

During the Girmit Day Commemoration in Auckland earlier this year, the Foundation alluded to the fact that the biggest issue with lack of knowledge on Girmit was because the History is always written from the viewpoint of victor and history of Fiji Indians have been stolen, hidden and even manipulated. To correct this anomaly, the Foundation requested Minister for his government:
a) To consider including Girmit History in Fiji’s education curriculum, and
b) To declare 14 May, the anniversary of arrival of first Indians to Fiji, as a Public Holiday. 

These gestures would not only create better understanding of the historical perspective, but would also be a fitting acknowledgment to those ordinary Girmitiyas who did extraordinary deeds in extraordinary times. The Minister promised to take these requests to the government, and the delegation will be raising it in its meeting with the Minister.

The theme of Syria Tragedy at Girmit Commemoration in Auckland on 17 May, 2015 where the history of Syria sinking was rekindled and the dream of  Naselai pilgrimage took root.
It was a dream of Fiji Girmit Foundation of NZ to honour Naselai Villagers for that historical human deeds a century apart by the forbears of the villagers. Fulfilling that dream, the delegation will in the village and visit the site of Syria wreck in Rewa, Fiji on Wednesday, 14 October, 2015.

What makes this pilgrimage that much eventful is that the New Zealand delegation includes one descendant of the Syria tragedy.

[About the Author: Thakur Ranjit Singh is the Founding Trustee and Secretary of Fiji Girmit Foundation of NZ. He is a media commentator and runs his blog site FIJI PUNDIT (www.fijipundit.blogspot.co.nz) and Indian Media Watch in New Zealand. He is part of the delegation visiting Naselai Village on 14 October, 2015. Village name “Naselai” is used in this article and the plaque, based on interchangeable reference in historical and geographical reference with “Nasilai”]