Rajendra Prasad and Thakur Ranjit Singh
History of a community is what the root is to a tree. Without the knowledge of its history, a community becomes adrift without the anchor. It is important that we reconnect, reclaim and restore our Girmit history. We therefore request social and religious organizations to share this information with their members, to spread the knowledge of our stolen history. We summarize below a few of the vital points to assist you in gaining a broad understanding on our Girmit history.
• In 1833, the British abolished the system of slavery, which contributed to acute shortage of labour in the British colonies. In 1834, the British substituted slavery with “INDENTURE SYSTEM”, a contractual agreement for five years and recruited 1.2 million Indians to serve in its colonies. Indenture system was slavery by another name.
• For Fiji, the British recruited 60,965 Indians to work in the sugarcane plantations and the first of 87 ships Leonidas brought 463 Indian indentured workers (Girmitiyas) to Fiji on 14 May 1879. In Fiji, it popularly came to be called “Girmit” which is a derived from the word “agreement”.
• Deceit and lies were largely used by the Aarkathis, the deceptive recruiters in India to trap poor, ignorant and illiterate people from rural parts of India with promises that they could return after five years with lot of money. The Aarkathis told the recruits that Fiji was in India or near India and once trapped, the victims could not escape from the holding depots and eventually found themselves shipped to Fiji. In Fiji, they worked in different sugarcane plantations and paid one shilling (10 cents) per day for men and 9 pence (9 cents) per day for women.
• Their working and living conditions were so bad that Fiji recorded highest number of suicides in the world. Their day began at 3 am in the morning, when they were awakened to prepare to go to work in the plantations. Many people committed suicide between 3 am and 4 am to escape the pain, suffering and struggle that lay ahead.
• They normally worked for 12 hours a day. They were whipped, kicked and beaten with sticks to increase productivity. They could not resist or seek justice as the justice system worked against them, favouring the white Overseers, mostly from Australia and New Zealand.
• Women too suffered same treatment at the hands of the violent Overseers or Sardars (Indian Supervisors). Women in advanced stage of pregnancy were forced to work in sugarcane plantations, mothers’ with infants and young children were not allowed to tend to their children when they cried for milk or were sick and in pain. Consequently, Fiji recorded highest number of death of children among the colonies that used indentured labour.
• Mothers whose babies died had to bury them on the same day on the farms without observing the traditional rites and had to be back on the farm on the following day. It was same for the Girmitiyas who died while working and were buried on the fringes of the farms, as they did not have designated cemeteries and without the traditional rites. They were not easily given permission to seek medical help until their condition looked serious.
• Atrocities against the Girmitiyas abounded. We cannot forget the brutalization of Naraini on the Sigatoka tramline by the Overseer Harold Blomfield, the cries of Kunti who jumps in the river to escape rape and Hannah Dudley’s heart-breaking account on the suffering of Girmitiyas.
• Mahatma Gandhi and Rev John Freer Andrews (Deenbandhu Andrews) did sterling work the abolition of the indenture system in 1917. Girmit history will be incomplete without some unsung heroes, like Girmitiya Totaram Sanadhya, lawyer, Manilal Maganlal Doctor and Sadhu Bashist Muni.
• After Indenture, some 20,645 Indians returned to India while the others were prevented from returning to India to save Fiji’s sugar industry. The atrocities and indignities they suffered in the plantations shamed them so much that they did not want to share their bitter experiences with their children, which helped the British in erasing our Girmit history and escape being cited for commission of crime against humanity.
• The Girmitiyas were poor and illiterate but not ignorant, as they felt education would liberate their children from servitude, which destroyed their lives. Despite endemic poverty, which afflicted their lives, they built schools throughout Fiji to educate their children, which fulfilled their objectives.
• It is because of the Girmitiyas we have our own distinctive language (Fiji Hindi), customs, a vibrant and an inclusive culture, which has earned us recognition as one of the most dynamic cultures in the world.
• We need to commemorate the suffering and sacrifices of the pioneer generation, the Girmitiyas, as a mark of our respect and gratitude to them on 14 May every year, ensuring that our foundational history is not lost and we are able to impart valuable historical knowledge to our children to whom the Girmit history belongs as much as it belongs to us.
• It has been an effort of Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand, and our other warriors around the world to reconnect, reclaim and restore Girmit History. Let us keep alive the memories of those ordinary Girmitiyas who did extraordinary things in extraordinary times. Let us remember them in the same light as ANZAC Day or American Thanksgiving Day.
• Girmitiya “Pitra” (Souls) Deva Bhava - the souls of our Girmitiya are sacred to all their descendants
FIJI GIRMIT FOUNDATION - NZ,
AUCKLAND - MAY, 2018.