New Tribute To Villagers

Nasilai reef, adjoining the Nasilai village, is inseparably connected with Girmit in Fiji. Sixth ship, Syria, carrying 497 Indian indentured labourers’ terminated its journey on it with loss of 59
06 Oct 2015 10:30
New Tribute  To Villagers
The first Girmitiyas arrived in Fiji from India in 1879.

Nasilai reef, adjoining the Nasilai village, is inseparably connected with Girmit in Fiji. Sixth ship, Syria, carrying 497 Indian indentured labourers’ terminated its journey on it with loss of 59 lives – Fiji’s worst maritime tragedy.

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. It was launched in 1868 for carrying Indian indentured labourers to British colonies. On March 13, 1884, ship Syria left Calcutta bound for Fiji.

Most, if not all of the passengers were indentured labourers and were largely from the district of Bihar. For strategic reasons, the recruits were made to embark on the ship in the early hours of morning, around 3am.

The authorities held that at this hour resistance from distraught recruits was least. Indeed, none of the recruits had the faintest idea as to where they were going and what future held for them. Despite this, there was much crying, wailing and chest beating, as the ship left the River Hooghly towards the open seas.

Behind them, they sensed their motherland gradually fade in the distance – for most, if not all, never to see it again. No one knew that it was also the final journey of ship Syria. There was not anything spectacular about the journey but tragedy awaited as they entered the Fiji waters. The captain and the crew were content with their progress and they were not far from their destination.

On May 11, 1884 a violent storm raged at sea as the ship made its way through a narrow channel. At 8.30pm, it collided with the Nasilai Reef and came to rest precariously on it.

Darkness of the night and roar of the seas added to the hysteria among the passengers. The sight of the injured, dead and dying made others to cling to their lives somehow. Distraught mothers clung to their babies with motherly instinct and cried for help while the ship, buffeted by the winds and towering waves, moved perilously.  Attempts to seek help began at daylight.

Unfortunately, five of the six rescue boats on the ship were damaged and those who went to seek help in the remaining boat could not communicate with the villagers. They proceeded to the old capital Levuka from where rescue efforts were initiated.

In between, some passengers, seeing the mainland in the distance, tried to walk across but slipped into deeper waters and drowned. Many remained trapped or injured inside the stricken ship.

Dr William McGregor who took over the Syria rescue operations, expressed his feelings, in a moving letter to the Governor Sir Arthur Gordon.

He wrote, “…The scene was simply indescribable, and pictures of it haunt me still like a horrid dream…People falling, fainting, drowning all around one; the cries for instant help, uttered in an unknown tongue, but emphasised by looks of agony and the horror of impending death, depicted on dark faces rendered ash grey by terror; then again the thundering, irresistible wave breaking on the riven ship, still containing human beings, some crushed to death in the debris and others wounded and imprisoned therein; and all to be saved then or never…I am sure believe me when I tell you that I do not feel the same man since. I fear you may think it strange that fifty-six people should be killed and drowned and I whose duty it was to see that assistance was given in the worst cases, came off with only a few bruises and slight wounds that were healed in a week. I can only say that I did the best I could. I did not ask any of those with me to risk their lives in going to the wreck with myself, save the four Fijians (natives) whom I have recommended for the medal of the Royal Humane Society; and I could not know each time, for I went many times, whether I could return alive, especially as I am no swimmer of any use – although in the breakers there swimming was not of much avail. I feel it almost ludicrous to offer, as it were an apology for being alive: but I am sure you can understand the feeling that I entertain, half fearful lest you should think that because I am alive I did not do all that might have been done.”

In a subsequent inquiry, the captain of the ship was found negligent, as he failed to ascertain that the ship was drawing closer to the Nasilai reef. In addition to this, he had failed to post a lookout on the masthead and if he had, he could have easily seen the breakers against the reef. However, by at 8.15pm, it became impossible to avert the tragedy.

Interestingly, the Nasilai villagers have another version of the incident, which passed on from generation to generation.

According to them, on May 11, 1884 the villagers were relaxing after their dinner when they heard desperate cries of people coming from Nasilai reef.

The village chief summoned his men and sent them in two large canoes to investigate why and where the cries were coming from.  On reaching the reef, they found the broken ship and people scattered on the reef. They were taken to the Nasilai village and those dead were buried on the beach and stones placed to mark the graves.

Later, when other bodies washed ashore, they were accorded Christian funerals.

The Nasilai village elders keenly shared their recollections, as told to them by their elders, and some held valuable relics from the wreckage.

Some claim that there is intense spiritual activity around the site at night. Occasionally, at night when the waves roar with anger and winds rip across the reef, mournful cries reach the village. Even anglers tell tales of their hair-raising experiences around the site. However, no one has suffered harm but no one can ignore it, as it readily connects people to the tragedy.

Most of the passengers were Hindus and Hinduism emphatically claims that spirits of those who die in tragic circumstances haunt the places of such tragedy. The eerie voices echo with sorrow and grief but it is difficult to discern the messages they bear.

Apparently, the Syria wreck has become the most powerful monument on Girmit. There is no such monument anywhere on the mainland that draws the attention of the descendants of the Girmitiyasas the wreckage of Syria does.

A large part of the Syria rests in the deep and the small portion, which is the back of the ship, rests desolately on the reef.

Some descendants of the Girmitiyas have made their pilgrimage to the site and most returned with nostalgic memories. Each one claimed that the site of the wreck was swathed in sorrow and sadness and it will remain so as long as there is visual connection with the wreckage.

It has weathered the worst that nature has offered thus far and correlates with the indomitable spirit of the Girmitiyas who weathered the worst of Girmit with courage, resilience and fortitude

The Girmit Foundation of New Zealand, as a gesture of goodwill and expression of gratitude, will present, on October 14, 2015, a plaque to the village of Nasilai with inscription: “This plaque is presented to the chiefs and villagers of Nasilai in appreciation of assistance rendered and sacrifices made in the rescue of Indian indentured passengers on ship Syria wrecked on Nasilai Reef on May 11, 1884.”

It will also make a traditional presentation of gifts to the school and villagers. Bakshi Singh, a member of New Zealand Parliament, will also accompany the group, headed by former Fijian Parliamentarian Shiu Charan.

On October 15, the group intends to travel to Lautoka to pay its homage to Girimitiyas at the dedicated memorial building, Girmit Centre, and meet the members of the Fiji Girmit Council with a view to establishing fraternal ties and discussing issues of common interest.

(Rajendra Prasad is the author of Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004 – available from



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