Journey And Sacrifices Of The Girmitiyas

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan is the author of Nadi: Memories of a River (2014),The Loneliness of Islands (2007)), Faces in a Village (1976), Lines Across Black Waters(1996),Faces in a
19 Nov 2016 11:00
Journey And Sacrifices Of The Girmitiyas
Two cultures depicted coming together under one banner, Girmitiyas (Indentured labourers from British India) and iTaukei (Indigenous people) depicted on November 9. Photo: Ronald Kumar

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan is the author of Nadi: Memories of a River (2014),The Loneliness of Islands (2007)), Faces in a Village (1976), Lines Across Black Waters(1996),Faces in a Village(1976).

His new volume of poems, Across the Seven Seas, will be published in March, 2017.




Australia is a land of remembrances and commemorations.

Many acts of Australians shaped the contours of history in other lands, often as part of the British empire. This is well documented and often celebrated.

What is not so well-remembered is the contributions made by others in  the shaping of Australia.

It’s here the Centennial anniversary of the abolition of Fijian Girmit acquires relevance, significance and resonance for us, people of Indian origin living in Australasia.

This page of history needs to be written and the hidden history articulated.

Australasia had once included Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. And today there are many thousands of Fijians living in these islands.

They renew and strengthen those historical bonds with new relationships,  understanding and possibilities.

Next year we commemorate the centennial anniversary of the abolition of Girmit – the Girmitiyas who came principally to work on the sugar estates of the Fiji islands owned by the CSR company of Australia. More than 60,000 men, women and children were cozened, cajoled and transported from the obscure villages of India, across thousands of miles of dark waters, wild winds, to be planted on the Fiji islands.

They came in 87 ships over four decades from 1879-1917. Many had never seen a ship or a sea-wave or travelled beyond a few miles of their unmarked village habitus.

The indenture story is an epic story of life’s vicissitudes of the common men and women: ‘coolies’ were no conquerors but they created lasting worlds long after the conquerors had disappeared.

In their voyages, bonded for five or ten years, they broke the shackles of caste and a feudal system that for millennia had kept them as peasants in the land of their birth — but ‘mulk’ they said was their motherland : the womb was life-giving, unforgettable.

One never escapes its being, though the umbilical cord is cut and buried at birth.

Indenture was termed as ‘a new system of slavery’ with an expiry date. But it can be celebrated and commemorated for it also gave our ancestors some sense of liberty, some idea of freedom from the serfdom of an indigenous sub-continental  variety, exacerbated by the exploitation of the Raj.

They freed themselves by sheer hard work and  a strange courage  to move for a better future for themselves and their generations.

Ignorance may have been a bliss and a blessing. Those journeys continue under different skies and circumstances. The shape of the ships and landscapes change, but the quest is the same in the same seas and skies.

The Girmitiyas paid a heavy price for their journeys in search of a new life in a new world; but they opened the world a bit more for us.

Today the progeny of Girmitiyas can come and go more easily to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and California, than many people from many other places.

The  sacrifice and suffering of a people is never in vain.

It’s worth remembering that Mohandas Gandhi became a mahatma while working for indentured labourers and small merchants in South Africa where he spent 21 years of his most formative life.

It is among those  people that he understood the true humiliation of racial discrimination and lack of equal rights and human dignity.

And also the power of working together. From this experience, he gave the men and women a new sense of freedom and the idea of being an equal citizen with self-respect above everything.

It’s important to remember that Australia began as a penal colony, but has become perhaps the freest society in the contemporary world despite its black spots.

Our great Girmit  grandparents came as indentured labourers but gave us a sense of freedom and individual dignity with which we can live a life in pursuit of happiness and human dignity in any society we or our children and grandchildren choose to live.

They are our roots who have led us to many routes. Fijian-Indians perhaps are the only people in the world who do not have to say ‘sorry’ for the acts of their forefathers.

This ought to be a matter of genuine pride among us. Our forebears protected the native way of life and prevented its decimation. They were displaced but they never displaced the Other.

It is true we were betrayed by some people we trusted, but today, one can see, it is an indigenous person who has given us a sense of belongingness without discrimination.

We are all now called Fijians with equal citizenry and a common identity. To me this is the great tribute to our Girmit people – for our ancestors this was a dream: for our children this is now their living reality to be strengthened and sustained by acts and words of those who believe in these values and visions.

For it’s born out of a rich and rewarding heritage where the passions of a paradise combine with the compassions of nation’s collective conscience. And it’s in the light of these moments of recollections burning within us that we see the possibilities without and beyond.

Girmit commemoration is a day of remembrance, respect, reverence : a recognition of the courage of a new and noble national endeavour with ancient roots of our multiple inheritance and new routes of evolving identities for the future: together.


In the green sugar-fields by the seashore
They lost their youth, and so much more:
Their scattered ashes lie on the dry sands
Slipped like salt-water between our hands.

In those lonely days, the nights were long
But for their children they always had a song;
While they slept wrapped in broken dreams
Rolling as stones in so many solitary streams.

Unwritten stories, unspoken memories,
They carried in their blanketed gathries;
Crossing the dark waters of the seven seas
To distant fields where sorrows never cease:

Making paths no-one else had ever made
Parthways of that shameful human trade;
Laboring together till sunset from sunrise
Holding their children to tear-blind eyes.

Their hearts were big, their needs small
When paradise was being told of the Fall.
Like palm trees in the tempestuous wind
Some from the South, some from the Sind.

Women so abundant, mother and child,
They were meek seekers among the wild.
The true jahajis- jahajins–shipmates all
Life was fulfilled by their human call.

The afflictions of many a grieving heart
Written on the cane leaves, rows apart.
With hand and heart they built a paradise
For those who were free and worldly-wise:

We who lost their sacred created world:
Losing also those sorrows never foretold.
They lived in their virtues , and not in vice
All were twice-born, but banished thrice.

Birds sing: they have their natural songs
We remember often their ancestral wrongs?
How the young aged into the buried old,
In summer’s heat and winter’s alien cold .

Life’s floating like a dry, wind-swept leaf
A lonely tree broken by a distancing grief;
Today they live in us as we remember them
A radiance in the heart of many a lost gem.

They give us hope, courage, a boundless life
A lesson : life’s beauty lies in its noble strife :
Their journeys in ships they had never seen
Brought us to a life in the lands in-between.

We remember: celebrate these men and women –
To their children’s children: a faith beyond their ken!

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

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