Fiji Girmit: Its Legacies And Lessons

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan is writing an historical novel set in three cities: Suva, Canberra and Delhi. He’s currently a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU. This  year
08 Jan 2017 15:10
Fiji Girmit: Its Legacies  And Lessons
Indentured labourers.

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan is writing an historical novel set in three cities: Suva, Canberra and Delhi.

He’s currently a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU.

This  year is the  Centennial commemoration of the abolition of indenture in Fiji: 1917-2017. He’ll be writing an occasional column on the theme for Fiji Sun’s Literary Corner.



For Fiji and Fijians, the Girmit experience has many lasting legacies and lessons.

The indentured labourers came in the sailing ships with little knowledge of geography, less of history; they crossed the kala pani and in those dark waters they lost many mates in the ship, but also  superstitions and oppressive structures, suppressive strictures of a darker age like the caste system and zamindari where the powerful plundered the poor and all were plundered by  foreign rulers with the help of the privileged few in their land.

They arrived in unknown islands, unknowing and unknown, thousands of miles away from their ancient habitats and peasantry untouched by the reform movements of the 19th century.

Nobody, I recall, talked of the great 1857 rebellion against the insidious annexing tentacles of the East India Company that eventually culminated in the British Raj for almost a century.

India became the jewel in the British Crown.

The girmityas knew nothing about the life or the history of the South Sea islanders among whom they were transported and transplanted.

They were separated by culture and ways of seeing:  they entered a new reality with imperial manipulations and colonial calculations, sometimes well-intentioned but always in the interest of the ruling, exploitative class. People mattered less than profits.

And the prophets and pundits preached acceptance in the name of kismet and karma. Fraud was integral to their misfortunes and they were defined in cruel and corrosive terms.

The girmityas had sailed in the same ships from different parts of the subcontinent in several garbs but their concepts of jehahjibhais and jehajins, travelers as shipmates, were genuine.

Migration led to a sense of freedom and loosening of rusty shackles of serfdom and a new sense of cultivating not only sugar-cane, but self-respect and respect for one another as people, despite their other shortcomings in difficult and desperate circumstances.

They suffered, but in their suffering they discovered a new world and a will to survive. Some didn’t –  many young men and women committed suicide.

So far from their homeland, in the loneliness of distant islands, their life acquired value, even if the price was high.

They may have come as victims of circumstances and conditions of a subjugated, feudal culture, native and alien, but slowly and painstakingly they developed a sense of their own individuality, life and liberty.

And the vital awareness of relationships of passengers in the same boat.

The boat had to be preserved at all costs by those who had never seen a sea-wave or an island.

I saw it in my own family how the old visitors were treated by my paternal grandfather, aaja, and my maternal grandmother, nani, whenever an old shipmate arrived on our farms, either in Maigania or Lega Lega, looking like the Ancient Mariner.

They were treated with great reverence and stayed as long as they wanted in the bure where they gossiped and sang until much after midnight as we tried to solve maths problem or read a book in English, half asleep, for the Senior Cambridge examination.

Suddenly, one fine morning, they were gone as they had come, unannounced, uninvited.

They haunted other homes, wherever they were welcomed. Many were destitute; many didn’t have a stable home: they were wanderers: the Wandering Indians.

The brutalities the suffered were visible in the wrinkles and wisps of grey hairs under their dignified white safa, turban, which the men carried on their ancient heads, at night, used as pillows.

Inside their heads they did carry a germ knowledge of the value of education; though illiterate themselves, they were not uneducated.

The wisdom had come through their ceremonies of innocence and rituals of righteousness.

I can’t think of a more independent-minded person than my father who educated his four sons from a village where most lived as peasant farmers.

And how our village became one of the most progressive: luck and the times had something to do with that but also vision and immense hard work and a community of feelings and techniques of survival together.

Somehow they understood the value of education, though they never had much themselves.

It was a remarkable community relationship of people who, as strangers, were travellers in the same boat across the seven seas.

Deep in them was their ancestral knowledge of life and the wisdom of oral traditions.

And that helped them survive with some sense of wholeness and humane dignity.

They might have emerged out of a well, but it was their well and they knew it well.

The vast Pacific was a different world.

Education, they realised, was the key to their sense of self-independence as their ancestral land, Mother India, struggled for her independence.

The waves from the Indian ocean touched the island shores and entered and enriched their consciousness.

That they and India, after terrible sacrifices, achieved freedom that was scarred and marred is, of course, a sad and saddening narrative.

The journey transformed them in a myriad ways – once you have left your habitus, the world changes and you have to learn to swim or sink.

Exile is never a permanent, unalterable condition. It teaches one to find ways and means of living and loving.

We should know it because 108 years later their progeny were once again in the same boat, so to speak; though some were flying in Boeing 747.

And this time it was a misguided  colonel, fed on their labour and sacrifice, who had misbehaved so brutally, and betrayed so casually.

Once again their children’s children found ways of surviving and building their homes in new and more urbane worlds: in Australasia, and North America, former British colonies.

But the gift of this resilience had come from their many illiterate ancestors of simple faith and deep fortitude.

I’ve often wondered where did this strength of character come towards the resistance of the bullying tactics of those in power? Doubtless from the girmit experience: Gandhi had understood it as no other man or woman and used it against the mightiest empire, using the riches of the small merchants and the belief in the basic goodness of a peasant people.

The Girmityas became enmeshed in a system that was dehumanising and degrading; it was also immoral.

Much of the stain of slavery was visible in the attitude and treatment of these people.

Slavery was abolished; a new system had to be fashioned, after a fashion. It lasted for almost a century.

But the fact that the girmit people had come from a living community, with a living language and culture, gave them the will and wisdom to create another in another land.

Today no matter what different destinations we may be contemplating, we’ve one thing in common: a common country, shared citizenry and destiny that give us all a common identity on which a decent present can be created and a vibrant future forged.

Because of our globalised world: migration, diaspora, education, employment, interdependence, travel, the world for us has expanded unbelievably: the Fijians have become travellers as never before: indigenous and migrants and their connections is a beneficial aspect of our Fijian life for the region and beyond.

And these sea-changes emerged within three decades of massive change and challenges.

And from their growing up in Fiji: the language, the multicultural world, the ability to get along with people, strangers and visitors, who look different and have differences, it’s Fiji, the country of their birth, that gave them these gifts; and it proved invaluable – as invaluable as India’s gift of the acceptance of life in its many vicissitudes and multitudinous variety.

All was kismet and karma, but like ducks in a pond serenely swimming but furiously paddling below the surface to keep afloat.

Added to this was the understanding of suffering as an indispensable condition of our being and becoming.

India for them was not a rich country, but they knew it as their ‘mulk’–their inalienable homeland. And home was home – poor or rich, a hut or a palace.

Many of their stories and legends heightened their awareness of these truths of existence. Like death, suffering was always present as shadows under the green boughs of the tree of life.

Out of indenture grew a spirit of adventure. Suddenly the frogs from the well were swimming like fish in an ocean.

They were not fully aware of the sharks and crocodiles, but they knew they had to survive by being together. And they did coalesce into a culture of caring and compassion: that is how temples, mosques gurudwaras, amidst churches, grew in dilapidated, garish buildings, but out of these places of worship, small schools sprouted and a kind of elementary education germinated.

To think our girmityas had arrived in Fiji in 1879 and the first secondary school of some substance for the children of farmers, workers , small shopkeepers really began in 1949, that is, 70 years later when you contrast it with universal education in England in the 1850s. Generations had gone without education.

Education was one sure way of liberating the indentured descendants not only from the shackles of girmit, but freeing the mind of men and women and instilling in them self-respect.

After the 1950s, secondary schools mushroomed all over Fiji and it’s a great story yet to be told.

Today we’ve three universities for a million people.

This is, I feel, an extraordinary achievement of the past almost fifty years. Few countries can boast of this in such a brief period.

Our people invested in their children’s education – I can see it my own family, immediate and extended. It’s the proud story of many more all over Fiji.

This is another lesson of the Girmit Experience: we must keep creating even if some keep plotting their negative activities!

There was great unity in diversity of the  girmityas. World War I  and II, and the Partition of India, of course, affected Indians everywhere, most radically within the subcontinent.

Fiji was a distant archipelago but even here the waves battered our shores of prejudice and misunderstandings.

There were people who took full advantage of this. There are still who believe in such deplorable tactics. Luckily we survived without abandoning our sense of decency that was the human essence of the girmit experience.

We had learned it by living with the native people whose essential generosity became integral to our inheritance.

You’ll see that reflected in many incidents of history, including during the wreck of Syria in 1884 and Totaram’s  ‘Bhootlen ki Katha’.

Totaram was saved from hanging himself in utter despair by the knock on the door  by a group of native people searching for food: it’s a marvellously poignant story – those who were searching for food, later came back with an abundance of food that

Totaram had never had or seen in his life. They had a feast together in those dark and lonely lines. And the girmitya lived tell the tale.

This, too, is part of our heritage and we must not let a minor colonel’s actions make us forget those moments of human illuminations that make the sum-total of our lives: All that I am; all that you are; all that we can be.

After all, if a colonel wanted to destroy our world, it is a commodore who has given the descendants of the girmityas and others their greatest gift: a common name and equality of citizenship.

Whatever shortcomings Fiji may be experiencing – and democracy has many discontents, many discontented people everywhere – think of the USA and India, and you get some idea, –  the current constitutional Fijian Government offers us possibilities unimagined a decade ago.

One also has to move beyond the scars, stains, attitudes and legacies of the indenture system.

This sense of freedom will come only if we remember history wisely and interpret our future in the light of that dark past so that the present and the future are bright.

We’ve been through many cyclones, but we have also seen our paths in the flashes of lightning on some very dark nights like knowing where the main switch is in a house of sudden darkness.

We live in a region that’s by and large the most salubrious and with immense potential for progress, peace and prosperity.

This, too, is a gift of the girmityas: if they had not embarked on those fateful  journeys, we’d not be where we are today.

The world is our oyster and we can be the pearl in it.

Ultimately the fate of a people is determined by the people themselves.

And the nation is and belongs to its honoured and honourable citizens, living and dead, and unborn.

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj


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