Deenbandhu Charlie: Girmit And Gandhi

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan is currently working on an historical novel, tentatively titled ‘Bury My Bones in the Wounded Sea’, set during the Indenture, as a Visiting Fellow at the
15 Jan 2017 11:44
Deenbandhu Charlie:  Girmit And Gandhi
Satendra Nandan

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan is currently working on an historical novel, tentatively titled ‘Bury My Bones in the Wounded Sea’, set during the Indenture, as a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU. His fourth book of essays, Dispatches From Distant Shores, and fifth book of poems, Across the Seven Seas, will be published in March.



In July 2002, I was a guest of Dr Alastair Niven, the principal of Cumberland Lodge, in the Great Windsor Park, London. Dr Niven, an eminent scholar of ‘Commonwealth Literature’ became a dear friend and launched one of my books, ‘Requiem for a Rainbow’ (2001), at the Commonwealth literary meeting at Cumberland Lodge that July.

I spent very fruitful few days at the Lodge and was invited to the Sunday service in the ancient royal chapel attended by the Queen and Prince Philip.

For me it was a memorable occasion and two writers, Ben Okri from Nigeria and me from Fiji, were officially ‘presented’ to Her Majesty.

It was at Cumberland Lodge, after my talk and book launch, a lady gave me a copy of a book when she discovered I was from Fiji.

The book’s title is Charles Freer Andrews: A Narrative by Benarsidas Chaturvedi and Majorie Sykes with a page-foreword by M K Gandhi, written in his long-hand.

The volume was published in 1949. I’m now profoundly grateful to Sandra Wilson who gave me the book: it has been part of my personal library and only after this Christmas, I felt inspired to read the epic story of Rev C F Andrews, because I was thinking of the Abolition of the Fiji Indenture in 1917.

This year, 2017, is its centennial commemoration. On my way from Cumberland Lodge to a friend’s place near Heathrow, I left my handbag with  all the things I’d collected in the hired taxi, including the money from the sale of my book, which disappeared in the London traffic: a loss my grandparents must have experienced a century ago in Calcutta.

Luckily, the book given to me was in my suitcase. And today I realise what a precious gift this first edition is.

I’d often walked barefooted past the Andrews Government primary school in Nadi on my way to Shri Vivekananda High School, the new secondary school established in Nadi town in 1949. No one had told me or my generation of students much about Rev C F Andrews who had visited Fiji twice and was responsible for the eventual abolition of the abomination termed  ‘Girmit’.

I’d briefly met Benarsidas Chaturvedi in the Rajya Sabha in New Delhi when I was an undergraduate student there. A scribbled note  from him  to the Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University had changed the trajectory of my young life.

I was able to transfer from Delhi College to Hindu College, opposite  St Stephen’s College, on the University campus full of trees, flowers, rocks, monkeys and peacocks. I spent four years on it in enduring friendships and deepening love. Pundit Nehru was the prime minister and Dr S Radhakrishnan, the philosopher- President of the Indian Republic, was also the Chancellor of the university.

Years later I discovered that C F Andrews had taught at St Stephen’s as a lecturer and  had subsequently become its vice-principal.

It has taken me almost 60 years to appreciate the two remarkable men, Andrews and Chaturvedi, and to read about the former written by the latter in a book that was so thoughtfully presented to me in London by a young librarian from Canberra living and working at the Royal Cumberland Lodge.

At one time I was keen to enroll for my Masters at St Stephen’s but went instead to the Central Institute of Education for my teacher training after the B A honours I’d completed creditably from Hindu College.

Below I tell the story of Charles Freer Andrews with affection and many remembrances of a remarkable  Englishman who did so much for India and Fiji and shaped many lives world-wide during the most tumultuous years of the history of Indians in several countries.

His friendship with Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore is the stuff of legends. His love for India and Indians is an epic narrative that I feel should be known better. Charles Freer Andrews’ gravestone is in Calcutta where he wished to be buried. Men like him redeem more than an empire and restore our faith in humanity.

My four grandparents and their jahajibhais and jahajins made their journeys in sailing ships to the Fiji islands from May 1879 when C F Andrews was barely 10 years old.

“The abolition of the indentured labour system,” said a distinguished Civil Servant, who had known him since his Cambridge days,“ was Andrews’ greatest single service to the Indian people.”


In Charles Freer Andrews, p.126.

Mr Freer Andrews was born on 12 February, 1871, to Mary Charlotte Andrews’s wife of John Edward Andrews, ‘a gentleman’ on Newcastle-on-Tyne in England. His Christian father believed that the British Empire was the noblest thing on earth.

Charlie, ‘the very Dear One’, Andrews had another kind of sensibility and the influence of his mother was deepest on his life and restless imagination.

In that he resembled young Mohandas Gandhi, whose mother had an equally profound and protean influence in shaping his life.

That one day Gandhi and Andrews would become close friends is the incredible miracle of destiny through the travails and travels of the Empire.

Both would be responsible, joined in spirit and action, for the dismantling of the greatest imperial experiment in human history.

From his early childhood C F Andrews could share the thoughts of a poet:

There is a ceaseless music of the earth,

Tender and deep, for those who have ears to hear,

In mountains lone, and woods, and murmuring trees,

And in the sky at midnight, when the stars

Chant, without sound, the song of all the spheres.

This is a fragment of his story of how his life was so intimately entangled in India and her independence, and in Fiji’s history connected with the abolition of the Indian indenture which had started in the 1830s and was finally abolished in 1917.

Andrews was deeply attached to his devout and loving mother; like Gandhi he possessed an androgynous nature: ‘It is because of this unchanging motherly influence, he himself wrote, that the mother in me has grown so strong. My life seems only able to blossom into flower when I can pour out my affection upon other as my mother did upon me.’

And when one of their trusted friends absconded with the mother’s inheritance, his father prayed: ‘for it is not an open enemy that hath done me this dishonour; for then I could have borne it; but it was even thou, my companion, my guide, and my own familiar friend …’

Andrews, part of a large family, had the soul of a poet, and a knowledge of human pain acquired during his youthful years seen especially in the struggles of his mother.

One day when he attended a church service early morning, he had an epiphanic experience: ‘as the blessing in church next morning was pronounced, the flood of God’s abounding love was poured upon me like a great ocean, wave after wave, while I knelt with bowed head to receive it’.

For much of his life he crossed many seas and oceans in the service of other people but with a firm faith in his spiritual tradition symbolised in the life and love of Jesus Christ.

That spiritual side became the leitmotiv of his life. But it was connected to the sordid realities of daily life that he encountered on the streets of his city.  And it transcended all.

He didn’t live too far from the slums of his English home and walked the squalid streets and was determined to end such squalor.

His sympathy for the poor deepened and he thought of going to Central Africa but fate decreed otherwise:  India became his home, his deepest commitment of love-in-action: ahimsa.

Being a brilliant student with a vivid memory, he got a scholarship to Cambridge where he acquired the fundamental certainty that God is love, wherein ‘the supernatural fertilises, but does not annihilate, the natural’.

In the life of Christ he saw the Lux Mundi — the light of the world. And his teachers taught him that nothing, nothing that is truly human can be left outside the Christian faith.

He placed India side by side with Greece: these, he said, were two great thinking nations who had made the history of the world, as Greece had been the leader of Europe, India would always be the leader of Asia, as far as the human spirit’s enlightenment goes.

In June 1897 C F Andrews was ordained as a priest. And finally he decided to leave for India on February 28, 1904, with a Sanskrit dictionary in his pocket for the voyage and presumably a cricket ball in his bundle of clothing.

Cricket was his game and he was a fine coach. He landed at Bombay on March 20, 1904.

He called it his Indian birthday–he became twice-born! He joined St Stephen’s College in Delhi as a lecturer and later became the vice-principal of the famous college, then near Kashmiri Gate now in Old Delhi. New Delhi had yet to be conceived.

The vice- principal of the college was one Susil Kumar Rudra, of whom Andrews wrote, ‘I owe to Susil Rudra what I owe to no one else in the world, a friendship which has made India from the first not a strange land but a familiar country.’

And that friendship lasted a life-time: Andrews was responsible in making Rudra the first Indian principal of the college despite strong opposition from the English Church fathers.

The first thing young Andrews noticed in India was the hubris of race and the havoc it had wrought in human relationships and imperial politics.

E M Forster’s A Passage to India was still two decades away. Among the caste-ridden Indian society was added one more caste–he called it the ‘white caste’, the worst of all.

But here he also met people of all faiths and persuasions: persons of great learning and deep wisdom caught in the struggle between an Empire and an awakening of an ancient civilisation. And its cry for freedom.

Andrews was present at the Delhi Durbar on December 12, 1911, when King George declared the transfer of the seat of Government of India from Calcutta to the ancient capital of Delhi.

But the currents were sweeping young Andrews away from Delhi to even wider seas of thought and action. Living in India changed him into the passionate prophet of racial equality.

He began to understand that there was a renaissance in the Indian movement for liberty: something that England and the English Church had experienced in their struggles for centuries in their own islands.




Note: This is part of a series on The Abolition of Girmit and the noble role played by Rev C F Andrews—a most remarkable man and his deep friendship with Gandhi and Tagore.

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