A joke going around grog bowls in Fiji is that somebody was filling a form to go to Australia and the question in the form wanted to know about any criminal records. The person filling it asked “Is that still a criteria to enter Australia?” Do you get it? This is because Australia was initially settled by British convicts. On the other hand Fiji had its share of cannibals and coolies. The three Cs played an important part in Fiji’s history: Australian convicts, Indian coolies and Fijian cannibals, and these are reflected in a recently written book that tried to fill a historical vacuum where a generation was stolen by the colonists.

Rajendra Prasad, a third generation Indo Fijian, a descendant of Indian indentured labourers to Fiji, (white men called them “coolies” in a derogatory way) launched his book, “Tears in Paradise” in Brisbane on 14th May to coincide with 126 years of arrival of first girmitiyas to Fiji.

The book tells about tears that created a paradise in Fiji that would otherwise had remained relatively undeveloped and poorer, like some of its other Pacific neighbours. This was done through the suffering of indentured Indian labourers from India. The book tells about the suffering these indentured labourers, girmitiyas, as they were known, went through, at the hands of colonialists, who comprised British and Australians (the latter descending from “convicts”, as history tells us.)

In one of my earlier writings, I had mentioned about the forgotten history of our forefathers. In that forgotten history was also hidden the theft committed from Indo Fijians by Australians, hiding behind Colonial Sugar Refining Company, that we call CSR.

Australia’s CSR Company, which operated sugar mills, had been a tool of oppression for decades for Indians in Fiji. History substantiates enormous degree of exploitation of Indian cane farmers by the sugar milling company, both in physical terms, as well as in financial terms.

Prasad talks about the wounds of indenture that caused great pain and suffering to subsequent generations of Indo Fijians. He accuses British Government, the CSR Company and the Australian Government of being the axis of evil who robbed a generation of freedom, liberty and rights of the indentured labourers.

In a book titled ‘A Short History of Fiji” D. Scarr quotes J. B Thurston, Colonial Secretary in 1880 (later Governor of Fiji- 1888- 1897) labeling CSR as ‘the most selfish company in the Australasias.’

He told Sir Arthur Gordon, the first Governor of Fiji:

With all our ‘highfalutin’ to the contrary, the wrongs we have committed in the name of Christianity, civilisation, progress are manifold. We are, as a race, a race of robbers and spoilers”

According to Prasad, Australia as the beneficiary of the ill-gotten gains of the CSR Company in Fiji was in a position to exert its influence to reduce the suffering of the girmitiya, but economic considerations outweighed human ones. In addition to this, the victims were coloured while the perpetrators were white and their own people, hence the expediency that justified injustice.

Was CSR Company really the evil predator that it was branded as? The author had a revelation of this when he sought permission to publish some photos from its publication covering Fiji operations. They agreed on the condition that materials used were not injurious to its reputation and they sought right to review his work for fairness, seeking copy of any such material. The author felt that, the company was still domineering, and felt it could still intimidate and dominate the lives of descendants of the people they milked to make millions.

The author concluded that…For who would otherwise ask an author to submit their work for review for fairness before publication. By its response, the CSR Company reconfirmed the notion that leopards do not change their spots”

One other matter of interest was CSR’s claims to ‘fairness’, a word that did not exist in CSR’s vocabulary in its dealing with Indo Fijians during and after the indenture era. CSR was concerned about tarnishing of its reputation. However, reputations of individuals or multinationals are built on transparency, honesty and integrity. These terms did not exist for CSR in its dealings with indentured labourers. The company that earned wealth by the oppression of innocent and ignorant people could hardly qualify to lay claim to a reputation for fairness.

The author Scarr further revealed about profitability of CSR that was beyond and far above average for any company. As a sole miller of sugar in Fiji, CSR was able to boost its profits during and after World War 1.

From 1915 to 1923, shareholders received four million pounds from Fiji, an average of 14.25 per cent return on investment. During that period, the benchmark for return on safe investment in Australia was 8 %. CSR reaped profitability that was 75% above the safe margin. It had capacity to reduce the poverty of farmers, but chose to ignore it for greed and profitability.

It continued to wage hardship and atrocities on indentured labourers and increased punishing methods to increase productivity and profitability, without any corresponding improvement in quality of life or increase on any wages. For girmit era, CSR was an epitome of a heartless monster bereft of any ethics or humanity.

In addition to such suffering at the labour front, it also indulged in manipulative accounting practices to hide its real profits from any scrutiny. Over valuation of dilapidated assets and claiming unusually high value of depreciation, CSR was able to hoodwink any inquiries and hence retained the lion’s share of sugar proceeds.

One of areas where CSR hoodwinked the farmers was through molasses, which farmers were made to believe, was waste. While CSR Company sold molasses to itself at one pound per ton, the prevailing price in Jamaica was over seven pounds.

CSR was minting money by exporting molasses to its subsidiary in Australia for producing industrial alcohol. From 31, 240 tons in 1945, it more than doubled in less than ten years to 71021 tons in 1954. In one estimate, value of 3,000 tons of molasses in Nausori in 1952 was 21,735 pounds while farmers were paid only 2,000 pounds.

All the commissions that sat to mete justice to Indian farmers always tended to favour the oppressor, CSR, like Indians say, hasuan aapan taraf gheeche hai or a sickle pulls to its own side – the case of white men siding with white company and the white men’s justice system. Thus, Indo Fijians suffered injustice through an unjust company and an unjust system.

Tears in Paradise gives more grim accounts of CSR, a ruthless corporate, whose empire today stands on the grave, moans and cries of indentured Indian cane farmers, who it shortchanged and exploited from 1879 till their departure from Fiji in 1970s.

One wonders whether any right thinking Australian can be proud of such a corporate the hallmark of which is exploitation of ignorant and innocent farmers. They certainly cannot blame history for their inhumane treatment of Fiji Indians for three generations.

Rajendra Prasad has already written to CSR Company regarding atrocities and robbery committed on our forefathers by the Australian colonist on the sugar farms. He will cover this later in an article in this paper in the next issue.

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