“The woman turns around in fear, and puts her hands in entreaty. The whip comes down upon her half naked back and legs. The child is struck also. Both are crying and screaming and the mounted brute almost puts his horse’s hoofs upon her..” (The violence and atrocities of Girmit, from Rajendra Prasad’s “Tears in Paradise.)
In his historic epic, “Tears in Paradise”, Rajendra Prasad writes:
“Pain from the wounds of girmit resided in the hearts and minds of its victims and their families, but it failed to find expression publicly or in history books. …the Indo Fijians, who were a significant part of Fiji and had made an enormous contribution towards its economic, social, cultural and political development, had escaped the history books”
What that effectively means is that there is a vacuum as far as contribution on Indo Fijians to Fiji’s history is concerned.
Those of you who came through Fiji’s education system would recall that in primary and secondary school history, you learnt about early history of indigenous Fijians, about provincial tribal wars and their legends. You would have also learnt about the prowess and courage of various European explorers and seamen like Captain James Cook, Captain William Bligh, Vasco da Gama, who ventured out to seek new lands, the history of British royal family, contributions of British in developing the earth, the virtues of Commonwealth, the penal history of Australia, and so on about the glory of white men’s contributions to carving out the destiny of the world.
However, as far as Fiji’s development history is concerned, apart from a few sentences about indentured labourers from India brought to work on cane farms, there is no account of what went on in the whipping, punching, kicking, suiciding and raping cane fields of early Fiji. They were completely missed by the history books.
Tears in Paradise also raises this issue. Rajendra Prasad enquires, why despite enormous contributions to Fiji’s development, Fiji Indians escaped the history books. Former Prime Minister of India, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru very aptly summed up this phenomenon in his book, The Discovery of India, as quoted by Prasad in his book:
“History is almost always written by victors and conquerors and gives their viewpoint; or, at any rate, the victor’s version is given prominence and holds the field.”
Therefore, in case of Fiji Indians, history was deliberately concealed to cover up the crimes of British and the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. Since British were the colonial rulers of Fiji for around a century, they had a distinct advantage in manipulating history. That is why, as already stated, all we learnt in history lessons in schools was about British or Indigenous Fijian history. The little history of India that we learnt in schools covered the perspective from British side, missing out the real treachery of the colonizer, both in India and Fiji.
In some opinion, writers have likened indenture or girmit to slavery. In fact, some have dubbed slavery as being better, because, at least in slavery, people got better food and shelter. The author, Rajendra Prasad laments lack of history of Fiji Indians and wonders what happened to the account of indentured labourers. The supposedly custodians of girmitiyas, the British owed a duty of care to record history as it really and actually unfolded rather than how they wanted it to be told. They abrogated their responsibility by manipulating history of girmitiyas, thus leaving a community wounded.
“Tears in Paradise “is an attempt to fill that vacuum and tell the new generation of Indo Fijians about the suffering and sacrifices of our forbears from India.
There have been instances when the Indo Fijians who have migrated from Fiji, and after seeing the new-found wealth and so called civilization of Australia and New Zealand, try to disown girmit and disassociate themselves with the genesis of their being in this part of the world. One day they will be called on to answer to their children and grandchildren when they attempt to seek answers about their ancestry and reason for being in this part of the world.
On 15 May (some claim it to be 14th), 1879 the first batch of 497 Girmitiyas (indentured labourers) were brought to Fiji by the British. This trend continued till 1920 by when some 60,357 Girmitiyas were brought to Fiji.
Last May marked 130 years of the first arrival of Indians.
While Indo Fijians in Wellington and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent, in Auckland marked this day, one wonders what the descendants of girmitiyas in other parts of the world (including Brisbane) and even in Fiji did to mark this day. During last ANZAC day, we marked ANZAC in New Zealand with a public holiday. The New Zealand community marked the sacrifices of their forbears during the war and even very young woke up at 5am in winter for dawn services at 5 am. One wonders whether the Indo Fijians possess that same passion to remember the sacrifices of their forbears, or as already classed by indigenous Fijians as selfish, greedy and thankless, they would live to that reputation. One wonders where Fiji Girmit Council is and whether anybody there marked any event at all. I do not know of any.
We just hope that the next generation will somehow learn about the sacrifices of Girmit and hope they (the new generation) will be more thankful for the sacrifices of the forbears (ancestors) of their parent. Somehow, my generation appears to have short memories about the sacrifices of those forgotten souls who delivered us to the comforts of Australia, New Zealand and other developed countries.
When we are gone, hope our children will remember the sacrifices our generation made for their brighter future. Should they forget this, it would be a fitting revenge and payback for the Girmitiyas who we have forgotten. What goes around comes around! May their soul rest in peace.
To awaken the dead conscience of Indo Fijians towards their Girmitiyas, I end with the following powerful quote from the pages of Rajendra Prasad’s “Tears in Paradise”
“Even in the stillness of cane stalks, one can almost feel the powerful presence of the spirits of sorrow and grief exuding from these sugarcane fields. They are the spirits of our ancestors.
The desperate cries of the Girmitiyas echoed from 1879 -1919 in the fields, but it was not until later that the outside world came to their rescue. When their white masters turned away their faces and the victims seethed in agony, the girmitiyas found comfort in relating their anguish to the trees and plants around them. A folk song called bidesia, a lamentation, composed under these traumatic circumstances by one of the girmitiyas, reflects the depth of their suffering:
Churi, kudaari ke sung, ab bitay din aur ratian,
Ganne ki hari hari patiya, Jaane hamari dil ki batiyaan
In these couplets, the lyricist tells of the widespread suffering of the girmitiyas’ work in the sugarcane fields, saying that knife and hoe are their companions day and night. Atrocities against them are so blatant that even the green leaves of sugarcane bear witness to the flames of anguish that consumes their heart.”