These articles appeared in the Australian newspaper Indian Link s Girmit Link page from August 2004
The process of transporting non-European labour to work for the Europeans began a few decades after Columbus set his sights on the Caribbean in 1492, while looking for India. After the Spaniards and other Europeans murdered most of the natives of newly found lands in the Americas and the Caribbean and captured their land, they needed labour to work for them. At this stage the most inhuman transportation of human began in the modern history of mankind. It is estimated that some 40 million Africans from the African sub-continent were enslaved by the Europeans and put into ships for the Americas. Most of them perished during the journey. Those who survived were sold off to the planters in auctions. The slaves worked for free for the planters till the end of their natural lives. This process continued till 1834, when slavery was officially abolished. Most of the former slaves refused to work for their former master.
The refusal of former slaves to work on the plantations created severe labour problems for the planters in the colonies. By this time the British had also colonised India and through practices such as introduction of land tax system (i.e. lagaan) they contributed towards the deprivation of people in many parts of India. These areas thus provided fertile grounds for the British to recruit and replace the slave labours in many of their colonies, including Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Surinam, Jamaica, South Africa and Fiji. The Indian indentured labour system started in 1834 and by its conclusion in 1916, transported some 1.2 million Indians from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In the process of indenture system the Indian recruits signed an agreement (pronounced Girmit by the Indians) to work in the colonies for a fixed term. Although many of the girmityas returned to India at the end of their Girmit terms, many stayed back in the colonies for various reasons.
Today the descendants of these girmityas number some ten million globally. In the case of Fiji, some 60,500 Indians left India to serve out their Girmit. About 40% (25,000) returned to India but for various reasons, the rest of them stayed back in Fiji. Now the Indo-Fijian Diaspora numbers some 750,000 people. While most of them (approximately 350,000) still live in Fiji, the rest are scattered around the Pacific Rim countries of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.
The amazing and sometimes heartbreaking stories of the Fiji and other girmityas will be related via this column in the future issues. Anyone wishing to add to this subject can send his or her contribution to Satish Rai via email@example.com.
The task for the researchers on the girmit system has been made very difficult because of lack of any reliable documentation about the system throughout its 84 years history. Even after its abolition in 1916, no great attempt was made by the girmityas and their descendants to document the history first hand from the girmityas who remained in the colonies and continued to labour for the plantation owners. The only reliable document still available about the girmitiyas home and next of kin in India is contained in the indenture agreement (girmit) passes each girmitya had signed upon recruitment in India. The colonial officers in the colonies made records of the arrival, settlement, marriages, birth, deaths and return of each girmitya to India upon his or her girmit contract in the colonies.
However precious little documentation ever existed about what happened to the girmityas during and after the end of their girmit. In the absence of any substantial amount of information about the 1.2million girmityas and their descendants, many of those who attempted to study the girmit system and the girmitya communities around the world generally speculated about both. Judging from the existing literature on atleast Fiji girmityas I am inclined to conclude that many of the accounts of the girmit and the girmityas was far from accurate and have done much harm to the proper understanding of the subject and the community. They have gone a long way to project a very negative view of the girmityas and the places in Indian from where they have come from. As a result even today most of the descendants do not know many aspects of the girmit and the sacrifices of their hardworking ancestors. I will allude to these issues in my future writings.
During my research on British Raj I read an interesting article that helped me to understand the Euro-centric leanings of some of the Indo-Fijian writers. The article stated that the handful of British who ruled over India needed locals to support them in their quests in India. They started British schools in India and started producing Indian babus in their own images. They used these babus to do their dirty work. Over the years this process became a tradition all over the colonies, including Fiji. This process has been labelled as mimicking the coloniser . The British ruled Fiji from 1874 till 1970. I still remember that during our primary school days we had to salute English flag and sing God save the Queen each morning. Fortunately for some of us the mimicking process was cut short while we were still young. For others before us I suspect this process was completed by the time the British left Fiji in 1970. With this type of education and living under the colonial system during their formative years I am not surprised to read Euro-centric views emanating from their writings on girmityas and the land of girmityas.
In order to have any productive understanding of the girmit, a direct product of British colonialism, it is vital to have a proper understanding the historic role of the global British colonialism. Without having a deep understanding of the events which led up to Fiji s girmit, one would not be able to do justice to the understanding of the issues and events which led up Fiji s girmit and the effects of girmit system on the girmityas and their descendants thereafter. I feel that any misrepresentation of the facts and issues about Fiji s girmit is damaging. Several existing misrepresentations have already led the descendants of the girmityas and other observers to get wrong information and thus ideas about the history and role of girmitiya of Fiji.
The strongest evidence against this are the indenture agreement passes themselves which each of the girmitiyas agreed to before leaving India for Fiji. The indenture agreements between the Indians and the recruiters specifically states in writing that the Indians were contracted to work in Fiji for a fixed term of five years (after which they had to pay their passage back to India) or ten years (after which they would get a free passage back to India). The agreement does not state anywhere that the indentured Indians would stay in Fiji permanently. Thus the only written document between the girmitiyas and the colonial recruiters still in existence clearly states that the Indian migration to Fiji was temporary and they would return to India after five or ten years of labour in Fiji. The fact that the majority of the early Indians did return to India after expiry of their temporary labour contracts in Fiji goes a long way to prove that the journeys of the girmitiyas to Fiji was always meant to be for a fixed term, after which they would return to their homes in India. So the question of fleeing their homes in India does not really arise at all. Therefore it is really baffling why so many of the writers on Fiji girmit have suggested that the Fiji girmitiyas fled India to seek refuge in Fiji. It is my view that by doing so they have done great disservice to the girmitiyas and their descendants. The other interesting point I will discuss in future is why so many Indians did end up staying in permanently.
So at the time the Europeans started their exploits in India, it has been trading internationally for many centuries. Historical evidence suggests India had well developed industries and fared better then its many conquers. Although just like any other nation India had many internal problems, it was a very cultured country with unbroken history going back some five thousand years. It is said that India has the distinction of being the only country in the world that has continuous history of such length. Apart from the culture and traditions that have been passed down to the succeeding generations verbally through songs and dialogues, India has the distinction and privilege to have such knowledge-based epics such as the four Vedas, the Upnishads, the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Gita. It is therefore not difficult to assume that in such country learning of the essences of such epics in one form or the other must have been a way of life for every person. I assume that most of the girmityas, who went to Fiji irrespective of cast or creed, must have had the benefit of the teachings of some of these great epics and recipients of the rich Indian cultural values. Therefore in my view labeling the girmityas with terms such as illiterates without qualifications is not only demeaning to the departed souls but also to India itself.
The girmityas should be looked as individuals who were the products of India s rich culture and traditions. Before falling into the historical trap of the despicable girmit system, each of them were part of a well established social system that has been in existence for centuries, if not millenniums. Each of them had a village they belonged to, a family system, parents, perhaps brothers and sisters, uncle and aunts, friends and relatives. Each of them performed his or her social function at the time they were plucked from their environs and thrust in the dreaded girmit depot. They had minds, hearts, souls and feelings; they were human beings. The British treated them as farm animals. But we Indians should atleast treat them as human beings. After all, they were one of us.
Secondly, if the push factor in India was so large then the British colonial recruiters would not have set up such a large and coercive recruitment system in India in order to induce the Indians to go to the colonies as labourers. The Indian recruiters found it so difficult to recruit sufficient numbers to fulfil the labour demands in the colonies that they had to resort to kidnapping and many forms of deceit to get vulnerable Indians to agree to go to the colonies. It is not uncommon to hear the present day Indians living in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA to say that the girmitiyas fled India to live in the colonies and as such they and their descendants are not true Indians. Careful analysis of the facts behind them leaving India will definitely reveal that the truth is far from that. The truth is that the girmitiyas were deceived into leaving India on short-term labour contracts and majority of who stayed back permanently in the colonies did so not out of their own will.
Eventually they and their children will form a pool of labour supply in Fiji, sufficient in number to enable the colonial government to reduce and eventually stop the costly recruitment of Indian labourers to Fiji. The fact that the majority of free Indians were returning to India was frustrating this deceitful hidden recruitment aim of the colonial government of Fiji. It had to continue to bear the cost recruiting new Indians and pay passages of those returning home. At the time of their arrival in Fiji the vast majority of the indentured Indians were below age of 30. Hence those returning home after 10 years had many years of labour remaining in them. This and the fact that much money was being wasted in recruitment and repatriation were not palatable to the colonial government. Additionally new threat to continued supply of indentured labour to Fiji was confronting the colonial government and the planters in Fiji in the form of public outcry for abolition of the indenture system throughout the colonies. These factors combined to pose huge threat to the sugarcane and other plantation-based industries in Fiji. The Colonial Sugar Refinery Company (CSR) of Australia had by this time invested enormous amount of money into the four sugar mills and huge sugarcane plantations in Fiji. The sugarcane industry was the pillar on which Fiji s economy resting. The survival of the sugarcane industry in turn rested upon the labour of Indians. Should supply of Indian labour reduce substantially or dry up, Fiji s sugar industry will go down and with that Fiji s economy as well. The colonial government and the planters in Fiji had to take drastic actions to ensure continued supply of Indian labour in Fiji. The fact that they succeeded in that is well known. However not much has been written as to how they managed to keep the later day indentured Indian labourers in Fiji permanently.
In Fiji the largest player in Fiji’s economy, the Australian owned Colonial Sugar Refinery Company (CSR), were fighting vigorously to keep the system going. By this time they had invested very heavily in Fiji, owning all the sugar mills and many thousands of acres of sugarcane farms. For both the CSR needed continued supply of girmitiya labour; if the girmit system was abolished, it was certain that the CSR in Fiji would collapse dramatically. The colonial government in Fiji was in support of the system to continue because it could not afford to let the CSR go down in Fiji. In many ways Fiji’s economy was directly supported by the CSR and it exerted great influence on the colonial government in Fiji. It would not be wrong to say that the colonial government in Fiji was a puppet in the hands of the CSR at that time.
In many was the British government in London had to support its Fijian governors on this issue, despite pressures from the anti-abolition lobby there. The Indian government (the Raj) was caught in between in this episode; it did not want to displease the colonial government in Fiji but at the same time it could no longer ignore the growing political force in India. The Indian congress was growing in power and influence and it had found the girmit cause to embarrass the Raj. India’s top leaders such as Gokhle, Chaturvedi, Gandhi and Andrews were championing the girmit cause now and the Raj had to please them as well. The great international girmit drama was played out for some twenty years until girmit was finally abolished by 1920 all around the world. While the political drama was being played the interests of girmitiyas were sacrificed as pawns. While the fate of the future of the girmit system was played out for two decades, the fate of the girmitiyas already in Fiji was put on hold.
Firstly in 1906 they managed to install a very important term of the indenture designed to keep the girmitiyas permanently in Fiji. Previous to this change the girmitiyas and their children had indefinite time period to claim free passage back to India after their 10-year girmit terms. Until the change majority of them in fact returned to India under this term. After 1906 the girmitiyas and their children born in Fiji had only two years after the end of their 10-year term in Fiji to claim free passage back to India. Their children born in India could not claim free passage after 24th birthday. The effect of this change was that after expiry of the two years in which this claim could be made the girmitiyas and their child did not have a free passage back to India. The intention behind this change was to hoodwink the girmitiyas for the intervening two years and then deprive them and their children of entitlement to free passage back to India. By this time there would normally be up to six to ten members in the family and it would have been impossible for the girmitiyas to pay their and their families passage back to India. In order to quell the uprising that was obvious once many of the girmitiyas realized what was happening, the CSR and its allies utilized divide and rule tactics they are renowned for.
Up to the turn of 19th century almost all of the Fiji girmitiyas came from the Hindi-speaking belt of Northern Province, mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Realizing that it would be easier for these girmitiyas to band together to resist the conspiracy to keep them permanently in Fiji, they decided to dilute their power to do that. The CSR and the colonial government would have heard about the 1857 Sepoy rebellion, the first battle for independence from the British Raj fought in Uttar Pradesh. It was a bloody battle in which many British and Indian lives were lost. Organizations were formed in UP around the end of 19th century to abolish girmit. Thoughts of an uprising in Fiji against the endeavours to deceive the girmitiyas to remain permanently must have crossed the minds of the deceivers in Fiji.
So they decided to reduce recruitment from North India and supplement the required quota from South India. The first batch of girmitiyas from the South thus started in 1903. From 1903 up to end of the girmit system recruitment from the North India was reduced to approximately half. Even in the south girmitiyas were deliberately recruited from a very large area, spanning three different cultural and linguistic groups consisting of Tamil, Telgu and Malayalam from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. An examination of the main areas of recruitment in the south, namely Tanjore, Chengleput, Arcot, Palghat, Coimbatore, Vijaywada and Godavari, shows that these areas are many hundreds of kilometres apart, making recruitment and travel to Madras for shipment to Fiji extremely difficult task, time consuming and expensive for the recruiters. It begs the question why they resorted to this venture when the North had been providing sufficient girmitiyas to Fiji and elsewhere for many decades. Even if recruitment from the south was desired, which traditionally did not provide many girmitiyas to other girmit colonies as well, recruitment could have been confined to areas closer to Madras, such as Chengleput and Arcot. One can conclude that this elaborate and expensive strategy was deemed necessary by the CSR and its allies to prevent the girmitiyas to come together to effectively resist their attempt to deceive the girmitiyas to remain in Fiji permanently and serve them unhindered. For many years to come the girmitiyas from the North and the south could not communicate effectively due to language cultural barriers, which in fact existed among the Tamil, Telgu and Malayalam speaking people from the south themself as well.
In order to placate the girmitiyas who had forfeited their rights to return to India the CSR offered them small pieces of land on short-term leases. (This scheme had been offered to the free girmitiyas before as an attempt to permanently settle them in Fiji but hardly any of them took the offer, choosing to return to India instead). However now they had no choices but to till the land for the CSR until their leaders found ways for them to return them to India. The first world war came handy for the CSR too. They took advantage of this and stopped providing ships to the girmitiyas to return to India. The deceit and the confusion surrounding the girmit and the world war meant that girmitiyas could not get free return passage to India and majority of them were forced to remain in Fiji permanently in Fiji. Gillion notes that only in 1921 ships were provide to take some 4,000 girmitiyas back to India. No record of any further ships taking intending girmitiyas back to India is available.
The final year in which the last of the post 1906 girmitiyas could take advantage of free passage back to India was 1928 i.e. 1916 plus two years. Leading up to this period much drama was played out at international stage to reform the girmit system. Fiji girmitiyas were placated with promises of reforms and delegations from India to look into their complaints. However soon after 1928 all these activities plus protests from India stopped suddenly. The CSR and its allies had conned the girmitiyas and their sympathizers in India. They succeeded in keeping some 35,000 girmitiyas to permanently work for them in Fiji. Gillion and other have written that the girmitiyas in Fiji celebrated when it was announced in January 1920 that all the contracts of Fiji girmitiyas were quashed and they were free. They burnt effigies of CSR and the coolumbars the CSR overseers who worked them with iron fists and whips. But CSR and its allies had the greatest cause to rejoice. Faced with total elimination of girmit labour at the turn of the 19th century, thirty years later they had in their captivity some 35,000 Indian girmit coolies who were at their disposal indefinitely, without interference from anti-girmit groups in India and England. Without much money, effective leadership, freehold land and rights in Fiji, these girmitiyas were ripe for exploitation by the CSR, who by this time were the uncrowned rulers of Fiji. The 35,000 girmitiyas ensured continuous supply of labour to Fiji with the cost and effort to recruit fresh girmitiyas from India each year. In a masterstroke the CSR and its allies got what they wanted and much more. The Indians were stumped and no one realized how it was even done to date. Soon after 1928 all the protests against the girmit in India stopped. They may also have celebrated that they played a part in the abolition of the girmit system. Perhaps they did not realize that the end of the system of girmit recruitment did not end the girmit of those who were now captive in Fiji. These girmitiyas were consigned to serve the CSR for rest of their lives. For majority of them their lives after 1920 did not change dramatically in their favour. They continued to be exploited by the CSR under conditions not too much different from the girmit era. There was the additional over bearing burden of realization that they will never return to their homes in India. The vast majority of them never did! Many of their descendants continued to toil the land for the CSR until they departed in 1971. CSR s departure from Fiji did not change the fate of many of the Indian farmers in Fiji. Still without rights to buy their own land, they continued to toil for the native Fijians. After the political turmoils in Fiji, since 1997 thousands of these farmers have been evicted from their leased land. Presently thousands of the descendants of the captive girmitiyas of Fiji are living squatter settlements scattered throughout Fiji, providing cheap labour to new Australian enterprises and non-girmitiya businesses in Fiji. Despite successes of a section of Indians in Fiji, a larger section continues to provide cheap labour to Fiji.
It is not possible to provide all the evidence to support my claim that the most of the Fiji girmitiyas were tricked into remaining permanently. This is a new area of research on Fiji girmitiyas and the work is continuing. I hope the above will create new awareness about the nature of Fiji girmitiyas and compel people to re-examine the subject.
Next I will give my view on how things could have been for the girmitiyas and their descendants if it was realized by the Indian leadership that the girmitiyas did not choose to stay back in Fiji but were forced to stay there permanently.