If you read my about me section, you would see that the concept of this blog originated over five years ago. It was then when I purchased the book Tears in Paradise by Rajendra Prasad, to read during my honeymoon. While on the airplane, I remember reading the first few chapters and crying. I was moved for so many reasons; for the stories that signified the traumatic girmit; for the fact that I had no knowledge Indo-Fijian history up until reading this book; and mostly for my own bloodline and the suffering and sacrifice that had to happen for me to be where I am today.
Being born and raised in Rhode Island, United States, I am a second-generation American. Now married to my Colombian husband with whom I have two children that are 1/2 Indo-Fijian American and 1/2 Colombian. Finding my identity became more and more relevant as I became a mother.
It took me years to finish Tears in Paradise. It was hard to read. It was hard to talk about. Through this blog, I hope to share what I’ve learned over the years and I hope to learn so much more.
From the beginning:
Girmit – indenture system (historically this word is manipulated from the British term agreement)
Girmitya – a person who served under the girmit as an indentured slave (or Jahajis were indentured Indian labourers whom the British Empire sent to Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, and the Caribbean (mostly Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, and Jamaica) to work on sugarcane plantations for the benefit of European settlers) also known as the pioneer generation.
The history of Girmityas was never spoken about in my home. In fact up until my twenties, I would say “I am Indian, but from Fiji” – I didn’t even know the term Indo-Fijian. I remember moving to college and for the first time friends asked me if I was from Guyana or Trinidad. I never even thought to look up why I resemble anyone from Guyana or Trinidad.
The older I got, the more I craved a connection for identity. Once I realized that there was a term such as Indo-Fijian, I started to question it all, how did we get to Fiji? Why were we there? Why was it so political? Why didn’t anyone EVER speak about it? Where are the books and movies about this? I mean there has to be a Netlfix documentary right? – NOPE. So then it became my duty to learn more, share more and start SPEAKING about my roots.
Between 1879 and 1916 (37 years) over 60,500 Indians were transported in eighty-two voyages from India to the Fiji Islands to serve a five year indenture labor contract. During this time Indians were recruited by ‘aarkathis’ (middlemen) who would go to villages and lure/trick men, women and children with the hopes of a brighter future, money and the idea that they could provide for their already poor families. Those that agreed to these terms many times could not read or understand what they were even signing up for. Some didn’t even tell their families before going away because they were certain they would be back one day.
LET”S PAUSE – Just imagine, your children 12, 13, 14, or your brother or sister, going to the market one day and being persuaded to follow a man that promises riches to them and their entire family, would they go? Would you ever see them again? Imagine that heartache for just a moment. THIS right here, is a glimpse into what really took place in India so many decades ago. Shame on the both the British and Indian governments for allowing this to happen.
Unaware that they would soon part with their caste, religion and cultural values, these Indians were held in depots in Calcutta, India for about a week before a tumultuous journey across the Indian Ocean (Kaala Pani/Black Waters).
The three and a half month journey to Fiji included rough waters, bouts of cholera, smallpox, sea sickness and death. It’s said during the first voyages, those that died were thrown overboard with no documentation. Aside from the health concerns, Indians struggled with the traditional caste systems being merged and the realization that returning home may not be as simple as once promised.
Leonidas was the first of forty-two ships that transported Indians as indentured laborers to Fiji on nearly a hundred voyages. Upon arrival in May of 1879, the sick stricken ship was not wanted. There was a debate to send the ship back to India, as Fiji had recently lost a third of it’s indigenous population due to the measles pandemic in 1875. The ship was quarantined until the construction of a quarantine camp was complete in August 1879.
This was the beginning of the next thirty-seven years of Girmit and what would eventually become the inception of the Indo-Fijian population in Fiji.
“The British created indenture in Fiji and The Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR Company) and its kulambars (overseers) inflicted terror and acts of terroroism on our people. The conditions were so bad that death was preferred.”
It’s been over 104 years since Leonidas landed in Fiji. The stories of our ancestors seem buried under the very seas in which were crossed to get to Fiji.
This is just a summarized introduction to Indo-Fijian history. I hope you will stay with me as I journey through the thirty-seven years of girmit, and the years that followed.
October 10th is Fiji Day.
October 10, 1874 King Seru Epenisa Cakobau ceded Fiji to the United Kingdom
October 10, 1970 Fiji regained its independence
This blog was launched in October 2020 – the 50 year anniversary of Fiji’s independence.
Sources: Tears of Paradise; https://yourstory.com/2017/12/indentured-labourers-india