Chapter Three: Coolies

November 12, 2020

When I started this post, I wanted to talk more about the Coolie Lines in Fiji and what our people endured. I read a lot about it  but now that I sit down to write, I’ve realized how hard it is to find this history and the truths within. Girmitya history isn’t easy to dive into, even with google at our fingertips.

From the ships to land, Indians began arriving in the Fiji Islands.

While being recruited, Indians were told a variety of stories about their soon-to-be home by their recruiters (aarkathis). Some were told that Fiji was a part of India, or near India. So when they finally landed in Fiji, many had no idea how far India actually was. Ships typically departed during the night and with the darkness, Indians were unable to visually see the separation from their motherland. Many of the recruits suffered a deep loss – the loss of their homeland, family, caste systems, languages and more. It wasn’t uncommon for some to jump overboard to take their own lives. Hundreds died at sea, the majority nameless and undocumented.

Those that survived the journey, reported to their undisclosed path to indenture. After quarantining upon arrival, Indians were then allocated to groups by plantation owners who would then transport them by boat to their destinations. The majority of Indians were allocated to the CSR Company that operated sugar mills and had their own sugarcane plantations. (himalmag.com)

Upon arrival to their designated plantation, they were then in the hands of European “overseers” who would distribute them to their ‘coolie lines.’ 

A coolie line refers to plantation housing provided to the indentured workers. A line consisted of 24 rooms, each of which was 8 feet wide and 12 feet long. A single room housed three single men while couples with children were given a room to themselves. If there were 26 lines, this housed about 1500 workers. (The Story of the Haunted Line)

The male to female ratio was very disproportionate. For every 40 women there were 100 men. We will dive into the systematic abuse and violence that women endured as the most vulnerable population of the indentured in an upcoming post.

The degrading and deplorable conditions of the coolie lines became home for five or more years to girmitiyas. Sometimes housing stray dogs, goats or chickens on top of the already tight quarters. Walls as thin as cardboard separated the rooms. This is where they cooked, ate, slept and if they had the energy after their workday, socialized. 

Coolie Lines for Girmitiyas in Fiji. Picture courtesy of National Archives of Fiji

Coolie Lines for Girmitiyas in Fiji. Picture courtesy of National Archives of Fiji

In 1914, Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi sent British missionary C.F. Andrew to investigate the indentured system in Fiji. After discovering the inhumane treatment of Indian laborers, Andrew and his colleague W.W. Pearson devised a report and called for the immediate abolition of the indentured system in Fiji (Mayer 1963:21). They wrote:  We cannot forget our first sight of the coolie ‘lines’ in Fiji. The looks on the faces of those men and the women alike told one unmistakable tale of vice. The sight of young children in such surroundings was unbearable to us. And again and again . . . we saw the same unmistakable look. It told us of a moral disease which was eating into their heart and life of the people. (Nicole 2011:173) 

Why were they called Coolie Lines? ‘Coolie’ is a term that is referred to people of full blooded Indian descent whose ancestors migrated to the British former colonies of Africa and the Caribbean, also including South Africa, East Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, Mauritius, Fiji and Malay Peninsula. (Wiki) Also connected to Chinese immigrant workers in the Americas. 

In India the term Coolie is referred to as someone who carries baggage. It also can be defined as ‘hired labor.’ For me the term comes heavy with the untold stories of those that suffered for one too many nights living among these lines. 





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