In our last post we discussed the deplorable conditions of the coolie lines. As time went on, the number of girmitiyas that served their girmit had increased. Some that served their entire indenture found their way back to India, but many did not. This was the beginning of Indians creating their own society outside of girmit. This gave hope to those still serving their indenture.
Once girmitiyas were free, there was a rebirth of religion and culture that the community craved. Both the Hindu and Muslim communities sought to restore their identities. Indians would search for pundits to perform marriage rituals that were non-existent during their indenture.
One thing that was not recognized during girmit was marriage. If you were previously married in India it was not recognized. Couples that were already married or who sought to get married had to register with the government, costing fifty-cents. This cost to get married was a heavy burden on the already very poor Indians. There were no celebrations or traditional ceremonies performed for marriage during the girmit. So why get married if it was a financial burden? Well, to secure your family it was a must.
The women to men ratio played a huge role in marriage.
As for women laborers, they not only faced physical violence but sexual abuse. The disproportionate ratio of women to men made the indentured women easy targets for abuse by both their colonial masters and by indentured men. Between 1890 and 1919, it was reported that 68 indentured women were murdered in Fiji (Hyam 1990:94).
The double burden of being Indian and a woman took its toll on the lives of indentured women. Eventually, the plight of the laborers led to high rates of suicide amongst the indentured Indians. In fact, Fiji had the highest suicide rates in all of the indentured colonies (Lal 1993:187).
The disproportionate ratio of women altered marriage in Fiji. Typically in India, the groom would attract a bride with a high paying dowry, but in Fiji it was the other way around because of the lack of women.
“Because there were so few women, young girls were betrothed early in life and were a priceless acquisition. Brides and bride grooms were often twelve to fourteen years of age. (Tears of Paradise)
Although I don’t have much of my own family history, I do know that my great grandmother who was born during the girmit era was married off to an older man when she was only twelve years old. There is a story in our family that she was too young to know how to properly walk around the fire to complete the ceremony so she was picked up and carried around the fire. It’s hard to imagine.
Twelve years old. Let that sink in.
The stories of our female ancestors have little historical documentation. I found a thesis on The Experience of Indo-Fijian Immigrant Woman in California which has been really helpful. Its worth the read if you are interested.
Tears of Paradise by Rajendra Prasad