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Girmitiyas: The Origins
of the Fiji Indians

excerpts from the new book by Dr. Brij Lal, Professor of History at the Australian National University

The book will be available from the Fiji Institute of Applied Studies by end of April 2004


IN 1979 THE FIJI INDIANS celebrated the hundredth anniversary of their arrival in the islands. Through public displays, speeches, parades and publications, the contribution of the girmitiyas - indentured labourers who came under an agreement or girmit in abbreviated and popular parlance - was discussed and appreciated by the people of Fiji. The surviving girmitiyas, now in the last stage of their journey through life, were sought out from all parts of the country and publicly decorated for their contribution to the development of a modern Fiji. It was the first time in their 100 years of existence in the islands that such an honour had been bestowed upon them. Now, a major Girmit Centre for Multicultural Studies is being established in Lautoka, on the western side of Vitilevu, in memory of the struggles and sacrifices of the girmitiyas, among whom my own grandfather was one. He had left India as a young man in search of wealth and glory, neither of which he achieved in his lifetime. He died in 1962.

The celebrations raised consciousness amongst the descendants of the girmitiyas of the difficult circumstances of their ancestors: the long journey across the seas, the clockwork pace of plantation work under harsh discipline, the enormous difficulties of starting life afresh in the post-girmit period. But little was said (and is known) about the origins and backgrounds of the girmitiyas. This is a lacuna which one also finds in much of the published literature on the indenture system, in which there is much emphasis on the lives of the labourers after they had left their homeland. This study does not look at the lives of the girmitiyas once they had reached Fiji; instead it examines the circumstances which led to their departure from India. Various questions are discussed: the reasons for introducing indentured labourers into Fiji, the structure and operation of the recruitment system in India, the regional origins of the migrants, their social and economic background in India, and the migration of women and families.

The picture which emerges goes against the grain of conventional wisdom about the girmitiyas. Contrary to the prevailing opinion, it shows that they were not invariably of low social origins but represented a fair cross-section of rural Indian population. It is suggested that the strata from which most of them originated were increasingly being subjected to unprecedented changes brought about by British penetration of Indian agrarian society. Migration offered one way of coping with these changes, the extent of which was reflected in the fact that a very large proportion of the girmitiyas had already left their homes before they were recruited for Fiji. Not only men but women, children and families also came and they, too, were a part of the uprooted mass. The important role that recruiters played cannot be denied, but it must be assessed in the context of the 'push' factors at work in Indian society. In short, this study attempts to demonstrate that Indian indentured migration was a more complex process than has sometimes been realized. Some 60,965 indentured labourers came to Fiji between 1879 when migration commenced and 1916 when it was finally stopped. Of these, 45,439 were from northern India, embarking at Calcutta. They form the subject of this study. The rest came from southern India after 1903 when recruitment was begun there. But it should be noted that much of the discussion on the north Indians applies in equal measure to those from the south, because the pattern of recruitment and the basic motivations for migrating were similar. It may be noted, too, that our discussion has relevance for many other Indian labour importing colonies, particularly the West Indies, which drew their supplies from the north.

This study is based chiefly on a quantitative analysis of all 45,439 Emigration Passes of the Calcutta embarked migrants. The Pass is the only document that contains comprehensive data on the demographic character of the indentured labourers. The Pass contains the migrant's depot number, sex, name, caste, father's name, age, district of origin and registration, besides the certification of the authorities in India about mental and physical fitness for manual labour in Fiji, and 'willingness to proceed to work for hire'. The Passes were sent to Fiji in the custody of the Surgeon Superintendent of the ship. After inspection and copying of important data about the migrants onto other relevant documents, the Passes were collated alphabetically by ship and deposited with the Department of Labour. Subsequently they were transferred to the National Archives of Fiji where a full set of 60,965 of the originals is available in some 240 large folios. The National Library of Australia has a copy of all the Passes on microfilm and these were used in my research.

A sample of such a pass

The reader may wonder why it was necessary to keep such detailed information on the girmitiyas, contemptuously referred to by contemporary officials and observers alike as 'harlots of empire', 'flotsam of humanity' or 'floating caravan of barbarian tourists'. The reason is that the girmitiyas were subjects of India, migrating under contract to another part of the British Empire, and it was therefore necessary to keep accurate information on their identity. Moreover, they did not leave their homeland with the view to completely severing their links with it. On the contrary, many of them probably hoped to go back after acquiring wealth in the colonies. To this end it was important for both the Indian and the colonial governments to facilitate communication between the indentured labourers in the colonies and their kin in India, whether through exchange of letters or for transfer of money. It is possible, as I found out myself, to use the data in the Emigration Pass to search out one's ancestral village and kin in India. That probably is the ultimate proof of its authenticity………

Ports of Embarkation of Indian Indentured Emigrants





French Ports
1856-61 14,533 66.50% 6,479 29.60%


66.50% -    -
1861-70 122,241 67.50% 56,356 31.10% 2,479 66.50% -    -
1870-79 142,793 78.40% 19,104 10.50% -       - 20,269 11.10%
1880/1-89 97,975 76.00% 21,653 16.80% -      - 9,351 7.20%
1891/2-1900/1 106,700 63.30% 28,550 16.90% 33,343 19.80% -     -
1907/8-1916/17 66,839 62.30% 32,369 30.20% 8,016 7.50% -     -

Social and Economic Origins

'I HAVE BEEN assured by every native from whom I have enquired, and by most Europeans, that only the lowest castes emigrate, and that nothing will ever induce men of higher class of life to leave India.'1 So G.A. Grierson was told in 1882, during the course of an enquiry into indentured emigration. The situation is very much the same today as it was a hundred years ago. Writing in the 1970s, historian K.L. Gillion observed: 'It was, and indeed still is widely believed that those who came to Fiji were of the lowest castes, used to poverty and ill-treatment, and that they arrived in a diseased and emaciated condition'.2 The social derogation implied in this attitude was kept alive in Fiji, Gillion noted, as 'part of the ideological underpinning of European dominance'.

In this chapter, the social and economic origins of Fiji's north Indian
indentured migrants are probed. The data on their social/caste background
are derived from an analysis of the Emigration Passes, and clearly show
that those who came to Fiji formed a fair cross section of rural Indian
population. The reasons for the migrants leaving their homes are more
complicated. There is a body of opinion which places a great deal of the
responsibility for this on the shoulders of the recruiters. Here, the changes
which were taking place in rural Indian society in the late 19th and early
20th centuries are discussed, and the role of these in inducing migration

Altogether, during 37 years of indentured emigration, over 260 social
groups - comprising Hindu castes/sub-castes, Muslims and tribal groups - came to Fiji. They are organized below in simplified categories to enable a clearer understanding of their position. No single method of classification can be followed, as a look at the Indian anthropological literature on caste would tell us, so we have employed broad principles of hierarchy, status, occupation and religion.

Others, employing different principles of categorization, may come up with a different conclusion, though the broad picture presented here is likely to remain. It is obvious that the evidence calls in question assertions about the predominantly low caste origins of the indentured migrants. Low castes, of course, contributed a large percentage of the total numbers migrating, but the proportion of high and middling castes is noteworthy. It could also be noted that caste, as a principle of social organization and as a determinant of position in society, has lost its relevance in Fiji, and in most overseas Indian communities. The process by which this has happened, involving over 200 castes, would be a fascinating subject for anthropological study.

Almost all the castes and sub-castes found in the United Provinces were represented in the indentured population migrating to Fiji, but those which furnished the largest number of indentured migrants were well represented in the UP in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Table 1 shows. It is clear that for most castes, with the exception of Brahmans, there is a broad correlation between their numerical strength in the United Provinces and their contribution to the emigrating indentured population. Thus, for example, Muslims and Chamars, who constituted the largest component of UP Society, also furnished the largest number of migrants. Kshattriyas and Ahirs, too, feature prominently. A district by district analysis confirms this picture, and generally shows a greater willingness to migrate among the lower and middling castes than among higher castes, particularly Brahmans.

Selected Castes and Their Numerical Strength in UP, 1891-1911


Contribution to Inden. Emigrants to Fiji

Numerical Strength in UP Society in

1891 1901 1911
No. % No. % No. % No. %
Ahir 4,197 9.2 3,918,846 8.4 3,823,668 8 6,407,000 8.2
Brahman 1,686 3.7 4,719,882 10.1 4,706,332 9.9 4,659,738 9.9
Chamar 6,087 13.4 5,816,053 12.4 5,890,639 12.4 5,305,833 11.2
Kori 1,942 4.3 919,649 2 990,027 2.1 859,582 1.8
Kurmi 2,307 5.1 2,005,657 4.3 1,963,575 4.1 1,887,564 4
Pasi 999 2.2 1,219,311 2.6 1,239,282 2.6 1,311,220 2.8
Kshattriya 4,565 10 3,632,241 7.8 3,354,058 7 3,428,831 7.3
Khatri 1,182 2.6 45,099 0.1 49,518 0.1 41,764 0.1
Muslims 6,878 15.1 5,179,000 13 6,532,000 13.5 6,407,000 13.3


INDENTURED women, especially those in Fiji, unwittingly played a very large part in the movement to abolish the indenture system. The Indian public had for a long time been aware of the sorry plight of the Indian labourers overseas, but it was the news of the molestation and abuse of Indian women on the plantations that outraged them most. The campaigns in India to stop the degradation of Indian women in the colonies 'received wider public support than any other movement in Indian history, more even than the movement for independence'.1 The Government of India, which had been under pressure for some time from Indian nationalists to end the system, finally moved and waiving away protests from the colonial planters abolished the indenture system in 1916.

The stories of the treatment of two Fiji Indian women, Kunti and Naraini, attracted special attention, and their names are remembered in Fiji even today. Kunti, a 20 year old woman from Lakhuapur village in Gorakhpur, had emigrated to Fiji with her husband in 1908. Her first four years on the plantation were unexceptional until 10 April 1912, when the overseer allocated Kunti an isolated patch in a banana field, away from all the other workers, apparently with the intention of molesting her sexually.

Kunti resisted his demands until, nearly overtaken, she jumped into the river in desperation. She was, however, rescued by a boy, Jaidev.2 Kunti's story was published in the Bharat Mitra and became widely known, which prompted the Government of India to ask the Government of Fiji to institute an enquiry into the treatment of indentured Indian women.

Naraini's plight was equally sorry, if less sensational. The overseer of an estate in Nadi asked Naraini to present herself at work three or four days after giving birth to a (dead) child. Naraini refused, arguing correctly that it was the recognized practice for women to absent themselves from hard labour for up to three months after giving birth. The overseer, taking umbrage at Naraini's refusal, then beat her severely; barely able to walk, Naraini was carried to hospital on a stringed bed. The overseer was arrested, and the case came before the Supreme Court of Fiji. But much to everyone's surprise and consternation, he was found not guilty and acquitted. Naraini later lost her senses and spent the rest of her life as an
insane vagrant……