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Lessons from the past

By Shobna Decloitre

Source: Wansolwara, June 2004
Publication of the University of the South Pacific Journalism Programme

WHEN children in Indo-Fijian homes appeared disinterested in their schoolwork, there was one threat that never failed to revive their interest - that of being banished to work in the cane fields.

Many second and third generation Indo-Fijian mothers used this "blackmail" to get their children to work harder at school and aim for a life other than toiling in the cane fields like their forefathers.

For children who had seen their parents wake up before dawn and work long and hard hours in the fields in the hot blazing sun, the threat worked like a charm.

Combined with this were the horrific stories of the Girmityas 
(indentured labourers) that the children heard. Stories of how their forefathers were virtual slaves toiling day-in and day-out for a pittance.

How they were physically abused, and of how they struggled to complete their five-year girmit agreements. Their lives were aptly described as narak (hell). 

The Australian National Universityšs Professor Brij Lal is the world authority on Fijišs girmit era. Most of this distinguished historian's career was devoted to meticulously researching this period.

Professor Lal says the trials and tribulation of the Girmityas was the motivating factor behind the Indo-Fijian' relentless quest for education.

"After the completion of their indenture contracts, the Indians settled on 10- acre plots to farm sugar cane. Their only way to a better life was through the education of their children."

Professor Lal would be speaking from experience ­ he is a descendent of a Girmitya who grew up on a farming community in rural Labasa. This year marks the 125th year of the arrival of the Indian indentured labourers in Fiji.

Celebrations, exhibitions, lectures and publication launches in various centres of Fiji took place to revive the memory of the girmityas. The Indenture system was implemented by the British in 1834, a year after slavery was officially abolished.

India, then a colony of the British Empire, provided an untapped source of labour. Under the system, labourers signed an agreement committing to work for five years. It is the mispronunciation of the word agreement that gave birth to "Girmit" and this is how the Indenture System came to be known widely. 

The idea of bringing indentured labourers to work in Fiji came from the first Governor General, Sir Arthur Gordon, who had prior experience of Indian labourers in Mauritius and Trinidad.

And this is how on May 14, 1879, the Leonidas brought to Fiji the first group of Indians. Eighty six other ships followed until the end of the Indenture system in 1916, bringing a total of 60,553 people.

About 45,000 came from the Eastern Uttar Pradesh region while the remaining came from South India. Today, Indians make up 41 per cent of Fiji's 840,000 population. About a 120,000 have emigrated since the 1987 coups mainly to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

Lawyer and high chief Ratu Jone Madraiwiwi said the Girmityas had worked hard and changed the economic and social fabric of Fiji. At a special lecture series on the Girmit era in May, he said Fiji should move away from its painful 125-year history and ensure that the coming years were less painful. 

For most of the younger generation of Girmityas descendents, the Girmit era belongs to the pages of history.

But the celebrations that took place last month brought home the fact that there were lessons of hope, tolerance, sacrifice and perseverance that could be learnt from them.