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Girmit Era – Manipulation of Indo Fijian History

By Thakur Ranjit Singh, Auckland, New Zealand
B
ribane Indian Times

On 14th May 2005, we marked 126 years of arrival of first indentured Indian labourers (girmitiyas) under an agreement that we call girmit (indenture system) wherein, between 1879 -1916, some 60,000 Indians were brought to Fiji to work on sugar plantations. In Brisbane this day was marked with a great function, coinciding with the launch of Rajendra Prasad’s “Tears in Paradise

These girmitiyas and their descendants substantially carved out Fiji’s economic history. If Fiji today is the leading economic force in the Pacific, discounting its mismanagement by successive regimes, it is largely because of the sweat and blood of those pioneer settlers who suffered great miseries at the hands of the British and Australian governments and Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). The agonizing cries and wandering souls of those who committed suicides, were killed or died at the hands of the koolambars (white overseers) in making Fiji what it is today, can still be felt now in the abandoned houses in the sugar belt that were once the homes of girmitiya descendants. Now they are chucked out of the farms that once were the killing and whipping fields where their forefathers suffered their slavery, which girmit was, in another name.

However you ask class eight students, form five students, form seven students or even students of a generation ago what they know about atrocities by the Colonist on girmitiyas, or anything about their history and you will hit a blank. Nobody knows about the sufferings and sacrifices of the girmit era. Why? Because of manipulation of Fiji’s girmit history? Yes, and ask those Chinese who caused a riot in China recently against the Japanese manipulation of their history, why they felt so incensed about this crime against humanity.

It is perhaps, an opportune time to draw a parallel of recent Chinese riots to Fiji’s distorted and forgotten history at the hands of British and Australians.

News of recent rioting in cities of China against Japanese attempts at distorting their wartime crimes in Japanese school books has been well covered by the local and international media. I hope this is appreciated from an Indo Fijian perspective.

While people of today cannot be held responsible for the acts of their forefathers, I do believe that those current day descendants, some remaining “sahebs” (white men) in Fiji, and all those in Britain and Australia, must be responsible for acknowledging those actions and not lying about them. How many of you know the history of my forefathers?

In Fiji’s primary and secondary school history, we learnt about early history of indigenous Fijians, about provincial tribal wars and their legends. We also learnt about the prowess and courage of various European explorers and seamen who ventured out to seek new lands, the history of British Royal family, contributions of British in developing the earth, the virtues of Commonwealth, the penal history of Australia, New Zealand’s history and so on about the glory of Anglo Saxon’s contributions to carving out the destiny of the world.

However, as far as Fiji’s history is concerned, there is almost no acknowledgement of girmitiya contributions to its development. The accounts of whipping, over-tasking of work, unauthorized pay cuts, punching, kicking, suicides, rapes and killing in the cane fields of early Fiji have been completely missed by the history books. This was no accident but deliberately done to hide the inhuman, criminal and villainous acts of colonialist British and Australian Governments and the monster Colonial Sugar Refining Company, against innocent, defenseless indentured labourers.

History was deliberately concealed to cover up the atrocities of the then rulers. Since British were the colonial rulers of Fiji for around a century, they had a distinct advantage in manipulating history. That is why, we learnt manufactured history devoid of the girmitiyas.

Indenture or girmit has been likened by some writers to slavery. In fact, some have dubbed slavery as being better, because, at least in slavery, people got better food and shelter. The descendants of girmitiyas should mark this 126th anniversary of Girmit by raising strong protest to British and Australians about their criminal activities. The supposedly custodians of girmitiyas, the British owed a duty of care to record history as it really and actually unfolded rather than how they wanted it to be told. They abrogated their responsibility by manipulating and hiding the history of girmitiyas, thus leaving a community wounded, aggrieved and alienated.

It is unfortunate that hard core nationalists, in fact most indigenous Fijians are unaware of how our ancestors were surrogates to the suffering that other natives like New Zealand Maoris, Australian Aborigines and American Indians had to go through during “development” by the colonists. Indian girmitiyas buffered and cushioned any suffering or genocide of native Fijians. Even today, it is the descendants of those girmitiyas who are working as a buffer or cushioning to the smoldering and inevitable indigenous provincial aspirations, “upmanship” and rivalries.

If Fijians were made aware of the sufferings of the indentured labourers as exposed by various Indo Fijian writers in their attempts to correct a manipulated and concealed history, perhaps the taukeis (natives) would have had better perspectives of Indian community in Fiji, rather than regarding them as land-grabbers or greedy mamagis (miser people).

It is felt that had actual history of the suffering of Indian indentured labourers been properly reported, and properly taught in schools, then perhaps the degree of racial tension that we have in Fiji today through misconceptions may have been lessened to great extent.

You have to blame the British and Australians for this. Thanks to recent writers, like Minister Dr. Ahmad Ali, Professor Brij Lal, Professor Vijay Naidu, Dr. Nandan and latest Rajendra Prasad, (with his “Tears in Paradise”) among others, who have attempted to fill the vacuum of Indo Fijian history with their enlightening writings on this subject.

On the occasion of this 126th anniversary of Fiji’s indenture system, all I ask the descendants of girmitiyas is to reflect on the reason why Chinese are feeling so incensed with Japanese distortion of their wartime crimes. We need to reflect why we are so forgiving to the colonizing crimes of British and Australians on the sacrifices, sufferings and anguish cries of Indian girmitiyas.

Unlike the Chinese lament, history of our forefathers (girmitiyas) is not only distorted but worse- manipulated and even vacuumed out of the pages of history books! This is a big shame.

However, as Rajendra Prasad in “Tears in Paradise” observed, that stigma of shame should not stick to the girmitiyas or their descendants.

It is a shame on those who robbed a generation of a people’s freedom, liberty and rights- together with their actual history.

Nevertheless, may the souls of my girmitiya pioneers rest in peace.

(Comments: thakurji@xtra.co.nz)


(ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The author of this article, Thakur Ranjit Singh is a human rights activist, a third generation Fiji Indian, former Executive of Carpenter Group of Companies in Fiji, National Bank of Fiji, former Publisher of Fiji’s daily newspaper, Daily Post, and former Director Administration and Operations of Suva City Council, Fiji. Currently he resides in Auckland. The views are his personal.)