101 years after girmit

Early Girimitiya at the Rairaiwai Mill with I-taukai villiagers.

Early Girimitiya at the Rairaiwai Mill with I-taukai villiagers.

THE month of March marks an important event for descendants of the girmitiya diaspora. For it was in March 1917 that the system of organised labour finally came to an end. The indenture system under which Indian men, women and children were contracted to work as agricultural labour in distant colonies was abolished after a long agitation in India. It was the largest organised migration of its time. From 1835 to 1917, over a million Indians were taken to British, French and Dutch colonies and put to work.

These colonies included Mauritius, British Guiana, Tobago, Trinidad, Natal/South Africa, Fiji, Jamaica, Surinam and East Africa.

Today most of those migrating generations now live in all parts of the world including the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other smaller nations. They have contributed to their adopted country’s political, economic, cultural, fields including medicine and science.

It’s hard to think that only over 100 years ago their ancestors were subjected to some of the horrendous labour system. Many books document the tough treatment the indentured labourers endured.

The introduction of indenture system in Fiji was made through the then Governor of Mauritius, Sir Arthur Gordon, who had seen a similar system in that country and how it benefited that country’s economy.

On May 14, 1879 around 500 indentured labourers arrived in Fiji on Leonidas from Calcuttta, India and within 37 years many more arrived. The last ship to arrive from India to Fiji was Sutlej V in 1916.

The only tragic incident that marred the arrival of the girmitiyas was in the year 1884 when the vessel Syria ran aground at the Nasilai reef. Survivors from the wreck were rescued by iTaukei villagers from Rewa. Fifty-six people lost their lives on that tragic day.

In 2017, history was made when the descedants of these Indentured labourers revisted the site in a traditional ceremony to thank the Rewa people. The descedants of these girmitiyas who survived the wreck are now recognised at the Luvedra na Ratu or children of the chief.