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Arrival of the lascars before girmitiya

Avinesh Gopal
Tuesday, May 21, 2013

IT is known for long that most Fijians of Indian descent descend from the immigrants shipped to Fiji from India under the universally condemned indentured labour scheme.

Many people also believe, assume or mistakenly think that the first Indians who arrived in Fiji came under the indenture system or girmit.

But little do they know that their forefathers who arrived in Fiji on May 14, 1879 under the indenture system were not the first Indians to set foot on this land.

Those who arrived in Fiji on that day were in fact the first group of indentured labourers brought from India by the British Empire to work in the sugar cane fields.

Following their arrival, more than 60,000 other labourers were shipped to Fiji through Calcutta and Madras in India between 1879 and 1916.

While some opted to leave at the end of their girmit or even before, the majority of those who came to Fiji from India stayed behind.

They called Fiji their home and their descendants are scattered in different parts of the country and the world today.

However, records reveal that Indians had set foot on Fiji about 70 years before the arrival of the first group of indentured labourers from India.

It was during the sandalwood trading boom, which saw ships from various countries coming to Fiji to take the precious wood.

According to the Fiji Museum's 1984 edition of its quarterly journal, the Domodomo, Fiji's first Indian settlers were the lascars.

One of them is also reported to have hired himself out to various chiefs as a mercenary during the inter-tribal wars in the early 1800s.

"Indeed, these forgotten Indians, whose unwitting descendants are no doubt submerged within today's indigenous Fijian population, were among the earliest foreigners to jump ship in Fiji during the sandalwood trading boom of the early 1800s," wrote Fergus Clunie in his article 'Fiji's first Indian settlers' in the Domodomo.

Lascars are part-Portuguese Indian sailors drawn from seafaring communities along the Malabar Coast, which is a long and narrow coastline on the southwestern shoreline of the mainland Indian subcontinent.

Fiji Museum registrar Sela Rayawa said records show that the first Indians to arrive in Fiji were not the indentured labourers.

"Indians were in Fiji before the indentured labourers arrived. They worked as crew on ships that came to Fiji in the early 1800s.

"Records are there that lascars were the first Indians to Fiji and not the indentured labourers or girmitiya," said Mr Rayawa. Mr Clunie wrote in the Fiji Museum's quarterly journal in 1984 that "these men — whose modern counterparts can yet be seen, serving aboard P&O liners calling at Suva — formed part of the crews of the 'East India' merchant ships which were provisioning the infant colonies of Port Jackson and Van Diemen's Land during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

"The establishment of these Australian colonies meant a great increase in merchant shipping through this part of the Pacific, and it was the wreck of the Port Jackson bound schooner Argo on Bukutatanoa Reef in January of 1800 which effectively began the modern era of Fiji history," he wrote.

"In 1804, Oliver Slater, an Argo survivor, brought word of sandalwood growing in the little known but generally ill-reputed Fejees.

"The masters of colonial and Yankee vessels serving Port Jackson moved quickly to exploit this potentially lucrative cargo, and their East India rivals were not slow in following suit.

"By 1807, the short-lived Fijian sandalwood trading boom was in full swing."

Mr Clunie wrote that over the next several years, a regular traffic in East India shipping cleared Port Jackson for Myemboo (Bua) or Sandalwood Bay, on the coast of Tackanova (Cakaudrove, in fact Vanua Levu).

Furthermore, he wrote that lascars were held pretty much in contempt by their British officers, who regarded even several of them as being inferior to one European seaman.

"They were generally looked upon as being sickly, cowardly and unreliable, notoriously useless in a fight or during a storm at sea, when they could not be induced to climb into the tops.

"They were often abused, and it is small wonder that many of them deserted at virtually every island group in the Pacific that was visited by East India ships," Mr Clunie wrote in the Fiji Museum journal.

According to the free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the first recorded presence of a lascar (Indian seaman) in Fiji was by Peter Dillon, a sandalwood trader in Fiji.

"The lascar survived a ship wreck and lived amongst the natives of Fiji in 1813," it said.

"Dillon has written about lascar Joe, who, according to the Cyclopedia of Fiji, deserted from the brig Hibernia.

"He lived in Fiji with other beachcombers, hiring himself out as a mercenary to different chiefs in the numerous inter-tribal wars in Fiji.

"The indenture ships which carried Indians from India to Fiji between 1879 and 1916 were manned mainly by lascars."

According to the Wikipedia, a group made up of the crew of the ship Hunter and local beachcombers led by Charles Savage took part in a trial conflict in Wailea in 1813 to gain the favour of the Waileans so that they could obtain sandalwood.

In the ensuing conflict, both sides suffered major casualties. Charles Savage was killed together with 13 others including three lascars, who were "Jonow, a lascar boatswain's mate; Hassen, a lascar seaman and Mosden, a lascar seaman."

Peter Dillon and lascar Joe or Achowlia survived the battle.

The captain of the Hunter transferred the beachcomber survivors onto another ship commanded by Dillon so that they could be returned to Bau but adverse weather conditions prevented their landing and the ship left Fiji sailing northwest.

On reaching Ticopia, an island in the Solomons, three of the survivors — Martin Bushart, his Fijian wife and Lascar Joe were landed and the ship sailed to Sydney, passing the island of Vanikoro.

Peter Dillon was sailing in command of his own ship, the St. Patrick on May 13, 1826 from Chile to Pondicherry in India when he sighted Ticopia.

He stopped to enquire whether his old friend Martin Bushart was still alive. He found Bushart and Lascar Joe alive.

When he left, he took Bushart with him but Lascar Joe had no intention of leaving the island, according to the Wikipedia.

Mr Clunie wrote that when lascar Joe met Dillon, he was so adapted to life in the islands that he appeared to have forgotten the East India dialects and could not reply to Dillon or his servants, three of whom were his countrymen.

Lascar Joe's conversation was reportedly a mixture of Bengali, English, Fijian and Ticopia dialects.

He reportedly refused to go with Dillon, voicing some of the very reservations which later kept tens of thousands of indentured Indians from returning to India from Fiji.

Dillon wrote that lascar Joe had a wife at Ticopia who he tenderly loved and whom he would never voluntarily abandon.

Mr Clunie wrote that the collapse of the sandalwood trade was followed by a general dearth of foreign shipping to Fiji until the advent of the beche-de-mer and turtle shell trade in the mid-1820s.

He wrote that the beche-de-mer trade was dominated by Yankee traders from Salem in Massachusetts and East India vessels had no part to play in it.

"But the trade did bring at least one more Indian settler to the islands."

In May 1828, William Driver, second officer of the Clay and Captain Benjamin Vanderford noted that when the ship left Manila on a return voyage to Fiji, it had four crew from Fiji who had gone to Manila.

Mr Clunie wrote that just before the ship sailed on December 13, 1828, she paid off some of the crew including Domingo Andos, an old Madrasi (South Indian) man.

On their own request, they were paid off with one musket, two or three pounds of powder, some balls, a few flints, one axe, some whale teeth and a few knives each.

"Apparently a part-Portuguese Indian, as were most lascars, Domingo settled in the Rewa delta — probably on Laucala Island," Mr Clunie wrote.

Captain J H Eagleston wrote in August 1834 that prior to leaving for Tahiti, he gave to a native of Bengal residing here a variety of garden seeds.

He wrote that he got a present from the old man of carrots, cabbage, lettuce, radishes and turnips some time later.

One of Captain Eagleston's officers, Warren Osborn also mentioned that "an old lascar who had been living among the natives some time brought us down some molasses made by himself."

Mr Clunie wrote that like Achowlia or lascar Joe, and like tens of thousands of indentured Indian immigrants decades later, Domingo Andos had no notion of ever going home.

The Fiji Girmit Council said it does not have the faintest of idea that Indians were in Fiji before the arrival of indentured labourers.

Council secretary Vishwa Nadan said they only knew that Indians came to Fiji under the indenture system, with the first group arriving on May 14, 1879.

"We know that Indians came to Fiji under the indenture system and South Indians came here in 1903 onwards.

"We don't know of Indians being here before 1879," he said.

However, as stated by Mr Clunie in the Fiji Museum's journal, the descendants of the lascars are no doubt submerged within today's indigenous Fijian population.

They maybe our friends, neighbours, workmates, family members or even someone we meet on a daily basis like the taxidriver, bus driver or even the market vendor.

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