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Girmitiya wreck, grave sites treasured

Avinesh Gopal
Tuesday, June 25, 2013

THE two spots lying some distance away from the beach are regarded by villagers as national treasures.

It is at those very spots the dead from a tragedy at sea on the night of May 11, 1884 were reportedly buried.

Although the dead were not one of their own but completely new faces, the villagers allotted land in the traditional manner to bury them.

From then until now, the grave sites have not been touched by the landowners for any other purpose.

The landowners have given the grave sites for good to the dead, who had come a long way from their homeland in search of a better life in Fiji.

Fate was not on their side as the ship they were in ran aground on the Naselai Reef, off the coast of some villages in Nakelo and Bau in Tailevu.

It is the story of the Syria, which had left Calcutta in India on March 13, 1884 with 497 passengers, including women and children, and 43 crew members.

Among the crew were 33 lascars, who are reported to be the first Indians sighted in Fiji in the early 1800s before the arrival of the first group of indentured labourers (girmitiya) on May 14, 1879.

The adult passengers of the Syria, including women, were to work in sugarcane fields in different parts of Fiji under overseers from the then British Empire.

While most of the passengers were sleeping in anticipation of the new dawn, new land and new life, the 1010 tonne iron ship reached the Naselai waters in the evening of May 11, 1884.

According to reports, the ship was within half a mile off Naselai Reef when the relatively new captain saw the breakers at 8:15pm.

The captain and his crew desperately tried to sail clear of the danger but their efforts proved futile and the Syria ran aground on the reef at 8:30pm that day, which is reported to have been Sunday.

Nearby villagers and officials from the British Empire reached the scene the next day and found the survivors still in the water, struggling to stay alive.

The survivors were taken to Nasilai Village in boats and canoes while the dead were washed ashore on the beach and buried. The survivors were later taken away to Nukulau Island for clearance.

Contrary to other reports that most of the graves have been washed away by the rising sea level, a landowner maintains that the graves of the dead indentured labourers are still on his land.

Josevata Saumalua, 68, who is from the Vunivalu clan in Kiuva, Bau, Tailevu, said the graves of the girmitiya were on his land till this day.

"Some people have stated that the dead from the Syria were buried on the beach but in fact that's not true," Mr Saumalua said.

"In the iTaukei tradition, we don't do that to the dead. We don't bury them on the beach. We give them the full respect of being buried on land.

"At that time, the landowners who were my ancestors had to be approached in the traditional manner for a certain place to bury the dead.

"They allotted two different spots some distance away from the beach to bury the victims of the sea tragedy. Everything was done in the proper manner."

Mr Saumalua said from the stories passed down the generations by his ancestors, the survivors were taken to Kiuva-i-Ra Village.

He also said the proper name for Nasilai beach was Nukumosia beach, which is named after a beach in Verata.

Of the 59 people who died in the tragedy, he said about 30 were buried at one spot while some were buried at another spot.

"From our point of view, the burial sites are national treasures and we want them to be preserved," he said.

"The girmitiya and their descendants have done a lot of good for Fiji and as such, we treasure their burial sites.

"We want a monument to be built at the grave sites to remember the dead from the Syria and not in any village in the vicinity.

"The land has been given for good to the dead from the ship and we can't do anything at the sites. We just want it to be preserved and a monument built there."

Mr Saumalua said the graves were marked with coral stones. He said Kiuva villagers did not want anything from the descendants of the girmitiya.

"We have lived alongside each other in peace and harmony for so long and the only thing we want is a monument built at the grave sites."

The villagers wrote to the Indian High Commission in January requesting that monuments be built at the grave sites of the girmitiya. They are still waiting for a feedback.

Apart from revealing that the graves are intact, Mr Saumalua also revealed other stories passed down the generations.

"Our ancestors told stories of gold sovereigns being taken from the dead women by some villagers. The gold sovereigns were tied around their waist in cotton threads," he said.

"But since the villagers didn't know what the gold sovereigns were worth, they threw them in the sea while playing."

Mr Saumalua also said he lived very close to the graves of the girmitiya but he had neither heard nor seen anything strange in the area.

However, while some villagers may not have heard or seen anything near the graves, some say they have seen lights near the wreck site at night.

Seremaia Waqainabete of Kiuva said he had often seen lights at the wreck site which was quite far from the village.

"I have seen lights at the reef at night and these are not from anyone fishing or diving in the area," he said.

"The lights at the wreck site are very strange. They keep moving there very fast, even going up about 20 metres or so.

"The lights can still be seen at the wreck site at night to this very day and we don't know what they really are or mean," said Mr Waqainabete.

Nasilai villagers have also related stories of sounds being heard at the wreck site if someone was alone in the area.

Apart from sounds being heard at the wreck site, villagers have also told stories of seeing girmitiya men and women while sleeping in the lighthouse some distance away after casting their fishing nets.

There have also been stories of a missing safe from the Syria, which is yet to be found, and a missing part of the ship.

Naselai Reef and waters near it are said to be one of the most dangerous spots in Fiji, especially for ships and smaller boats passing through.

Story has it that the iron ship broke after hitting the reef and its front part fell deep down in the ocean outside the reef.

While some villagers said they could not see the broken part of the ship while diving, others say they have seen it and it is covered with coral now.

Also, Nasilai and neighbouring Vadrai villages have a bell each, which villagers say were brought from the wrecked ship by their ancestors.

Since 1884, the bells are being used in the two villages to alert villagers that it was time for prayers and as such, to make their way to church.

Mr Saumalua said while he was unaware about the origins of the bells at the two villages, he was aware that his ancestors had brought a big bell from the wrecked ship.

"The bell was at our old village but it was taken by people from a village on an outer island in exchange for something," he said.

With survivors from the Syria being taken and despatched at various work sites, there is a very strong possibility that their descendants are still living not far from the wrecked ship. But either the lack of information or simple ignorance of the significance of the wreck site has not led them to the place yet.

Something that saddens the villagers of the coastal area is that nothing has been done in the past 129 years to build a monument in remembrance of those who died in the tragedy. If stories of the villagers are true, then the spirits of those who died are roaming the seas near Naselai Reef for reasons not known to mankind.

Their graves however, are intact and just like the wreck site, they will be treasured by the villagers for generations to come.

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