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Forgotten struggles of Fiji girmitiya

Matilda Simmons
Sunday, June 18, 2017

HISTORY has a way of twisting normal perceptions. Just when you think you know what's there to learn, wham! A hidden piece of information comes to light, destroying your notion of what you've always accepted as "truth".

We humans are indeed a funny lot. We behave and feel according to what we perceive of our cultural and traditional upbringing and even oral accounts but when historical events challenge those perceptions, one can be left in a quandary or get positively enlightened.

Such were the findings of Dr Brij Lal, the former permanent secretary for the Ministry of Education and sitting member of Parliament while carrying out research into the life of his grandfather, Khanjan Lal, an indentured labourer who found his way to Fiji during the girmit era.

He heard and read so much about the girmitiya growing up that he made up his mind to document his grandfather's story.

"I wanted to find out what the culture was like at his hometown in India, the type of farming they did, songs they sang and the style of dressing, and why he chose to go to Bua on Vanua Levu so I had to a lot of fact-finding to do including interviewing a lot of people," he said.

Thus began two years of painstaking research. His finding also unearthed interesting family links to an iTaukei family. A member of this family is the wife of a former prime minister of Fiji.

The book, Forgotten Struggles of Fiji Girmit, was launched on May 12 this year at a workshop in Walu Bay by the Minister for Employment, Productivity, and Industrial Relations Jone Usamate. It is Dr Lal's fifth book and a labour of love.

"The book is of great value to me and my family because not many Indian families have a thorough history of where their ancestors came from and important details about them," said Dr Lal.

"In it, I talked about Khanjan's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so four to five generations and it's a great record for the family. It also includes various historical accounts and transcripts of other adventures," he added with a smile.

One such account was the first recorded presence of an Indian in Fiji. According to records, this was of a seaman who survived a shipwreck and lived among the iTaukei villagers in 1813.

In January, 1879, 31 Indians arrived to work on Taveuni from New Caledonia. However, they were not happy with the wages and living conditions and left within a month or two. The bulk of Indians later came under the indentured system between 1879-1916.

Another interesting find was a record of six iTaukei men who arrived with the first batch of coolies on the boat Leonidas from Calcutta, India. These men were stuck in India after travelling on ships around the world.

"There are very few writers in Fiji and I want to encourage Fijians to write and record their history," Dr Lal said.

"Secondly, people should start documenting important information about their family, their culture, and so forth and I want people to read more about their country, its people and other cultures around them.

"Many times we're confined to our own group, our belief and so we do not expand our way of thinking. We are now living in a global village and we should understand each other.

"Fiji is one place where not many people are readers. We're not a reading population and that's sad. That's why I went out of my way to write this book for my family but included other historical research as well.

"We have a living document that tells of our journey. Both the good and the bad," he said with a smile.

Family background

According to Dr Lal's family research, his grandfather Khanjan Lal was born on February 22, 1881 in Arangapur, Hardoi, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. He was 20 years old and not married when he came over to Fiji.

He was from the Kisan caste, which derived its name from the Hindi word kessan meaning farmer. They are known to live in villages where they have caste councils (biradari panchayats).

This aspect of life was brought to Fiji during the early days of early Indian settlements but is not in practice today.

According to records, Khanjan was employed on a part-time basis at a sugar mill and did a little farming. He was usually employed three days a month and because the farm was small, he was constantly under debt.

He also operated a small shop selling rice, dhal, flour, oil, tea, sugar and a few other items. However in the first three months, the shop business closed adding more debt to the family.

"One evening a smart guy appeared at the shop and started talking to five people who had gathered there," wrote Dr Lal in his book.

"He managed to convince three of them to take up jobs in Fiji for good wages. The closure of the small shop had painted a bad picture so Khanjan wanted to get away."

He boarded the ship Wardha I in Calcutta on May 26, 1906 and arrived in Fiji on June 28, 1906.

The voyage took 34 days with 834 labourers on board.

After two weeks of quarantine, Khanjan was sent to Labasa to work at the CSR coolie lines in Wailevu about 15 minutes' drive from the present Labasa Town.

He ended his five-year contract at Matanisavona, just past Naduri in Macuata.

"Their major work at the time was digging drains along the sea," said Dr Lal.

"He was taken there to make a sea wall. Sugarcane growing had stopped in the area because of seawater so they were supposed to make a sea wall.

"I think it was a very hard job they did in those years and he feared that if he stayed around there, he would be taken back and made to work another five years.

"So after signing his release form, he disappeared into the jungles and found himself at Coboi, Vatubogi, Bua where he grew vegetables and rice and sold it to villagers in the area."

Secret stories from 'Aja'

Stories down the family vine told of a famous tamarind tree near the Wailevu River where many things occured while Khanja was completing his girmit contract.

Under this tree, buying and selling were done, sports, settling of disputes, singing, introduction of new coolies, and arranging of marriages.

"It was like a world unto its own. Freed coolies would come by and share their stories about their free life under this tamarind tree.

Khanja told his children they would secretly exchange sugar, flour, salt and rice with the iTaukei villagers and get from them fish, prawns, crabs, root-crops and fruits and vegetables. The practice of naqona (kava drinking) was also rife among the labourers.

"One man eloped with a lady from a lower caste. He was caned under the tamarind tree," he said.

"When overseers were harassing our women, some jahazi bhais (ship mates) had to get together and act.

"One sahib was very good with kicking coolies with his boot, punched them and cracked a whip on them.

"A man called Bhukkan and a few others waited one afternoon behind the mango tree.

"They dragged him from the horse and murdered him. Later Bhukkan was hanged."

Teachings of 'Aja' (Khanjan)

The following are some of the teachings given by the late girmitiya to his children and grandchildren.

These parting words ring true for his descendants today, most of whom later became successful farmers, businesspeople, and hold important leadership roles:


* Religion is the base. Stick to it strongly. Start the day with prayer and end the day with prayer.

* Remain poor but do not steal.

* Don't be frightened of hard work.

* Learn the Feejeean language (iTaukei).

* Be a good listener.

* Respect people, other religions and property.

* Have ownership of land, jewellery, money, animals and other valuables.

* Share and give what you can.

* Enjoy life through hard work

* Greet people politely, offer water and food and respect all.

* Enjoy your meals regardless of its taste.

* Dress neatly even if you wear old clothes.

Aja (Khanjan) was registered as a Fiji citizen on February 23, 1924.

* Read more about the first iTaukei men on board the ship Leonidas in 1879 that brought Indian labourers to Fiji and Dr Lal's interesting family links in next week's edition.

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