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Tracing my roots to India

Senator Lisa Singh
Sunday, February 04, 2018

ON Monday January 29, I had the privilege to visit the very special and historic place from where my ancestors left India to travel as indentured labourers to the British colony of Fiji.

My great grandfather, Laxman Singh, had left his home in Gwalior to travel to Calcutta to sign up to the British scheme as an indentured labourer to work on the Fiji sugarcane plantations.

I asked my driver to take me to the Kidderpore depot and jetty near the Garden Reach Rd area in Kolkata.

When we arrived at Gate No 1, the port officers escorted me all the way into the port to the area where indentured Northern Indians were kept and processed before they were put on ships for transportation. They sailed from Kiddepore port between 1834 and 1920 to the British colonies far, far away seeking a better life.

A memorial to commemorate the significant contribution Indian indentured labourers made was unveiled at this port in 2011.

When I arrived I saw red-coloured buildings surrounding the jetty and river's edge that were dilapidated and disused but they still carried meaning as they were probably where the Indians were barracked. I saw an old ship lock with a rusty old walking bridge on top of it and lots of old steel ship equipment. And I saw the brick red coloured Clock Tower of the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT).

The tower was built in 1899 to help ships in transit to set their time. The memorial on the edge of the jetty is a square block of black marble and has inscriptions on all its four sides. English on two sides, while Bengali and Hindi on the other two.

It commemorates their resilience, determination and pioneering spirit and their significant contributions to their adopted counties.

But to me it also marks the sacrifice, courage and suffering they endured working as indentured labourers on the colonial plantations often in slavery like conditions.

I stood on the edge of the river and reflected on the distances these girmityas travelled from their homes to get to this port and then to be barracked and shepherded on ships that set forth on long, treacherous journeys to the colonies.

I thought of the hundreds of ships that sailed down the Hooghly river over those years to places unknown with thousands of Indians on board not knowing what they were to expect or how poorly they would be treated.

My great grandfather, Laxman Singh, was on the SS Virawa and left this port on its second voyage in 1902. He was only 19.

I have a copy of his emigration pass signed by the surgeon superintendent that certifies him as "permitted to proceed as in a fit state of health to undertake the voyage to Fiji".

The ship would have first sailed down the Hooghly River into the open sea at the Bay of Bengal and then further south into the Pacific Ocean to the distant islands of Fiji.

It was an overwhelming feeling. To be standing at the place where my ancestors left India to start their journey for a better life.

Walking in the footsteps of my great grandfather, I tried to imagine the fear, courage and resilience he must have felt. He would not have known the future he was shaping and the legacy he would leave behind. It is one that myself and my whole family are very proud of. The spirit of his Indian heritage has passed on to me through my father.

This memorial has such an importance significance to me as a descendant of an Indian. I know it must be such a significant place for millions of people of Indian origin whose ancestors set forth from this port in Kolkata in search for a better life.

In doing so they laid the foundations in nations across the globe for their descendants to build their lives.

The memorial allows descendants of Indians to connect with their heritage and to understand what their ancestors endured leaving India to travel to faraway lands.

I encourage Indian descendants, if possible, to take the journey to this historic place. I really think Kolkata Port Authority should allow public access for Indian diaspora to be able to visit and gain entry with ease. It is such a significant place that it could become a tourist attraction for Kolkata. But it is in a mechanical workshop complex of the port.

My great grandfather didn't return to India, I'm not sure why. It has been said, that the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) of Australia, the major stakeholder of Fiji's sugar industry at that time, and the Colonial Government in Fiji, advertised that they would face adverse conditions if they returned to India.

Most of them never returned. Laxman's son, Ram Jati, my grandfather, grew up in Fiji and became a schoolteacher, farmer and politician. My grandmother was also the daughter of indentured labourers.

After visiting, I called my dad, Uppi, in Australia and shared with him my journey to Kiddepore Port, Gate No 1 on the Hooghly River to the Kolkata Memorial. He was very emotional as it was a meaningful and spiritual part of him too.

As far as I'm aware, I am the only member of my family to visit the memorial.

I know there are so many stories like mine of descendants of indentured labourers from India. I think the more we share our stories, and retrace our ancestors footsteps, the more we understand who we are, where we come from and the pioneering legacy our ancestors created for us.

? Senator Lisa Singh is the Labour Senator for Tasmania (Australia). Views expressed are hers and not of this newspaper.

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