The end of girmit

IT is an era that has gone down in history books. A lot has been written by many people about the life of their fellow human beings at that time. The time was from 1879-1916 when shiploads of indentured

labourers from India came to Fiji to work in sugarcane fields. Many of them thought they were leaving their homeland for a much better life on a different land. But little did they know that a life of torture and agony awaited them on a land very far from their homes. They were brought to Fiji by the British on five-year contracts, at the end of which some left for their homeland while others made Fiji their home. As the descendants of these indentured labourers in Fiji prepare to mark the end of the indenture system, The Fiji Times today revisits the

“Girmit” era.

HISTORY was created in Fiji when the Leonidas arrived in Levuka in 1879.

It was the first ship that brought indentured labourers from India to work in sugarcane fields in the country.

The ship left Calcutta in India in March the same year with 498 passengers — 273 men, 146 women and 79 children who were under 12 years old.

According to Wikipedia, there was an outbreak of cholera and smallpox on the ship three days after it left India and 17 people died at sea.

After the arrival of Leonidas in Fiji on May 14, 1879, many more ships came with indentured labourers from India.

The SS Sutlej was the last ship that brought 888 indentured labourers to Fiji from India on November 11, 1916, according to Wikipedia.

One thing worth noting is that some crew members of these ships were lascars (Indian seamen).

A research at the Fiji Museum revealed that lascars were the first Indians to arrive in Fiji, at least 70 years before the arrival of the first shipload of indentured labourers from India.

While there were deaths at sea during the journey of the indentured labourers from India to Fiji, there was also the tragedy of the ship Syria running aground on Naselai reef in Rewa on the night of May 11, 1884.

The shipwreck claimed 59 lives and there were 438 survivors, who were rescued by villagers and Colonial Government officials when the alarm was raised.

A part of the ship is still visible on the reef during low tide, but only time will tell whether this memorium to that tragedy will always be visible.

The Syria monument was built in Nausori Town in memory of those who perished in the shipwreck, and the incident itself.

However, with the indentured labourers came their culture, food, clothing and, it is said, even Indian hemp or marijuana too as a relaxant used by them after a hard day’s work.

The prayers and other ways of doing religious things are said to be almost the same as it was during the indenture or girmit period.

One particular religious event still being performed is the firewalking ceremony by the South Indians, who were among the last to arrive.

Some temples that were built by the indentured labourers or the girmitiya still exist in different parts of the country — at the same site — although they have been renovated along the years.

One such temple is the Naag Baba Kuti at Raralevu outside Nausori Town where people flock to, especially in the weekends when they are free, “to have their prayers answered”.

At the temple site is the tombs of three saints who are said to have passed away there and some say their presence can be felt sometimes during early morning prayers.

The other temple is the Baba Ragho Vishnu Kuti at Sawani in Nausori, which has the tombs of a saint (sadhu) and his four followers.

Another one is the Wailailai Kuti in Ba.

People going to these temples offer prayers at the tombs of the saints first because they are situated right at the entrance.

Like these places, there are other places where the memories of the girmitiya live on.

In 1981, the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi planted a tree to mark the opening of the Girmit Centre in Lautoka.

She met some surviving girmitiya then.

To mark the end of the indenture system, the Fiji Girmit Council has organised events starting on November 11 — exactly 100 years after the last ship load of girmitiya arrived in Fiji.

Council general secretary Jagannath Sami said events had been organised from March 18-26 next year to mark the abolishment of the indenture system.

Mr Sami said 42 ships made 87 voyages to Fiji with indentured labourers from India between 1879 and 1916.

He said 60,965 people left India, but only 60,553 arrived in Fiji including the births at sea.

He said during their five-year contracts or girmit, the indentured labourers were “working, living and often dying in squalid, degrading and brutal conditions”.

Mr Sami said a wide range of events had been organised to commerate the arrival of the last shipload of indentured labourers to Fiji and the abolishment of the indenture system.

“We will have a film festival, local drama/plays and musical evenings,” he said.

“There will be an academics conference and academics from overseas and Fiji will speak on the indenture system.

“There will be a schools debate, oratory contest and quiz during the event.”

Mr Sami has urged the descendants of indentured labourers to be a part of the historical event on November 11, which will culminate in March next year with the week-long celebration to mark the end of the indenture system forever.

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