The Makogai Eight

What remains of a building that may have been a laundry/sterilisation facility on Makogai Island. Picture:

On Wednesday, April 30, 1913, about midnight, eight Indian lepers, residents of the Makogai Leper Colony, launched a 20-foot yellow boat into the waters of the Pacific and made a bid for freedom.

The men had no oars or sail, just a fair wind to the north and a deep resolve to live a life unfettered by harsh regulations or physical boundaries.

Because of the awareness that the journey ahead would be perilous, the men perhaps sent a prayer or two to heaven for protection and deliverance.

It was an audacious undertaking, and the men’s hopes depended on four, who understood the handling of a boat.

Unknown to the men, as they were launching their vessel in the water, a group of native Fijian women who had been sleeping in a bure, a mere 10 yards from them stirred into consciousness, disturbed no doubt by the manoeuvres outside.

One of the women peeked out the window and realising something was amiss, hurried outside to investigate, the rest of her bure companions in tow.

Unfortunately, they were too late in their intervention; the men had pulled away some distance from shore.

The women reported the matter to one Aisea Vasutoga, the Warder and Overseer at Makogai at 12:30am, who in turn relayed the news to the Medical Superintendent of Makogai, Frederick Hall, at 5:40am.

Hall organised a search party, and since the government cutter, Ranadi, had not returned from Nausori, a dingy and a punt was used to pursue the escapees.

By this time, however, the men and their boat were well out of sight.

The punt intercepted a cutter bound for Vanua Levu, and the captain was advised to inform any government official about the incident as soon as possible.

Throughout the next few weeks and months, there was a flurry of letters, telegrams and telephone calls between various government officials reporting sightings, charting the movement and announcing the capture (actual and otherwise) of the escapees.

There were also many asides in the drama such as deliberations on what to do with the vessel used in the escape and how best to deal with other lepers who were evading the authorities.

All this combined to cause considerable tension amongst the officials of the colonial administration and urgency to capture the Makogai Eight.

The authorities regarded leprosy as a severe illness and the only way to deal with it at that time was isolating those afflicted from the rest of society.

One of the first actions by the colonial government to deal with the disease was the enactment of “The Lepers Ordinance, 1899,” which in effect criminalised leprosy.

It not only restricted the movement of a leper but also forbade him/her from taking up certain trades.

Although this was meant to stop the spread of the disease, it also curtailed a lot of the civil liberties that others took for granted.

For example, the governor could issue a warrant to detain any persons who were suspected or declared by a medical officer to be a leper.

The ordinance also forbade a leper from engaging in trades such as baker, butcher, cook, tailor, barber a nurse and even a hackney-carriage driver.

He or she was not allowed to enter a hackney carriage or other public vehicles or hotels or lodges and could not bathe in a public bath. Any breach of these laws would result in either fines or internment in a leper asylum.

The Governor also had the authority to establish asylums to isolate lepers from the general population.

The authorities set up the first leper station on Beqa but because they could not acquire the whole island, decided to purchase Makogai in 1909 to establish a more permanent facility.

The first lot of lepers were transferred from Beqa to Makogai in 1911.

There was a social stigma attached to leprosy, but for the migrant Indian, who was already dealing with the hardships of an economic system which relegated him/her to the position of a mere cog in the grand colonial machinery, it was a case of double jeopardy.

Records show that a sizeable percentage of indentured labourers were afflicted with leprosy and during its existence, the Makogai Leper Colony admitted more Indians than any other ethnic group.

However, for anyone committed to Makogai, regardless of ethnicity, conditions were described as intolerable, and so it was no surprise that an attempt was made to escape.

So who were the Makogai Eight who carried out such a daring and unlawful act, putting officials around the island on tenterhooks?

Unfortunately, in the so-called “Great Men School” of History, the common man usually remains faceless and nameless, just part of the teeming mass of humanity who are influenced by and sway to the tune of the policymakers and the statesmen.

A People’s History attempts to put the subaltern or marginal subjects at the centre of the discourse, and so something must be said of the principal protagonists of this saga.

One note though.

In the absence of any records left by the principal players or those who may have been more sympathetic to their plight the sources used in the reconstruction of this narrative were the offi cial documents produced by those in power — the colonial administrators.

It is a pity that there were no attempts by the Makogai authorities, the colonial administrators or even the press of the day to record the ordeal and thoughts of the men who put their lives in peril to attain freedom.

Of course, this is because the colonial authorities saw the men not as heroes but as fugitives or transgressors of authority.

The first of the Makogai Eight, Narunjan, father’s name Bandhoo, was about 44 at the time of the incident.

There is some discrepancy in the records concerning his age at arrival in Fiji, the emigration pass stating 23 but the ships register declaring
it as 26.

He was from the district of Gorakhpur and came to Fiji on June 15, 1892, on the Hereford II.

His emigration pass states that he was of the Chamar caste and that his face was pockmarked.

He was sent to serve his indenture in Labasa, but the CSR company transferred him to the Wailevu plantation on June 12, 1895.

The authorities sent him to Makogai on May 13, 1912.

Depending on what document one referred to, Gujadhur, father’s name Bishoon, was variously listed as Gaijardha, Gajadhar, Girjardhar.

He was 17 when he arrived in Fiji on April 24, 1888, aboard the Hereford I.

His next of kin was his brother, who accompanied him on the voyage.

He was from the Baharaich district and of the Kahar caste.

He also had a pockmarked face.

The authorities initially sent him to Rarawai, Ba to work for the New Zealand Sugar Company Limited but transferred him to Yalalevu in 1893 to work on the estate of the CSR Company.

He was admitted to Makogai on May 13, 1912, and was 42 at the time of the escape.

Herai, father’s name Baldan, was 23 at the time of arrival in the colony.

He was of the Ahir caste and from the district of Rae Bareli.

He arrived on the Clyde on June 1, 1879, and went to the Nagigi Estate to serve his indenture.

He stood at five feet seven inches and had scars on his left knee joint.

The authorities sent Herai to Makogai on May 13, 1912.

Herai was one of five escapees who was married.

The records show that he got married in Fiji to Sumerwa, father’s name Matai, who had also arrived on the Clyde.

She was 20 years old when she came to Fiji from the Partabgarh District.

She stood at 4 feet 11 ½ inches, had a slightly pockmarked face and was from the Ahir caste.

She also served her indenture on the Nagigi Estate.

Autar was the son of one Pargas and arrived on April 23, 1892, on the British Peer.

He was a former resident of the Gorakhpur district Rajwantia.

He stood at 5 feet 7 inches and had scars on the right side of his belly.

He went to Korowiri, Labasa to serve his indenture but the authorities transferred him to Wailevu on June 12, 1895.

They sent him to Makogai on May 13 1912. Autar was a Kahar by caste and came to Fiji with his wife, Rajwantia.

Rajwantia, father’s name Khela, was 21 at the time of arrival and was six months pregnant.

Although the admissions records at Makogai referred to him as Hidat, his correct name, according to his emigration pass was Hardat.

His father’s name was Gauri, and he arrived on theb Rhone II in 1897.

He served his indenture at Tamanua, Navua and went to Makogai on June 5 1912.

His wife was Sonichuri, father’s name Babooram.

She was 20 when she arrived in Fiji on the ill-fated ship Syria on May 14, 1884.

She served her indenture at Nausori on the CSR Company estate.

Beni, father’s name Nathura, was 26, when he came to Fiji on June 1, 1897, on the Clyde I.

He was of the Lonia caste.

He was sent to the Koronivia Estate of J. L. Hunt to serve his indenture.

He was married to Dilwa, father’s name Darsan, who arrived in Fiji on June 28, 1906, aboard the Wardha II.

She was 30 at the time of arrival. She was from the Basti District and of the Kurmi caste.

She stood at 4 feet 10 inches and had a scar on her right shin.

Dilwa served her indenture on the Baulevu estate of R. F. Freeman.

The couple had a child whose gender is unknown.

The records show that the child was sixteen when the authorities sent Beni to Makogai on November 12, 1912.

The story of Bigan, father’s name Abilakh is perhaps the most tragic of all.

He came to Fiji on May 5, 1892, with his wife Dukhni, father’s name Jalini on the ship Avon I.

They were both 20 at the time of arrival.

Bigan was of the Chamar caste from the district of Shahabad in Bihar.

He was five feet six inches and had a scar on the right shin.

They were sent to serve their indenture on the CSR estate on Baulevu but transferred to Rennie J Plantation on April 11, 1894.

They had a son by the name of Badan, who was just over a year old.

Dukni was seven months pregnant during transfer to Rennie J Plantation and eventually deemed unfit to work.

Her employer sent her to the Suva hospital (CWMH), and the records show that her child accompanied her.

She died on June 20, 1894, probably because of complications from her pregnancy.

The authorities incarcerated Bigan on Makogai on February 22, 1913.

The fate of the child is unknown.

The only one of the Makogai Eight who was born in Fiji was Etwara.

He was the son of Manganaji. Etwara was of the Dosadh caste and was a resident of Navusa.

He went to Makogai on November 12, 1912, and was 32 at the time of the escape.

So, to resume the thread of my frame narrative, the correspondence between the various government officials began almost immediately after the incident with Frederick Hall writing to the chief medical officer, George William Augustus Lynch, on the morning of May 1 alerting him
of the escape.

He said with certainty that the escapees would not have been out of sight if they had gone in any other direction than towards Vanua Levu.

On May 3, the cutter Ranadi arrived on Makogai, and Medical Superintendent Hall informed the Acting Master of the vessel, W. W. Wilson,
about the incident.

The Ranadi left the same afternoon for Nabouwalu and arrived at 5am the next day.

It departed at 9:30am later that day for Savusavu and returned to Makogai on May 5 failing to locate either the men or the boat
on the various legs of its voyage.

In his report of May 8 to the Colonial secretary, Eyre Hutson, Wilson concluded that since the men had no means of propulsion, the vessel could have either been driven onto a reef and capsized, drifted ashore somewhere on Vanua Levu or drifted out into the open waters between Vanua Levu and the Yasawa Group.

He suggested no further action.

Things were getting quite desperate and in a bid to capture the men, the Inspector General of Constabulary wrote to the Inspectors of Constabulary
at Rewa, Lautoka, Labasa and Ra and to the sub-inspectors at Levuka, Navua and Ba and the acting inspector Suva on May 9 providing details of the escape, including the descriptions of the eight escapees.

He also requested the officials to institute inquiries in their districts to obtain information about the possible landing of the lepers or the stranding
of the boat.

He instructed them to inform him immediately if they had any knowledge or clue about the fate of the lepers.

The first official correspondence at the highest level reporting the sighting of the escapees occurred on May 19 when the Acting Stipendiary
Magistrate Macuata, A. E. Bailey sent a telegram to the Colonial Secretary that read as follows: “Eight Lepers escaped from Makogai landed
Bua Coast fortnight ago are at large in this district but being watched for.”

Four days earlier, on May 15, Bua police were sent to Lekutu on the information that the escaped men had been in that area.

Upon investigation, they learnt from witnesses that the eight escapees had reached Nasarawaqa free Indian settlement, 10 miles from Dreketi, claiming to have been given a discharge from Makogai.

The men said they were leaving for Labasa the following day.

The witnesses told the police that the boat used in the escape was found drifting at sea near the Naraiwaqa River on May 10.

The Buli Lekutu, however, stated that he had heard nothing about the lepers being in his district.

He also denied rumours that he had taken charge of the boat from the headman.

The police eventually found the boat in possession of the headman of the settlement, Biggan, who told them that the Labasa police had arrested
some of the men at Dreketi on May 14.

This information was later found to be false The police team returned on May 18 and presented their findings to the district medical officer Bua, John Farrington, saying that none of the lepers was in the district.

  • To be continued in The Sunday Times next week

More Stories