I want to take a few minutes this Girmit Remembrance Day to speak to Fijian schoolchildren – so if you’re a parent, please, pause this video, grab your daughter or son and share this time with me as a family.
Today, the 14th of May, marks 141 years since the first ship of indentured labourers landed in Fiji from British India. That was in 1879, and in the nearly four decades that followed, over 60,000 more labourers – who we know as Girmitiyas – would make that same journey.
The vast majority of these men, women and children had never heard of Fiji before, many had never even been aboard a ship. Most left their loved ones behind based on the lie that they would only spend a few months working overseas before returning home. None of them truly knew what they were in for: A journey of thousands of kilometers, in slave-like, inhumane conditions and – all too often – no way to return back to the communities they left, hoping for a better life. And though they toiled under the crack of the whip and they were often beaten and sexually abused, they never gave up that hope.
Each year, on this day, it’s important for us to pause to think about the grueling trials the Girmitiyas endured, and also to recognise the sense of hope that got them through their suffering. They were able to find refuge in that sense of a better future.
By chasing that light – and realising that they could find refuge even in the most trying of times – they helped pave the way for the Fiji we know today.
Girmitiyas supplied much of the hard labour it took to build Fiji’s early colonial economy – toiling in cane fields, building roads and laying the foundations of many of the towns and cities we live in today. But one of their greatest legacies was borne from the value they placed in education as the ultimate tool for change.
Many of them had no traditional schooling, and couldn’t even read. But in their foresight, they were wise beyond measure. They knew that, by investing in learning, they could make the most out of the life they were given, no matter how difficult – and they could create a better future for themselves, their families, and those that came after them. These lessons still ring true today.
Right now, because of our fight against COVID-19, Fijian schoolchildren are at home, waiting for school to resume once it is safe to do so. But girls and boys of today can still draw inspiration in the resilience and the dedication of the Girmitiyas – and know that you too can take the path of education to shape your own future.
Because while it still may be some time before school resumes as normal, you don’t need to be in a classroom to learn life-changing lessons. These days, learning can be as easy as tuning into our new Walesi free-to-air education channel.
So today – on this Girmit Remembrance Day – I have an assignment for all the schoolchildren in Fiji.
There is far too much history in the Girmitiyas’ journey to cover in just a few minutes, so I encourage you all to do some research on your own. Visit the Fijian Government’s website and Facebook page to read about the heart-wrenching yet inspiring stories of those first indentured servants. Ask your parents or grandparents about stories they heard from their family and neighbours. Find a Fijian who is a descendent of the Girmitiyas – many are among us – and reach out and ask about their own family’s history.
Like the Girmitiyas themselves, take learning into your own hands. I have no doubt the Girmitiyas would be proud of the Fiji we have today, knowing that they helped lay a foundation for every Fijian girl and boy to receive a free education.
Please, honour their legacy by remembering their struggles, but more importantly, do not take your own opportunity for education for granted. Use today as another opportunity to re-dedicate yourself to your own educational journey – and in doing so, find hope in brighter tomorrow.
Thank you. Vinaka vakalevu, and God bless.