On this day in 1879, the ship the Leonidas docked at Levuka. Those who disembarked could not know it, but their first steps on our shores began the Girmit era. Over the next 37 years, over 61,000 indentured labourers would be brought from British India to Fiji.
Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and abolished all slavery in their empire in 1833. Sadly, that change proved to be in name only. British colonies still demanded cheap labour. In place of the slave trade, they turned to the practice of indentured servitude.
For those who valued financial gain over the dignity of human life, indenture was an efficient system. Rather than purchase their victims and force them on board ships, they simply misled them with false promises and preyed on their hope for a better life. They systematically lied about the nature of work, the duration of work, and the likelihood that any indentured worker would ever return home.
Those onboard the “Leonidas” and those many ships that followed had never heard of Fiji before, being sent here. Most expected a journey of days rather than months. Most expected to return home to their families after a few years of work. Almost none ever did.
Instead, the girmitya, as they came to be known, endured years of backbreaking labour under brutal conditions that meet the definition of slavery that we hold today. They performed the hardest work of building the colonial economy; working cane fields, farming copra, laying brick, and carving out roads. They worked under the whip.
They lived under constant threat of abuse and sexual assault. –– whether you were called a slave or a servant, a thrashing cuts the same. Rape is rape. Abuse is abuse. The conditions were so terrible it was not uncommon for labourers to be driven to suicide. And they endured five years of this labour while earning wages too meagre to fund a decent living, much less to fund a return home to British India for most.
So, once the terms of their indenture ended, Fiji became their home –– not by choice, but by circumstance. And it was our good fortune that they remained because they made the best out of those circumstances through wonderful contributions to the nation in agriculture, education, medicine, and literature. They founded schools and started businesses. Their food, festivals, and traditions added richness to our cultural fabric. So much of what we think of as “Fijian” ––including roti and curry –– was introduced by the girmitya.
But despite their making enormous contributions to the country, their struggle did not end with indenture.
The colonial government never accepted the gimritya as equal human beings, much less as full Fijians. What was painfully true for the first girmityas was perhaps even more painful for their descendants, for whom Fiji was the only home they had ever known. This was their country, and they were Fijians. But they were not treated as Fijians –– they weren’t even given the right to be called Fijians.
The British colonial government maintained its power by drawing and deepening lines between different ethnic communities. To maintain the European position of prominence, they made a scapegoat of the Indo-Fijian population, painting them as outsiders who were undeserving of a full place in Fijian society. They created anti-Indian sentiment and implemented a discriminatory system that placed one kind of Fijian over another, in law and in practice. No matter how much an individual achieved in a lifetime of work and study, they were always of lesser value because of their ethnicity.
Up until 1927, the then legislative council allowed for iTaukei representation through nominees to the Great Council of Chiefs, but did not grant Indo-Fijians votes or representation at all. We lived with that legacy for years post-independence under an electoral system that left Indo-Fijians with votes of lesser value.
The injustice is almost impossible for us to comprehend in today’s Fiji. Imagine building the colonial economy only to be told that you and your children did not have a place in it, and that your presence in Fiji was only tolerated. Imagine, though you, your parents, and your grandparents were born in Fiji, you were not considered a genuine Fijian and were denied an equal voice in elections. That is the cold truth of our history –– we know it from the painful accounts of those who lived through it. Accounts of being worked to the bone. Accounts of abuse and discrimination. Accounts of rape committed by overseers against the labourers. And for decades afterwards, accounts of being denied basic dignity in their rightful home.
I learned very little of this growing up. In fact, most Fijians did not. It pains me to know that so few ever knew the full breadth of this brutal reality.
Everyone should know this story. It should have been taught in our schools from the day we gained our independence. It is a part of our history, and we must know our history—not just the triumphs and the glories, but the injustices and the blemishes. I believe that if past governments had done this, we would have avoided the worst tragedies to befall the nation.
Because while the yoke of oppression was forged by the colonial government, its legacy was carried forward in ignorance by certain groups of ethnic supremacists. These racists fell for the lie that Fiji was stronger as a divided nation. They were totally uninformed of history. And all of their stupidity, short-sightedness, and hatred were channelled into a single, traumatic blow to the nation in the 1987 coup, which took place on this very same day, 14 May.
The timing of that event added insult to a grievous injury because that coup was motivated by ethnic hatred targeted at our Indo-Fijian community. A single’s man pursuit of power robbed thousands of Fijians of any faith in the future of their country. They fled Fiji in droves. They left their homes in desperation with fear in their hearts and devoid of hope for their future. Families were separated. Many of our best and brightest people took their talents to other countries where they felt safe; where they felt they would be treated as equal. Those countries gain was our loss.
These Fijians did not leave for greener pastures. They had fulfilling lives here in Fiji. More than one hundred years after their ancestors had been brought to work Fiji’s land, they were driven out of the only home they had ever known in fear and desperation. It is an insult to every Fijian to attempt to re-write history.
You cannot revise the hard truth that it was racism and discrimination that forced these Fijians from their country. You cannot so callously disregard people’s lives and experiences.
There are consequences to lying about or sugar-coating the facts of our past. The greatest, of course, is that we allow old wounds to fester and injustice to continue, and we risk making the same mistakes over and over. How can we expect our children to sit in social studies class and learn to speak the truth, to love our country, and to respect and hold compassion for their fellow Fijians, when they see that some politicians don’t care about historical facts?
If we’re going to have a country and an economy that works for the people, we must be led by people who make decisions based on reality. Truth must matter. People’s lives, memory, and dignity must matter. This history must matter.
We have come a long way since the Girmit era; a long way since 1987; and a long way since 2000. At the heart of this change, sits the 2013 Fijian Constitution which enshrines my Government’s unwavering commitment to protect the rights and freedoms of every Fijian – equally. It finally delivered recognition that was decades overdue by declaring every citizen of this country to be a Fijian. Period. Fijians with equal votes of equal value. Fijians with equal protection under the law. Fijians united by a common purpose of building a better Fiji, shedding our past, and focusing on the future –– a hopeful future. That future will not be written in India or any other foreign land –– it will be written in Fiji, where the descendants of the girmitya belong, now and forever.
The history that began on this day, 143 years ago may be a history of injustice and brutality, but its totality over nearly a century and a half is a story of great hope. It is a story of resilience. It is a story of the great capacity of human beings to overcome hardship and do great things.
The truth is, there is no aspect of Fijian society today that the girmitya and their descendants have not made better in some fashion.
When those first indentured labourers set foot in this country, they could not have known everything they and their descendants would give to Fiji. They thought they would eventually return to British India. They surely could not have conceived of the Fiji we know today, a thriving country in which their descendants are leaders in science, education, technology and so many other fields. But I think we all know that when they look down on us from above, they do so with pride.
May they never be forgotten.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.