Fiji's Indian story
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
Many visitors to Fiji are curious about the origin of the large population of ethnic Indians (around 37 percent) in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. No other Pacific island country has significant numbers of Indian people. Their presence is due to the response of Fiji's first British governor to the measles epidemic which killed twenty percent of the population in 1874, the year Fiji's chiefs ceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria in return for her protection.
Governor Sir Arthur Gordon took the disastrous fall in Fijian numbers as a challenge. He determined to save Fijian lives and culture if he possibly could. First, ignoring the demands of the white planters and traders, he put in place a traditional system of land ownership that still operates. Second, Gordon gave Fijian custom the force of law so Fijian chiefs administered their people directly. The chiefs were subject only to the governor, Queen Victoria's delegate.
Third, Gordon decided to further protect Fijians by sourcing labourers for the sugar plantations from British India. The first such group reached Fiji in 1879 on the ship Leonidas. The date is now commemorated each year in Fiji.
The contract for five or ten years that Indian indentured labourers signed was called a girmit, a corruption of agreement. Hence they became known as girmitiyas. Commonly, lying recruiters tricked people into signing on. The dismayed arrivals found they were completely subservient to their masters for years of hard labour under terrible conditions and often brutal discipline. When their five-year terms were up, the girmitiyas were free, but their employers were not required to pay their passage back to India unless they had served for ten years. Their suffering was compounded by social dislocation as men and women of different religions and castes were thrown together in barracks. However, the loosening of the Indian caste system would later prove important for the future of Fiji.
This indenture system continued until 1916, bringing 60,000 people in total to Fiji. The girmitiyas still serving had their contracts cancelled in 1920 in response to pressure from missionaries and Indian nationalist leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru.. However, the majority of the girmitiyas chose to stay in Fiji, many recognising that their servitude had liberated them from a destiny dictated by their peasant caste.
Legacies of the girmit
Not only was the Indian population increasing rapidly, but the number of Fijians was still in decline, especially following the 1919 influenza epidemic which wiped out a further five percent. The Indian numbers were also swelled by the free migration of traders and craftsmen, but because of Gordon's laws, Indians were barred from buying Fijian land.
Another legacy was Indian resentment of the sugar planters and the colonial government, no doubt exacerbated by their lack of access to land when their contracts expired. As British subjects, the girmitiyas rightfully demanded equal status to other races in Fiji.
During two prolonged strikes by Indian workers in 1920 and 1921, the governor recruited hundreds of Fijian special constables to keep order. There were several violent clashes and the character of the ethnic politics that is still alive in Fiji was then set.
Nevertheless, some Fijian and Indian leaders wanted to bridge this divide and devoted their lives to doing so. I hope to bring you a few of their stories in future posts.
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