Neelesh Gounder: The legacy of the girmitiya in Fiji

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Nasilai villager Mitieli Barisavu at the site where the remains of the indentured labourer ship Syria wrecked in 1884 with the loss of 59 lives are still visible today. Image: Fiji Times

By Dr Neelesh Gounder in Suva

When a ship docked in Mauritius on November 2, 1834, carrying 36 Indian indentured labourers, the British called it the “great experiment”.

Almost 45 years later, when the Leonidas docked in Fiji, 479 girmitiya were to become the first group of this experiment in Fiji.

Most of the girmitiya could not read or understand the agreement they signed. Surely then they would not have known that this agreement would be their new lifestyle. More importantly, they were oblivious that the decision to sign on the agreement would leave a permanent legacy for their descendants.

For the girmitiya the longest journey of their lives was symbolic of their unforgiving struggle that lay ahead; at least in their lifetime.

In 87 voyages that were made to Fiji between 1879 and 1916, some 60,600 indentured labourers arrived.

Last week – May 14, 2016 – spanned 137 years since the first arrival of indentured labourers.

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This year is worth remembering the girmitiya for another reason. The indenture system was discontinued in November, 1916, 100 years ago. For Fiji, this happened four years before the system was abolished worldwide.

Paying tribute
How do we remember and pay tribute to the girmitiya — our forefathers? We can begin by celebrating the achievements and legacy of the girmitiya.

Beyond doubt, the indentured labourers during indenture but more importantly after indenture as ‘freed’ men and women transformed Fiji’s social and economic landscape.

The indentured labourers became a source of cheap labour for the European planters who were struggling after the failure of the cotton industry. Capital investment from Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia in milling was probable on the back of the availability of this human capital.

This combination transformed the Fijian economy from a traditional agrarian to a blend of agrarian and milling. Soon sugar industry established itself as the key sector of the economy, with the indentured labourers essential to its success.

Sugar production in 1916 was 122,000 tonnes with 99 per cent of that volume exported. This initial involvement in foreign trade shaped Fiji’s first step towards the process of integration into the world economy.

On the whole, the sugar industry was largely not only responsible for the success of the individual planters but in changing the landscape of the Fijian macro-economy.

Sugar held its stronghold among the export commodities by comprising 65 per cent of total merchandise exports until 1970. The industry was basically responsible for the rise and development of Western division.

Work ethics
Apart from the economy, the lives of the grimitiya continue to influence generations after them. The girmitiya are well recognised for their work ethics and determination to break away from the norm to improve their lot. The descendants seem to have followed on the heels of girmitiyas.

Majority of indentured labourers chose to stay in Fiji after the end of their indenture and after indenture itself was abolished. Despite fresh from the bonds of girmit and the benighted work on the plantation, the girmitiya were swift to move on to entrepreneurship such as shopkeepers, hawkers and transport providers.

A new existence and determination to be oneself unleashed the power of personal initiative and entrepreneurship that soon challenged the existing commercial enterprises at that time.

There were also free migrants from India during the indenture period. By 1925, the free migrants mostly owned businesses such as tailoring, jewelry businesses, laundry and bootmakers.

The girmitiya and their descendants, on the other hand, owned majority of construction companies, transport/taxi businesses and services such as auto servicing and photography.

This structure and arrangement turned the first stage of the economy into a more merchant oriented and expanding the scope of labour for wages. This entrepreneurial energy helped prepare the ground for economic success of Fiji. It also set the foundation for industrial development (for example, domestic manufacturing sector) which has a robust association to trade and investment.

Despite the common purpose towards improving their lives, descendants of the girmitiya were obliquely divided, mostly along religious lines but also along language and cultural grounds. Out of these fractures emerged socio-cultural and religious organisations promoting their distinct agendas.

Social cohesion
These organisations were, however, necessary to build social cohesion, identity, ethnic binding towards achieving common problems. Organisations such Then India Sanmarga Sangam (TISI), Sanatan Dharm Pratinidhi Sabha and Arya Samaj are important examples.

One of the outcomes of these organisations is the provision of education by building schools. This is also true of other organisations that do not have any particular links to the girmitiya. The spirit of community partnership has had a huge impact on the development of education policy and contribution to national development.

While it may sound regular to start a school these days, the girmitiya had to carve out schools amid tough policies of the colonial government. Resources were meagre but the community spirit overruled this and other challenges.

The economic returns to education would have been the key motivating factor as well. Educated and literate people earned more than farmers. These organisations ensured that spread of education did not remain limited to the elite as in other countries during British colonial rule.

The legacy does not stop with the economy and education; there are other far reaching spillovers beyond these two important dimensions. Our present is inextricably intertwined with the past. Others are free to argue about the bittersweet legacy that still influences many facets of our life today.

Dr Neelesh Gounder is an economics lecturer at the University of the South Pacific. This article was first published by The Fiji Times and is republished here with the author’s permission.

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