Letting dreams shine on: We pay homage to their sacrifice and determination

Girmitiya in Fiji. Picture: Ministry of External Affairs / Government of India

YESTERDAY, we remember the 143rd anniversary of the arrival of Fiji’s girmitiyas who were contracted to work on Fiji’s commercial sugarcane farms of the 1800s.

They came to work as indentured farm labourers.

Indenture was a system of contracted labour in those days where individuals were recruited to serve as migrant workers abroad, usually for a term of three to five years.

Though return journeys were promised, a significant proportion of those indentured never returned to their home countries.

The word girmit represented the Indians’ pronunciation of the English word “agreement”.

Hence, Fiji’s ports were busy from the late 1870s as many Indian labourers arrived here with dreams of a better life.

But what actually awaited them was a life of agony, torture and struggles on Fiji’s farms.

Those hardships have designed the purpose behind their descendants’ hard work and insistent drive.

According to history records, the indenture system under which the girmitiya worked lasted more than three decades, between 1879 and 1916.

During this period, shiploads of indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent sailed to Fiji to toil largely in the colony’s sugarcane plantations where work and living condition were atrocious.

They were brought to Fiji on fiveyear contracts, at the end of which some returned while others chose to start a new life and made Fiji their home.

On May 14, 1879, the 1600-tonne labour transport schooner, Leonidas, named after a king of Sparta in ancient Greece, berthed in Levuka, bringing in the first group of indentured labourers.

The ship had left Calcutta in eastern India in March the same year with 498 passengers, 273 of them men, 146 women and 79 children.

In 1916, when the indenture system ended, it was estimated that a total of 60,965 passengers had left India, 45,439 from Calcutta in the east and 15,114 from Madras in the south.

And one hundred and 43 years later, we commemorate the journey the girmitiyas made with the same level of fervour and the spirit of enthusiasm that marked the first.

We remember their every rolling tear and strenuous toil and we celebrate their achievements.

We pay homage to their sacrifice and determination that has contributed to our development and advancement.

During Girmit Day last year National Federation Party leader, Professor Biman Prasad said Fiji would always be the motherland of Fijians of Indian descent in the country.

Prof Prasad said their ancestors’ blood, sweat and tears, as well as cooperation with indigenous Fijians and other minority races, had mad Fiji the Pacific hub it was and it today.

Those words of adoration rings true and every year, Girmit Day shows that there’s always sunshine after the rain.

That something very gloomy and tragic in our history can been transformed into something inspirational and spiritually uplifting, and in that, the future can look promising and hopeful.

As we look forward to another girmit Day in 2023, like the indentured labourers we must acknowledge wholeheartedly every hardship that we’ve undergone in the past few years as a nation and celebrate the spirit of
resilience with which we were able to overcome our trouble.

Going through the COVID-19 crisis was one of our most challenging times.

People lost jobs, many lost their lives, families struggled and many were left poor and hungry.

But like the problems the indenture system brought upon the girmitiyas, our worst came to end and we pulled ourselves out of the doldrums.

We honour the spirit that kept us going and salvaged us out of those very dark times.

On the topic of the indenture system, many Fijians feel like they are going through the same hardships faced by labourers from the Indian subcontinent when they worked on Fiji’s sugarcane plantations.

Many feel their human rights are being unjustly limited and life keeps getting harder by the day despite assurances that things will be alright.

More and more people feel the solution seems to be coming soon, in the form of the much anticipated general elections, where each ordinary citizen will have a say in the formation and makeup of the next government.

The people of Fiji generally want change.

They want politicians that listen, consult and are able to reach compromises on national issues that matter and affect everyday life.

They want the freedom to express themselves freely without the threat of being arrested unjustly.

They want to assemble and protest freely and peacefully without having to worry about too many unnecessary prohibitions.

They feel they are being punished by increasing prices and held at ransom by a national debt that keeps snowballing.

Political candidates taking part in the upcoming elections have the power to bring about changes Fijians need, those who display competence, integrity, fairness and honesty But they need to be kept in check by a vibrant, active and responsible citizenry, citizens who abide by all the law, exercise all the fundamental participatory rights and duties, and protect the country from corruption.

Responsible citizens also take part in public activities like keeping the environment clean, fundraising for the needy and underprivileged, protecting public properties, conserves power and waters, and being a good custodian of nature.

Let us be reminded of the spirit of perseverance that moved the girmitiyas and pushed them to demand fair treatment and justice.

Let us possess the urge to demand our freedoms and rights and at the same time enjoy them with civic pride and responsibility.

Let us continue to dream like men and women who left India more than 100 years ago to look for better, meaningful and prosperous lives beyond he misery, poverty and abuse that they encountered.

Perhaps the best way to celebrate Girmit Day would be to know who we are and understand our purpose and responsibility in building a better and stronger Fiji, one where citizens have passion and goodwill and strive for a
peaceful, stable and prosperous nation.

The bottom line is, we want to keep the girmit heritage and spirit alive so that we forge the best future for our children and their children’s children.

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