On May 15, 1879, Raj Pali and her husband, Badal Singh, disembarked the Leonidas and arrived at the foreign land that would serve as home for the rest of their lives. But they did not know this at the time. The couple, along with the 461 other passengers who had been brought across kala paani, or the black waters, from villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to Fiji, were given the impression that they would serve out a five-year indentured labour contract.

Girmitiya is how they came to be known over time – the name derived from the term Girmit, a corruption of the English word, agreement. This indentured emigration began in the 19th century to meet the shortage of labour supply caused by the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. In the 37 years spanning 1879-1916, nearly 60,500 labourers from various religions and castes would be transported to Fiji islands on 42 ships making nearly 87 trips. These migrants were themselves a part of more than one million Indians who travelled to the colonies in the Indian and Atlantic oceans.

Acquired by the British Crown in 1874, the colony of Fiji was expected to show economic development and growth. But neither capital nor labour was readily available. Sir Arthur Gordon, the first substantive governor of the island, invited the Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia to extend its operations to Fiji. For workforce, he turned to India, which already supplied indentured labour to other British colonies. And so it came to be that Raj Pali and her family, originally farmers in a village on the Uttar Pradesh-Nepal border, left their homes and identities in India for a life far, far away.

Over a century, more than a million Indians were shipped to British colonies, including Trinidad, to work as indentured labour. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Pali’s family was lured by an offer of a “better life” and a “chance to own fertile lands”. Many Girmitiyas, like them, were seeking better opportunities, some were escaping from the droughts that had killed their crops, some were fleeing the unemployment resulting from their lands being snatched away, and some were kidnapped and recruited. Yet all of them knew, writes scholar Brij V Lal, “that they were going to some place they had never heard of before, but they would be back one day, long before their absence was noticed in the village”.

The names of the ships that transported them were derived either from classical mythology, like Leonidas, Syria or Pericles, or from rivers, such as Ganges, Indus, Danube and Rhine – all especially fitted to carry human cargo over long distances. For most passengers, seeing a ship, let alone travelling on one for weeks on end, was displacing and disturbing, both to their physical and mental well-being. Oral history accounts record emigrants likening conditions on the ship to being treated like machli – fish packed tightly like sardines.

Fit to emigrate

Hemanshi Kumar, a high-school senior and the great-great granddaughter of Raj Pali, is a first generation Indo-Fijian Australian. Four generations of her ancestors worked on sugarcane plantations in Fiji. Over Skype from Sydney, she recounts the family’s expectations before moving from India 139 years ago. “It wasn’t meant to be permanent; my great-great grandparents were assured that they could come back,” she stressed. “Each labourer was made to sign a contract, upon which an Emigration Pass would be issued.”

After they had spent several years on plantations, Girmitiyas were rewarded with shillings, if they clocked in many hours or impressed the officers. Photo credit: Hemanshi Kumar.

This pass listed details like their name, names of father and spouse, age, caste, height, village, bodily marks and measurements, and previous occupation in India. It required the migrant’s fingerprints and specified the date and ship they were to board. It verified that “the above-named individual were fit to emigrate, free from all bodily and mental disease”. The very bottom of the pass bore the signature of the Surgeon Superintendent and Depot Surgeon of the particular ship.

The contract of the labourer, publicly available on Girmit.org (a resource on the history of Girmitiyas), was for a stipulated time period of five years, and subsequently extendable. If one completed the contract terms, they could return to India after five years at their expense, or at the expense of the colonial government after 10 years. The contract also included hours and days to be worked (nine hours on every day of the week, excluding Sunday), wages paid every Saturday (adult males would be paid not less than one shilling and adult females not less than nine pence; children aged below 15 would get wages proportionate to the amount of work done), and details of food rations, dwellings and medical supplies.

Working conditions

“But very soon,” Kumar said, based on the stories she had heard, “the labourers realised that they had been brought to the colony under deception, for many facets of the contract were not upheld. For instance, my family, which was first sent to the plantations in Suva and then in Labasa, was hardly paid in the beginning and it became difficult to save and survive. Conditions were harsh. Days were long, beginning at 4 am or 5 am, [and spent] working mostly on the fields. The first generation of emigrants barely had any time for themselves.”

Kumar says their children used to be taken away and looked after by native Fijians, and their houses were inhumane dwellings called Coolie Lines. Kumar tells me that her grandmother, Prabhu Wati, used to show her – just as her grandmother, Raj Pali, had once shown her – where they would be whipped on their hands if they didn’t make enough in a day. For the labourers, home had become a term to which there remained no assigned image. “The India they left behind was retained in the few things they could bring with them.”

She shows me an aged and torn photograph of Raj Pali and tells me that it’s likely it was taken at the time of the contract being issued. She extracts two necklaces, a mangalsutra, and a black thread through which is strung a gold mohur. And finally, she shows me silver shillings bearing the face of King George V. In Chalo Jahaji: On a journey through Indenture in Fiji by Brij V Lal, there’s a photograph of Girmitiya women in traditional finery, and around their necks are similar necklaces of mohurs.

Hemanshi Kumar still possesses a mangalsutra and necklace worn by her great-great grandmother Raj Pali. Photo credit: Hemanshi Kumar.

Some of these objects possessed by Kumar were brought with Raj Pali on her journey to Fiji, but the shillings, Kumar claims, were collected over a long period on the island. And though she is wary of the oral testimony behind these shillings, she tells me what her Aji remembers of them: “After they had been on the plantations for years, they would be rewarded from time to time, based on a certain number of hours or if they really impressed the officers. Life was often full of sadness and uncertainty on the plantations and so sometimes, women would get together and string these shillings into a necklace.”

Badal Singh, Kumar’s great-great grandfather, was a Brahmin and when displaced from India, found the religious dislocation most traumatic. Like him, many other men carried religious scriptures like the Ramayana and the teachings of Tulsi Das. Much of the Indo-Fijian diaspora is fervently religious even today, since faith was one of the few ways in which their forebears were able to reclaim identity. Somehow, despite being what could be seen as slave labour, they were free to practice their religions on the island. Many would even get together and sing bhajans, or devotional songs, not from books, but from memory.

An idea of home

Sudesh Mishra, a Fijian-Australian poet born in Suva into a family descended from coolie-workers, invokes the vocabulary of indenture in Confessions of a Would-Be Brahmin. In the poem, he writes about the vast cultural distance he feels from his ancestors’ caste, a weight that is contained within his last name:

“O Shiva O Parvati O Durga
Though I have crossed the kala pani
And lost caste
Forgive me my trespass.”

This distance is something Kumar, who was born and raised in Australia, grapples with as well. “When I was young, I never identified with the indigenous Fijians. But then there was no direct linkage to India, when compared to other Indian Australians. A great majority of indentured labour chose to stay on in Fiji because they could not afford to return, [because of] the low wages. After the indenture system was abolished in 1921, only 25,000 people returned to India. So, when you are dislocated and have been so far removed from your people, you find refuge and solace in anything that makes it feel closer – even minor things like Hindi school. Sometimes, when Aji braids my hair, she tells me the stories she has heard from her Aji about a land that I will never know, the India they left behind. And perhaps even that image is a dream-image, passed down and transformed by each generation who further dreams it.”

For her, Aji telling stories is a ritual. Similar to keeping the mangalsutra or the mohurs – just a way back home.

“My existence is a product of colonialism,” Kumar concluded, confessing that there is still much about it that she is yet to learn. “The history of the Girmitya is silenced through the larger history of India and that is unfortunate. Our ancestors have become footnotes, reduced to mere statistics. For their descendants, home is still a complex term, fraught with identity crisis. But no forms of remembrance remain for the women and men and children who crossed the oceans to this island, unknowingly leaving behind all sense of belonging, only to retire into permanent displacement.”