By Pashchiema Bhatia
Years ago, thousands of Indians were brought to Fiji as indentured laborers (Girimitiyas) by signing contracts and with the promise of allowing them to return back to their homeland after the expiration of those agreements, yet only few could return. Willingly or unwillingly, many had to stay in Fiji. Almost all the Indians who signed the agreements were illiterate and couldn’t understand the terms and conditions written on those papers.
As almost all the Indians brought to Fiji as indentured laborers were illiterate and could not speak English, they used to mispronounce the English word “agreement” and eventually the distorted word “Girmit” became popular and the people who signed the agreements came to be known as “Girmitiyas”.
It all started after the end of slavery when availability of cheap labor became problematic. In 87 voyages that were made to Fiji between 1879 and 1916, some 60,600 Girmitiyas arrived. These people had to face a lot in their initial days and the confounding thing is that there is no acknowledgement of their struggles in the history of Fiji. They not only had to struggle in working as laborers in plantations but were also tortured. The food given to them was rationed. Also, the women were seen as a subject of lustful advances of Europeans.
According to the agreement, they were supposed to return to India at the expenses of their employer after working for five years but Europeans were never habitual of adhering to contracts. Eventually after 5 years, when the agreements got expired, Girmitiyas were free to return to their motherland India but at their own expense. As most of the Indians working as indentured laborers could not afford the expenses, they had no choice but to stay.
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Fiji Indians or Indo-Fijians
Girmitiyas not only contributed to the economic development of the country but also forwarded their ethics of working hard to their descendants. The Indians in Fiji are known for their dedication in work.
After the Girmits got expired, Girimitiyas started settling in the country by developing their small businesses. These personal initiatives of Indians soon started challenging the already existing commercial enterprises at that time. Indians started migrating to Fiji as free agents and by 1925, there were several commercial enterprises owned by Fiji Indians.
To remain rooted to their culture, Indians in Fiji have been building temples since they arrived which serve as a sacred venue for Indian marriages and various other cultural events. The Arya Samaj in Fiji advocated Hinduism and education. Various schools were started by Arya Samaj to promote girls’ education.
After facing many obstacles, political participation of Indians was also accepted. The descendants of Girmitiyas sprang up to influence the political and cultural facets of Fiji.
To know how Indo-Fijians made their way from indentured laborers to politically and economically impacting citizens read my previously written article on Girmitiyas titled “May 14 is marked as Indian Arrival Day or Girmit Day in Fiji”
Pashchiema is an intern at Newsgram and a student of journalism and mass communication in New Delhi. Twitter: @pashchiema