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Minister for Education,
Cabinet Ministers,
Diplomatic corp,
School teachers and students

Bula vinaka, my fellow Fijians.

This morning, we’ve come together to honour the plight of the girmitya –– a 140-year-old story of both great tragedy and great hope. We’re joined by students, teachers, musicians, dancers and performers, hailing from all throughout Fiji, gathered together to mark this Girmit Remembrance Day with artistic expression, with prayer, and with deep historic reverence.

On 14 May, 1879, Fiji saw the arrival of the Leonidas, a ship that had travelled many thousands of kilometres from British India –– a more than three-month journey that endured crashing sea waves, disease and even death –– to finally anchor in Levuka. On board, the ship carried with her some 500 men, women and children, taken from their homes with the promise of a better life awaiting them in Fiji. Many of them had bargained for a far shorter journey, as they had been misled by the tricks and lies of those who had brought them to Fiji.

Leonidas was just the beginning of what would be a new chapter that reshaped our nation’s history; dozens of such ships that would come and go over the decades to follow, and with them, nearly 61,000 indentured labourers.

Colonisers at that time desperately needed someone to do the hard labour that was required for Fiji’s economic development –– working sugar fields, farming copra, laying brick, and carving out roads –– but were inconvenienced by the fact that slavery had been abolished several decades earlier. They found a way to work around this through “girmit” –– what appeared on paper to be an agreement for five years of labour, but in reality, often turned out to be a sentence of back-breaking working conditions, ruthless abuse, whipping, sexual exploitation, and immense poverty. While the tactics the colonial powers used to find their labourers changed, as it turned out, slavery itself had changed in name only. They had simply whitewashed their old ways, but I can assure you –– a thrashing inflicts just as much pain, no matter what label you’re given.

For many of the young people here today, while the black-and-white photos in your history books may make girmit seem like the distant past, the wounds are much fresher than you may realise; there are still men and women alive in Fiji today who were born before girmit ended in 1920. Less than one lifetime separates us from this cruel and inhumane practice.

Thanks to the hard work of descendants, activists and historians, first-hand accounts of girmitya have also been recorded for all to read and forever preserved in books and on the internet at www-dot-girmit-dot-org. To truly get a feel for what life was like at the time –– to see through the eyes of the girmitya –– I encourage all Fijians, regardless of age, ethnicity or background, to take the time to read them. While these stories of suffering serve as a permanent reminder of the scars of colonialism that we must never forget, they are also a beacon of hope. They have within them lessons that we all can learn from; lessons of strength, of perseverance, and of unity.

A man named Lakhpat who arrived in 1911 writes that, while on the boat from British India, “Nobody knew where Fiji was. These recruiters had misled us and bluffed us into going. I, for instance, had quite a good home. There was no need for me to leave.” His account is full of painful details, like how he and his fellow girmitya were kept and fed like animals, and fed rice infested with worms to survive.

Yet another girmitya, Gafur, who arrived in 1902 and was indentured in Labasa, painted a very different picture than what we’ll witness through today’s artful performances here at Albert Park, noting that “we did not have dances or poetry-readings. ALL we did in the indentured days was work.” But he too spoke to their shared sense of purpose as they all strived for freedom, saying, “There were days when we had nothing to eat, nor the money to buy anything. People helped us, irrespective of religion. In those days we were united, and stayed as one.”

And some of these stories speak to the kindness that was initially displayed to them by indigenous villagers who, unlike the colonial government, felt for the girmityas’ hardships. They extended a fraternal hand of friendship, offering support when they witnessed the beatings that were being carried out. In the earlier years, some girmitya who had escaped even found refuge in the villages –– like in the story of Mangaia, who said that “Fijians did not fight with us in those days. They used to bring a bunch of bananas and exchange it for a couple of our rotis. They also gave us shelter in their villages when we ran away from our estate.” But this glimpse of kindness and humanity was fleeting.

When the colonisers found out, they quickly put an end to it, making it illegal to harbour those who had escaped. This instilled fear among the villagers that they would be punished, it forced them to change their perspective; instead of looking at the girmitya as fellow humans who deserved help, after the crackdown, they were seen as “outsiders”. The colonisers created and enforced a divide between the girmitya and indigenous populations –– the consequences of which are still in some corners of Fijian politics today.

We’re not free from the legacy of discrimination that defined that darker era of our history. We are still witnesses to the ugly faces of ethnic and religious hatred in Fiji. Those voices may have been pushed to the fringes of our society, but they have not disappeared. And we must remain vigilant to ensure those old forces never creep back into the mainstream of our national life.

But when we look to the future, let us be inspired by that initial spirit of camaraderie and friendship. That kinship is humanity in its best and rawest form, and it’s what we must be guided by as we move ahead.

At last week’s ADB Annual Meeting in Nadi, we had thousands of delegates come from all over the world, getting their first glimpse at Fiji. To give them the context of Fiji’s cultural “magimagi” –– the many individual threads that come together to form a strong and singular national identity –– we set up a full display on the with large photos and stories of the girmitya, printed out for all to see. In between the bustle of meetings taking place, it was incredible to see bankers, investors and political leaders stop for a moment and read these stories, pausing in humble reflection of just how far Fiji has come.

But while we showcased the story of the girmitya to the world at the ADB Meeting, it’s a shame that so many in Fiji are just now hearing the stories that I’ve brought with me this morning for the very first time, only because I’m standing here as your Prime Minister, telling you them in person. For far too long, the history of the girmitya languished on the sidelines of Fijian history. Fijian students didn’t enjoy the same access or quality of education that we are blessed with today –– and even for those who had underwent a formal education, our curriculum included little to no teachings on girmit.

That’s another lesson that we can take from today, as the girmitya saw education as the best way to ensure that they, and their children and grandchildren, would never endure the same oppression that they did. That’s why so many of our schools throughout Fiji –– schools that still exist to this day –– where founded by girmitya forefathers. Because while they may have been illiterate and lacked formal education themselves, they were wise beyond measure, and knew that an investment in our future generations would pay off for years to come. That same foresight is shared by my Government today, and the visionary groundwork that they laid decades ago has made Fiji’s rapid and transformative education revolution possible.

Please, let us not let this legacy go to waste. I ask the teachers present today to carry the universal lessons of girmit with them to their students with renewed passion in the years ahead. And to the students, whatever your background, I implore you to become ambassadors for preserving and spreading the stories of the girmitya for years to come.

While many of those stories may be deeply tragic, they also represent a stunning triumph –– a triumph of human dignity in the face of crushing adversity.

Today, owed to the sacred promises and protections of our Fijian Constitution: We are all Fijians, this nation is unquestionably home to us all, and we are all united in common purpose in working towards a brighter and better future. A future of promise and prospect. Of achieving the true Fijian dream. At long last, the descendants of the girmitya stand on equal footing.

Fiji is their home –– a home that cannot be taken away from them. They are part of our national fabric, through a combination of circumstance and ingenuity, descendants of the girmitya have gone on to adapt a blended language and culture seen nowhere else in the world, with Fiji-Hindi taught as compulsory education in our schools. Today, that mix of traditional British-Indian heritage has combined with the cultures and traditions of their new Fijian home. And that Indo-Fijian culture can be seen on full display here on this 140th Girmit Remembrance Day celebration, is an integral part of our modern Fijian society.

Let us use today’s commemoration as a celebration of what the girmitya endured, what they contributed to our society, our economy, and our culture, and what we can achieve together, working hand-in-hand, as we continue to progress Fiji forward.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

© 2018 Ministry of Communications