Prime Minister Hon. Voreqe Bainimarama Shares the Stories of Girmityas


It is in the stories of individual Girmityas that we gain the best insight into what life was like for them. And in the early 1970s, some of the survivors of the era gave interviews to the academic and author, Dr Ahmed Ali. Here are some of the accounts they gave from his book, “Girmit. The Indian Indenture Experience in Fiji”: 

The Story of Lakhpat
I asked where I would be sent. On being told that it would be Fiji, I Inquired of its whereabouts. I was told that it was close to Calcutta and I could go there willingly. Since it was not a jail I could return when I wanted to. I was scared least these people were merely luring us someplace where they might kill us. 

There was a great deal of weeping when we embarked on the ship. People wept because they were leaving their families or their homes. Many of the women were upset because they had been lured away from marketplaces where the recruiters had misled them. I cried because I was leaving everything behind and didn’t know where I was going . 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. 

From Calcutta we went to Madras and then past Singapore. It took us a month before we reached Fiji. Life was very painful on board ship. For a fortnight I was well, then I became ill and parts of my body began to swell up. When we arrived in Fiji we were all herded into a punt like pigs and taken to Nukulau where we stayed for a fortnight. We were given rice that was full of worms. We were kept and fed like animals.

The Story of Abdul Aziz 
I left India because I was told I would receive a shilling a day for work in Fiji. I went to Naitasiri to serve my Girimit. For a month I spent my time crying. When I got to Naitasiri I thought that I would never see my parents again.  But after shedding tears for a month, I decided I must work despite my despair. 

On our sugar estate, some who did not learn about cane cultivation were given a thorough beating. Our state was bad enough, but there were others far worse where people were disgraced completely. I did not like the work at all. But I told myself that if I did not work I would die of starvation. There were only two alternatives, work or a thrashing. 

The Story of Mahadeo
I was 16 when I came to Fiji. I was unmarried and an orphan. My parents had died in some epidemic. I came to Fiji because I was lured. I met a man who asked me if I was looking for work. There were around 200 migrants on my trip, once we reached Fiji, I was sent to Cuvu via Lautoka. I was set the task of cutting grass. If we did not finish our task our money was not paid because we had not completed our work. 

There was a South Indian with us. He used to do a lot of singing and dancing, but he was not able to work and he used to get a terrible beating from the overseer so he took off into the bush and hanged himself. 

We used to think of home, but what was the purpose of it. Home was so far away and if we wanted to go, we could not because we had no money. I saved no money during my indenture, besides, in any case, I had nobody in India, so for me there was no person or place to return to. 

The Story of Mahabir
There was no conflict with Fijians in those days. If you gave them something, they reciprocated. During indentured days, some Indians would run away and go to a Fijian village. They were given shelter there as well as provided with food. If one took yaqona into a village, then all there would share what they had with you. In the very early days they used to smell the Roti first and then throw it away. It was later that they learned to eat it. 

The Story of Lautan
Europeans used to beat up people that did not do their work. Some overseers insisted that if one of us was wearing a hat, then on meeting them we must take it off and say Salaam to them. If we did not oblige, we were punished. They used to call us “boy” and treat us like children. We did not know what “boy” meant.  So at first we thought “boy” was a term for something good. When Indians behaved as though they were children, Europeans treated them well. But if they asserted themselves and tried to be like them, then they found themselves in trouble – assertion of equality led to a thrashing.

The Story of Pancham 
If you were given the task of loading a truck with cane, one had to do so until one had completed it, even if it meant working into the evening. If the truck fell because of bad loading, then one had to restart and complete the task. By the time I had completed my work one night it was nearly 1 am. And when I got home and had cooked and eaten, it was 4 am. And at 5 am I had to go back to work for another day. 

Once the overseer gave us a task, and told us we had to finish it otherwise he would whip us. When he returned at three o’clock, some people had not completed the task so he whipped them as he had promised. Except for three of us in our gang, everyone was beaten. Although there were many of us, we could not combine to retaliate against him, we were frightened because the government would be on his side. 

The Australian overseers who used to come knew how to herd cattle or drive animals, and this is how they behaved towards human beings as well. They brought the methods they had used on animals and used them in dealing with laborers. It was just as well that indenture lasted only five years, had it been for six years I would preferred to have been dead, even perhaps by own hands. During the five years, I counted the days each day to find out how many were left. Those five years were five years of hell.

We must never forget the sacrifices that so many ordinary people made. Thank you for reading these stories and helping bring them to life.

Vinaka vakalevu.