Girmitiyas in the hand of God
May 14, 2016 was the 137th anniversary of the arrival of the Indian Indentured Labourers to Fiji. I was rather moved by an image from the Archives of Fiji showing two old Indian men with the caption highlighting them as two indomitable pioneers, who endured much hardship, to build a positive future for themselves and their new home. The picture was recorded from the late 1960s where a festival on the celebration of indentured labourers was being held. It motivated me to share my thoughts on this amazing history that is very much part of our collective history.
This is a history that no longer belongs only to the descendants of the Girmitiyas, but is a history that is collectively ours. The two men were part of the 60,000 or so Girmitiyas who in search of a new life and opportunities and prospects for employment, brought with them to Fiji their religion, their language and their culture.
The first Girmitiyas arrived at a time in Fiji when even the indigenous Fijians, were still deliberating between accepting the Gospel of Jesus Christ and serving Him, or hold onto to their ancient beliefs.
Many were still stuck in the service of the ancient gods, though not as public as they would have twenty years earlier. As for the Girmitiyas, that same persistence they carried from their motherland to seek a better life, empowered them to stay strong in their religion, culture and faith because they had not seen anything yet in their early days in Fiji to confidently place their faith and trust in. Christianity was still very much regarded as a white man’s religion. It would be fair to say that both the indigenous Fijians and the Girmitiyas were still both seeking a new life and a new faith at about almost similar levels of curiosity and pace. As many began to experience personal testimonies of the miracle working Gospel of Christ, in their lives it became self evident, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was for all men.
Their history is now our history. Their choices (both for the Girmitiyas and the early indigenous Fijians) have helped shaped our destiny as a nation, leaving this generation a legacy to pursue and to work out together.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of sitting down with different Indo-Fijian families, many of them, just friends of mine and listened to their individual family stories over a bowl of kava. History fascinates me and if you invite me to your home, just put away images of any historical nature, otherwise you will never hear the end of it, with me bombarding you with questions about who is this and who is that. I just love history, period. As we reflect on May 14, 2016, being the 137th anniversary of the arrival of the Indian Indentured labourers to Fiji, I couldn’t help but wonder if the stories of each of these ‘souls’ were ever written or passed onto by word of mouth, to someone, somewhere. I am aware there are some great recollections that have been penned over the years. There is Tears In Paradise by Rajendra Prasad; Plantation to Politics by Ahmed Ali; Indo-Fijian Experiences by Subramani, to name a few. Whatever each of these writers were able to collate, confirms that many of these ‘precious souls’ who boarded the boats off the ports of Calcutta and Madras, seeking new lands and opportunities, surely carried a dream and a story in their hearts and some were able to relate theirs to someone. Between the years 1879 and 1916, a total of forty-two ships made eighty-seven voyages with the majority coming out of both Madras and Calcutta.
There were a total 60,965 passengers, with only 60,553 making it to the shores of Fiji. Of the forty-two ships, one that was to make its final voyage ever was the Syria. The voyage to Fiji was the last for Syria as she ran aground on the Nasilai Reef, only four miles from shore, at 8.30pm on 14 May 1884 with the loss of 59 lives. (Source: Wikipedia).
Wikipedia history records that when the first rescue boats reached the Nasilai scene, the majority of the passengers were in the water on the reef, making as far towards the land as they could, but a considerable number were still in the wrecked vessel, mainly women and children. The ship lay on her port side. The masts were all broken into fragments, and sails, ropes, and debris of all kinds were mixed up and thrown about in the breakers in wild confusion. The survivors were carried by boats and Fijian canoes to Nasilai village where they were tended to by the villagers. It was one of the first recorded interaction of the Girmitiyas and the indigenous Fijians. The last rescue boat reached the village at 8 pm. The next morning they were taken to Nasilai Immigration Depot and then to Nukulau. Fifty-six passengers and three crew members died in the wreck but a further eleven died in the next fortnight due to complications resulting from their experience. (Source: Indian Indentured Ships to Fiji, Wikipedia). This still remains the worst maritime disaster ever recorded in the history of Fiji.
Motivated by the persistence of the examples of the Girmitiyas, many generations have created their own stories in their new-found land. These are all stories of perseverance in search for education and prosperity, not to mention, love and romance.
One of this love and romantic stories, I had shared two years ago on March 14, 2014 about a 62 year old Muslim taxi driver friend of mine called Mohammed.
I want to relate this story again because it is a continuing chapter in many ways of the story began by the Girmitiyas. Simply put, had the Girmitiyas not come to Fiji, this story I am about to tell you would not have taken place. On March 14, 2014 and around 1pm, Mohammed had picked me up from work to take me to a lunch event. On our way to Nadi town, he related his story to me. The year was 1976. His wife, who was then, a young 18-year-old bride had come to ask him for a divorce. He was 24-years-old at that time. Taken aback by his wife’s request, he asked why. She explained and reminded him that being the eldest in her family, she felt the weight of responsibility on having to look after her parents back in Mauritius. She was from Mauritius (one of Indian extraction). He shared: “Boso, after drinking six bottles of beer, I thought about it, and then I agreed to give her a divorce on one condition”. Intrigued, I asked what it was.
He said: “I told her she will have to take the two little kids back to Mauritius with her because if I get married again, I don’t think the ‘stepmother’ might take care of them as well as she (mother) could”. He said: “Well, she agreed and we went our separate ways. But I was very heartbroken. You know I was still a young man, myself.” Mohammed then said: “Boss you know why I am sharing this story to you now?”. I said: “I don’t know, but man, it’s sounding interesting by the minute. “Well,” he said, “Last week my exwife called from Mauritius to tell me that her parents had both passed on and she was now living alone. “She asked me if I have a wife and I replied that I have been single, since. Ahre she just ask me straight if I want to get married to her again.” He was dumbfounded and of course, blown away by the offer. Well so was I. I think by this time I was more excited than he was. But, isn’t that just so beautiful? That is a brand of romance, unheard of, today. He asked me, “Bhaiya, its been 38 years now, what should I do?”
I told him, if he can’t think of anything that will affect his life negatively, as a result of them getting together again .... then don’t waste any moment and call her right away. We stopped by the roadside and he called the good lady in Mauritius to tell her to pack her bags and come on over to Fiji. I was already shouting, “Wooohooo”!
With a sigh of relief, he said to me, “All set, boso”, as if I had anything to do with it. He did share to me this wonderful statement of truth and wisdom. “In marriage, we must make decision for the bigger picture. My picture is now complete” . All I could say was, “Sa yawa”. I asked him about his kids. His 24 year old son (back in 2014) worked as an aircraft engineer and is married with two children of his own and his 23 year old single daughter is a banker in Mauritius. I jokingly said to him, to make sure her daughter doesn’t hook up with a taxi driver here. He said, “Ahre, I will slap the falla with my hands and leg too”. KAILA!
There you go, that is just one of the thousands and thousands of stories out there in Fiji. Only God could have written these stories to come to life in the way they did; and in the time they did. Just like the stories of the young and old Girmitiyas who arrived on our shores.
In spite of all the challenges, the descendants of the Girmitiyas have come through, I believe the majority, like the rest of us believe and know that God is still in control of our destiny and the universe we live in and our very lives and our future rests squarely in the palm of His Hands.
I like to think that the Girmitiyas who boarded these boats, did so, in faith. They came to a strange land and trusting that they were making the right choice and that they were coming to the ‘right place’. There is a lot we can learn from the lives of the early Girmitiyas. One powerful lesson that one can learn from the Girmitiyas, it is that whenever a new season presents itself, we must learn to step out in faith. All that we see in faith may not materialise as yet, but as long as we are committed in faith, it will come to pass. I am personally reminded about St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews 11:6 which reads, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him”. The towering image of the Nasilai Reef Lighthouse today, in its own way reflect the message of the Gospel that awaited both the indigenous Fijians and the Girmitiyas. For Jesus is the “Lighthouse” that shines over us all today and forevermore. There is a reason that destiny has brought all our lives together. Only in God and through God does all of life’s journey make sense.
I dedicate this piece to the two races of people who met each other for the first time on that day, in 1884, in Nasilai, Rewa. Though a fateful day for some, it was the beginning of a new relationship and an amazing future in God for the rest of the generations to come. To them that have passed on...May they rest in peace. As for the rest of us...May we move on with renewed faith in each other to make a better Fiji.