Grief and gratitude will underscore Girmit Day again this year

Special Commemoration at Malaeola Community Centre in Auckland on May 20

Venkat Raman

Auckland, April 30, 2023

Fijians of Indian origin will remember the dark days of Girmit during which their ancestors suffered humiliation, hardship, discrimination and death under colonial rule.

They will mark Girmit Divas (Girmit Day) from 5.30 pm at the Malaeola Community Centre located at 16 Waokauri Place in the South Auckland suburb of Māngere on May 20, 2023.

More than 1500 men and women are expected to attend the event which is being organised by the Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand.

Foundation President Krish Naidu said that May 14 is a significant day in the history of Fiji Indians.

“On this day in 1879, the first ship Leonidas landed 522 Girmityas in Fiji. This was followed by 86 other ships that transported 60,495 Indians who largely worked as slaves in the sugarcane plantations. The Girmit Day is organised to pay tribute to the Girmityas for their sacrifices and at the same time create awareness, reconnecting the descendants of the Girmityas to their tragic but fascinating history,” he said.

Celebrate, remember and identify

Mr Naidu said that the programme will include candle vigilance, speeches, cultural songs and items, oratories by children and awards.

“The Remembrance Day, as we refer to this day, will also be an occasion to celebrate our identity and the contributions we have made to Fiji, Pacific and New Zealand culturally, socially and economically. It is through such success stories that we can empower our younger generations to carry the legacy of Girmit forward, protecting and promoting the values of hard work, perseverance, and sacrifice,” Mr Naidu said.

He said that political and community leaders as well as businesspersons will be among the guests and that the event will include dinner.

The trials and tribulations of the first group of Indians who sailed through the troubled waters to reach the shores of Fiji, which was to become their home for successive generations, have never been told.

Well, not at least to the extent it deserves.

It is a story of anguish, pain, suffering and what was worse, an unheard-of domination that left the hapless passengers to endure for years to come.

144 years may be a mere wink on the vast canvas of time but constitute a long time in the history of individual families but to most, if not all, May 14, 1879 is a day to reckon with-to rejoice or repent, depending on the social scale to which they belong.

Some would hate to forget it.

Indentured Indian labourers at a plantation in Fiji (INL File Photo)

 

Those ill-fated years

Like most events of the 19th century, the arrival of ‘Leonidas,’ carrying the first batch of indentured Indian labourers, would have faded into obscurity but reports in the Fiji Times remain living documents of the fateful first years of Indians in the South Pacific Island.

There were 373 men and 149 women, in addition to two buffaloes on board the schooner that was to have become their vessel to the future.

Leonidas, with Captain McLachlan, sailing from Calcutta (now called Kolkata) on March 3 (1879), arrived at the port on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 14, but failed to anchor that evening.

Communication was established with the ill-fated ship the following morning when its pest and epidemic-stricken condition was discovered.

Later recounts suggested Leonidas came close at one stage to hit the reef but eventually berthed, much to the relief of people on board.

But such relief was short-lived.

The skipper’s first comment as communication was established was: “Most passengers are suffering from cholera and smallpox and we have already had several of them succumbing to the disease and other problems.”

The government took the necessary precautions to prevent its spread, Fiji Times said.

“A cordon of four police boats was arranged to encircle Leonidas and the schooner Elizabeth (which later became the Samoan navy) sailed from Nasova and anchored off Waitovu, as a relieving and guard ship,” the publication said.

Chief medical officer Dr McGregor followed his ingenious method of preventing the diseases from reaching the shore.

A stage was erected on the outer reef with a moving platform, which acted as a storehouse to feed the ship’s requirements, but the structure itself was demolished and replaced with a new one from time to time, the publication said.

Letters, parcels and other materials were treated with carbolic acid and fumigated before delivery. Communication with the vessel was few and far between and incredibly slow.

The anxiety was not only to treat the passengers but also to ensure that officials attending on them would not shy away from their duties or simply report sick.

It was not until several days later that those affected by ill health and disease were cured and allowed to walk freely the streets of Fiji.

It was a beginning of a new life and the Indian labourers heaved a sigh of relief.

They thought their bad days were over and that they could experience a new phase in life, punctuated by prosperity and plenty.

They were wrong. What they suffered later became sacrifices for their ensuring generations.

Krish Naidu, President, Fiji Girmit Foundation NZ (INL File Photo)

Our Salutations

Indo-Fijians are among the most hardworking and enterprising people in the world. With diffidence, devotion and dedication as their attributes, they are never known to moan and groan about not being able to obtain employment. Their spirit of adventure encourages them to seek gainful employment and if that fails, be self-employed. Thousands of Indo-Fijians are proud owners of large, medium and small enterprises throughout New Zealand.

They judiciously allocate their time to work, family, friends and the community and enjoy every moment of each of these; which is what makes them unique.

But beyond those smiles and merriment, there runs an inner scar that is reminiscent of a bitter and cruel past; an era in which their ancestors were forced to lead a life of mortification, and indignity; an era which is best forgotten and yet well-remembered.

The Girmit period which saw the first settlers set their feet on a strange land called Fiji on May 14, 1989 will enter its 145 year on May 14, 2023.

In writing this piece, we salute those settlers and their successive generations that suffered the worst insinuation that they endured; and their sons and daughters and the generations that followed- we salute them for their spirit of sacrifice. We also hope that as we mark the completion of 144 years of Girmit, there will never again be a repetition of history.

Indo-Fijians have suffered too long to allow a parade of avoidable events. It is time they too reaped the harvest of their hard labour.

We offer our sincere felicitations to the members of the larger Indo-Fijian family for their achievements thus far and hope that they will continue to prosper and give us opportunities to rejoice with them.

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