In the post-indenture period, the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSRC) retained its dominance over the Indo-Fijian farmers in Fiji but could not engage in physical violence, as it freely did during the indenture period (1879-1919).
Following the abolition of the indenture system in 1916, the European planters could not sustain their large plantations due to the shortage of labour.
Many plantations were abandoned and the CSRC decided to lease ten-acre farms to Indo-Fijian farmers. It was an astute move that paid huge dividends to the Company, as hardworking Indo-Fijian farmers contributed to the success of the Fiji sugar industry. They worked hard for their livelihood from dawn to dusk, defying the tropical sun and the treachery of the Company.
Poverty was endemic among the farmers. It accompanied them into the new era of freedom but their rights and justice continued to elude.
The Colonial Government and the CSRC connived and conspired to exploit the farmers willy-nilly and they succeeded, as the illiterate farmers struggled to survive.
Their days began as the village cock crowed, generally at 530 am. Every farmer’s home was astir, as the women arose to cook food while men harnessed their draught animals and headed to work in the farms.
The cool morning hours allowed the farmers to work vigorously, aware that they could not maintain the same pace once the sun began to spew unbearable heat. They were required on the farm at dawn, failing which they risked being evicted.
There was widespread fear of the Kulambars (Overseers). Their belligerence, arrogance and haughtiness against the sugarcane farmers were well known. Many, on seeing the approaching Kulambar on horseback, cringed with fear and some simply vanished to avoid them.
Few were good but most were ruthless and heartless, as was their employer, the CSRC.
Farmer Nagessar of Ba was evicted from his farm because he failed to raise his arm, as others in his group did, to salute the kulambar.
Ladu Ram, a farmer who was not a tenant of the CSRC, planted rice on his farm. At harvest time the Kulambar demanded that the crop be destroyed, warning Ram that if he failed to do so, the Company would not buy his sugar crop. The farmer had to comply.
The Company also required the farmers to provide free service in the maintenance of its tramlines and those who did not oblige forfeited their farm.
Poverty amidst plenty
The farmers were always nervy about the sugarcane crop that they delivered to CSRC.
Payment was made twice a year but it was not uncommon for some to return home empty-handed. They were told that the sugarcane supplied by them had no sugar but molasses, a valuable product, used to make industrial rum. But the illiterate farmers were made to believe that it was a waste product and of no commercial value.
The Company robbed the Indo-Fijian farmers of income from molasses estimated at £ 250,000 every year from 1935-1969.
In addition, it also deprived farmers of millions of dollars for one reason or other but none had the courage to stand up against the Company, which had Government support.
Picturesque sugarcane farms give a resplendent beauty to the sugarcane-growing districts of Fiji. The carpet of greenery extends beyond one’s gaze, sporadically broken by rivers, creeks or groves of trees around the farmers’ homesteads or hilly terrain.
In the 1950s, most of the areas beyond the river valleys were vegetated with thick tropical forests that Indo-Fijian farmers gradually removed and began cultivating the land for the sugarcane. The crop became their livelihood but it did not provide prosperity to the majority farmers.
Farmers unions came up, the first of which was the ‘Kisan Sangh’ (1937), followed by ‘Maha Sangh,’ a breakaway group in 1943. Both were hostile towards each other and the CSRC exploited the rivalry.
The farmers considered the CSRC more important than the Fiji Government, since it provided them a source for their livelihood. They had token representation in Parliament but the colonial authorities usually drowned their voices.
Encircled by poverty, the farmers were too weak to resist the ritual exploitation, to which the Government was a party.
But the formation of the farmers unions took away the power of CSRC to take unilateral decisions detrimental to the farmers. The unions would have done better if they were united but often this was not the case. Eventually CSRC gained the upper hand in resolving the issues in its favour.
In 1969, Lord Denning, Master of Rolls from UK adjudicated and his Award for sharing the proceeds from the sugarcane gave the farmers fair return from their sugarcane crop. An upset CSRC sold its assets to the Government and exited from Fiji in 1973.
CSRC however left behind a well-structured and robust sugar industry in Fiji.
It was well advanced in technology and management and deployed the best farming practices and the Indo-Fijian farmers learnt the skills and became good and productive farmers. Its tramline network penetrated deep into the rural heartland of the sugar growing districts.
The tramlines will remain permanent fixtures in the villages, reminding the people of an era, when the Company’s steam engines roared past every day.
Some people and organisations leave their marks on history that time cannot obliterate.
CSRC certainly left ineffaceable footprints on the sands of time.
Those who lived in that era hold nostalgic memories when poverty, struggle and indebtedness among the Indo-Fijian farmers made them weak and vulnerable to the CSRC but they remained strong in their resolve to survive, care for their families and educate their children so that they could lead better lives.
The Fiji sugar industry is now struggling and our hearts go out to those who are still toiling in hope, draped in despair.
Our history is saturated with the blood, sweat and tears of our forebears.
The CSRC will remain part of our history because it affected strongly on our people and our lives. It was good, bad and ugly but our people have just moved on with their lives, embracing the positive and redirecting their lives, shedding the garment of sorrow and walking with faith and hope for a better future.
Rajendra Prasad is our columnist and author of Tears in Paradise, which has just entered its Third Edition. The recent sale of CSRC prompted the above article written in in two parts, the first of which appeared in our August 1, 2010 issue.
Photo : Once a burgeoning industry, Sugar Cane farms are dire straits in today’s Fiji.
Excerpts from Tears in Paradise
Indo-Fijians have lived in Fiji for more than 100 years. The pioneer generation, the Girmitiyas, was brought to Fiji by the British as indentured labourers to work in sugarcane plantations. Some returned after the completion of their five-year indenture, but a majority chose not to return to India. My grandparents were in this category. It is from them that I first learned about the infamous Girmit period in Fiji.
The sugarcane fields have constantly gripped my attention. Behind the beauty lies sadness, both profound and intense. There is an eeriness emanating from their silence. Even in stillness, one can almost feel the powerful presence of the spirits of sorrow and grief exuding from these sugarcane fields. They are the spirits of our ancestors.
The sugar industry in Fiji was established with the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors, a majority of who were Hindu. Hinduism assertively claims that the spirits of those who die in tragic circumstances do not find a resting place. The spirits of the dead become part of that environment. Indenture was that tragic period.