“I beseech of you not to be satisfied with any reforms to the system of indentured labour. I beg of you not to cease to use your influence against this iniquitous system till it be utterly abolished”… Hannah Dudley, Australian Methodist missionary in a letter to an Indian newspaper on 4 November, 1913.
Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon came to Fiji in June 1875 as the first British governor of the new colony, to a multitude of problems regarding its economy, lack of adequate labour force, not to mention rebellious hill tribes. The manner in which he tackled these issues had profound implications in shaping Fiji’s history and development.
Having just served a three year term as Governor of Mauritius and prior to that in Trinidad, he was sympathetic to the plight of the indigenous people at the hands of unscrupulous settlers. At the same time, he had to make the colony economically viable. This meant expanding crops such as cotton, coconut, coffee and sugar cane for export but constant supply of labour was a problem. Gordon had had first hand experience of the use of Indian indentured labour to meet the needs of European settlers and planters in Mauritius and Trinidad.
He was determined to protect and preserve the culture and interests of the natives from undue exploitation by the settlers. His solution was to keep the natives in their villages and to recruit Labour from India to work on European plantations. Thus began the recruitment of Indian indentured labour for the colony on terms practically similar to those that applied in other British colonies – Mauritius, South Africa, Guayana, Trinidad etc.
The first ‘coolie’ (an insulting term applied to indentured labourers) ship, the Leonidas, with 463 labourers on board arrived in the Fiji waters on 14 May 1879 - it had actually set sail from Calcutta with close to 500 labourers on board but the others had died from cholera and small pox. The remaining passengers were quarantined on a little island for 90 days before they were despatched to serve their indenture on the various plantations on the mainland.
This became the norm for every coolie ship. The new recruits were quarantined for some weeks on a little island called Nukulau off the capital Suva before they were despatched to their respective plantations.
From 1879 to 1920 when the system finally ended, 87 coolie ships sailed into Fiji, bringing in a total of 60,553 men and women to serve in plantations here.
Life as a coolie
“On the estates, cramped maggots in cell-like hutments, the coolies ate, slept, bickered or pushed their children into corners to copulate. On the pay-list pages were still the headings Ganges, Sutlej, Fultala and other hellships by present standards which had brought them …
The indenture they signed was for five years slavery in the cane fields of His Brittanic Majesty’s Crown Colony of Fiji—to them it was a girmit, an agreement—and it contained some of the most pernicious clauses thought up by man. There were such things expressed and inferred “as a fixed immigration ratio of four men to one woman”; no choice of place or method of employment; women to work in the fields for at least the first seven months of their pregnancy; housing conditions worse if anything than those from which they had escaped; working hours unlimited. And all for a few pence a day.
—Turn North-East at the Tombstone by Walter Gill, an overseer with the CSR Co. in 1919.
Girmit (derived from the word “agreement”) as the indenture experience in Fiji came to be known, was a brutal, de-humanising experience. Labourers were treated as beasts of burden, made to work long excruciating hours under rigorous, backbreaking conditions for a few pitiful pennies. Violence and brutality became the hallmarks of the system.
An indentured labourer’s day began at 3am, some at 2am. He would rise at this unearthly hour and prepare himself for the day – cook breakfast and lunch – and be ready to leave for the field, often a mile away, to be there at 5am ready to start work as the first shafts of daylight broke through. He was required to work through till 5pm, but often worked late into the night.