Girmit Events in Summary
The Indian indenture system started from the end of slavery in 1834 and continued until 1920, when thousands of Indians were transported to various colonies of European powers to provide labour for the (mainly sugar) plantations, under the indenture system. Indians had been employed for a long time on the European ships trading in India and the East Indies. Colonial British Indian Government Regulations of 1837 laid down specific conditions for the dispatch of Indian labour from Calcutta. The intending emigrant and the emigration agent were required to appear before an officer designated by the Colonial British Government of India with a written statement of the terms of the contract. The length of service was to be of five years, renewable for further five-year terms. The emigrant was to be returned at the end of service to the port of departure. The vessel taking the emigrants was required to conform to certain standards of space, diet etc. and carry a medical officer.
Colonial British Indian Indentured Labour Transportation by Country
Arrival Under the Indenture System
The colonial authorities promoted the sugar cane industry, recognizing the need to establish a stable economic base for the colony, but were unwilling to exploit indigenous labour and threaten the Fijian way of life. The use of imported labour from the Solomon Islands and what is now Vanuatu generated protests in the United Kingdom, and the Governor Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon decided to implement the indentured labour scheme, which had existed in the British Empire since 1837. A recruiting office was set up in Calcutta, followed by another in Madras in 1902. These offices were used to recruit labourers under the impression that Fiji was just over the horizon when in fact it was 1000′s of kilometres away. A lot of people were kidnapped and brought over with false documents while some came under their own will.
The Leonidas, a labour transport vessel, disembarked at Levuka from Calcutta on 14 May 1879. The 463 indentured servants who disembarked were the first of over 61,000 to arrive from the South Asia over the following 37 years. More than 70% were from the districts of eastern United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar, such as Basti, Gonda, and Faizabad. Another quarter came from the emigration prone districts of Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu and part of Andhra Pradesh) in South India such as North Arcot, Chingleput, and Madras (now Chennai)
There were smaller numbers from Punjab, Kashmir, Haryana, and other parts of India.
Indian Indenture Ships to Fiji
Between 1879 and 1916, a total of 42 ships made 87 voyages, carrying Indian indentured labourers to Fiji. Initially the ships brought labourers from Calcutta, but from 1903 all ships except two also brought labourers from Madras.
From the early 1900s, Indians started arriving in Fiji as free agents. Many of these paid their own way and had previously served in Fiji or other British colonies or had been born in Fiji. Amongst the early free migrants, there were religious teachers, missionaries and at least one lawyer. The government and other employers brought clerks, policemen, artisans, gardeners, experienced agricultural workers, a doctor and a school teacher. Punjabi farmers and Gujarati craftsmen also paid their own way to Fiji and in later year years formed an influential minority amongst the Fiji Indians.
A total of 60,965 passengers left India but 60,553 (including births at sea) arrived in Fiji. A total of 45,439 boarded ships in Calcutta and 15,114 in Madras. Sailing ships took, on average, seventy-three days for the trip while steamers took 30 days. The shipping companies associated with the labour trade were Nourse Line and British-India Steam Navigation Company.
The most important man on these ships was the Surgeon-Superintendent, who supervised the medical care, ventilation, clothing, cleanliness and exercise of the passengers and his authority extended over the Captain. He inspected the stores before departure and reported on any defects during the trip. The Surgeon-Superintendent also intervened to prevent passengers from being mistreated by the crew. He was paid a bonus for each laborer landed alive. The table below shows brief details of the two ships, Howrah and Rhone II.
List of Ships to Fiji
List of Ship Charters
The Wreck of Syria
The voyage to Fiji was the last for Syria as she ran aground on the Nasilai Reef, only four miles from shore, at 8.30 p.m. on Sunday 11 May 1884 with the loss of 59 lives. This was the worst maritime disaster in the history of Fiji. On this fateful voyage, the Syria left Calcutta on 13 March 1884 carrying 497 passengers. Its journey was uneventful except that the route, through the Indian Ocean and traveling south of Australia to utilise the prevailing winds, took only 58 days which was two weeks less than expected. On sighting Kadavu at 9 a.m., the captain failed to allow for the strong winds and currents and consequently the ship was closer to Nasilai Reef than the captain believed. By 7.00 p.m. there was a full moon and had a lookout been posted on the mast-head, disaster could have been averted as the breakers would have been visible from a long distance. At 8.15 p.m. the ship was only half a mile from the reef when the breakers were sighted. The Captain took desperate measures to turn the ship but was unsuccessful and theSyria ran aground at 8.30 p.m.
Five of the six lifeboats were destroyed by the heavy seas and on the sixth, four crew members went to look for assistance. They reached Nasilai village at dawn but their inability to communicate with the natives resulted in them being taken to Levuka instead of Suva. On reaching Levuka at 5 p.m. a rescue party was organised and they reached the stricken ship at 9 p.m. Dr William MacGregor, the Chief Medical Officer and Acting Colonial Secretary, took charge of the rescue operations on the morning of Tuesday 13 May. When the first rescue boats reached the 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, chiefly 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. The last rescue boat reached the village at 8 p.m. 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.
On 29 June 2006, the Fiji Indian Association in Auckland (New Zealand) donated a 100 year old tree root, recovered from the sea, to be placed in the crematorium foyer of the Memorial Gardens Crematorium in the city of Manukau. The artifact commemorates the ship Syria.
Extracted from the BBC Documentary – “Coolies – How Britain reinvented Slavery
Indian indenture system. (2012, May 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:34, July 8, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Indian_indenture_system&oldid=491350666