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



Colonial British Indian indentured labour transportation by country (Courtesy National Archives - Fiji)

Colonial British Indian indentured labour transportation by country (Courtesy National Archives – Fiji)


 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 Ship Charters

Given the steady influx of ships carrying indentured Indians to Fiji up un til 1916, repatriate Indians generally boarded these same ships on their return voyage 10-15 days after arrival. The total number of repatriates under the Fiji indenture system is recorded as 39,261, while the number of arrivals is said to have been 60,553. As a proportion this works out ot be 64.8% which appears quite high. However, this figure includes children born in Fiji so the actual percentage is significantly lower. After 1951 return voyages by ship ceased and arrangements were made for flights from Sydney to Bombay, the first of which departed in July 1955.  Ship charter were however organised for Fiji to Sydney leg of the journey.  Click here to view the List of Ship Charters


The contracts of the indentured labourers, which they called girmit (agreements), required them to work in Fiji for a period of five years. Living conditions on the sugar cane plantations, on which most of the girmityas (indentured labourers) worked, were often squalid. Hovels known as “coolie lines” dotted the landscape.
The following is an extract from the BBC Documentary – “Coolies” Public outrage in the United Kingdom at such abuses was a factor in the decision to halt the scheme in 1916.
After a further five years of work as an indentured labourer or as a khula (free labourer), they were given the choice of returning to India at the expense of the British government, or remaining in Fiji. The great majority opted to stay. After the expiry of their girmits, many leased small plots of land from Fijians and developed their own sugarcane fields or cattle farmlets. Others went into business in the towns that were beginning to spring up.The indenture system had two positive effects on subsequent generations. Firstly the need for people of different casts to live work and eat together led to an end of the caste system. Furthermore, shortage of females resulted in many marrying outside their caste. Another positive was the development of a new koiné language, known as Fiji Hindi formed from the Hindi dialects of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (mainly Awadhi and Bhojpuri). The language was further enriched by the inclusion of many Fijian and English words. The language is now the mother tongue of almost all Fiji Indians and is the lingua franca of not only all the Fiji Indians but also of all communities where ethnic Indians are in a majority.
Indians are defined by the constitution of Fiji as anybody who can trace, through either the male or the female line, their ancestry back to anywhere on the Indian subcontinent and all Government documents use this name. However, a number of names have been proposed to distinguish Fiji-born citizens of Indian origin both from the indigenous inhabitants of Fiji and from India-born immigrants. Among the more popular proposals are Fiji Indian, Indian Fijian, and Indo-Fijian. All three labels have proved culturally and politically controversial, and finding a label of identification for the Indian community in Fiji has fuelled a debate that has continued for many decades. Other proposed names have been Indian Fijian and Fiji Born Indian.An Internet search using a popular search engine found 55,900 hits for “Indo-Fijian”, 20,100 for “Fiji Indian”, 24,700 for “Fijian Indian”, 614 for Indian Fijian and 266 for “Fiji Born Indian”.



Pictures courtesy of,

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