It was 3rd March,1879 when the Leonidas (the ship used to carry bonded Indian labourers to Fiji) departed from the port of Calcutta for the town of Levuka in Fiji. Little did the men and women on board the ship know that it would be the last time they could hope to cast a glance on their homeland. It was to be remembered in history as the day a majority of poor Indians severed ties with their country forever. The ship sailed for 40 days before touching shore, thereafter planting the seeds for the establishment of a huge Indian diaspora in the island nation. However, it is significant that the origin of the diaspora could ultimately be traced to the inhumane practice of slavery which flourished during the day.
In fact, slavery had existed right since a section of the human population became more powerful than their immediate counterparts. As an institution however, it began in the 16th century, and lasted over the next three centuries. The transatlantic slave trade which began in the 16th century, involved the transportation of enslaved African people to the Americas. The South Atlantic and the Caribbean economies were particularly dependent on the supply of slave labour for the production of commodity crops which were to be sold in Europe. The Americas were a destination where the institution of slavery culminated in tortuous rites and obscene treatment being meted out to the slaves, until the abolitionist movement theoretically put an end to these. It sought an end to the transatlantic slave trade, but was able to do little about it.
Even though it was put an end to on pen and paper, it was appropriated through the introduction of yet another transactional relationship in the transportation of indentured labourers from Asian countries like India, where the British had set up its colonies. Labourers from districts of central and eastern Uttar Pradesh, often called “girmityas”, were taken to Fiji as indentured servants by Fiji’s British colonial rulers, between 1879 and 1916, in order to work on Fiji’s sugarcane plantations. Through a period of 37 years, more than 60,000 indentured labourers were transported to Fiji, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. Men, women and children mostly belonging to the Gangetic plains, crossed the “kaala pani” (sacred black waters) in the course of these journeys, which were to lead them to their ultimate fate.
What remains to be explored are the reasons behind these voyages undertaken by people in certain parts of India. The early 19th century was marred with famines in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. The situation was further augmented due to large-scale opium cultivation rendering most of the fertile river banks unfit for cultivation, and the subsequent destabilisation of governments. Apart from that, a scarcity of labour on the Caribbean plantations along with a sustained demand for sugar in the area, as well as across the globe spelt trouble for the British Crown and her Colonial Sugar Refining (CSR) company. This prompted the middlemen (arkatis) to lure the indentured slaves into crossing the Pacific and land on the Fiji islands as bonded labourers. These labourers were docked at Calcutta for a week, where they were made to undergo a series of medical examinations, after which they were transported to Fiji on ship.
Even though they were granted free passage to India after serving for a period of 10 years, it wasn’t a good enough deal with regards to the meagre money they were paid and the dismal conditions they were forced to survive in. In other words, the terms of the agreement were made in such a way as to exploit those labourers to the fullest and leave them in the lurch and eventually no hope for liberation after 10 years of servitude. In the light of cruelties meted out to them, news of attempts of escapades and suicides have been chronicled. The indenture system in India was officially abolished in 1917 with the intervention of Indian nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi, Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
After the annihilation of the system, many labourers chose to return home, while others chose to stay on in the island, giving rise to a rich Indian diaspora existing to this day. Many of them leased small plots of land from Fijians and formed their own sugarcane fields and cattle farms. Their choice to stay over in the island gave rise to a multi-ethnic community in the Fiji islands, and the subsequent eradication of the caste system that had been an integral part of the region before that. It also gave rise to a new koine (meaning ‘common’ in Greek) language, also known as Fiji-Hindi that was formed from the different languages and dialects of India.
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