The National Farmers Union (NFU) is organising celebrations to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the arrival in Fiji in 1879 of the first Indians, Girmityas, who served under the Indenture System. The celebrations are to be held in all major centres of Fiji from 7-15 May 2004.
The first batch of Girmityas arrived in Fiji on board the coolie vessel Leonidas on 14 May 1879. Over the next 37 years, some 62,000 of them were brought by the British colonial government as indentured labourers to slave in European-owned plantations here. They were contracted to work for a fixed term of five years under conditions highly degrading and de-humanising.
Although slavery, to all intents and purposes, had been abolished in 1833, the British introduced a new form of slave labour to pursue their mercantile interests in the colonies.
Why the celebrations?
The celebrations are intended to pay homage to those brave Girmitya souls who endured unbelievable indignity and hardship as human beings to contribute to the economic well being of the European plantation owners and the infamous Australian sugar milling company- the CSR Co. Ltd.
Freed from Indenture in 1920, Girmityas and their descendents were forced through sheer circumstances to farm cane for the CSR Co. under highly exploitative conditions on land largely leased from the company or from native landowners. They supplied sugar cane to the company’s four sugar mills under contracts which were grossly iniquitous, paying the farmers a pittance for their crop.
It was not until 1970 that they received economic justice from Lord Denning who in his award on a new cane contract, ensured that the moneys from sugar sales were shared equitably between the grower and the miller.
Soon afterwards, the CSR packed up and left. The industry was then nationalised giving birth to the Fiji Sugar Corporation in 1973.
The struggle of the Girmityas and their descendents for their civil and political rights, for social and economic justice has been long and arduous, punctuated by exploitation, oppression, violence and dislocation.
The three coups of 1987 and 2000 saw the Indian community subjected to gross violations of their human rights. Today, thousands of them have been rendered landless and homeless on expiry of their leases on native land. These, once proud and independent farmers, have today been reduced to destitution without State assistance in any tangible form.
Yes, our struggle for justice and equal citizenship rights continues. We of the present generation, must acknowledge with gratitude the sacrifices our pioneering forefathers made to create a better life for us. We in turn, have a duty to secure the future of those who will come after us. So, let us all join hands to overcome our difficulties and differences and strive for a better and fairer Fiji for all citizens.
A lot has transpired since the first Indians landed here in 1879. Despite the difficulties and the discrimination they faced, many have achieved fame and success in the professions, in business, as academics, administrators, farmers and so on. Many others have left our shores to settle in countries more prosperous than Fiji to build a better future for their children. They too continue to regard Fiji as their homeland.
Finally , let me say that the Girmit Divas is being held as a tribute not only to the Girmityas but also to all of our people who have triumphed over trials and tribulations, who have overcome the obstacles of life to become successful, law-abiding citizens of our nation. The Divas is meant to reinforce the pride and dignity of our people in all walks of life.
As an esteemed person in our society, you are respectfully invited to join us and make your contribution to the success of the celebrations.
Mahendra P Chaudhry
General Secretary NFU