This article is about when the Leonidas arrived in Fiji, as the first Indian indentured servant ship to the colony.
The Leonidas arrived in Fiji on May 14, 1879.
On May 14, 1879, the Leonidas made landfall on the shores of the Colony of Fiji. The journey had been arduous and traumatic for the ship’s living “cargo”- 463 South Asian men, women, and children from a diverse array of castes, ethno-linguistic backgrounds, and religious groups. Though many of them would have never intermingled in the subcontinent, one unfortunate commonality now created a source of unity: they were victims of a new form of human bondage called indenture. In Fiji, this system would come to be known as “Girmit,” and its victims, the “Girmityas.”
Over the next 40 years, thousands upon thousands of labourers would flood into Fiji- eventually numbering sixty-thousand. British “recruiters” had procured them through deceptive means, even turning to kidnapping, in order to supply an inexhaustible amount of bonded servants to one of the Empire’s fastest growing colonies. Labourers would be torn away from their lives, their dreams, and their aspirations. The agony of separation from their loved ones must have been unbearable.
Fiji’s labourers would toil from sunrise to sunset in the sugarcane fields of what would come to be known as Britain’s most brutal indenture colony. Labourers were routinely subjected to physical and sexual abuse, starved, and deprived of their intrinsic human rights. Countless succumbed to disease, while many others took their own lives. The barbarity by which the Girmityas were treated is documented in transcribed autobiographies of the labourers themselves. These stories are kept in Fiji’s digital indenture archives at https://girmitiya.girmit.org/new/index.php/girmitiya-stories/. This system was eventually abolished in the mid-1920’s with no issuance of apology from the colonial governments who were complicit in it.
Considering the circumstances, Girmit Day (called Indian Arrival Day in other parts of the world) is observed with mixed emotions in Fiji. On one hand, it marks the beginning of the distinct Indo-Fijian identity’s formation as one of preservation and resilience in the face of hardship. On the other hand, it commemorates the brutal suffering our ancestors were forced to endure to feed the insatiable hunger of British colonists and their capitalistic endeavours. Still it is these factors that pushed Indo-Fijian culture to embody modern virtues of progress, inclusivity, and castelessness, while somehow remaining a “time capsule” of old South Asia’s charming rusticity.
Girmit Day should not be a day of silent observance. Rather, we who descend from these labourers should feel motivated to advocate for the continued preservation of our ancestors’ stories and legacies. If these stories are not kept, our heritage could be lost. We should also continue to demand restorative justice for the exploitation and trauma to which our ancestors were subjected. The British government still has not issued a formal apology, nor acknowledged its role in the forced indentured servitude of over two million South Asians. Shouldn’t we, as a community, support these initiatives to bring about at least some semblance of justice?
To our ancestors who suffered under the sun so that, today, we could live freely and achieve the unfathomable - we cannot express enough gratitude to your sacrifice. May we bring justice to all that you endured.
Written By Jace Sapenter-Nath
This article was about when the Leonidas arrived in Fiji, as the first Indian indentured servant ship to the colony.
By Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. | This content is copyright of West Indian Diplomacy, LLC and may not be reproduced without permission.
She runs West Indian Diplomacy, a Caribbean blog aimed at promoting West Indian history and business in the global marketplace.
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