An obscure past frustrates the present

As I write this article for the Indian Newslink Girmit Celebration issue, it seems natural to break my contribution into three parts.

The first is to register my own background as one whose four grandparents were born in India and who migrated to Fiji.

The missing links

Two of my grandparents were in the indentured girmitya capacity and I have in hand, as I write, photocopies dated 31 March 1882, depicting my grandfather Tilak and his father Umrao, from Seconderpore near Shajhanpore, going on the voyage to Fiji from Calcutta aboard a vessel named Berar.

I have been to Levuka on Ovalau Island, where they landed and I have seen the place where Umrao, who died a very short time after arrival, was probably buried. The six- year-old boy he left behind, my grandfather, Tilak, grew up with another family in indenture and so we lost the precise link with India.

Although we have tried to make the link-one of my cousins has found and been to the village near Allahabad in India, no trace of our family remains. My family on that side is today partly in Fiji and Australia, the US and New Zealand.

My other grandparents came from Madras (now Chennai) to Fiji in 1910 as part of the colonial government and my grandfather worked as an interpreter in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. I have visited the suburb of Washermanpet (known in Tamil as ‘Vannarapettai’) in Chennai from where they came but as my grandfather was an only child, there are no links.

Both my parents came to New Zealand in the 1930s, eventually to stay.

Like many other New Zealand readers of Indian Newslink, when the moment comes to say who you are and where you came from, my links go back from New Zealand to Fiji and its people and thence to India.

My links are therefore also with those who underwent the narak of the former girmit times in Fiji, facing the spectre of disenfranchisement through the more recent coups d’état in that country.

Saga of sacrifice

The second thing is to record the magnificent effort over the years of the generations of people of Indian origin, who, having endured the rigours of the girmit period in Fiji and who then forged a life for themselves and their families.

There were many obstacles such as achieving a common language and a common identity not known to and different from the communities they had been part of before recruitment for indenture.

By means of sacrifice, the new citizens’ efforts were channelled towards personal survival and then achieving education for their children and only then followed by financial and societal security. Their ongoing struggle has not been straight forward with such things as political equality still proving to be elusive.

However, the resilience and versatility that characterised grandparents has seen Fiji Indians contribute to life in business and the professions and government not only in Fiji but also in other countries to which migration has come about, notably Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada.

The challenge

The third and last thing is to strike a note of challenge.

Often, something said in a former time by an important person in history may be appropriate. In that context, I offer what was said by Jawaharlal Nehru in a statement on November 3, 1940 whilst on trial for sedition in Gorakhpur at which he was convicted and sentenced to jail.

This can be related to the context of Fiji, 60 plus years later.

Pandit Nehru said, “There are more powerful forces at work today than courts of law. There are elemental urges for freedom and food and security which are moving vast masses of people and history is being moulded by them.”

It is these kinds of elemental urges which, in my view, will eventually galvanise opinion within Fiji among all races, as well as beyond it.

Fiji is a fine country with fine people of many kinds residing in it, indigenous and otherwise. At many levels in schooling, sport and business there is an ongoing and growing contact, friendship and optimism about the future.

Following are words from the last verse in the country’s national anthem which, in my view, make for a suitable conclusion:

Blessing grant, O God of Nations, on the isles of Fiji:

Shores of golden sand and sunshine happiness and song

Stand united we of Fiji flame and glory ever

Onward march together. God bless Fiji!

Sir Anand Satyanand was Governor-General of New Zealand from 2006 to 2011. The above article appeared in our May 15, 2004 issue.

Indian Newslink has instituted the annual Indian Newslink Sir Anand Satyanand Lecture in his honour. Former Commonwealth Secretary General and Former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sir Don McKinnon and Labour MP and Former Foreign Minister Hon Phil Goff are respectively the Guest Speaker and Master of Ceremonies at this year’s Lecture to be held on Monday, July 28, 2014 at Pullman Hotel Auckland. For more information, please email

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