Perception of the future is always fortified by knowledge of the past, for, one fires the ambition and the drive to strive towards success while the other instils a sense of pride and the honour of belonging.
In this equation, the present becomes the vital link and a platform for thought, planning, coordination and action. Without the preponderance of the present, the past is relegated to oblivion while the future would remain directionless and blurred.
The quintessence of human sustenance therefore rests on the hope for tomorrow, with the strength of today’s action based on yesterday’s experience.
Countries, societies, communities and individuals exert time and energy to trace their roots and seek pride in their past.
It is in such a spirit that Fijians of Indian origin endeavour to keep alive the legacy of their ancestors – parents, grandparents and great grandparents, a majority of who sacrificed their lives and forfeited their ambitions to destiny in order that their succeeding generations would lead a life of plenty.
Indo-Fijians are today a proud community of achievers – as businesspersons, medical practitioners, lawmakers, law enforcers, academics, professionals and sports celebrities – in every country that they have chosen as their home. They have planted several milestones in their life’s journey; milestones that sparkle as gems that bedazzle the eye.
Most of them, if not all, remember with a note of sorrow, what they heard from their parents and grandparents of the sufferings of the Girmityas since their first arrival on May 14, 1879. They recall the stories that they have heard as children, stories of their ancestors humiliated and driven to the point of suicide, and stories of those who held back so that they could give their succeeding generations a better life.
These baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1963) however are unhappy that their wards, children and those belonging to the Y Generation (those born after 1980) are ignorant of their forebears and yet show no interest in learning about them. They note, almost with a sense of guilt that they cannot exercise any influence on the young, to remember and respect their distant Girmityas.
We have also heard some elders saying that the youth of today cannot be blamed since their parents had evinced little or no interest in imparting knowledge of the Girmityas. They admit have been told by their parents and grandparents to ‘bury the past and not to mention it’ in view of the intense suffering and ill-treatment that they encountered in their lives as victims of slavery.
The notorious CSR
Mention is often made of the Colonial Sugar Research (CSR) Company as the villain of the piece although the reasons for the massive abuse of Indian labourers are still debated.
It is assumed that the Company’s belief (as it was that of the Colonial rulers) was subjugation through terror was far more effective in gaining control over the migrant workers than letting them live and work in dignity.
The first shipload of Girmityas aboard Leonidas that reached the shores of Fiji on May 14, 1879 accounted for 522 men and women, who were apparently taken from various parts of India on false pretences. If those people sported a dream of making it in Fiji through hard work followed by happiness and prosperity, they only got the former.
Against such a scenario of general apathy, it is heartening to note that there is revival of interest in New Zealand, Australia, UK and Canada, with the establishment of Girmit Foundations and Councils to commemorate the Girmityas Day on or about May 14 every year. Some of these interact with each other and exchange information.
New Zealand events
The Fiji Indian Association Inc of Wellington has been commemorating Girmit Anniversary since 2006, a year after its establishment.
This year’s event was held at the Johnsonville Community Centre on May 10.
Labour MP Dr Rajen Prasad said that the programme included speeches detailing the harsh lives led by the Girmityas and their spirit of endurance.
“The speakers outlined of the troubled times of indenture labour and how the Indo-Fijian community endured the sufferings. The programme also showcased Indo-Fijian legacy and a vegetarian meal,” he said.
Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand, an organisation formed to commemorate Girmit will hold its annual ‘Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day’ at Skipton Hall, 53 Skipton Street, Mangere, Auckland on Sunday, May 18, 2014 at 130 pm.
Foundation Chairman Devakar Prasad invited all New Zealanders, especially Indo-Fijian to attend the event, admission to which is free.
“The aim is to reconnect, reclaim and restore Indo-Fijian history. May 14 is a significant day in the history of Indo-Fijian community, as it marks the arrival of the first ship of Indian indentured labourers (Girmityas) to Fiji in 1879,” he said.
Fiji’s renowned academic son and historian, Professor Brij Lal of Australian National University will be the Chief Guest at the event, he added.
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What: Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day
Who: Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand
Speaker: Professor Brij Lal, Australian National University
Where: Skipton Hall, 53 Skipton Street, Mangere
When: Sunday, May 18 at 130 pm
Contact: Devakar Prasad on (09) 6270341