Contrary to popular opinion, indentured Indian labourers brought into Fiji as Girmityas were not of low social origins but represented a fair cross-section of rural Indian population, according to Australian National University History Professor Brij Lal.
“It is suggested that the strata from which most of them originated were increasingly being subjected to unprecedented changes brought about by British penetration of Indian agrarian society,” he said in his book, ‘Girmityas: The Origin of the Fiji Indians.’
The book not only explores the origin of the indentured labourers but also dwells into their working conditions, their loss of identity and the social and other conditions during the post-years of the arrival of the Indians and the ensuing period.
The rural population in India, threatened by the British intrusion into the agricultural sector increasingly came to believe migration was a method of coping with the changes blowing over their lives. The population exodus to Fiji formed one such group.
“Not only men but women, children and families also came and they, too, were a part of the uprooted mass. The important role that recruiters played cannot be denied but it must be assessed in the context of the ‘push’ factors at work in Indian society,” Mr Lal said in his prelude to the book.
His interest in the study of Fiji Indians and the vicissitudes of the early settlers has been immense, leading to a number of publications over the years.
The authenticity of his findings has seldom been questioned, as his bona fides.
The Indian indentured migration was a more complex process than has sometimes been realised, he said.
“Some 60,965 indentured labourers came to Fiji between 1879 (when migration commenced) and 1916 (when it was finally stopped). Of these, 45,439 were from northern India, embarking at Calcutta (now Kolkata) and the rest from southern India after 1903 when recruitment began there,” Mr Lal said.
But the pattern of recruitment and the basic motivation for migration were similar and many other Indian labour-importing colonies, particularly the West Indies were of relevance.
In another masterpiece, Mr Lal has outlined the documentary history of Indian indenture, demonstrating the rules and regulations governing the labourers.
The labour contract provided for five years of service (minimum) from the date of arrival of the Indian workers in the colony with the nature of work mentioned as ‘in connection with the cultivation of the soil or the manufacture of the produce on any plantation.’
The migrants were required to work, without extra remuneration, nine hours a day from Monday to Friday and five hours on Saturdays; their holiday entitlements included Sundays and authorised holidays.
“The contract provided every adult male immigrant above the age of 15 years to be paid not less than one shilling, then equivalent to 12 annas of Indian currency (less than three New Zealand cents now) and every adult female immigrant above that age not less than nine pence, then equivalent to nine annas (about 2½ cents now) for every working day of nine hours. Children below that age were entitled to wages proportionate to the amount of work done,” he said.
The labour law did not expect an employer to allot more than one task a day but remained silent on extra work performed by mutual agreement on payment terms.
Migrant workers above 12 years of age were at liberty to return to Indian after five years of continuous service at their own expense but be entitled to a free return passage after 10 years of continuous residence in the colony and five years of work.
Workers under 12 years of age were entitled to a free return passage if they claimed it before reaching 24 years of age and fulfill other conditions of residence.
“A child of an immigrant born within the colony will be entitled to a free return passage until he or she reaches 12 years of age but must be accompanied by a parent or guardian,” Mr Lal said.
There were several other difficult, if not impossible conditions.
The above article appeared in our Girmit Special issue dated May 1, 2004.