The bitter saga of a sugar company

The bitter saga of- Rajendra Prasad.jpgAustralian conglomerate Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) Ltd), sold its sugar making division to the Singapore-based Wilmar International for $2.14 billion, ending its industrial dominance in Australasia.

The deal included CSR’s stake in the New Zealand Sugar Company, owner of the Chelsea brand and Birkenhead refinery. Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board and New Zealand’s Overseas Investment Office are likely to accept the offer.

CSR operated its sugar mills in Fiji from 1882 -1973 and thereafter sold its interests to the Fiji Government. Originally, it was both a major grower and miller of sugarcane in Fiji but later divested its interest as a grower and concentrated on milling.

The growing of sugarcane crop rested initially on the shoulders of Indian indentured labourers and later on their descendants. The relationship between CSR and the growers is a horrific story of manipulation, domination and exploitation of people that failed to echo through the pages of history.

A heart-rending tale

The victims were poor, illiterate, ignorant and therefore, gullible. Even the justice system worked against them. I have covered CSR’s cruelties against our forebears extensively in my book, Tears in Paradise. It has melted the hearts of numerous readers, bringing tears to the eyes of even those who consider themselves to be made of sterner stuff.

Immersed in a seven-year research on our painful past, this ignited a stream of anger and anguish that has become part of my life. It is my fervent hope that the present and successive generations will not forget the suffering and sacrifices of our forebears.

Those rich, powerful and dominant, have often manipulated history. India’s first Prime Minister, the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book, The Discovery of India, grieved that history was almost always written by victors and conquerors and recorded their viewpoint. In the case of Indo-Fijians, their history has been deliberately been concealed and little is known by the descendants of the Girmitiyas.

Human Response

The cries of the Indian indentured laborers resonated across the Pacific and beyond but it failed to invite a humane response from the Commonwealth or other world authorities that consistently preached on human rights, freedom and justice.

Interestingly, it merited a mention in the Australian House of Representatives on September 15, 1911 by Alexander Poynton (1853-1935), who spoke about over-tasking and violence against the Indian indentured laborers in Fiji.

“If they (Indian indentured laborers) do not complete the task set, they are brought before a Court and heavily fined or imprisoned. In 1907, there were 1460 cases of imprisonment and other penalties for non-compliance of tasks. The Hindoos (sic) are treated with utmost severity. The overseers (mostly of Australian origin) even flog women and children,” he said in his speech.

Justice denied

The gravity of the revelation did not move the Australian parliamentarians. No inquiry was requested or instituted, perhaps because any such inquiry would have implicated the Australia-based CSR Company and its Australian employees.

In one incident, Bootan, an indentured laborer, who lost his hand while working for the CSR Company at its Nausori sugar mill failed to get any compensation.

The Attorney General said, a servant injured whilst working for the master’s benefit does not impose any obligation on the master.

One of the most heartbreaking stories is that of Naraini, who had given birth to a child that died on the fourth day. Two days later, she was tasked to break stones on the Sigatoka tramline. Frail and weak from her post-natal condition, she could hardly walk but the Overseer, see her resting, held her by her hair and smashed her face against the stones. Her pleas for mercy, with hands joined together, went unheeded.

In court, hospital attendant Albert Whittaker testified that she arrived at the hospital in a collapsed state, suffering from contusion and injuries. Divisional Medical Officer Dr John Halley also testified, saying that the injuries showed a degree of brutality that “could hardly be conceived by any man in his right senses.”

Despite such credible evidence, the Chief Justice exonerated the accused.

Naraini subsequently became insane and was repatriated to India.

View from the top

Even the Governor-General of Fiji Sir Everard im Thurn (1904-1908) was riled.

He said the cases proved again the habitual attitude of many Overseers towards the immigrants under them was brutal.

“Despite this, the courts continued to show favour to perpetrators of horrendous crimes against the indentured laborers in Fiji. One had claimed that they were skinned alive but no one could rescue them. They were the lambs to the slaughter and they bore the CSR and the Colonial Government atrocities with sheepish timidity, shocked, stunned and bewildered at what was meted to them with impunity.”

My grandfather had two whip marks that he took to his grave as emblems of CSR depravity and British injustices during the indenture period in Fiji.

Many of his compatriots suffered similar or even greater tragedy.

These revelations led to an eruption of emotions in me to reveal the saga of the Girmit period and Tears in Paradise was the result.

The bitter saga- Girmitiyas in Plantations.jpgIt is a tragic but an absorbing history that we, as the descendants of our Girmitiyas, have a responsibility to bestow on to successive generations, ensuring that the chain is not broken. Girmit was an atypical feat in human endurance, struggle, suffering and sacrifice and these attributes have become the building blocks for successive generations.

Rajendra Prasad is our columnist and author of Tears in Paradise, which has just entered its Third Edition. The recent sale of CSR prompted the above article.

Photo : Girmitiyas working in plantations in Fiji

In our next issue

History was taught in schools but the curriculum comprised colonial and indigenous events. Reference to Indians was minimal and their contribution to the development of Fiji was fleeting. They were treated like the washer man’s donkey and yet they sustained the economic pulse of the nation, struggling to fend poverty and striving to build a better and secure future for themselves.

In the post-indenture period, the CSR loot continued, while the farmers relentlessly toiled from dawn to dusk, only to enrich the coffers of the Company.

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