Forced migration to and from Fiji pains

Janifa Khan Janif – 

First of Two Parts

According to Professor Vijay Naidu of the Fiji Institute of Applied Studies, the indenture system in Fiji was complex, involving the removal and transportation of Indians from their villages in India to the plantations and sugar processing plants in the British colonies overseas.

Recruiters in British India were stationed in markets, places of worship and at festivals preying on vulnerable men, women and youth. Through deception, they were successful in contracting men, women and youth to plantations in Fiji, South Africa and the Caribbean.

Changing landscape

Professor Naidu said that the arrival of ‘Leonidas,’ the first shipload of indentured labourers from India carrying 498 men, women and children was to change the cultural landscape of Fiji in 1879.

In a system of forcible removal known as ‘Black Birding’ prior to the arrival of the Indian indentured labourers, men from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and a number of other Pacific nations were brought to Fiji to work on the copra and cotton plantations (Naidu, 2004).

Focus on Education

Thirty-seven years later, when the indenture system ended in 1916, about 60,553 Indians had arrived in Fiji from India. Upon the expiry of their five-year contracts, many Indian families made a decision to stay in Fiji.

Whilst the indenture system was a painful and undignified process for the Indians, for the next four generations in Fiji, prior to 1987 coup, Indian communities focused on educational achievement through the establishment of schools by Indian religious organisations on the main islands of Fiji.

The importance of becoming well educated was highlighted as the only means of improving the social and economic condition of Indian peoples in a society in which they could not own land. For parents who had toiled on the sugar cane farms, education for their children was the means of breaking the cycle of poverty, gaining professional employment and of onward migration.

Dawn of 1987

As the dawn of 1987 slipped in, at the stroke of midnight, my family and I stood on the streets of Labasa (a small sugarcane town in Fiji) while the streets pulsated with the rhythmic beating of ‘Lali,’ traditional Fijian drums.

Throngs of Fijians connected by blood, friendship, geographical ties and from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds joined in the celebrations.

The usual traditional forms of ushering in the New Year involved spraying anyone in your path with water and then attempting to sprinkle talcum powder on them.

It was an opportunity to make New Year’s resolutions and set personal goals based on prosperity, health and wellbeing.

First Coup

However, after the first four and a half months of the year slipped by, on the morning of May 14, 1987, a catastrophic event took place for Fijian democracy.

A coup executed by the Fiji Military Force took place in the capital city of Suva.

It rocked the nation once considered the epitome of racial harmony, shattering the dreams of its citizens.

Many had not heard of the word ‘coup’ and raced to consult their dictionaries.

Mass exodus

The first coup was the push factor for our family’s migration to New Zealand, as we wanted to provide stability, security and place of safety for our then four-year-old son.

It was with great sadness that we made this decision.

Leaving behind loved ones was a painful choice, as we did not know when we would see them again.

As a descendant of Indentured and Black Birded grandparents and great grandparents from India, the Solomon Islands and British Guyana, I was acutely aware of needing to draw on the strengths of my forebears, who as forced migrants had the resilience and tenacity to survive in their new homeland of Fiji.

(To be continued)

Janifa Khan Janif (popularly called Jenny) migrated to New Zealand from her native Fiji in 1989. She has a graduate degree (Bachelor of Arts) in Sociology from University of Auckland and a Post Graduate Diploma in Arts (Pacific Studies) from AUT University. She has more than 25 years of experience in government departments and public sector undertakings. She was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1997. She lives in Auckland. Email:


Photo :

  1. The building at the Calcutta (now Kolkata) Port where indentured labourers were housed before boarding ships to British colonies (Picture by Janifa Khan Janif)
  2. Janifa with her husband Khan at Kolkata Port in November 2012


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