Girmitiyas” are all people whose ancestry dates back to the Indian system of forced labour contracts (1834-1921). There are an estimated 12-15 million descendants worldwide, although there are no confirmed figures.
The Indian indenture system was a system of servitude by which more than 1.6 million Indians were transported to work in European colonies as a substitute for slave labour after the abolition of the slave trade in the early 19th century.
The system spread after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, in the French colonies in 1848 and in the Dutch Empire in 1863. British Indian serfdom lasted until the 1920s.
This led to the development of a large Indian diaspora in the Caribbean, Natal (South Africa), East Africa, Reunion, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Myanmar and Fiji, as well as the growth of Indo-Caribbean, Indo-African, Indo-Fijian, Indo-Malaysian and Indo-Singaporean populations.
It was on 14 May 1879 that the first ship arrived in Fiji with 463 Indians to work mainly on the country’s sugar cane plantations as indentured labourers, who came to be known as Girmits (a loose modification of the word “agreement”).
In commemoration of the life, identity and also in remembrance of the sufferings of these immigrants, who were required to work twelve hours a day for minimal pay, 14 May has been established as National Girmits Day in Fiji.
In search of memory and reconciliation
In addition to the exploitation of yesteryear, the Grimitiyas faced racially motivated persecution during the violent coups of 1987 and 2000, and the coup of December 2006, which has left a deep scar on inter-ethnic relations in Fiji.
The coups of 1987 and 2000 were supported by the church leaders of the time.
Now, in a historic step, the Methodist Church is launching a ten-year campaign to heal the wounds of the past, starting with an apology to coincide with the inaugural Grimit Day celebrations this Sunday.
Meanwhile, Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs Sashi Kiran, while appreciating the apology and the attempt at reconciliation, admitted to RNZ News that the events of the past cannot be undone, and that the way forward lies in healing.
“For the sake of healing the nation, for the sake of future generations being born into a healed nation… we request you to please open your hearts and your inner feelings,” he appealed to Fijians.
“Let’s talk about it [past atrocities], and let’s work to heal and enter that space.”
He also said that “it’s okay” for those people who still “need time” to heal from racial issues, adding that “let’s at least start talking about it”.
This is why, as part of the planned activities, an international transdisciplinary conference will be held in Suva this year that will focus on documenting, researching, writing and communicating the history and lives of Girmitiyas past and present.
The conference “Celebrating the Lives of the Girmitiyas” will take place on 12-13 May at the University of the non-violent South Pacific in Suva, the capital city of Fiji, under the patronage of the Government of Fiji.
More details about the conference can be accessed at the following link