Podcast | Girmitiya: A Saga of Indian Indentured Labourers in Fiji

The plight of Indian indentured labourers is a story of loss, search and homecoming.

Listen to this article:

In 1903, Mangre Lal from Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district left home in the middle of drought. Like the thousands around him, he, too, was searching for a way out of the crushing poverty facing his family due to drought and an unfair taxation regime by the British Empire.

On his search, he encountered an agent who offered him a chance to work on plantations in various British colonies that were fuelling the economy of the Empire. Between 1833 and 1917, more than a million Indians left for dozens of nations from South Africa to Guyana.

Lal went to an office and put his thumb print on an agreement – a “girmit” – saying that he would work for five years as a bonded labourer. He was initially destined for British Guyana, but at the last moment, as the ship was full, he was transferred to the SS Sangola, which left the Calcutta harbour for Fiji in 1904.

In Fiji, the labourers lived in hovels that slaves once occupied, and worked on plantations. There were seemingly a dozen ways to die, from being whipped by overseers to drowning in Fiji’s tremendous rivers. The travel across the ocean meant an eternal rupture from traditions of their land of birth.

The indentured women were a tough lot, choosing to go abroad to escape terrible situations in India. Many were widows, abused by husbands, or disowned by families. They carried with them songs, rituals and folk festivals of India, and an inescapable longing for home in a strange land.

Although the British promised the girmitiyas safe passage home after five years of labour, many of them chose not to come back. Life had simply moved on. Lal married a woman in Fiji who had left her husband and already had three children. He would not be accepted in the orthodox village community in Bahraich. So,he stayed put in Fiji and three generations of his descendants are now on the island, identifying as Indo-Fijians – neither true Indians, nor native Fijians, but a mix.

In this episode, we tell you the saga of indenture by recounting the story of Lal’s grandson, Brij Lal, a world-renowned historian of the Pacific Islands, who has studied indenture. In this increasingly migrant world, this story speaks to anyone who’s searched for home.