The Launch of the Girimit Centennial Celebration
November 9, 2016 Albert Park, Suva
- The Honourable Acting Prime Minister and Attorney General;
The Honourable Minister for Local Government and other members of the Cabinet;
Honourable members of Parliament;
Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps;
The Special Administrator of Suva;
The Chairman of the Organising Committee of the Girmit Centennial Celebration;
My fellow Fijians;
Ni sa bula vinaka, Namaste, Asalaam Alaykum, Noa’ia‘e mauri and a very good morning to you all.
We gather together today as members of the great Fijian family to commemorate an important era in our nation’s history - the arrival of the last indentured labourers from British India precisely 100 years ago.
The story of the Girmitiyas – as they were known – is one of immense struggle and suffering. But it is also one of the most inspirational chapters of Fijian history. Because that struggle was borne with dignity and perseverance. And through sheer determination and hard work, the Girimitiyas eventually triumphed – a triumph of the human spirit in the face of terrible adversity.
A people transported across the world in a succession of small ships and in the harshest of conditions did not succumb to despair. On the contrary, they worked their hearts out to carve out new lives in Fiji. And in doing so, made a disproportionate contribution to building our nation.
On the shoulders of the Girmitiyas rested much of the burden of building the then British colony. Whether it was by clearing land, building roads, and most of all, toiling in the sugar cane fields that were the mainstay of the Fijian economy then and continue to play an important role in our economy today.
They endured hardship and oppression, a crushing workload and the constant threat of illness and disease. They also suffered culture shock and loneliness as a people transplanted 11,500 kilometers across the world. Yet they were also tough and they were stoic, with dreams of their own. And they were determined to succeed. And above all else, determined that their children and grandchildren would have better lives than they had endured.
The values that governed their lives were the values of simple working people everywhere. The preservation of religion, culture and language. The importance of family, of thrift and hard work.
For the early Girmitiyas, there was no access to education and their children grew up illiterate. But they knew even then that the acquisition of knowledge through education was their way out of poverty. As their fortunes changed over the years, the importance of education became paramount. And as they set up schools all over the country, they became important partners with our other communities in gradually laying the foundations of modern Fiji. A nation that gathers to pay tribute to these early pioneers. And is equally determined to follow their example and carve out a better place in the world.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, the main message that I want to convey to you today is that the Girmit story isn’t a story confined to one community in Fiji. It is a story that belongs to all of us - an inspirational chapter of the story of the development of our nation as a whole.
It is a story to be told and retold. Not because it is part of our distant colonial past but because it is relevant to our present and to our future. Not only did the Girmitiyas lay the foundation for much of what we know in Fiji today, they set an example of endurance, teamwork and sacrifice in the service of our nation. And it is an example for every Fijian to follow. An inspiration to us all.
It is also a story that lives on in our national life through the contribution of the men and women who are the descendants of the Girmityas - members of those original families who came across the seas to Fiji. And I have the greatest pleasure to welcome many of them to this commemoration.
My friends, you have an honoured place at our celebrations today and rightly so. Because you are all living links to our past. An unbroken line spanning the century from the arrival of the last Girmit ship, the Sutlej Five, in November 1916, to where we sit in these magnificent surroundings in our beloved capital 100 years later.
You are the custodians of the Girmit tradition – a flame that still burns brightly a century on. When we gaze at your faces, we can imagine the faces of your ancestors – the salt of the earth of what was then British India and is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ordinary men and women transported from the vast plains and teeming cities of the Subcontinent to the sugar cane plantations, towns and settlements of Fiji.
It was a voyage of many months in rough seas and cramped conditions. And with the toughest of challenges - poor food, poor sanitation, illness and fear. Fear of dying on the voyage. Fear of what lay ahead, in a land they could never have imagined and among people with whom they had nothing in common. Except the land on which they stood.
Friends, you will all have your individual stories about the Girmitiya experience passed down to you over the decades through your own families. For all of you – the direct descendants of the Girmitiyas – today will be a day of solemn reflection. To remember your own fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. Or because so much time has now passed – grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents.
It is a time for private thoughts, memories and prayers. The rest of us can only imagine the emotion many of you now feel. Especially as you recall the struggles of your own families. The sacrifices and the suffering. But also the good times. Of decent, hardworking men and women finally finding their feet in their new land. Adjusting to their changed circumstances. Adjusting to the new people around them – their iTaukei neighbours. Their British rulers and their Australian overseers in the sugar industry. New languages. New customs. New rules.
History records that it was often a brutal life. Being an indentured labourer was akin to slavery. They were exploited. Forced to work punishingly long hours for a pittance. And they were beaten. Their pain and suffering can only be imagined. Not only the poor treatment they received but the loneliness. The isolation. 11,500 kilometers from their families back in British India.
Some Girmityas were eventually able to return after they had served a further five years on top of their original period of indenture. But for others, the cost of returning was simply beyond their means. And they had no choice but to stay and make new lives for themselves.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, it has been a long, painfully slow journey. And we must never forget the challenges that the Girmitiyas and their descendants have faced. Even when they were free, the 1920s were not an era of easy travel and many never saw their loved ones again. But they were tough people. Resourceful people. Adaptable people. And as the years passed, many of the Girmitiyas finally came to feel at home in Fiji. And to feel that their futures and those of their descendants lay here.
Friends, over the past century, something wonderful has happened. The years of injustice have gradually given way to opportunity. The years of hardship have given way to relative prosperity. And the human spirit has eventually triumphed against the odds.
The Girmitiyas had their language and customs. But some of these evolved over time in their new home, such as the development of Fiji-Hindi, the language we know today. Yet in terms of being fully accepted in Fiji, of gaining a sense of belonging, it has been a long, slow and often painful process. And right up until our recent past, people who had lived in Fiji for several generations were still called Indians or Indo-Fijians. A cruel sense of being separate – outsiders - continued.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am convinced that future generations of Fijians will be astonished as they look back on our history. And to learn that it wasn’t until 2013 that these British Indians in Fiji finally became Fijians. That it took 97 years after the last arrival of the Girmitiyas for the citizens of these islands – no matter what their background – to finally gain a common identity. A common name.
But Fijian is what we all are today. And that is cause for further celebration. That we are finally one nation, one people. With equal rights and equal opportunity finally guaranteed for every citizen in our 2013 Constitution.
Friends, as direct descendants of the Girmitiyas, I am sure you will agree that this is perhaps the greatest triumph of all. Your ancestors may have dared to dream that one-day, you would achieve equality and security in their chosen land. But a century later, it is finally a reality. Their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have precisely the same rights as other citizens. You are Fijians too.
And that, my friends, is something really worth celebrating. That 100 years after the last Girmitiyas arrived in Fiji, the struggle to get izzat – meaning respect and dignity combined- has finally been achieved. You are no longer vulagi. No longer outsiders. No longer marginalised. But equal citizens with the same rights and responsibilities as every other Fijian.
It is a wonderful achievement that we have made as a nation. And a wonderful conclusion to the Girmit story. Equality and justice finally achieved. Everyone a Fijian. Everyone finally belonging.
I repeat: the Girmit story doesn’t just belong to one group – although we all acknowledge that it has special significance to the Girmitiyas and their families. It belongs to the Fijian people. It is a part of our collective history. Of who we are as a nation. And that is why we also come together as one in celebration. Because it is a story that touches us all. Of perseverance in the face of adversity. Of triumph against the odds.
And so, my fellow Fijians, as we remember the Girimityas, let us also rededicate ourselves to the Fijian ideal that is embodied in our Constitution. Of working together as one people to build our beloved Fiji. We owe it to those who arrived on that last ship, the Sutlej Five. We owe it to ourselves 100 years on. And we owe it to the generations to come. To bring the dreams of the Girimityas to life in the new Fiji.
In 2020, it will not only be the fiftieth anniversary of our Independence but the centenary of the end of the indenture system. And I am delighted as Head of State to announce that we will be holding special commemorations throughout Fiji in four year’s time to mark the end of the indenture era.
Friends, today is a day of remembrance. A day of great emotion. And it is a day to celebrate the Fijian nation and all of us who belong to it.
May God Bless the Girmitiyas and their descendants. And may God Bless us all and make us worthy of their legacy and the future we are building together.
Vinaka Vakalevu, Dhanyavaad, Sukria, Fai’eksia and Thank You.