Between 1838 and 1916, more than a million Indian men and women undertook long journeys on dangerous waters across the Atlantic and Pacific, to work as virtually bonded labour in the Caribbean sugar plantations of the British. Their traumatic experiences and ultimately their voices, were silenced and forgotten in the by lanes of history. All that remains of those harrowing memories – are encapsulated in the title they are still referred to as – Girmityas, a corruption of the horrid ‘agreements’ they signed, virtually giving away their rights and life.
The word Girmityas is a corruption of the horrid ‘agreements’ they signed, virtually giving away their rights and life
Poor, beaten and ravaged by circumstances, they had no choice.
The Girmitiyas were a product of their times.
The early 19th century was a period of famine, poverty and political instability across the northern belt of what is today Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. The British were on the ascendent and they had started exacting their pound of flesh and transforming the countryside into opium fields. The large-scale cultivation of the much in demand crop in the area, had devastated the fertility of the land and with it any possibility of local subsistence agriculture. This led to acute deprivation and poverty here.
If this was the situation in India, elsewhere the imperialists were carving out their territories and rich tracts of plantations of the so called highly profitable ‘cash crops’. On 18 January 1826, the French island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, laid down the nuts and bolts of the indentured labour agreement to acquire manpower for the colony. An insatiable demand for sugar and its emerging potential as a cash-crop across the globe was offset by a scarcity of labour across the colonies around the world as well.
The emancipation of the slaves after the official abolition of slavery all over the British empire, in 1833 spelt financial trouble for the British Crown and its sugar refining companies. The newly emancipated African slaves were no longer willing to work on low wages.
Poor peasants were recruited from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with a promise of a better life
While the British had officially abolished slavery in 1833, new novel ways were found to circumvent this ‘inconvenience’, by many. So, in place of slavery, came a more conveniently ‘legitimate’ form of labour acquisition. This was both an economic and political move, as the Indian people were more likely to bend to their employer’s needs, lessening the influence of the local emancipated slave labour, from then on.
It happened with the help of arkatiyas or Indian middlemen, who recruited poor peasants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with a promise of a better life. These newly recruited labourers were made to sign these agreements which confirmed their participation, of their own free will.
Steamers belonging to Nourse Line, the British-India Steam Navigation Company, and others made countless trips from Calcutta and Madras, carrying thousands of Indians, predominantly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to British colonies like Fiji, Jamaica, Guyana and also Mauritius, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago and Natal from 1838 to 1916. Over 40 ships made 82 voyages transporting over 60,000 indentured labourers to Fiji alone, with the total number transported to all the colonies well over a million. This happened on such a great scale that the colonies themselves came to be known as girmitiya countries, with Indians making up a third of the labour force as ‘coolies.’
Gaiutra Bahadur’s book ‘Coolie Women: The Odyssey of Indenture’ highlighted her great-grandmother’s story and the story of women in particular, on these journeys.
“Two-thirds of women who left India indentured were categorised as ‘single,’ as my great-grandmother was. They had been uprooted from their homes and their kin. Indeed, indenture involved a re-creation and redefinition of family. This process began on the seas, during voyages to a new world, and continued in that new world,”
The girmit system was based on an ‘agreement,’ between the ‘employer’ and the laborers, the word girmit itself a corruption of ‘agreement’ by the laborers, who were mostly illiterate.
The kantraki or ‘contract’ for these girmitiyas entailed a daily payment of 12 annas or 75 paise for men and nine annas or 54 paise for women. The British did not make any concessions for children. Even in the unforgiving tropical climes of the plantations, the agreement stated that children below 15 years of age would receive wages proportionate to the amount of work done.
With long hours of back-breaking work in the tropical heat, it is not surprising that there were innumerable casualties. Stories of desperation, attempted escapes and suicides among the labourers, were common. Their days began at 4 am and they had to plant crops in gruelling heat for nine hours each day on an average, with those that could not keep up being whipped on the regular. Living conditions were abysmal with workers packed in like sardines in their quarters, and limited rations and access to medical supplies, taking a toll on their health.
The kantraki or ‘contract’ for these girmitiyas entailed a daily payment of 12 annas for men and nine annas for women.
They soldiered on however, some taking to music and poetry and other forms of self-expression, both as a means to alleviate their despair as well as to forge a new identity. This was an identity that was utterly fragmented, as their years on the plantations stripped them of any recollections of home, and they never fully adapted to the foreign lands and ways of the local people. This gave rise to the popular birha geet, a type of Bhojpuri patois song that still reverberates in the islands.
The indenture system was officially abolished in 1917. A fervent backlash built up over the years amid calls from prominent nationalist leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, bringing the unjust exploitation akin to slavery, to the forefront.
Many descendants of these Girmitiya immigrants went on to serve at the highest political offices
In the aftermath, as encapsulated in his acclaimed essay, ‘From Sugar to Masala’, Indo-Fijian author Sudesh Mishra categorised the Indian diaspora into the old and new. The former group stayed on as they could not think of coming back to India, a land which was now as foreign as the ones they had set out for. They settled and flourished as traders in the years to follow. The second group were further displaced as they headed to New Zealand, the Americas and Australia in the postcolonial years, in search of newer opportunities. Many descendants of these Girmitiya immigrants went on to serve the highest political offices as Prime Ministers and Presidents in countries such as Mauritius.
The journeys of the Girmitiyas have spawned a rich and unique culture in countries as far as Fiji and Guyana. The descendants of the Girmitiya labourers are rediscovering their roots in India. It is as through, through old family documents and photographs, the voices from the past are retelling their stories.
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