The story of the indentured labour system is among the more gut-wrenching tales of the 19th century. It was the defining feature of plantations during this period and allowed Western agricultural capitalism a ‘soft landing’ as it struggled to cope with the end of the slave trade, due to the popular mood turning against this most exploitative of all labour practices.
The term ‘indenture’ refers to a contract entered into by a person to work for a fixed period of time. The agreement stipulated that the labourer would not pay his passage to a foreign land that would be his work site, but agreed to provide labour for a fixed period in return. It specified wages, work hours, as well as housing and medical facilities. The agreement, while appearing to be fair on the surface, concealed far more than it revealed and was heavily loaded in favour of the employer and against the labourer. In practice, it was akin to a ‘second slavery’ as it provided for criminal punishment for breaches of contract and prevented labourers from forming associations to seek renegotiation of their contracts.
An early version of this system began in 1815, when a group of convicts were shipped to Mauritius from India. But the system actually commenced in 1834 with 75 indentured labourers from Calcutta and Bombay shipped to Mauritius by Gillanders, Arbuthnot and Co. British Guyana on mainland South America began to import labourers in 1838 and over the next few decades, Indian indentured labourers were being transported to all parts of the globe wooed by the British, French and Dutch, even as slavery began to be outlawed both in Europe as well as in the colonies administered by European powers.
Fiji was annexed to the British Empire in 1874 and its first British governor, Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, decided on sugar as the crop that would sustain this new acquisition. The hiring of native Fijian labour was prohibited for various political reasons, and soon, Indian labour was mooted as the solution. On 14 May 1879, the ship Leonidas brought 479 Indians to Fiji. By the time the indentured labour system was abolished in 1916, close to 61,000 Indians had been transported to the islands. Indentured labourers in all European colonies came under an agreement – corrupted to 'girmit' – because of which the labourers came to be known as girmitiyas.
Totaram Sanadhya reached Fiji on the ship Jumna in May 1893. Twelve thousand labourers had already made the voyage by the time he stepped on Fijian shores. By his own account, published as Fiji Dveep mein Mere Ikkis Varsh (My Twenty-one Years in Fiji), he was born in 1876 in a village near Firozabad in modern-day Uttar Pradesh. Following the death of his father in 1887, Totaram and his brothers were forced to earn money. In 1893, Totaram left home looking for work and was taken in by the sales pitch of an arkati (recruiter) near Allahabad who was looking for able-bodied men willing to work in a foreign land.
The arkati promised them employment in a place where one could ‘… eat a lot of bananas and a stomach-full of sugarcane and play flutes in relaxation’. Intrigued, Totaram signed on. He was then presented to a magistrate who processed 165 men in 20 minutes by simply asking them if they had agreed to go to Fiji and not caring to investigate further. At this point, nothing had been said about the terms of employment. It was a process loaded against the recruits, most of whom were desperate for work. Later, when they were boarding the ship, the recruits were promised ‘12 annas per day’ and told that Fiji was ‘heaven’.
Totaram, who was a Brahmin by caste, was recorded as a ‘Thakur’ in his immigration papers, since Brahminical injunctions against crossing the ‘kala pani’ were particularly strong and potential recruiters were reluctant to sign them on, given their reputation for being fussy and their insistence on observing caste norms.
When Totaram reached Nausori, the little plantation colony that was to be his home for the next few years, he was allotted his housing in a location where rats and a few dogs were his sole companions. As he recounts in a 1922 publication Bhut Len ki Katha (The Story of the Haunted Line), this particular colony was also rumoured to be haunted. Also, the food rations the recruits were allotted were near-starvation level and many times, would run out much before the next allotment of rations was due, leaving the labourers to scrounge for food even as they continued to perform their back-breaking duties, owing to the terms of the contract.
Feeling suicidal at times (as he recounts poignantly in Haunted Line), Totaram found strength by reading the Mahabharata and Gita and soon came to be addressed as ‘Panditji’ by the others in the community to whom he often narrated tales from these texts. In time, he became a ‘sirdar’ (overseer), married the daughter of another labourer and after his contract came to an end, set himself up as a prosperous sugarcane farmer.
As a former indentured labourer and an individual of some standing in the Indian community, Totaram soon came to be seen as a person of influence. He travelled throughout the islands, meeting labourers and listening to their tales of woe. A familiar tale of poverty, misrepresentation by the arkati and less-than-favourable working conditions was unfolding everywhere. Clearly, the indentured system was as exploitative as slavery — the practice that it had replaced. It was a dehumanising system that worked well for the Empire but deeply undermined the dignity of the Indians who found themselves enmeshed in it.
Totaram also held forth against the proselytisation efforts of British missionaries and attempted to institutionalise practising Hinduism in Fiji in a bid to keep Indo-Fijians anchored to their Indian roots. To this end, he organised a Ram Lila in 1902, which soon became a widespread practice. In 1910, he set up a petition which urged the British authorities to arrange for schools for the children of the girmitiyas and also for Indian representation in the Fiji Legislative Council.
Meanwhile, popular opinion back home in India was turning against the indentured labour system. In 1912, an article was published in Bharat Mitra which narrated the travails of Kunti, a woman who had resisted rape by her overseer by jumping into the river (she was saved). This outraged Indian public sentiment, as several leaders weighed against the girmit system both in the popular press and through representations to the Viceroy.
In 1912, Totaram and a few others wrote a letter to Mahatma Gandhi requesting that an English-speaking lawyer be despatched to Fiji to help the Indians get organised. Manilal Maganlal Doctor arrived in December 1912 and immediately set to work. In time, he won several concessions for the Indians before being deported from Fiji in 1920.
Then in 1914, when Totaram returned to India for good, his work (Twenty-one Years) was published. This work proved to be crucial in exposing the girmit system. In 1916, CF Andrews and WW Pearson published their scathing report on the system, leading to a ban on the recruitment of girmitiyas in 1917. A century-old system had finally been abolished. It did leave its imprint on history though, as is evident in the many overseas Indian communities in places as far apart as Mauritius, Kenya, South Africa, Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Malaysia and Fiji.
Totaram later joined the Sabarmati Ashram in 1922. He died in 1948, after a life well-lived.
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