Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Tales Of The Girmitiyas...



In our quest to explore the Indo-Fijian heritage, we entered the Indo Fijian Gallery of the Fiji Museum...


And it was interesting to note that the gallery had contributions from a Indo-Fijian company and the LIC of India, which incidentally has its outpost in the Pacific located here...


The Indian presence in this remote corner of the Pacific was the result of exploitation and machinations by the colonial British. Between 1879 and 1916, Indians were brought in on tenured agreements (giving the migrant labour, the name of girmitiyas), lured by a promise of abundance of wealth and prosperity. Nearly 60,000 people were brought in onboard 42 ships that made 87 voyages, between India and Fiji. Living conditions onboard were atrocious and many did not make it through alive. On reaching Fiji, the recruits were kept in quarantine on Nukulau Island before being allocated to the plantations. On the day of allocation, the recruits were formed into groups for plantation owners to transport them by boat to their destinations. The largest number of girmitiyas were allocated to the CSR Company, an Australian sugar company...


Besides sugarcane plantations, girmitiyas were made to work in tea plantations. Quite a few Sikhs came in, willingly, to serve in the police force, and they enjoyed slightly better conditions than the girmitiyas who spent long wretched hours working in plantations, in abject poverty and misery...


Houseboats of Indian traders...


A girmitiya hurricane lamp...


A hookah...


Seals of Brahmins from Madras...


Girmitiya women resting in the fields...


The quarantine station at Nukulau...


Indians playing checkers...


The accommodations for the girmitiyas were derogatorily called "coolie lines"...


A recreation of a Hindu prayer room...


Sikhs in Fiji...


Girmitiya women had a sense of style, wearing jewelry even while working!


Hindus in Fiji have proudly kept their heritage alive till this day...


Lord Krishna and the gopis...


Islam came to Fiji with Muslim girmitiyas...


A Hindu tapestry...


Gramophone records popularised Hindi film songs in Fiji in the 1900s...


Musical instruments of the girmitiyas...


A recreation of a girmtiya living quarter, with a charpoy or an Indian rope cot...


The prayer corner...


The kitchen area...


Girmitiya artifacts...


Implements and tools used by the girmitiyas...




Hard work defined the success of the girmitiyas who have emerged as the economically dominant community in Fiji...


One of the ships carrying girmitiyas from India, The Syria, was wrecked on Nasilai Reef on May 11, 1884 at around 8.30 pm. Of the 497 indentured men, women and children and crew of 43 onboard, 56 indentured Indian immigrants and three lascar (South Asian) crewmen lost their lives. The shipwreck was blamed on navigational mistakes and poor decision making by an inexperienced captain and crew led to the Syria running aground, further poor decisions being made by the Captain immediately afterwards adding to the disaster. When the news of the wreck had reached Suva, a rescue operation was immediately launched by Dr William MacGregor, the Chief Medical Officer and Acting Secretary for the colony. Nine boats set sail at around midnight and reached the site of the wreck shortly after midday on Tuesday. At this time the majority of the Indians were in the water on the reef, although many woman and children were still trapped on the ship...
With most of the passengers unable to swim, they were completely dependent upon their rescuers. Despite worsening weather and rough seas the rescue went fairly smoothly and the last rescue boat reached Nasilai village at about 8 pm, where they were received by the chief with warm food, water and shelter for the night before being transported to Nukulau quarantine station the next day. As there weren’t enough boats to transport everyone, the strongest 100 Indian men marched to Rewa, receiving food and fruit from Fijian men and women along the way...
In addition to the 59 people who died at Nasilai, another eleven died in the following fortnight. The loss of life would have been much higher except for the courage of the rescue crew, especially its leader Dr MacGregor who was awarded for his role, although writing that he felt hurt and ashamed that so many people had died while he had suffered nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises...
The Syrian tragedy quite really was a defining moment for the girmitiya community...


A cloth painting of an Indian farmer...


The bust of Dr. Timoci Bavadra, the Fijian prime minister who got deposed in a coup in 1987 was overwhelmingly pro-Indian. At that time, Fiji was a Commonwealth Realm, with the Queen as its head of state, represented in Suva, by the Governor General. Dr. Bavadra sought the Queen's intervention in resolving the crisis, but she refused to even give him an audience. That led to Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth and led to a political mess. Years later, the perpetrator of the coup, Sitiveni Rabuka regretted his role...  


Besides Indians, Chinese too came to Fiji in the 1800s, as traders in the search for commodities like sandalwood. Even though their numbers were far lesser than Indians, they too did make their mark in this remote Pacific outpost!

Exploring Fijian Relics...



After seeing the change of guard ceremony at the Presidential Palace, we headed next door to the Fiji Museum...


Located in the heart of Suva’s Thurston Gardens, the museum holds an impressive collection, dating back over 3500 years...



The Thurston Gardens were established in 1881 and were originally located near Waimanu Road. The gardens were established by the Colonial Secretary Sir John Bates Thurston, who also happened to be a knowledgeable amateur botanist. In 1913, the gardens were moved to their current location and were eventually renamed as the Thurston Gardens in 1976...
In 1918, a person called Henry Marks constructed the octagonal bandstand with its classical, columned clock tower here. The bandstand was used for musical concerts...


The Fijian flag looks striking against the backdrop of the tropical blue sky and the amazing clouds floating in the breeze...



We started our journey in the maritime gallery of the museum, which is one of the five galleries the museum has - the history gallery, the masi gallery, the girmit gallery and the natural history gallery...

This traditional Fijian raft called bilibili, made up of bamboo lashed together and is steered with a long pole, is called The HMS No Come Back.  People used bilibilis to transport goods down the river...


The large, massive horned masthead, or the domodomo, comes from the last ocean going double hulled canoe (or the drua), called the Ramarama, which was built for the Fijian paramount chief, Tui Cakau by the descendants of a clan of Samoan canoe builders (the Lemaki) who were brought to Fiji from Tonga in the late 1700s...


The sail of a drua...


The maritime gallery...


And here, we were told about the significance of the tabua, or the whaletooth. The tabua is an important cultural relic in Fijian society. These were traditionally given as gifts for atonement or esteem (called sevusevu), and were important in negotiations between rival chiefs. The dead were buried with their tabua, along with war clubs to help them in the afterlife. Originally they were very rare items, available only from beached whales and from trade from neighbouring Tonga. Even today the tabua remains an important item in Fijian life. They are not generally sold but exchanged as gifts in weddings, birthdays, and at funerals...
Exports of tabua from Fiji is highly restricted, at 225 exports per year, and permits from the Ministry of Fijian Affairs, the Fijian Department of Environment, are necessary...


A necklace made from whaletooth...


The rudder of the Bounty...



The Ba District Roll Honour commemorating the contribution of Fiji to the First World War...


Tabu kaisi - sleeping maps not meant for the commoners...


Learning about the Lapita people, who were the first settlers in Fiji...


Religion of the natives...


The tanoa...


The first known western expedition to Fiji was by Abel Tasman in the 1600s, the Dutch seafarer, after whom Tasmania is named. And then Captain Cook, William Bligh and James Wilson came calling in the 1700s...


And some of these foreigners settled among the Fijians...



The imposition of Western religion and cultural values led to the clash of civilizations and the Thomas Baker tragedy was once such incident...


The remains of Thomas Baker were never found, but it was believed that he was a victim of cannibalism while he was on his missionary expedition...


Exploring the traditional Fijian barkcloth prints or the Masi...



A sampling of masi prints...




And next we explore the Indo-Fijian heritage, but more on that in a separate post...


And we are back out in the warmth of the Pacific sun...


Exploring the Thurston Gardens...

Since1949, the Thurston Gardens’s collection of plants consisted of many types of ornamental and timber trees, seventeen types of palms, various trees and shrubs, grasses, orchids and ferns.


And this makes us want to stay longer here, but we have more of Suva to explore...

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