136th Anniversary of Girmit
Statement by Hon. Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Minister of Foreign Affairs
The Acting President of the Fiji Girmit Foundation, Master Shiu Charan,
Mr Harnam Singh Golian,
Other Senior Executives of the Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Ni sa bula vinaka & Namaste!
1. May I begin by expressing my deepest condolences on behalf of the Fijian Government, in the recent passing of Pundit Devakar Prasad, the late President and Trustee of the Fiji Girmit Foundation, New Zealand. It is on his invitation that I am honoured to be here with you today to observe this Girmit Remembrance Day, but sadly without him.
2. In his letter of invitation of 5th March, the late President explained about the Fiji Girmit Foundation saying, (and I quote) “it was established in 2013 with the sole objective of reconnecting, reclaiming and restoring Indo-Fijian history.
3. As a founder of the Fiji Girmit Foundation and its inaugural leader, Pundit Devakar has left behind a vision that should inspire the Fiji Indian diaspora in Auckland and elsewhere to continue in his legacy, promoting the noble ideals at the heart of the Foundation.
4. Ladies and gentlemen, your presence in such a large number today, is an indication of your support of these aspirations and a fitting tribute to a selfless individual and a visionary leader. May his soul Rest in Peace.
5. Today we commemorate the arrival of the first Indian indentured migrants on Fiji shores aboard the historical ship, Leonidas, 136 years ago. This and the other 86voyages that followed between 1879 and 1916 brought in about 60,000 migrants in total.
6. Fiji Girmit has been the subject of many scholarly writings, some penned by descendants of girmitiyaas themselves. Dr Brij Lal, Dr Vijay Naidu and Rajend Prasad, to name a few. These writings provide profound insights into a system that many in our time cannot even comprehend for its brutality and grave injustice.
7. The accounts of the first arrivals for example, do not make happy reading. The Leonidas almost could not come into Levuka harbour because the captain was unfamiliar with Fiji waters. The ship was overcrowded and carried migrants who were tired, sick and demoralized. The ship was almost turned back by the Governor because of reports of small pox and cholera on board. When it finally anchored in Levuka, the arduous process of activating a three-month quarantine period at a nearby island began, before the girmityaas were allowed to work.
8. For this pioneer group, work did not come easy. One can only imagine the frustration and anxiety they must have gone through. They were coming into a new land far away from their own. They have endured the long difficult sea journey with the hope of enjoying a better and easier life in the Fijian plantations.
9. But as we know, reality was far from this dream. Work was hard, overseers were mean taskmasters, pay was poor and living conditions appalling.
10. However, most of these first arrivals survived. Some returned to India after serving five to ten years of Girmit while others stayed on and settled in Fiji. And like others that followed in the next 36 years, girmityaas provided the backbone of Fiji’s plantation economy, the beginnings of the present day sugar industry.
11. We come together today to pay tribute to the girmityaas and recognise their sacrifice, their resilience under very difficult conditions, their resourcefulness in unfamiliar environment, and their commitment and hard work, contributing to the development of colonial Fiji and indeed helping lay the foundation of a modern nation.
12. As descendants of that courageous generation, you can all be very proud of the Fiji Girmitiyaa legacy. A legacy that encompasses the enduring values and ethos that allow you to identify closely with your Fijian Indian roots, while at the same time also able to competently and confidently take your place in the world.
13. These values stand the test of time and continue to ignite the quest for excellence that you as a group are known by. They underpin the achievements and laudable contributions you have made and are making in Fiji and elsewhere, including here in New Zealand.
14. The sinking of the ship Syria, as earlier alluded to, is the focus of this year’s commemoration.
15. I am pleased that the organisers have chosen this focus, not so much to dwell in the tragedy of that event, but more importantly to highlight the face of hope and compassion that surfaced from it.
16. Acting President Master Shiu Charan, has eloquently presented this in his tribute to the Naselai villagers. Thank you Master Shiu.
17. Unfortunately, the bias of history fails to highlight such positive stories. Instead, they are often lost in accounts that give much credit and praise to the colonial masters while others are only mentioned in passing.
18. I therefore applaud the plan of the Foundation as mentioned, to present a plaque to the people of Naselai, the descendants of those who risked their lives to rescue the survivors of the wreck.
19. This noble gesture would appropriately recognise a significant historical event and at the same time serves as a reminder of the humanity, compassion and goodwill that prevailed in a most tragic circumstance. It confirms that the goodness within us transcends boundaries, and therein lies our hope.
20. With its proposal, the Foundation I believe, will be contributing in a very special way to promoting better understanding and goodwill amongst the different communities that make up our multicultural Fiji.
21. And there has never been a better time in Fiji’s history than the present to be able to do this. We have a Constitution that provides for a democracy of common and equal citizenry, where everyone enjoys the same rights and opportunities. And we are all called Fijians.
22. This is our new journey. We go forward as equals, committed to creating a better Fiji for ourselves and for those that come after us.
23. The FijiFirst Government voted into office last September is indeed dedicated to ensuring that every Fijian enjoys these rights and opportunities. Education, health and other government services are now more accessible to Fijians than ever before. Economic opportunities are on the rise as confidence in the economy returns. Those of you who have been to Fiji in recent times can attest to the general sense of optimism that is now present. Fiji is on the move.
24. As we gather here today to remember this historical event, perhaps it is a good time for Fijian Kiwis to have a second thought on Fiji. You too can be part of this journey of building the new Fiji. I know some of you have regained their Fijian citizenship in the five years since Fiji allowed dual citizenship. And I urge others to consider this as an option.
25. I mentioned earlier the positive growth in the economy. There is a range of opportunities available for investment and trade. Investor confidence is back, particularly after the September election. Two weeks ago, a New Zealand business delegation was in Fiji to explore business opportunities and positive reports have come out of that visit. Some members of that delegation are Fijians living here in Auckland. A similar group from Australia followed the week after and delegations from China and Korea have also visited. So there is a growing interest in Fiji’s potential as a business destination and as a Pacific business hub. I encourage you to consider opportunities to invest and do business in Fiji. And for those who are already there, explore avenues for expansion.
26. And then there are opportunities for charitable work as well. I must acknowledge here the sterling work of groups such as the Friends of Fiji.
27. Heart Foundation and Friends of Fiji Health Foundation, to name a couple. They come to Fiji at their own cost and provide free treatment to disadvantaged Fijians who would have never been able to access such services otherwise. There are opportunities for individuals and groups to help the less fortunate in Fiji and be a blessing in their lives.
28. Today we remember the sacrifice of the girmitiyaas and give them our respect. We also pay tribute to the people of Naselai who risked their lives in the Syria tragedy. But a greater honour we can pledge in their memory in our time, is to live our lives as more compassionate, more tolerant and more caring individuals, families, communities and nation.
Vinaka vakalevu, Bahut Dhanyavaad