Interpreting the Indentured Discourse of Indians in Fiji through Theoretical Frameworks on ‘Racism’

“ Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end ”
– John Milton, Paradise Lost.

Article By:- Krishna Raghubir Nand

Opening the Curtains

It was a spring afternoon in Sydney on 26 November 1918, beneath the roofs of Wesley College at Sydney University. A tea ceremony was held. Amongst the notable guests was Miss Florence E Garnham. Miss Garnhamwas a member of the London Missionary Society in Calcutta. Miss Garnham was praised for her initiatives in investigating the life of Indentured Indian Labourers in Fiji. In reward for her findings, Miss Garnham was presented with a‘leather suitcase, hold-all, and notebook’.

The biographical details of Miss Garnhamremain undiscovered. Whatever historians on Indentured Labouring know of Miss Garnham are ascertained through Reports on Indentured Labouring in Fiji, written during the early twentieth century. What is known through the Reports are confined to her credentials, with no light shed on her upbringing? The lack of archival digging is disproportionate to her achievements. Miss Garnham’s A Report on the Social and Moral Conditions of Indians in Fiji, the subject of this piece, was one of the two written inquiries that acted as a catalyst to ending Indentured Labouring in Fiji. The other inquiry was made by Reverend Andrews. Contrastingly, there exists a biography dedicated to the Reverend written by Boston University’s School of Theology.

II Why I chose Miss Garnham

The Report, hidden under a pile of telegrams in Sydney University’s archival collection,is one of the most significant books in the history of Indentured Indians in Fiji. It was after Miss Garnham’s Report was published, that the Viceroy of India decided to abolish the system in 1918.

Sadly, the views of Indentured Indians remain ‘mute and voiceless’. This put meat a disadvantage. The knowledge of my roots is told through old family photos, and oral histories. The most significant piece of my history is a photograph I have(Figure 1). The photo echoes a period when Fiji was still under the Empire’s annex, but free from indenture. Pictured are two tall, handsome gentlemen, the left of whom was my Grandfather, with neatly slicked hair. Astonishing as this is, this photo is far from the realities of life of the indentured labourer. Nonetheless, my curiosity led me to Miss Garnham’s Report. Told through a white, sympathising woman, the Report is a powerful portrayal of the problems posed by the ‘racism’ that structured the operations of Indentured Labouring in Fiji. My analysis is confined, in Part IV below, to two major problems identified by Miss Garnham: the Coolie Lines, and Marriage. In order to understand the ‘racist’ motivations behind the problems, it is important to detail how Indentured Labouring in Fiji emerged.

III ‘Sugar-coated’ Empire: setting the scene

Colonial Fiji: Anchoring Labour from British India

Outpost of empire
Indentured Labouring was a product of Fiji’s nineteenth-century economic and political structure. Its politics was solidified after the annexure to the British Empire on 10 October 1874. As seen through the colony (Map1), Fiji at the nineteenth century was, and still is, composed of numerous islands: Viti Levu, Vanua Levu, along with Taveuni, Ovalu, finishing off with minor islets at the Koro Sea. Colonial Fiji produced significant quantities of copra, pork, sandalwood, whilst importing cotton. Cotton imports, however, declined due to the de-industrialisation of the Southern States of America, the major producers of cotton. The de-industrialisation was caused by the damages of the American Civil War. The failing cotton market caused financial strains on those reliant on cotton at Fiji. The imperial grant went from 150,000 to 100,000 pounds. Fiji could no longer generate sufficient capital, so it turned to sugar. Sugar was starting to be cultivated, leading to the establishment of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company in 1882 (CSR). To cultivate enough sugar, labour was essential.

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Forging of the Indo – Pacific voyage, & the ‘Girmit’ community of Fiji

Arthur Hamilton – Gordon, the second Governor of Fiji from June 1875 to January 1880, called to India. Hamilton – Gordon asserted: “We want a cheap, abundant, and certain supply of labour…[and] revenue’. Negotiations for Indian labourers were complete in 1878, and the first voyage landed in May 1879, totalling 479 indentured Indian workers.

Why India?
When the demand for sugar grew in Fiji, Indians were already being used as labour to sugar colonies in the Caribbean islands, alongside British colonies at South Africa and Mauritius. Thus, Indians proved to bea reliable source. Most of these Indians were perceived to be fit for cultivating work, for most labourers were from rural districts of the northern United Provinces in British India. Thus began a system of indenture that resulted in 60,639 Indians being sent to Fijiuntil January 1, 1920. In an unknown land, a stronger Indian community without caste boundaries was formed.

The new migrant community called themselves girmits, a short-hand form of calling the Agreement that bound them into labour. The establishment of indentured Indians in Fiji extended the CSR’soperations. The CSR during indenture grew exponentially, with its first mill established in three Indian-populated towns of Viti Levu: Nausori in 1882, Ba in 1883, and in Lautoka in 1901. It had also expanded at Labasa, another town rich in Indianness at Vanua Levu in 1890. By the turn of the twentieth century, the CSR became the dominant force of the the‘sugar economy’. It accumulated investments totalling 1.4 million pounds, with almost all of the indentured Indians working under it. Whilst prosperous to the colonial planters, the labour would come at a cost for the Indians who suffered under a hierarchical system.

IV Constructing Miss Garnham’s empiricism through ‘race’

“The evolving interpretation of the past is a necessary function of history”.
To elaborate on Professor Carr’s words, the way one interprets history is never set in stone. It is for this reason why the ideologies of ‘racism’ serve as a powerful tool to interpret slavery, and the Jim Crowe laws, as racist ideas that undermined African Americans. My purpose here is to advance Carr’s ideas by interpreting history through contemporary ideas. Miss Garnham’s Report illustrates how the constraint on agency of the Indentured Indian was not only confined to labour. During the period of Indentured Labour, the agency of Indians was constrained in other significant areas of their private life: the Coolie Lines in which they thought they could enjoy ‘privacy’, and in Marriage. Under the Agreement, the labourers would firstly, serve ‘Five years from [their] date of arrival’ in Fiji. Secondly, the labourer was required to work nine hours each weekday, five hours on Saturday, with no work on ‘Sundays and authorised holidays’. In Fiji’s case, the Agreement was between the Indian and the ‘Employer’, a‘white’ planter working under the CSR. Thus, I argue that the British Government’s attitudes towards the Coolie Lines, and towards Marriage in Fiji, were a product of the binary function of racism: ‘Cultural’, and ‘Institutional’ racism.Both of these ideas have their roots in orientalism, an idea that emerged in the late nineteenth century. I now turn to explaining these theories, and how they constrained the Indian’s agency on the private spaces of the Coolie Lines, and marriage.
Unpacking ‘racism’
Orientalism built the view amongst whites that they were superior over non – white, colonised subjects. Orientalism emphasised that the colonised, along with their religions, were inferior. This perception justified mistreatment towards native populations throughout colonial history. I argue that this backbone of orientalism transmogrified into the goals of Cultural and Institutional racism. Cultural racism encompasses a racial hierarchy between whites and non – whites. The end goal of Cultural racism is ‘white superiority’. Institutional racism implements ideas of Cultural racism. In the second model, governments and public institutions make sure that ‘white superiority’ and subsisting racial hierarchies are upheld. In the end, the ‘racism’ unfolds as whites are privileged before non – whites.

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Britain employed orientalism strongly towards Indians when it came to religion. Once British rule began in 1858, Christian missionaries expanded in India, with the goal of Anglicising the population by converting them to Christianity. The reasons behind this was because of the contradictions of Hinduism and Islam. The two were seen to be contradicting to British values. Such religious, or spiritual contradictions, were seen as a threat to the Empire’s prosperity. John Stuart Mill asserted thatthe Eastern civilisations in India, were incapable of being considered a civilisation because of their longingness for religions based on ‘superstitions that interfered with the Imperial‘industry’. What Mill meant by the Imperial industries were the structures that accumulated capital for Britain, including indentured Labouring. Orientalismtowards toward Hinduism and Islam escalated in the form of Cultural, and Institutional racism in Fiji.

Interpreting Miss Garnham’s concerns

Coolie Lines
Miss Garnham’s concerns about the Coolie Linesreflect the Cultural and Institutional racism that share the orientalist vision of ‘white supremacy’. The contracted labour under the Agreement gave white planters ‘unfettered authority’ over Indian Labourers. Naturally, Indian labourers, members of an ‘inferior race’,had no control over where they were allocated. Indians were without agency over their employment, such that they could not exercise independence over their work life. Little did the Indentured Indians know that this limited agency would go beyond labour. The first example is Miss Garnham’sidentified problems within the poorly housed, unhygienic Coolie Lines. Indentured Indians, especially women, were living in ‘entirely unsuitable’ lines. What made it ‘unsuitable’ was the disproportionate number of women who were ‘forced to live’amongst crowded men. Since the percentage of Indentured females was 30.4 per cent, Indian woman could not ‘preserve [their] chastity in the coolie lines’, for she could not be ensured ‘privacy’, nor with freedom from unwanted sexual approaches. Garnham notes the ignorance of the British Government’s First Inquiry, conducted by Mr McNeill, and Mr Chimman Lal in 1913 on the Coolie Lines. Theories on racism offer an explanation as to why this ignorance was justified.
Miss Garnham noted that the First Inquiry’s ignorance was due to the Government’s preference towards the ‘economic and material side of things’, not the ‘inner life of the people’. When it comes to racism, the labour system was characterised by inferior, ‘black’ Indian labourers working for the benefit of ‘white’ planters, the superior race. The ignorance illustrates a mistreatment grounded by orientalism, a mistreatment thatwas justifieduntil the abolition of labour,due to blackness of the women and menliving in the Lines. Consequentially,the Governmentcontinued with regulations that put the economic interests of whites before the wellbeing of Indentured Indians, an inferior race. Thus, the ignorance of the conditions on the Coolie Linesdemonstratesa theoretical framework of both Cultural and Institutional racism, driven by orientalism.

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Hindu and Muslim marriages were unrecognised in Fiji. This too wasaproduct of the orientalism that grounds Cultural and Institutional racism. Naturally, girmits broughtwith themall rituals associated with their kul(trans. ‘family’), or caste. Hinduism, and Islam,became a major phenomenon. Major scriptures were circulated across all the islands of Fiji where Indentured Indians inhabited. This phenomenon made it necessary for marriages to be conducted byHindu and Muslim rites. As Miss Garnham illustrates, this could not be the case.

It was found that the ‘religious significance’ of Hindu and Muslim marriageswere ‘ignored by the Government’. Miss Garnham recognises the importance religion plays to Hindu, and Islamic marriages: ‘To the Indian, marriage has little civil significance. Its religious significance is everything’. The colonial Government refused to uphold such marriages, as thesedid not reflect the ‘Government regulations’. Marriagein Colonial Fiji wascharacterisedas‘the will of Christ’. The Government’srefusal to validate Indian marriages was both a product of the ‘colonial superstructure’, and ofCultural, and Institutional racism, grounded by orientalism. Theorientalism is seen through the ignorance of natives marriagessincetheycontradicted the ‘will of Christ’. The Government’s favouring towards Christianity connoted a racial hierarchy, where religious practices of Indentured Indians were considered unworthy of being lawful, therefore inferior. Thus, the superiority of white beliefs were upheld, and so were the goals of Cultural and Institutional racism met: to promote the beliefs of the whites superior over the cultures of the inferior labourers.

V Closing the Curtains
I have emphasised the significance Miss Garnham’s Report has on understanding how interpretations on ‘racism’ explainsthe problems Indentured Indians faced in Fiji. I have supplanted this by outlining the contextual motivations behind the indenture system in the colony. Along with the histories, I have detailed the position the Report holds in the archives of historical examinations into Fijian, and Indian histories. Following through its position in the archives, I have outlined the significance this holds when voices of those who were oppressed are absent. However, further studies and inquiries need to be done, for one Report is insufficient in understanding the broader picture. Nonetheless, the publishing of the Report marked a major turning point, for indentured labouring would be officially cancelled just two years later.