Abolition of Girmit – Stamps on Gandhi -Fiji 2018.

Fiji issued a set of Four Stamps to Commemorate 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi on 20 Dec 2018. The 38c Stamp featured Gandhi and Abolition of Girmit as the Theme. It also marks 100 Years of Abolition of Girmit.

In 1834, the British Slavery Abolition Act came into force, abolishing slavery throughout the Empire. Though billed as a revolutionary moment in world history, the wheels of slavery were reinvented and renamed, and the indentured labour system was instituted throughout the Empire. Under the indenture system, which lasted from 1834-1917, the British employed Indian labour for five-year terms, with some 1.2 million Indians serving, largely as plantation workers in Fiji

For Fiji, a British colony, 60,965 Indian indentured labourers were recruited to work in the country’s sugarcane plantations. As the workers were generally illiterate, the system came to be known as ‘Girmit’ (derived from the word ‘agreement’), and later the labourers came to be called ‘Girmitiyas’.

While the system differed from slavery in that workers were hired for periods of five years, it was still based on deceit and exploitation. In the recruitment of workers, the districts of Gonda, Basti, Faizabad, Sultanpur, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Allahabad, Jaunpur, Shahabad and Rae Bareilly in the United Provinces and Bihar were targeted.

Paucity of women created grave social conditions. Cases of polyandry were known in many plantations, and women bore the brutishness of the Girmit system, with no rights to justice. Fiji recorded the highest rate of infanticide in countries that used indentured labour. Pregnancy was an inconvenience best avoided.

On 4 November 1912, Hannah Dudley, a Methodist missionary who worked with Girmitiya women in Nausori, wrote movingly in an open letter directed to Indian leaders asking them to rescue their compatriots from the infamy of Girmit in Fiji, and to abolish the system as it was beyond redemption. 

In 1919, largely due to public pressure in India, the system of indentured labour ended.

Girmitiyas in Fiji. Photo: MEA / Government of India