1937: Condition of Indian indentured labour in Fiji

Project Canterbury, Levuka Days of a Parson in Polynesia By C. W. Whonsbon-Aston London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1937, reported on the condition of Indian indenture labour.

Sugar milling centre at Labasas in 1937: Next day we arrived at the big sugar milling centre at Labasa (pronounced Lambasa), eight miles from the sea up the mangrove-bordered Labasa River. The cane fields take up a large area of flat land about the river banks, with picturesque hills in the near distance surrounding it. Two large knolls stand out near by; one is the Government hill, surmounted by the official residences and offices of the District Commissioner, Doctor, Constabulary, and Wireless Officer; the other is set apart as a sanctuary for the European staff (mostly Australian) of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, and duly graded so that the manager occupies the crown and the common herd the foot. The church and vicarage occupy a position half-way up–symbolic, no doubt, of their democratic character”.

Large ship deaths; epedemics, shipwrecks: Apart from the European work the main field of the Church is among the Indian labour. For some years it has been the policy to employ mainly Indians of the coolie classes for labour in the cane fields and on plantation work. The first ship-loads from India were accompanied by serious unforeseen troubles, for:

•  one ship suffered severely through an epidemic which caused many deaths; and

•  while a further party of over six hundred on the Syria was shipwrecked on the reef near Naselai with great loss of life.

Some returned to India Many had brought their wives and families.
Others remained and have either continued as free labour, settled on small allotments, share-farmed for the C.S.R., or gone into business. It is not unusual to come unexpectedly on a “Bombay Tailor” with his sign up over a small humpy under the palms in some isolated part of the islands. Children who have been reared under these new conditions, away from the narrow streets and bazaars of big crowded Eastern cities, thrive beyond measure. The children are usually very attractive, though the girls seem to lose much of their charm very early in life”.

Drive for education: “Caste of course disappears as they leave India, but a new standard is arising as the young people are educated and grow up. There is no more attractive type than the old-fashioned Indian, content to work at his agricultural labours, dressed as his fathers dressed, using the unchanging methods of ploughing and sowing that his fathers used, apparently perfectly happy in his quiet old way. On the other hand a smattering of the “three R’s” is calculated in some instances to prove too much for the growing youth, and the wooden ploughs of the fathers must be turned into the steel pens of the clerks. The difficulty lies in the fact that Fiji is essentially an agricultural colony and can hardly [73/74] absorb an overplus of clerks. A dissatisfied community straining at emancipation must find its outlet”.

Culture and language: “Again, the Indian immigrant has, of necessity, brought with him his own particular religious outlook, be it Hindu, Moslem or otherwise, which he has a perfect right to maintain until he can find a better basis for his life and conduct. He has also brought his ideas of child marriage, which have to be modified according to the humanitarian outlook of the Government authorities. Many of his superstitions, in many cases his gambling instincts, in some cases his diseases, might be added.

Fiji-Indian dialect evolves: “India is a big country of many languages, and Indians from many scattered parts of their home country have also to face a language difficulty. A composite language seems to have evolved among them”.

Small missionary engagements: “All these aspects have to be taken into consideration in building up the work of Christian missions among Indians in Fiji. The work there began many years ago with some definite organisation, after Archdeacon Floyd returned to Fiji with a grant from S.P.G. in 1903, and was followed later by two missionaries to take the work in hand. It seemed to me at first to be small in scope. This seems to have been the experience of both the Roman Catholics and the Methodists in their own particular spheres of influence among them. The future lies mainly with the young people who attend the mission schools. No matter what the conditions of an Indian parent’s life and work, he is an ideal parent, sparing nothing for his children’s advancement and tremendously keen on education.”

Management of death, and exit of soul: “On arrival I found the Mission Sisters rather perturbed, in the absence of the priest-in-charge on furlough, by an incident that had occurred. An old Indian woman had been removed from hospital much against the doctor’s wishes and taken to her home. She was a Christian, but very ill and extremely helpless, and her friends had decided to try Indian magic to effect a cure, and an Indian magician had been called over to her. As soon as possible that day we crossed the hills and discovered a series of poor looking reed houses below a ploughed field.

Secret Puja Our appearance seemed to cause great activity, suggesting that something had to be removed or hidden. They voluntarily repudiated any suggestion of puja, and I decided to give the poor old soul the last Sacraments next morning. This I did, though one could hardly miss the atmosphere of mystery about much that occurred. The old lady died and was given Christian burial on the Sunday afternoon. The body was placed in a coffin and carried on a long bamboo pole some two hilly and muddy miles to the little chapel by a straggling, rather untidy crowd of all religious beliefs, and, after a short service, another mile to the cemetery.

Çall out the evil spirit:The type of puja varies, but the popular method seemed to be to hold the two halves of a cut lemon near the neck of a rooster as the bird was decapitated. The supposed result was that the spirit of the bird [75/76] entered the lemon, which was then suspended on thongs about the neck of the patient to call out the evil spirit, the cause of the sickness. This sort of difficulty both doctors and missionaries have to face”.

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