Feature History

Empire Born: The Girmitiyas of Fiji


Matin Khan (2006) defines ‘Culture’ as a complex whole that encompasses attributes of knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by humans as members of society. Additionally, within a culture, there exist subgroups, known as a subculture. Subcultures have their own values, customs, traditions and other ways of behaviour that are peculiar to a particular group within a culture.

However, Fine and Kleinman (1979) had previously stated that Subculture, despite the term’s wide usage in sociology, had not proved to be a satisfactory explanatory concept. They had identified several problems including the confusion between subculture and subsociety, the lack of a meaningful referent for subculture, the homogeneity and stasis associated with the concept of subculture, and the emphasis on defining subcultures in terms of values and central themes.

It is because of these various issues to categorise cultural identity, the importance of the validity of appropriate legal Identification documentation is paramount to formally explain a person’s identity.

The Girmitiyas of Fiji will have a family ancestor with a birth certificate that is Fijian and have South Asian (predominantly Dravidian) genetics. They have been in Fiji for 141 years, however, they were not born nor raised in South Asia, due to the impacts of the Colonial British Empire. The outcome for the Girmitiya people has been to endure significant discrimination on many occasions about their appearance and a conflicted cultural identity.

‘Girmitiya’ is derived from the word ‘agreement’ and is defined from the history of Colonialism with many culturally indigenous people’s lives around the world being significantly impacted. Past and present colonial governments have not only deprived indigenous peoples of their land and resources, but prevented self-identification through imposed discriminatory administrative definitions and orders (Samson & Gigoux, 2016).

Ethnocentrism has been defined as “a belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic and cultural group”

Bizumic, 2017; Myers, 1993

The ethnocentric exertion of a Colonial conqueror’s privilege by applying homogeneous stereotypes, forced religious conversions, ethnic cleansing and incited terrorism upon traditional cultural identities.

Colonialism stemming from ethnocentrism has caused many divisive issues. The homogeneous labelling of human beings with the dehumanising use of colour categories, and discriminatory religious interpretations such as the Biblical Curse of Noah’s son, Ham, have resulted in slavery, discrimination and the inter-generational disadvantage of Melanin people and their cultural identities.

Colonialism resulted in many indigenous people being displaced and traumatised in foreign lands. Lal (2012) wrote an essay entitled ‘Kunti’s Cry’, in remembrance of a young South Asian woman’s misfortune. Kunti rejected the sexual advances of her Colonial European overseer and jumped into a nearby river to escape his unwanted intentions. She was saved from drowning, but she was deeply traumatised by the ordeal.

The Empire’s racial capitalism derived a workforce that bound human labour in the Caribbean, Southern and East Asia, Africa, and both Central and North America (Mar, 2017). It was started by Sir Arthur Gordon, the first substantive governor of the colony from 1875 to 1880, to meet the shortage of labour caused by the prohibition of commercial employment of the Indigenous Fijians and by the increasing uncertainty and cost of the Polynesian labour trade (Lal, 2012).

Prasad (2015) explains the indentured labour system differed from slavery because workers were hired for periods of five years. However, it was still a system based on the evils of deceit and exploitation. Workers were lied to with raised expectations of guaranteed wealth awaiting them in Fiji. Some of the workers were told that Fiji was near South Asia, that the nature of the work varied, and they could return in five years with an accrued fortune. It didn’t take much time to realise that they had become victims of ‘black-birding’.

In 1879, the voyage of the Colonial British vessel Leonidas brought the first South Asian indentured labourers to Fiji. In the second ship Berar, and third ship Poonah, bound for Fiji in 1882, there was resistance as fifteen people lost their lives. In 1884, the vessel, Syria, had a much worse fate as its shipwreck cost the lives of 56 would-be immigrant Fijians of South Asian ancestry (Lal, 2012; Prasad, 2015).

Wreck of the Syria, Naselai Reef | Courtesy: FijiVillage.com

Lal (1992) stated that colonialism institutionalised negative alterity practices in Fiji between Immigrant Fijians and Indigenous Fijians. It can be traced to the “divide and rule” institution of British colonial practice throughout its empire. Government policy did nothing to encourage the two groups to cross each other’s boundary. The divide between the two communities that resulted from culture, language, and religion were exacerbated by Colonial government policy. The exposure between Immigrant Fijians and indigenous iTaukei and Rotuman Fijians was limited by colonial strategy. This is a prime example of the Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT). Colonial Non-accommodation forced communicators of different ethnicities, languages, etc. to maintain social distance from others by accentuating differences (Liu, 2019).

After initially arriving as immigrants of varying homogeneous subsocieties with specific cultural and religious backgrounds from abroad, the new Fijian-Girmitiya subculture was born. For 141 years, Fijian-Girmitiya has evolved into a specifically unique cultural identity that is heterogeneous and multi-faith, resulting from over a century of domestic births, naturalisation, and language dialects with British, iTaukei/Rotuman and South Asian cultural influences.

Fiji’s Independence from England was achieved on the 10th of October 1970. Constitution amendments in 1977 denied Fijian-Girmitiyas to be excluded from government and managerial administrative positions with the rise of Indigenous Fijian ethnocentrism. With the eventual emergence of ethno-nationalism, Fijian-Girmitiyas suffered a staggering rise in abuse, harassment, persecution and violence (Prasad, 2015). With the impending threat of communal violence erupting into the possibility of brutal ethnic cleansing, many Girmitiyas made the heartfelt and pre-emptive decision to leave their birthplace and family home of many years and emigrate overseas for the survival, safety and security of their lives.

“Fiji is the home of the descendents of girmitiyas. A home that cannot be taken away from them.”

The Hon. Fiji Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama

On May 4, 2019 while speaking at the 140 years of Girmitiyas celebration event at Albert Park, Fiji’s Prime Minister paid tribute to the great sacrifice and contribution of the girmitiya people towards nation building in Fiji, stating that the journey of girmityas is not only a story of tremendous tragedy, but of great hope.


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