This year marks the centenary for the end of Indenture, a system of bonded labour that was instituted following the abolition of slavery. 2020 also marks the 50th anniversary of a new beginning, Fijian Independence.
Following the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, a new system of labour was introduced. Indentured labour first appeared on the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion and Mauritius in the 1830’s, eventually resulting in two million young Indians being transported across the world.
When children witness change – big change like famine, pandemics, political unrest, and war – the effects can often have a dramatic influence on who they become and the way in which they navigate through life.
So to mark this long-forgotten and unknown history, our story is told through the eyes of a young child.
Laali Maharaj was 10 years old when he experienced and witnessed famine. Born in a land that time forgot, the geographical heartbeat of central India, a Peepul Tree stands proud and below this tree is where Laali was born. As the 19th century drew to a close, Laali experienced the devastating effects of famine. Compelled to help his family and his community, he left his ancestral home and boarded a sailing ship in the Port of Calcutta, which he travelled on for three months, eventually arriving in Fiji in the South Pacific. He had unwittingly became an indentured labourer.
Laali was barely 14 years of age when he started cutting sugar cane for 15 hours a day, six days a week. This went on for five years. He had left his own home, 7,000 miles away, where the crops had failed and the land was dry and arid, to travel to an island of abundance, where the soil was rich and the harvest of sugar cane was plentiful.
Supported by an ecology of plantation owners, financers and botanists who were all invested in farming sugar cane, the world’s fastest-growing commodity was booming and Laali was a small part of that giant global jigsaw. The cane would be turned into sugar and eventually find its way to the sugar bowls of Victorian England and the wealth creation to the boardrooms of London.
By the end of the First World War in Europe, Laali had completed his Girmit – his agreement. He decided to branch out and set up a small shop in the farming heartlands of Fiji selling tinned fish, rope and basic provisions, eventually purchasing a plot of land in Flagstaff, Suva, the Capital city of Fiji. Flagstaff soon became synonymous with Laali Maharaj. His work ethic was legendary and his emphasis on education to make change was instilled in his children. By the time the Second World War began in the Pacific, he had transformed the lives of many by sharing his wealth and supporting the wider community as a philanthropist. The family’s growth and prosperity mirrored Fiji’s growth and prosperity.
Laali Maharaj has left an incredible legacy. With his roots deeply ingrained and nourished in Fiji, his heritage has spread its wings far and wide. Laali’s descendants, who number in their many hundreds, now live in the UK, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and India.
Laali Maharaj was my Great Grandfather.
By Ajay Chhabra
Girmit is a Defining Moments project, which aims to mark significant historical anniversaries and moments which reflect the rich and complex relationship between Britain and South Asian communities globally.
For more information please visit the Nutkhut page about the Girmit project.