Girmit Day in Fiji Date in the current year: May 15, 2023

Girmit Day in Fiji Girmit Day is a public holiday in the Republic of Fiji. It was established to commemorate the arrival of the first indentured Indian laborers to Fiji in 1879 and highlight their contribution to the development of the nation.

Indo-Fijians (Fijian citizens of Indian descent) used to constitute the majority of Fiji’s population, and they still make up a significant part of it. Most of them are descendants of indentured laborers who were brought to Fiji by the British. The Indian indenture system was developed as a substitute for slave labor after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Indian laborers were transported to other British colonies to work on plantations for an extremely low wage.

Laborers were required to sign an agreement to confirm that they were going to other colonies voluntarily. The agreement specified their length of stay (usually five years with the option of renewal) in foreign colonies, pay, and the conditions of their return to the British Raj. Indians pronounced the word “agreement” as girmit, so indentured laborers from the British Raj became known as Girmityas.

The first ship with Indian laborers, carrying 463 Girmityas on board, arrived in Fiji on May 14, 1879. Between 1879 and 1916, almost 61,000 Indians (including those born during the voyage) arrived in Fiji to work on sugarcane plantations, which had very poor living standards. As a matter of fact, indentured laborers in Fiji lived not that much better than slaves.

Although Girmityas were typically required to complete at least five years of service under the terms the indenture agreement, most of them had to stay in Fiji for ten or more years due to the conditions of return: to obtain free passage back to India, they had to have lived in Fiji for at least ten years. Since very few could afford to return home at their own expense because of the low pay, the majority of Girmityas renewed their contract for another five-year term and stayed. When their girmits expired, they leased small plots of land from locals and developed their own cattle farms or sugarcane fields, or went into business.

In the early 20th century, Indians of different occupations (teachers, missionaries, farmers, clerks, artisans, and even doctors and lawyers) began to emigrate to Fiji as free agents. Eventually Indians who came to an unknown land to start a new life, be it as indentured laborers or as immigrants, and their descendants became an integral part of Fijian society.

Indentured laborers and immigrants came from different parts of the British Raj and belonged to different ethnic groups and castes. During their stay in Fiji, they mingled and intermarried, which eventually led to the emergence of the Indo-Fijian identity. Despite all the negative effects of indentured servitude, this had at least two positive effects on the lives of Girmityas and their descendants: it ended the caste system for them and resulted in the development of Fiji Hindi.

In 2023, the government of Fiji removed Constitution Day from the list of public holidays and established two new public holidays, both celebrated in May: Girmit Day and Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna Day. The main goal of Girmit Day is to recognize the hardships and struggles faced by the indentured workers from India, and celebrate their resilience, strength and perseverance in preserving their language, culture, traditions, and identity.

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Girmit Day in Fiji, holidays in Fiji, public holidays, Girmityas, indentured servitude, Indo-Fijians