11/11/1916: The arrival of Fiji’s last Indian indentured labourers

The 11th of November 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival in Fiji of the last ship carrying Indian indentured labourers, the SS Sutlej. It was the fifth time the SS Sutlej had transported indentured labourers to Fiji, and this voyage was the 87th in total between India and Fiji. Fiji began importing Indian indentured labourers in 1879 when the first group of 478 labourers arrived in the archipelago. Over a period of 37 years, over 60,000 labourers were recruited in India to work in Fiji’s sugar industry. They were by far the largest group of imported labour to the islands, and worked alongside indentured Fijian, other Melanesian and Japanese labourers.


Suva Harbour: arrival point in Fiji of the SS Sutlej labourers

2017 will be the centenary of the total end of Indian indenture transportation, marking 100 years since the last ship set sail from Calcutta for the Caribbean. Over the past few years there has been an emergence of a new scholarly interest in the Indian indenture system. However, one thing that I would like to see, which I think is yet to happen, is for increased awareness of indenture within the wider public, particularly outside the former indenture importing colonies. Whilst most people are rightly aware of slavery, comparatively few know what happened after abolition or that the Indian indenture system was essentially put in place to ensure the continued production of sugar. Just as slavery bound colonies and continents together, so too did Indian indenture. It was an interconnected system that saw flows of colonial administrators, ideas, and labourers themselves between India, European colonies in the Caribbean, the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This was a global phenomenon involving over 1.5 million Indian men, women and children. In addition to Indian labourers there were smaller yet nonetheless significant numbers of indentured labourers from other parts of the world; from China, Madeira, the Azores, Japan, Java, Melanesia, Angola, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and the Comoros to name just some.

Indian indenture, and indeed indentured labour more generally should I think, be part of the story of slavery and abolition. Indenture was not slavery; but it was not completely separate either. Rather, it lay on a continuum of labour resulting in a combination of the continued manifestation of traits of the slavery era and the burgeoning evolution of a ‘free’ labouring class. For me, the story of slavery cannot just end with abolition. Much has been written and broadcast in the public sphere recently about the legacies of slavery, both in former colonies and in the metropole but indenture is rarely, if at all mentioned. Yet it had an immensely profound effect on the shaping of the twentieth century world, contributing to the self-rule movement in India, worker human rights, the development of multicultural nations and territories and so forth. As such, today’s anniversary in Fiji and the upcoming centennial commemorations of the end of Indian indenture transportation next year offer us the opportunity to recognise the contribution of the men, women and children who indentured across empires and to ensure a wider public knowledge of what was an intensely trans-oceanic and cosmopolitan system.


The Indentured Archipelago: A short film

Over the past three years I have been researching the geography of Indian indenture in Mauritius and Fiji, the connections between the two, and the wider connections with other indenture importing colonies of the British, French, Dutch and Danish empires. I decided to make a short film to bring to life selected cases from the archives in Mauritius, the first British colony to commence using Indian indentured labour, and the last, Fiji. The multilingual nature of Mauritius and Fiji during the indenture era is portrayed in the film and using witness statements, petitions and letters found in the archives, a voice is given to these labourers, set against the backdrop of contemporary cane field landscapes.

The film can be viewed here:



Toponyms of Mauritius

Unbelievably one year has passed since I was in Mauritius…now as I attempt to write up I find myself every now and then thinking ‘what was I doing this time last year…’. Thanks to my ‘short and sweet’ field diary (read, spreadsheet), I know that today I was in the National Archives and had found some documentation of several Mauritian colonial administrators who wished to be transferred to Fiji. After my exciting week in the archives (really!) I took a drive around the island at the weekend to take a look at some sugar factory ruins. I’m interested in the toponymy of Mauritian settlements and physical landmarks and given its fractured colonial past (Portuguese, Dutch, French and British), one would expect a real linguistic mélange of place names. Today, the vast majority of Mauritian place names are in French or English. There are though at least three place names that retain their original Portuguese names – the autonomous outer island of Rodrigues, named after the Portuguese explorer Diogo Rodrigues, Cargados Carajos, one of Mauritius’ outer island dependencies and of course the Mascarene Islands, of which Mauritius, Rodrigues, Réunion and Cargados Carajos are a part, which were named after the Portuguese navigator Pedro Mascarenhas.


Pedro Mascarenhas (Source: Faria e Sousa, M. (1695) Portuguese Asia , or the history of the discovery and conquest of India by the Portuguese. [electronic])

Whilst the Portuguese were the first Europeans to chart the waters of the south-west Indian Ocean, and indeed the first Europeans to make landfall on Mauritius, they left little trace on the island itself, using it merely as a replenishing point. The first permanent settlement was by the Dutch at Fort Frederik Hendrik in the south east of the island in 1638 – a full forty years after they had first set foot on the island.


Fort Frederik Hendrik, south-east Mauritius

Travelling around the island, the place names given by those first Dutch settlers, as seen in Valentijn’s Kaart van het Eyland Mauritius, circulated in my head. There are a handful of place names in Mauritius (including of course the name ‘Mauritius’ itself) which are of direct Dutch origin, such as Pieter Both and Vandermeersch. But what I found most interesting was the trickle of place names now in French, which were directly translated from their original Dutch names, and whose Dutch origins are now somewhat forgotten. So De Paling Rivier was literally translated as Rivière des Anguilles (Eel River); De Swarte Rivier also literally became Rivière Noire (Black River); likewise De Drie Gebroeders became Les Trois Frères (The Three Brothers). De Groote Limoen Booms Rivier (Large Lemon Tree River) became Rivière des Citrons (Lemon River); and my personal favourite De Bogt Sonder Eyndt (The Bay Without End) became Grand Baie (Grand Bay). Many of the Dutch names were not retained in Francophone form. Coin de Mire, the iconic islet off the north coast of Mauritius, also known in English as Gunner’s Quoin was called De Leest in Dutch, meaning a shoe last. The islet is an ancient basaltic volcanic cone, and as it rises from the sea, you can see (perhaps) why the Dutch thought it resembled a last – a model of the human foot that is used by shoemakers.

Photo miniature

Coin de Mire…


…a shoe last

There is also the curious case of the village of Surinam in the south of the island. During my fieldwork in Mauritius, a touring dance troupe from Surinam came to Mauritius and visited the village which bears their country’s name. The Dutch South American colony of Surinam was of course, a part of the ‘Indentured Archipelago’, and recruited some 34,000 Indian indentured labourers beween 1873 and 1916. As part of my work, I am looking at the flow of labourers between colonies, and there is evidence of labourers who indentured in Surinam before migrating to Mauritius during this period. Did they name a village after their former indenture colony?

Nearly all (if not all) sugar estates lent their name to the camp which sprang up adjacent to the plantation where indentured labourers lived. These camps became villages, which still exist today, still bearing the name of the sugar estate – Schoenfeld, Sebastopol, Union Vale, Queen Victoria, L’Avenir and Bonne Mère to name but a few.


Ruins of Queen Victoria sugar estate.

Place names give an intriguing insight into the history of Mauritius, from the Portuguese ‘discovery’ and Dutch settlements to the plantation era of French and British rule. They illustrate how this multi-layered history intersects with both the human and physical geography of the island.

What’s in a flag?

A vexillological storm is brewing in the South Pacific. On 10th of October 2015, on the 45th anniversary of its independence, Fiji will hoist a new flag, a new visual identity of the nation on the world stage. Fiji is not alone of course in ‘the great flag debate of countries whose flags currently include the Union flag in the canton, or upper left quarter’ (my snappily titled moniker for the issue). This club of four includes Fiji, and its Oceanian neighbours Australia, New Zealand and Tuvalu. New Zealand is currently in the grip of flag debate with referenda planned during the next two years whilst the topic regularly comes up in Australia usually in connection with republicanism. Tuvalu changed its flag to a Union-less design in the mid-1990s only to revert back one year later to its Union incorporating design that remains its flag to this day. The last of the Oceania ‘Union Four’ to submerge itself in the flag debate is Fiji, and movement is well under way for the upcoming flag change.

The current flag of Fiji

The current flag of Fiji

Reasons given for the change include links to the colonial era and so-called stereotype symbols on the current flag. So what of the finalist flag designs? Well they can be seen every day across the country – on giant billboards, at the cinema, on mobile advertising screens in shopping malls, on adverts between television programmes, in newspapers and magazines… It is in fact a visual assault on the senses. The final 23 designs chosen by the Government appointed Flag Committee are strikingly similar, with the prominent Fiji Blue of the current flag still visible. There is also a plethora of indigenous Fijian symbolism on the various entries including the ‘davui’ shell, the ‘drua’ sailing canoe and traditional ‘tapa’ or ‘masi’ barkcloth design as seen on the beautiful Fiji Airways aircraft

Billboard in Ratu Sukuna Park, central Suva

Billboard in Ratu Sukuna Park, central Suva

A subtle reference to the classic British game show? OK, reading too much into it...

A subtle reference to the classic British game show? OK, reading too much into it…

Opponents of the change argue that it is difficult to create a national identity for a flag overnight, and that the current designs are fads that will soon fade to become outdated, and that for all the echoes of colonialism the current flag might have, it is well known across the world (thanks largely to rugby) and strikes a sentimental chord with Fiji Islanders of all races.

At first glance the proposed flag change in Fiji may seem a light issue, but it is embroiled in debates of democracy, regionalism, postcolonial identity and the appropriation of history. On the 10th of October we will find out how the people of Fiji voted. But in the meantime, which is your favourite?

Hazards of the archives

Archival work may not instinctively conjure up images of danger but having spent some time in archives in the UK, Mauritius, Australia and Fiji I’ve found out that there are hazards beyond paper-cuts that lurk in the depths of the reading rooms…high-octane it may not be, but care to be taken nonetheless!

Microfilm motion-sickness...

Microfilm motion-sickness…

140 year old rusty nails

140 year old rusty nails


The relief of aircon...only to be cursed the next day nursing a cold in 30 degrees...

The relief of aircon…only to be cursed the next day nursing a cold in 30 degrees…

Wildlife in the archives...pretty patterns

Wildlife in the archives…pretty patterns

Archives across Empire

After a lengthy trip from the UK via the National Library of Australia and the Australian National University Archives in Canberra, I have finally arrived in Fiji, for my research at the National Archives of Fiji in Suva – allegedly the eighth wettest capital in the world. I’ve been here two weeks now and Suva is living up to this accolade.

The National Archives here appear to be smaller than their counterpart in Mauritius, particularly with reference to papers regarding Indian indenture of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, there are still many interesting and relevant documents on the subject – petitions, testimonies, reports etc. Finding these is a somewhat different process to that I encountered in Mauritius, which had volumes and volumes of ‘letters/despatches sent’ or ‘letters/despatches received’ related to Indian indenture. Here in Fiji, there is a Subject Index volume where one has to search for entries that may be relevant, then order these to see if they are available. I’m really interested in how these archives in former British colonies have been collated.

Reading through the documents, you are instantly transported to the time they were written, and it’s easy to let your mind wonder across the deeply descriptive Fijian landscapes that the writers of these documents were living in. What has struck me most so far is the use of indentured labourers from different parts of the world to work in Fiji. Though India was the largest source, there were also Fijian, Polynesian, Japanese and Javanese labourers. I hope to explore this a bit further soon, so more to come…