Arrival of Indian Indentured Labor To Fiji

Indian-Indentured-Labor-to-Fiji-Two-Indian-People-working-in-the-field.Arrival of Indian Indentured Labor To Fiji

In the following article, we touch upon the surface of the arrival of Indian indentured labor to Fiji. We take you on a journey, from the streets and poor districts of Calcutta in India to the long, torturous journey across the ocean on tall sailing vessels, where some lives were drastically lost to cholera and smallpox, where the caste system was pushed aside and life-long relationships forged, to the eventual arrival on the coast of Fiji and the conditions and environment in which they were to spend the next five to ten years of their indentureship.  This subject is vast,…

The Commencement of Indian Immigration

After the acceptance of the British Government of the cession of Fiji from the Fijian Chiefs in 1874, the possibility of obtaining an indentured workforce from India became available. the British government stipulated that the colonies were expected to live on their own resources, and not of the British taxpayer.

Since 1837, the contracts were regulated by the authorities in India, with a view to preventing irregularities in recruiting and ensuring good treatment in transit to the colonies.   Recruiters1 gave prospective girmitiyas agreement forms (pdf), which detailed the conditions of employment in English as well as the vernacular languages of India (Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, etc) depending on the recruitment region.

Specifications outlined in the agreement were, the type of work, number of hours of work to be completed per day, remunerations, availability of accommodation, medical resources, and other facilities.

‘Indian immigration differed from most European migration in that the immigrants were not expected, and were unable to become integrated into a common pattern of roles and values in their new country. Their role was intended to be purely economic; they were to form one sector of an economically pluralistic society, and nothing more’ (K.L.Gillion, 1958)

Black and White copy of the Indian immigration passes between 1879-1916
Black and White copy of the Indian immigration passes between 1879-1916 | Image: Supplied

Fiji had to nominate an Emigration Agent to reside at the port of embarkation, to monitor and maintain an Emigration Depo, this would be the destination a recruit after being officially registered, would be escorted, typically via rail, would be housed fed, medically checked and monitored.  The Protector of Emigrants, Medical Inspector of Immigrants, and an official government official supervised the general sanitation, accommodation, food, water supply, clothing, latrines, hospital arrangments, and vaccinations of emigrants twice a week.

The Medical Inspector of Emigrants inspected all emigrants before departure and certified that they were “fit to emigrate” and “free from all bodily and mental disease”. The final stage was after enough recruits had been collected to fill a ship the protector countersigned each emigration pass, and his duty was complete.

Video: Coolies: How British Reinvented Slavery

The Passage to Fiji

ELBE Russell Port Glasgow 1887 | Image: Supplied

Every year tenders were called by the Crown Agents for the Colonies, acting under the instructions from the Colonial Office and in communication with the Emigrations Agents in India, for the conveyance (Transport) of Indian emigrants to Fiji, there were two maritime companies that dominated the industry, these were James Nouree and the British India Steam Navigation Company.

The ships2 were fitted according to the requirements of the Government of India laid down in minute detail, a typical floor plan was: The Main deck would house a rudimentary hospital, dispensary, galley, and toilet facilities at the rear of the vessel3. The Between decks – was divided into three compartments, one for the single men in the bow (The most forward part of the hull of a ship), one for the married couples, and one for the single women in the stern (The stern can be defined as the backmost section of a vessel), with sleeping platforms stretching from end to end, each ‘statue adult’ (emigrant4) had to have at least 72 cubic feet of space (this is equivalent to stand up 3 door refrigerator you see at the supermarket). With cargo stored in the bottom of the hull.

The average voyage from India to Fiji was, 72 days on a sailing ship and only 30 days on a steamship, apart from the means of propulsion other factors that created this time differential were the time of year the voyage would commence, weather patterns, the additional cargo it was holding, and more importantly the experience of the crew and captain.

On the last day of departure, the emigrants were inspected for the last time by the Protector of Emigrants and issued blankets and clothing. The vessel’s crew were not allowed to fraternize or communicate with the emigrants on the vessel, the only officer of the ship who should have any contact with emigrants was the third mate, who had charge of stores.

There were three essential positions appointed by the Emigration Agent on the Indian emigration ship these being:

The Surgeon-Superintendent – Who had charge of and responsibility for the welfare of the emigrants,  The Instructions to Surgeons Superintendents of Government Emigration Ships (1866) lay out the extensive rules for how a surgeon should appropriately act and what came with the job.

‘belonged to a distinct Indian emigration service under the authority of the Crown Agents and were recruited from experienced medical men in England’ Usually undertaking only one trip a year and paid handsomely ‘ They were required to report in great detail on the voyage, ‘Their principle routine duties were to watch the medical care, ventilation, clothing, feeding, cleanliness, and exercise of the emigrants, and their authority on the ship extended to all matters connected with their welfare; (K.L.Gillion, 1958),

‘The duties of the ship surgeon ranged from inspecting the emigrants before boarding (he had to sign a certificate attesting to their good health), to ensuring that there was efficient air circulation throughout the ship.  Surgeons were required to keep a detailed journal and record of the voyage and patients as well as visit the decks at least two to three times a day to ensure cleanliness and preserve dryness (no laundry, washing, or anything that required water was allowed on the decks).  (The University of Pennsylvania, 2015)

Compounders – Assisting the Surgeon-Superintendent in caring for the Emigrants, normally 2-3 in number depending on the size of the vessel.

‘They were Indians or Anglo-Indians. The senior compounder looked after the hospital and dispensary, and the junior the galley, cleaning arrangements, and discipline.’ (K.L.Gillion, 1958), ‘responsible for receiving and organising the labourers on board ship’ (British Library, 2022).

Sirdars – Normally of High Caste responsible for the well-being of 25 emigrants

Other positions appointed by the Emigration Agent include:  Banharries (Cooks) are usually of (High caste), Cleaners, and sweepers (Low caste), One female nurse appointed to every 25 female emigrants,  two Barbers, two hospital attendants, and two Tailors. these numbers would vary upward depending on the size of the vessel.

Diet and Recreational

Breakfast onboardship to Fiji Indentureship sailing vessel
Breakfast onboard ship to Fiji | Image: Supplied

Food, clothes and other provisions were provided as part of the contract of indentureship during the sea voyage (that also extended to the first 6 months on the plantations).

In 1864, when the colonial government was revising the Emigration Act, they identified that the majority of the mortalities on the ships occurred because of poor foods with low nutritional content, a change in diet for the emigrants from their culinary habits and tastes of home,  sanitary conditions on board the ships, the shipment of germ-laden water, as well as the inexperience of medical officers, as a result of these revisions; all kinds of foodstuffs were introduced and sourced from different districts in India to accommodate the dietary needs of different Indian cultures and religious castes, as a passage to Fiji was for most, the first opportunity for lower-caste Indians to dine with those of higher caste.

Typically in Indian society, the high and low castes have been defined by the food they consume, one’s purity being contingent on the purity of one’s diet. High castes enjoy refined dishes while low castes live on sustainable and simple food.  Higher castes do not eat food prepared by the lower castes, and both high and low castes cannot share dining or sit together to eat.

Detailed ration scales were laid down for emigrants, articles such Rice, Salt, Tabacco, Salt Fish, Black Pepper, Coriander Seeds, Dhal, Turmeric, Chillies, Firewood, Mustard Seeds, Ghee, Onions, Turmeric, Chillies, Tamarind with the addition of flour, different kinds of daal (dhal) or pulses (Dried Lentils, peas or beans) such as yellow pigeon Peas (moog) and gram daal, and vegetables such as pumpkin, potatoes and yams were incorporated into the diet plan.

Mutton one day every week, and to that end, six sheep or goats per every 100 men were taken aboard for the voyage.  Special additions for nursing women, young children, and convalescents a daily allowance of a pint of preserved milk were given to breastfeeding mothers and any child under the age of two years without a mother. To this, a stock of suji (cream or wheat), oatmeal, and arrowroot was added.

For recreational periods of the day, the emigrates were given musical instruments and played cards to relieve boredom and pass away the time.

A typical day onboard an Indian emigrant ship 

‘On board a typical indian emigrant ship, the emigrants day began at 6 am.  They rose, tied their blankets in bundles and hung them on bamboo poles.  They went on deck, performed their ablutions and breakfastd on deck (unless the weather was bad) between 8 and 8.30 am.  Then, the between decks were cleaned by the topazes and the emigrants went below while the topases cleaned the decks, at which the emigrants also took a hand, under the roster system.  They were brought up again and, in fine weather, except in the hottest zone, had the run of the deck until dinner at 3.30 pm.  Emigrants ate in long rows, sitting on the deck.  The men took their share in pumping water for drinking and cooking, keeping the two decks clean and drawing provisions.  The women were generally employed in grinding curry and other light kicten work.  Emigrants would excercised for an hour and encouraged to sing to drums, play cards and wrestle.  At 8pm, all wer below decks, except in very hot weather.

‘There were regular days for bathing and washing blankets and deck  Bathing in hot water was enforced once a week and oiling twice a week.  There daily inspection of skins, conducted, in the case of the women by the nurses.  Every Sunday there was a thorough examination of emigrants.’ (K.L.Gillion, 1958),

ShipArrival DateArrivalsType
Leonidas514 May 1879463Sailing Ship
Berar629 June 1882424Sailing Ship
Poonah717 September 1882477Sailing Ship
Poonah19 June 1883496Sailing Ship
Bayard820 August 1883494Sailing Ship
Syria914 May 1884438Sailing Ship
Howrah1026 June 1884495Sailing Ship
Pericles113 July 1884461Sailing Ship
SS Newnham1223 July 1884575Sailing Ship
Main1330 April 1885725Sailing Ship
Ganges1427 June 1885523Sailing Ship
Boyne1526 April 1886537Sailing Ship
Bruce1621 May 1886458Sailing Ship
Hereford1724 April 1888539Sailing Ship
Moy183 May 1889677Sailing Ship
Rhone1915 May 1890585Iron Sailing Ship
Allanshaw2017 June 1890573Iron Sailing Ship
Danube2115 June 1891591Sailing Ship
Jumna2227 June 1891447Iron-hulled full-rigged ship
British Peer2323 April 1892527Three Masted Iron Sailing Ship
Avon245 May 1892520Iron Sailing Ship
Hereford15 June 1892479Sailing Ship
Moy14 April 1893467Sailing Ship
Jumna23 May 1893310Iron-hulled full-rigged ship
Ems2520 April 1894570Iron Sailing Ship
Hereford28 June 1894511Steam Ship
SS Vadala2626 March 1895747Steam Ship
SS Virawa2726 April 1895677Steam Ship
Erne2824 April 1896557Fully rigged sailing ship
Elbe13 June 1896615Three-masted, iron sailing ship
Rhone11 May 1897653Iron Sailing Ship
Clyde291 June 1897670Sailing Ship
Moy1 June 1898568Sailing Ship
Avon25 July 1899467Iron Sailing Ship
Ganges3 September 1899464Sailing Ship
Ganges21 June 1900554Sailing Ship
Elbe26 July 1900604Three-masted, iron sailing ship
Arno3023 July 1900627Iron Sailing Ship
Rhine3130 August 1900491Iron Sailing Ship
SS Fazilka3228 March 1901804Steam Ship
SS Fultala3312 May 1901809Steam Ship
SS Fazilka18 June 1901776Steam Ship
SS Virawa26 April 1902718Steam Ship
SS Fazilka20 June 1902840Steam Ship
Mersey3413 June 1903585Iron sailing ship
Elbe355 August 1903590Three-masted, iron sailing ship
Arno4 September 1903634Iron Sailing Ship
Arno3 May 1904631Iron Sailing Ship
Ems30 July 1904526Iron Sailing Ship
SS Fultala10 April 1905827Steamship
SS Virawa17 July 1905615Steamship
SS Wardha3628 July 1905892Steamship
SS Fultala17 August 1905790Steamship
SS Fazilka17 April 1906881Steamship
SS Fultala28 April 1906801Steamship
SS Wardha28 June 1906834Steamship
SS Fazilka28 January 1907875Steamship
SS Virawa23 March 1907759Steamship
SS Fazilka25 April 1907796Steamship
SS Sangola3718 March 19081132Steamship
SS Sangola6 June 19081086Steamship
SS Sangola1 February 19091152Steamship
SS Sangola21 April 1909667Steamship
SS Sangola7 March 1910926Steamship
SS Santhia3822 April 19101021Steamship
SS Sangola5 June 1910869Steamship
SS Santhia8 July 19101030Steamship
SS Mutlah22 May 1911834Steamship
SS Sutlej25 June 1911850Steamship
SS Ganges22 July 1911860Steamship
SS Mutlah3918 August 1911863Steamship
SS Sutlej404 October 1911811Steamship
SS Sutlej27 April 1912857Steamship
SS Indus418 June 1912804Steamship
SS Ganges4218 July 1912843Steamship
SS Ganges8 November 1912846Steamship
SS Ganges21 February 1913771Steamship
SS Sutlej11 April 1913808Steamship
SS Ganges29 May 1913848Steamship
SS Ganges9 September 1913784Steamship
SS Chenab4324 March 1914855Steamship
SS Chenab16 June 1914717Steamship
SS Mutlah7 May 1915852Steamship
SS Ganges21 June 1915846Steamship
SS Mutlah1 August 1915812Steamship
SS Chenab1 September 1916882Steamship
SS Sutlej11 November 1916888Steamship
Table: List of Indian Indenture Ships to Fiji

Historic Voyages

Leondias...-Sailed-for-some-time-up-and-down-outside-the-port...-but-the-next-morning-the-ship-was-found-to-be-in-a-pest-stricken-condition. Wreck-of-the-Syria-Naselai-ReefELBE-Russell-Port-Glasgow-1887
Leondias…-Sailed-for-some-time-up-and-down-outside-the-port…-but-the-next-morning-the-ship-was-found-to-be-in-a-pest-stricken-condition. Wreck-of-the-Syria-Naselai-ReefELBE-Russell-Port-Glasgow-1887 | Image: Supplied

A total of 87 voyages to Fiji from various parts of India were made between 1879 to 1916 with only a 1 percent average mortality rate across this period  (This percentage of fatalities today would be regarded as a high cost to pay, but during the late 1800s, this was exceptionally low, owed primarily to the policies and procedures established by the Indian government at this time, Indian Emigration Act and Colonial Emigration Rules, Chapter 9 Emigrant Vessels)  thou there were two disastrous exceptions, the Leonidas the first indentureship to arrive in Fiji, upon her arrival the Surgeon-Superintendent declaring an outbreak of cholera and smallpox onboard, bringing fear amongst the Fijians, the nation had just started to recover from the measles epidemic of 1875 which had killed an estimated 40,000, and the second vessel named Syria ran aground and left foundering on the Nasilai reef resulting in many lives lost.  Below are some of the press releases detailing the incidents.

Leonidas (Ship) – First indentureship to Fiji

First indentureship to Fiji Leonidas (named after king Leonidas I of Sparta) was a labour transport ship (111-tonne schooner) – Captained by McLachlan, the ship departed from Calcutta, India on 3 March 1879 and arrived at Levuka, Fiji, on 14 May that year.

‘The Leonidas passed up the harbour, passed Vagadaci, and when off Waitovu through some stupidity touched the reef, but with the rising tide floated off and dropped anchor in Waitovu passage, or as far away from the shore as she could be conveniently anchored without touching the outer reef.

So soon as communication was made with the ship, it was ascertained that cholera had been on board together with smallpox and that 11 coolies had died of cholera arid six of dysentery; cholera seeming to predominate, while little seems to be known of smallpox. Every precaution, under the unfortunate circumstances of the case, appears to have been adopted by the Government. A cordon of four police boats has been arranged at suitable distances round the Leonidas, and the schooner Elizabeth (lately the Samoan navy) has been sailed down from Nasova and anchored off Waitovu, as relieving, or guard ship, that the boats’ crews may be relieved every four hours.

Dr. McGregor (the Chief Medical Officer of the Colony) has devised a very ingenious method of effectually preventing the contagion from being conveyed to the shore, during the process of sending stores, letters, etc, to the ship. A staging has been erected on the outer reef, with a moving platform., stores necessary to the ship are placed on this platform at low tide and taken off by the ship s boat.

The whole staging is then demolished and allowed to float until the next low tide; when it is re-erected.

All letters are placed in a carbolic acid bottle and are of course fumigated before delivery. Communication with the vessel under these circumstances is of course slow, but from what we learn there are 373 male and 149 female coolies on board, independent of children, all of whom are under the charge of Doctor Welsh. We also hear that two buffaloes are on board.

It is sincerely to be hoped that all officers of the Government will, under the trying and unfortunate circumstances, be at their post and duty and that any and every assistance will be rendered by one and all to prevent any contagion reaching these shores.’  (Fiji Times, May 17 1879)

Syria (Ship) – Sixth indentureship to Fiji

Syria was a 1,010-ton, iron sailing ship with a length of 207.7 feet, a breadth of 34.1 feet, and a depth of 20.8 feet. She was built by William Pile of Sunderland for the Nourse Line, named after the Syria River in Karnataka, India, and launched in 1868. She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies.

‘At 8.30 pm on Sunday, 11 May 1884, the Indian immigrant ship Syria – the fifth to reach Fiji – was wrecked on the Nasilai reef. By the time the shipwrecked passengers were brought to safety, fifty-six immigrants and three lascars (Indian seamen) had drowned.

The Syria, carrying 497 indentured adults, children, infants, and a crew of forty-three (including thirty-three lascars) left Calcutta on 13 March 1884. Its journey to Fiji seems to have been remarkably uneventful except for a minor storm off the Cape of Good Hope in which both the Captain and the Second Mate allegedly lost their Certificates of Competency. The mortality rate of 0.8 percent on the voyage compared favourably with the overall average of one percent for the entire period. But perhaps the most astonishing feature of the trip was its length – fifty-eight days – a record well above the average for sailing ships of seventy-two days.

On Sunday, 11 May, the combination of inexperience and simple incompetence of the crew and the poor navigational facilities took their toll.

Many more would have lost their lives but for the prompt and efficient rescue operation mounted by Dr. William MacGregor, then the Chief Medical Officer and Acting Colonial Secretary of Fiji. Later, Dr. MacGregor wrote this emotional and vivid account of the tragedy: “When the first boats reached the scene, the majority of the Indians were in the water on the reef, making as far towards the land as they could, but a considerable number were still in the wrecked vessel, chiefly women and children. The ship lay on her port side. The masts were all broken into fragments, and spars, sails, ropes, and debris of all kinds were mixed up and thrown about in the breakers in wild confusion.

The scene was simply indescribable, and pictures of it haunt me still like a horrid dream. People falling, fainting, drowning all around one; the cries for instant help, uttered in an unknown tongue, but emphasised by looks of agony and the horror of impending death, depicted on dark faces rendered ashy grey by terror; then again the thundering, irresistible wave breaking on the riven ship, still containing human beings, some crushed to death in the debris, and others wounded and imprisoned therein; and all to be saved then or never; … (Some sacrificed their lives to save others; some, such as the strong lascar crew thought only of themselves) and rushed into the boats surrounded by dying women and children. One of these lascar seamen I took out of the wreck paralysed with terror; afterward by brute force I threw him twice out of a boat to make room for drowning children … in spite of everything that could be done the loss of life was fearful. At 2 pm I was almost faint with despair, and I did not then think that a hundred or so could be saved.

The loss of the Syria was one of the worst maritime disasters in the history of Fiji, but similar losses of life, though perhaps not always as dramatic, were not uncommon in the history of overseas Indian migration. Indian immigrant ships were, by the standards of the times, much better equipped and looked after and took less payment in human lives than ships engaged in labour traffic in other parts of the world; but even so, severe losses of life could not always be contained.

Cholera, fever typhoid, and dysentery were the most frequent and indeed the most dreaded killers, and when they struck, lives were lost in great numbers.

The subsequent story of the surviving Syrian immigrants cannot be told with any certainity. However, from the available records it appears that after two weeks of rest from the exhaustion suffered during the ordeal, the indentured labourers and their children were taken from the Nukulau Depot to Suva, where they were sorted out and allocated to various plantations.’ Lal , B. V. (1979, May 12).

Nukulau Quarantine Station

Nukulau-Quarantine-Station, Map-showing-Plantations-where-Indian-Immigrates-were-employed-in-1890-in-FIji
Nukulau-Quarantine-Station, Map-showing-Plantations-where-Indian-Immigrates-were-employed-in-1890-in-FIji | Image: Supplied

All Indian immigrant ships went to the port of Suva. where the immigrants were transferred to barges and towed by steam launch or tug to the islet of Nukulau (Image above) (Map). most of them remained there for about a fortnight to be processed and allocated to their individual planters.  They were medically examined, to classify their capabilities of performing a full task, three-quarter task, or half task.  The really unfit were returned to India or detained in the center for medical treatment.

Care was taken to not split up husbands and wives, or families, with equitable distribution of the women and children and workers not capable of performing a full task.

It was the employer’s responsibility to collect the immigrants and this was usually done through an agent in Suva. They were taken away by barge and steamer.

Plantation Labour

Loading cane, Nausori, 1948
Loading cane, Nausori, 1948 | Image: Supplied

The great majority of immigrants served on sugar plantations, cultivating coffee, coconuts, tobacco, rubber, tea, and other staple crops.  Thou there were exceptions, some became domestic servants, watchmen, water carriers, gardeners, and even policemen, the hours were long but less strenuous and sometimes better pay that the plantation workers

A typical day on the sugar plantation 

A typical day would start around 3 or 4 am, the sirdars would arrive at the lines and awaken the immigrants, they would make themselves some breakfast and prepare lunch, bathe, and start collecting their tools for the day.  The immigrants were expected to walk to work and arrive at the field between 5 and 6 am.  The sirdars would allocate groups of immigrants to work specific tasks for the day, thou working together the immigrants were assessed separately and expected to reach their task worked quota.  Depending on your physical condition, the strongest members of the group would finish their work around 1 or 2 in the afternoon,  with others finishing around 3-4 in the afternoon.  Some much later…

Every effort was made to induce immigrants to finish their tasks. Lazy or weak ones were urged on by overseers and sirdars. This was not always a gentle matter. It was frequently accompanied by abuse. Immigrants were often struck, and not infrequently they were beaten up, especially where there was a provocation.

The initial few months were hard work, for the immigrants, as they were not used to the amount of work or the continued physical muscular effort, this was the main justification for the 6 months of meals provided, as the start of their indentureship, providing them with the nutritional content, to sustain the work.  Not all immigrants served the full term of five years of indentured service. Those who broke down physically were returned to India as “incapables’. Others commuted part of their service for a money payment.

Sunday a religious day in Fiji was the one day of a week immigrants could not be made to work without their consent, with Christmas Day, Good Friday, Moharram, and Holi as religious holidays, these days allowed the immigrants to leave the plantation under the permission of the planter, they visited Indian settlements, Fijian villages, collect wild fruits and purchased necessities.

Plantation Life

Black and White Photography of The Lines allocated rooms with a wooden bunk fixed to the wall a sheet and a blanket each, Either three single men were allocated to each room, or a married couple occupied a room with up to three children.
Black and White Photography of The Lines allocated rooms with a wooden bunk fixed to the wall a sheet and a blanket each, Either three single men were allocated to each room, or a married couple occupied a room with up to three children | Image: Supplied

On the highest piece of ground, amid trees for shade, stood the bungalow of the planter or overseer. From there, the overseer could see the whole plantation; the sugarcane, the land lying fallow or in food and fodder crops, the stables and shed where the horses, the tools and provisions were kept, and the black, lines where the immigrants lived.

For five years, the plantation was the immigrant’s world. Most sugar plantations were alike in their appearance and in the way of life of their occupants.

On a standard plantation, there would be two or three ‘lines’, each housing forty or fifty immigrants, they were long elongated buildings, with a corrugated iron roof, a wooden or bare earth floor, and communital latrines set aside away from the accommodation.  Each line housed sixteen rooms eight on each side. The original dimensions were no more than ten feet by seven feet (10 ft x 7 ft), with later constructions imposed by the law and by government regulations they increased to ten feet by twelve feet (10 ft x 12 ft).

Each room housed three single men, or a couple with children, the partitions that separated each room stopped short of the ceiling to assist ventilation across the whole of the line, as there were no windows, the doors were the only cross ventilation available. Privacy was not a top priority when designing the buildings.

Inside each room, three bunks were placed, with all the immigrant’s possessions, cooking utensils, and clothing, when the immigrants rested for the night, there was very little room.  Before separate kitchens were standard, they had to cook as well in these confined spaces, leading to a smoke-filled environment, a haven for flies and mosquitoes. Living conditions were as can be imagined very uncomfortable.

Several indentured immigrants leased land or lived in a Fijian Bure or tin shed, as long as they turned up to work regularly, this was permitted.

Medical Facilities – Typical Illnesses

Every plantation with more than five indentured immigrants was required to have a medical facility, followed by a central hospital at the mill centers, and generally one other hospital in each of the C.S.R, Company’s districts.

Most of the complaints treated in the plantation hospitals were caused by drinking contaminated water, undernourishment, and a lack of sanitary environments. With the most debilitating being ankylostomiasis (hook-worm), only diagnosed by the medical institutions very late into the indentureship period in Fiji, the effects caused directly or indirectly thousands of lives and severely weakened many others during this period. Children fatalities were also very high within the plantations, caused by improper feeding (lack of milk), poor sanitation, and the improper care of the child by untrained nurses.  As the instances were identified, regulations and proper policies were implemented, though as stated sometimes the cause of the sickness was sometimes a long time in diagnosing.


Example of a Certificate of Industrial Residence
Example of a Certificate of Industrial Residence | Image: Supplied

When an Indian Immigrant had finished his five years of service under the indentureship scheme, the government provided them with a certificate of industrial residence (example above) detailing their official number, time served, and the vessel in which they had arrived.  The person’s physical description height and bodily marks, with the signature of the Sub-protector of the Immigrants, were used to help authenticate/verify, the legal document.

Upon receipt of the document, an Indentured person is officially a free man, with four main options open to them:  Firstly, they could re-indenture for another 5 years, this option was preferred by the planters and government, as the immigrant was experienced and acclimatized creating a more stable and reliable workforce, additional pay per world load and free passage to India at the end of the second indentured period was provided at the expense of the government an incentive to serve an additional term.  Secondly, he could continue to work for an employer as a free laborer or under the Masters and Servants Ordinance, although this provided greater freedoms it did not guarantee regular and reliable work. thirdly they could take a trade or craft and settle on a plot of land within Fiji, slowly establishing a home and community and the fourth option was to return to India at their own expense.

The recruitment of Indian laborers to work in overseas colonies was suspended on 12 March 1917 due to the military requirements of the First World War (under India’s Defence of India Act 1917), but never resumed after the war.  The Steamship Sutlej carrying 888 indentured persons was the last vessel to dock at Suva, arriving on 11 November 1916.   The anti-indentureship protests that started before the war by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi continued throughout India until the British Imperial Government and the Government of India had to give in to the pressure to end the system and on 1 January 1920 it was abolished completely.


  1. Recruiter – includes a head recruiter or other person who collects or receives emigrants recruited by other persons. ↩︎
  2. Emigrant-vessel – means a vessel the master of which is licensed under this Act to carry emigrants therein. ↩︎
  3. Vessel – includes anything made for the conveyance by water of human beings or property. ↩︎
  4. Emigrant –  means any Native or India who emigrates or has emigrated, within the meaning of the above definition, or who has been registered under the Act as an emigrant and includes any dependent of an emigrant. ↩︎
  5. Leonidas – (named after king Leonidas I of Sparta) was a labour transport ship (111-tonne schooner) – Captained by McLachlan, the ship departed from Calcutta, India on 3 March 1879 and arrived at Levuka, Fiji, on 14 May that year.

    Fijian Commemorative Postage Stamp Ship Leonidas in front-of South Pacific Map Fijian Postage Stamp Commemorative ↩︎
  6. The Berar – the name taken from the Berar (also spelt BIRAR) district of east-central Maharashtra state, western India which is famous for its cotton-growing, was a sailing ship of 902 tons, owned by Tyser & Heaviside, and was built in 1863 by William Pile at Sunderland.  Second Indentureship to Fiji – The Berar arrived in Fiji on 29 June 1882 carrying 424 indentured labourers from Calcutta. This was the second indentureship to Fiji and its journey was uneventful. This was the first ship to make use of the quarantine facilities built on the island of Nukulau. ↩︎
  7. The Poonah – named after the city of Poonah in western India, was a three-masted sailing ship of 1199 tons, owned by Tyser & Haviside and was built in 1867 by William Pile at Sunderland.  Indentureship to Fiji: The Poonah made two trips from India to Fiji. Its first arrival at Suva was on 17 September 1882 with 476 passengers on board, and the second was on 18 June 1883, with 515 passengers.  During the first trip, the Lascar crew refused to go on deck during a severe storm, and the ship was almost lost, and during the second trip, there was an outbreak of cholera and smallpox. There were 26 deaths during the trip from cholera and another death of one of the passengers in Fiji.

    Newspaper Article Cholera and Smallpox at Suva

    Newspaper Article Cholera and Smallpox at Suva Newspaper Article Cholera and Smallpox at Suva

  8. Bayard – was a three-masted, 67 metres long, 1,028-ton, sailing ship built by T. Vernon and Son, Liverpool for the Hall Line in 1864. In 1868 she was transferred to Sun Shipping Company and in 1881 sold to Foley and Company.  Indentureship to Fiji – On 20 August 1883, she arrived in Suva, Fiji carrying 494 Indian indentured laborers from Calcutta. She had previously carried indentured labourers to the West Indies. ↩︎
  9. Syria – was a 1,010-ton, iron sailing ship with a length of 207.7 feet, a breadth of 34.1 feet, and a depth of 20.8 feet. She was built by William Pile of Sunderland for the Nourse Line, named after the Syria River in Karnataka, India, and launched in 1868. She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  10. The Howrah – was an iron-hulled sailing ship of 1,098 tons, built at Sunderland in 1864 by Pile, Spence, and Company. She arrived in Fiji on 26 June 1884 carrying 575 passengers. ↩︎
  11. Pericles – named after the Athenian leader Pericles, was a 1,598-ton, iron-hulled, three-masted sailing ship, that was built by W. Hood & Co of Aberdeen, and launched in July 1877.  Indentureship to Fiji:  She made a trip to Fiji carrying 461 Indian indentured labourers and arrived at Suva on 3 July 1884. There was an outbreak of cholera during the voyage, with thirty-five cases being reported and twenty deaths. ↩︎
  12. Newnham – was the first steamship to bring Indian indentured labourers to Fiji, arriving at Suva on 23 July 1884 carrying 575 passengers. The 1296-ton steamer took only 38 days to reach Fiji as it was able to take the shorter route through the Timor sea. Although a lower death rate was expected because of the shorter trip and fewer cases of pneumonia and bronchitis because the ship avoided the cooler climate of the southerly route, the ship rolled violently during the trip and there were many deaths. The Fiji Government favoured sailing ships also because steamships sailed through hot weather which could foster tropical diseases which could spread in Fiji and also because any diseases on board would have a chance to incubate during the long trip. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company favoured steamships because their arrival dates could be estimated more accurately, and because they took less time to reach Fiji, the labourers would be fitter and would have time to become acclimatized before participating in the cane crushing season which started in May or June.

    News Article from The Baltimore

    An Ocean Tramps long Voyaging News Article from The Baltimore Sun Feb 3

  13. The Main – was a 1691-ton, iron sailing ship built by Russel & Company for the Nourse Line and launched in August 1884. She was mainly used to transport Indian indentured labourers to the British colonies. ↩︎
  14. Ganges – was a 1,529-ton iron barque, built by Osbourne, Graham & Company of Sunderland and launched on 25 March 1882. She was 241 feet (73 m) long, with a beam of 37.2 feet (11.3 m) and a draught of 22.5 feet (6.9 m).  Ganges made three trips to Fiji, the first on 27 June 1885 carrying 523 Indian indentured labourers. She arrived next on 3 September 1899, carrying 464 Indian indentured labourers and finally on 21 June 1900, carrying 554 passengers. ↩︎
  15. Boyne – was a 1,403-ton, Nourse Line sailing ship that T.R. Oswald of Southampton built in 1877.  Boyne embarked 537 Indian indentured labourers at Calcutta and carried them to Fiji, arriving at Suva on 26 April 1886. On the return journey to Calcutta, she was stranded near False Point in India. The crew and passengers managed to reach shore safely but an attempt to re-float her failed and she was abandoned. ↩︎
  16. Bruce – was a 1,200-ton sailing ship built in 1866 by Aitken Mansell of Glasgow, Scotland.  On 21 May 1886, Bruce carried 458 Indian indentured labourers to Fiji. ↩︎
  17. Hereford – was a 1456-ton iron sailing ship with two decks and one cemented bulkhead which was built in 1869 by J. Elder & Company at Glasgow for the Merchant Shipping Company of London.  She made three voyages to Fiji, the first on 24 April 1888 carrying 539 Indian indentured labourers, the second on 15 June 1892 carrying 479 labourers, and the third on 28 June 1894 carrying 511 labourers. ↩︎
  18. The Moy – was a 1,697-ton, iron sailing ship with a length of 257.6 feet (78.5 m), a breadth of 38.3 feet (11.7 m), and a depth of 23.2 feet (7.1 m). She was built by Russel & Company for the Nourse Line, named after the River Moy in the northwest of Ireland, and launched in May 1885. She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indenture labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  19. The Rhone – was built by John Elder of Glasgow, Scotland in 1875 for Gilroy, Sons & Company of Dundee. ↩︎
  20. Allanshaw – was a 1,589-ton, iron sailing ship with a length of 80.1 metres (263 ft), a beam of 12.3 metres (40 ft) and a draught of 7.0 metres (23.0 ft). She was built by William Simons & Company of Renfrew for the J.G. Potter & Company of Liverpool and launched on 29 August 1874.  She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  21. Danube – a 1,459-ton sailing ship named after the second longest river in Europe, was built in 1890 for the Nourse Line. On 15 June 1891, Danube made a voyage to Fiji carrying 591 Indian indentured labourers. ↩︎
  22. Jumna – was a 1,048 GRT iron-hulled full-rigged ship that was built in England in 1867 and went missing in the Atlantic Ocean in 1899. The 310 labourers she carried to Fiji in 1893 were the smallest number of passengers carried by any ship transporting Indian indentured labourers to Fiji. ↩︎
  23. British Peer – was a 1428-ton three-masted iron sailing ship built for the British Shipowners Company at the Harland and Wolff yards in Belfast, Ireland, in 1865. She was 247.5 feet (75.4 m) long, 36.4 feet (11.1 m) wide, and 22.5 feet (6.9 m) deep.  British Peer  like other Nourse Line ships, was involved in the indentured labour trade. On 23 April 1892, she carried 527 Indian indentured labourers to Fiji. ↩︎
  24. The Avon – formerly known as Dunolly, was a 1,572-ton, iron sailing ship with a length of 255.6 feet, breadth of 37.6 feet, and depth of 22.6 feet. She was built by Charles Connell of Glasgow in 1884 for John Brown of Glasgow. She was primarily used by the Nourse Line for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  25. The Ems – was a 1,829-ton, iron sailing ship with a length of 270.7 feet (82.5 m), a breadth of 39 feet (12 m), and a depth of 22.5 feet (6.9 m). ↩︎
  26. The SS Vadala – was a 3,334-long-ton (3,388 t) steamship with a length of 340 feet (100 m), a breadth of 43.1 feet (13.1 m), and a draught of 26 feet (7.9 m). She was built by William Denny and Company, Dumbarton.  Vadala was a passenger-cargo vessel, also used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. On 26 March 1895, she arrived in Fiji with 747 indentured Indian labourers on board. During the trip, the ship rolled violently and the Surgeon-Superintendent complained about his patients being thrown about below deck. ↩︎
  27. SS Virawa – was a 3,334-ton steamship. She was built for the British-India Steam Navigation Company in 1890. She was one of the early B.I.S.N. ships to use telemotor steering gear.  She was a passenger-cargo vessel, also used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. On 26 April 1895, she arrived in Fiji with 677 indentured Indian labourers on board. She made her second trip to Fiji exactly seven years later, on 26 April 1902 with 718 passengers. Her third trip to Fiji was on 17 July 1905 with 615 passengers and her final trip to Fiji was on 23 March 1907 with 759 passengers. ↩︎
  28. The Erne – was built as a 1,692-ton, iron sailing ship with a length of 255.6 feet (77.9 m), a breadth of 38.3 feet (11.7 m), and a depth of 23.2 feet (7.1 m). She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  29. Clyde – was built by Russell & Company, Port Glasgow, Scotland, for the Nourse Line, named after the River Clyde flowing through Glasgow, and launched on 25 July 1894. She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  30. The Arno – was a 1,825-ton, iron sailing ship with a length of 270.7 feet (82.5 m), a breadth of 39 feet (12 m), and depth of 22.5 feet (6.9 m). She was built by Charles Connell & Company, Glasgow, Scotland, She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  31. The Rhine – was a 1,691-ton iron sailing ship with a length of 257.2 feet (78.4 m), a breadth of 38.3 feet (11.7 m), and a depth of 23.1 feet (7.0 m). She was built by Russel & Company, Port Glasgow for the Nourse Line, named after the river Rhine. She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  32. SS Fazilka – was a 4,152 GRT steamship with a length of 366 feet (112 m), a breadth of 48.2 feet (14.7 m), and a draught of 26.5 feet (8.1 m). She was built by William Doxford and Sons for the British-India Steam Navigation Company (B.I.S.N.) in 1890. She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  33. SS Fultala – was a 4,155-ton steamship built for the British-India Steam Navigation Company in 1890 by William Doxford & Sons of Sunderland.  She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. She was designed to carry 12 first class and 1667 deck passengers. ↩︎
  34. The Mersey – was a 1,829-ton, iron-hulled sailing ship with a length of 270.7 feet (82.5 m), a beam of 39 feet (12 m), and a depth of 22.5 feet (6.9 m). She was built by Charles Connell and Company of Glasgow, named after the River Mersey in north-western England, and launched on 18 May 1894 for the Nourse Line. Nourse Line used her primarily to transport Indian indentured labourers to the British colonies, a so-called, Coolie ship ↩︎
  35. Elbe – was a 1,693-ton, three-masted, iron sailing ship with a length of 257 feet, breadth of 38.2 feet, and depth of 23.1 feet. She was built by Russel & Company in Glasgow for the Nourse Line, named after the River Elbe the longest river in Germany, and launched in July 1887. She was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies.  Elbe’s third trip to Fiji was historic because it brought the first labourers from Madras to Fiji for the first time. Most South Indians were Tamil speakers but other languages such as Telugu and Malayalam were also represented. Conditions on board were good for the time, with regular nutritious food, plenty of exercises, and an on-board hospital, and as a result, there was a mortality of less than one percent.

    Fijian Commemorative Postage Stamp

    Elbe Fijian Commemorative Postage Stamp.
  36. SS Wardha – was a 3,917-ton steamship built for the British-India Steam Navigation Company in 1887 by Alexander Stephen and Sons, Glasgow. She was a passenger-cargo vessel of length 350 feet (110 m) and breadth of 47 feet (14 m). She was used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  37. SS Sangola – was a merchant ship of 5,149 gross registered tons launched in 1901. She was owned by the British India Steam Navigation Company. From 1908 to 1910 Sangola made six voyages to Fiji bringing Indian indentured labourers from Calcutta and Madras. ↩︎
  38. SS Santhia – was a 5,544 GRT steam cargo liner built for the British-India Steam Navigation Company in 1901 by William Denny & Brothers, Dumbarton. She was used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  39. SS Mutlah – was a 3,393-ton steamship built for the Nourse Line in 1907 by Charles Connell & Company Limited, Glasgow, Scotland. Like other Nourse Line ships, she was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  40. SS Sutlej – was a 3,549-ton steamship built for the Nourse Line in about 1907 by Charles Connell & Company Limited, Glasgow. She had a single screw, triple expansion, 425 horsepower (317 kW) engine. Like other Nourse Line ships, she was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  41. SS Indus – was a 3,393-ton steamship launched on 28 April 1904. Delivered to the Nourse Line in May 1904, she was the shipping company’s first steamship. She was built by Charles Connell & Company Limited, Glasgow. Like other Nourse Line ships, she was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎
  42. SS Ganges – was a 3,475-ton steamship, built for the Nourse Line by Charles Connell and Company of Glasgow and launched on 9 March 1906. She made seven trips carrying Indian indentured labourers from Calcutta and Madras to Fiji, ↩︎
  43. SS Chenab – was a 3,930 GRT steamship built for the Nourse Line in 1911 by Cammell Laird and Company Limited of Birkenhead in England. Like other Nourse Line ships, she was primarily used for the transportation of Indian indentured labourers to the colonies. ↩︎


  • Australian National University (1948). Loading cane, Nausori [Photograph].
  • Girmit (2020). List Of Ships To Fiji. Link
  • Girmit (2021). List Of Ships To Fiji 1,2,3 [Photograph]
  • Kumar, A. (2016). Feeding the Girmitiya. The University of California Press, 16(1), 41-52. Link
  • List of Indian indenture ships to Fiji. (2020, March 10). In Wikipedia. Link
  • Swiggum, S. (2006, May 3). Nourse Line. The Shipping LIst. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from Link
  • U.P (2015, February 2). The Most Powerful Man On Board. The University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from Link
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