THE last Indian immigrant ship, SS Sutlej, carrying 875 indentured men, women and children, entered Suva Harbour on 2 November, 1916. No one knew it then that Sutlej would be the last vessel ferrying human cargo to come to Fiji, the last of 87 which made the journey to the remote British colony in the Pacific. Four years later, on 1 January 1920, indenture system itself would be abolished.
This year, many former ‘King Sugar’ colonies such as Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, Fiji and Mauritius, are commemorating the end of indentured emigration.
A group in Fiji is organising an international conference, with attendant celebrations, to mark the occasion. Indian indentured emigration was unique.
No other labour scheme of the 19th and 20th centuries matched it in scale, scope and spread. By the time the Sutlej made its journey, debate was raging about the future of girmit, the Indian word for indenture derived from the ‘Agreement’ under which the immigrants came to Fiji. Fiji played a prominent part in galvanising public opinion against the indenture system.
After the turn of the century, Fiji was among the colonies with the largest number of indentured labourers still on the plantations, with the Colonial Sugar Refining Company as the monopoly employer.
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THE SS Sutlej reached Suva Harbour on the evening of November 2, 1916, some 25 days after clearing the port of Madras. It had on board 875 Indian indentured immigrants, 297 of whom had boarded the ship at Calcutta on 2 October. The following day at 10:30 am, CSR barges ferried the immigrants to the Nukulau Depot where after mandatory medical inspection and immigration checks, the immigrants would be allocated to plantations across the country according to the orders for labour placed the previous year.
The ship had encountered rough weather early in its voyage, the Surgeon Superintendent reported, but it had escaped ‘little serious sickness’ that had blighted some of the earlier voyages, notably that of the The Journey of Girmit Escape from despair to build a land of opportunity Fultala in 1906 when an outbreak of cholera had claimed 61 lives. Mercifully, such tragic losses were rare.
The Sutlej was the last immigrant ship to bring indentured labourers to Fiji, the last of the 87 which, from 1879 onwards, had brought some 60,965 immigrants to the newly acquired British colony. The ships have such magical names: Rhone, Avon, Sangola, Danube, Elbe, Pericles and Leonidas.