Speech at the Commemoration of 140th Anniversary of Girmit in Fiji, Mangere, Auckland

May I greet and acknowledge the presence of so many of our elders and pioneers of the Fiji Girmitees community who are present. I am happy to recognise your Special Guest the Rt Hon Sir Anand Satyaanand. He has eloquently shared his personal story which makes him a fantastic role model for the younger generation. He is a son of India, a son of Fiji and a son of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Ni sa bula vinaka – and warm Pacific greetings to you all.  

Welcome to Mangere, a place that I affectionately call the Gateway to the nation, land of the young, beautiful and gifted, and home of world champions.

It is an honour to be here with you all today as we gather to remember the sacrifices and suffering of those who, 140 years ago, were forced to leave their homes to be enslaved on the furthest shores of the British Empire.  

An empire that had, until then, been openly fuelled by slavery.

Britain officially turned its back on slavery in the early eighteenth century.

The passage of legislation that brought the slave trade to an end is still celebrated to this day for the freedom it gave to those who had been held by the chains of imperial growth.

But the truth, for millions of Indians, and those we are here to remember today, is that slavery ended not in 1807, but in 1916.

Celebrating the end of slavery on a date more than one hundred years too early is one of the abuses of power that helps to mask some of our most unpalatable truths. 

Because on the back of the open slave trade, an equally insidious system of indentured labour was built.

This is where your history begins.

A period of systemic and forced recruitment and displacement of millions of people.

An exploitative system of cheap labour perpetuated by a pervasive myth.

The fiction being that the new slaves, as they were, had agreed to work and that - in theory at least - they were entitled to return passage in five years.

But, as you know better than anyone, the wait to go home continues.

I would like to congratulate the NZ Fiji Girmit Foundation and thank you for the work you do to tell others this history – so we can learn from it, and so we can rewrite our own histories to include a better understanding of how the displacement of people from long ago fits with our story now.

If it is silence that helps to mask difficult truths, then your work will one day lead us to a place where every child grows up learning your story and remembering the sacrifices that were made.

Enlightenment about this abusive period of history can be a slow process. But when it comes you will have played a huge part in making it happen.

I implore you to keep working at this.

Because for millions growing up, the story they hear about our shared history is often told from the perspective of a dominant culture.

This is hugely powerful in shaping our sense of identity and belonging.

Children are rarely equipped with the knowledge and critical thinking to be able to question the world around them.

It is only really in later life that, if we chose, we revisit some of the unanswered questions and explanations offered by our school history classes, or story books, or film and television.

We shouldn’t have to seek out this history in our own time.

We should be taught it. 

How different our understanding of the world could be if our history lessons were dominated by the voices of the oppressed.

Those destitute, impoverished, ordinary peasant Indians who were forced across continents to a life of bondage and indenture with little, if any, thought to the tragic human consequences.

Today we gather to remember - not only the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters, the husbands, wives and children who connect generations of present-day Fijians and New Zealanders to their ancestral roots in India - but to remember their indomitable spirit.

Part of who you are has been shaped by the greed, injustice and abuses of colonial power, and by the decisions taken thousands of miles away more than a century ago.

But you also carry with you the enduring fortitude of your forebears.

You are the heirs of this spirit. You are the holders and guardians of your ancestors’ story.

Today is an opportunity to remember and renew that spirit as we confront and meet our current challenges. 

Facing this future, there may be days when the road seems too long, the hurdles too high, and the challenges too great.

But, when you feel like you may be losing our way, remember what your ancestors did.

The hope they showed in the face of incredible fear, their unity against the forces of division, and their courage under the weight of despair.

Imagine coming up against the might and sophistication of the British Empire. Being asked to put your fingerprint to a document you had never seen before.

You may never have even seen paper before. Unaware that from a single moment of pressing ink to paper, decades of suffering would follow.

We can trace our presence here today back to that moment.

Back across the thousands of miles of open seas your ancestors travelled under the auspices of an agreement they could neither read, nor understand.

Most wouldn’t have even known where they were going.

Some may never have seen water before.

Months on end spent living, eating, sleeping in unimaginably squalid conditions.

And sharing the experience with people they had never seen before, hearing dialects they couldn’t understand, or connect with.

Hundreds would have died in the squalor and disease of the ships - and most likely would have been thrown overboard.

For those that did survive, some may have been able to reassure themselves with the thought that their journey was temporary.

That soon they would return home.

Making landfall after months at sea, few would have known their suffering was only just beginning.

If we listen, we will hear the stories of why we are here today in the depots people were held in before being shipped away; in the villages they were removed from; and on the plantations they cultivated for the benefit of people an Empire away whose names and lives they would never have known.

The Empire undoubtedly brought untold privilege and opportunity to millions, but I wonder how many knew of the people on whose backs they stood.

Labourers who were housed in tin shacks, known as “lines”, built in rows behind the plantations where they worked.

Each one sharing a uniquely cruel experience with others from across India – people with different customs, different traditions.

All the while, walking through the corridors of power, were the traders and other beneficiaries lobbying to keep this abhorrent system going.

You are part of this story. We are all part of this story.

But, as is so often the case, only some of us see the lived experiences of our ancestors in the stories our home nations tell about themselves.

We nearly always forgot to mention the people on whose backs rapid progress was built.

The systemic recruitment and displacement that took place to uphold a system of political and economic power that stretched to every corner of the globe.

But you are keeping the story of these people – your ancestors - alive.

You are maintaining and passing on an indispensable record of who you are and what made us who we are.

And we must all play our part in this.

Because we live in a world stained by the historic profits wrought by systems like indentured labour.

Playing our part in remembering this is not about redeeming those responsible for this disturbing and troubling past, but about hearing the stories of the people that went through it.

Hearing the stories of people like you, who continue to live with the consequences.

We all have a responsibility to make sure the history we learn and pass on to our children incorporates these realities.

We can do this by telling the stories of the people for whom there may be no other record than a single thumb print.

The stories of the children who left India with their parents wanting little more than what we want today – to provide for their sons and daughters, and to give them the opportunities they never had.

The stories of the families torn apart in the name of profit and trade.

One thing we can take away from each of these stories is that all our histories are intertwined.

And in each of these personal histories there is one thing common to us all: love and compassion come naturally to everyone.

It is this truth that provides a foundation for never forgetting what happened 140 years ago.

Thank you for inviting me here today to remember with you.