All Castes Alike

“My mother begged that I always remember my caste,” said the boy. “Though we are only Sudra.”

“Devansh, there are no castes here. In the cane vineyard, all are made equal by the work they can do, the acres they can harvest. Queen Victoria must have her sugar.”

“How came you here, Sidra?”

“I came on a ship, the same as you. The first ship, the Leonidas.”

“What was my ship? I cannot remember.”

“Your ship was the Clyde.”

“What are these names?”

“Your ship was named for a river, mine for a king of Sparta. We had the blue death aboard, and almost a score died during the voyage despite all the surgeon-superintendent could do.”

“But how were they buried? Were there members of their castes to properly mourn them?”

“They were slipped over the side, shrouded in their bedding. That was when I knew all castes were alike.”


What Pegman Saw

The British Colonial authorities were deeply tied with the sugar cane industry in Fiji, but were unsuccessful in harnessing the fiercely independent indigenous islanders as a labor force. Governor Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon implemented an indentured labour scheme which had existed in the British Empire since 1837. Recruitment began all over India, especially in impoverished rural areas. Indenture would last four years, at which point the laborer could travel home at their own expense. Alternatively, they could elect to extend their indenture another four years, after which time the Crown would pay their passage or allow them to stay as free citizens of Fiji.

Most elected to stay.

The 61,000 original  indentures originated from different regions, villages, backgrounds, and castes that later mingled or intermarried with the native population.


Add Yours
  1. Joy Pixley

    Guaranteed work and the chance to escape your caste — I can see how that option would look good to those from impoverished rural areas, especially those of the lower castes. How it played out depends on how well the laborers were treated, though, and I don’t know much about that, although it seems to have worked well for many of them.

  2. prior..

    the writing made it feel like I was there listening to them speak.
    and was so interesting to learn this history – the names of the ships – the labor recruitment – the queen’s sugar needs, etc.

  3. subroto

    Great story, death does not discriminate at all.

    The British called it an agreement. It was hardly that. Growing up, one had read a few paragraphs in the history books on how the British took Indian labour to various colonies for work and it sounded so benevolent. I’ve had to change that assessment over the years. In the past couple of decades that I’ve lived in Australia, I’ve had fairly substantial contact with Fiji Indians and some of them have changed my perceptions over this glossing over of history. They were called “girmityas” (a corruption of the word ‘agreement’). A few may have left voluntarily but the majority were tricked.

    But why did this start ?In 1834, the British Slavery Abolition Act came into force, abolishing slavery throughout the Empire. Though billed as a revolutionary moment in world history, the wheels of slavery were reinvented and renamed, and the indentured labour system was instituted throughout the Empire. Under the indenture system, which lasted from 1834-1917, the British employed Indian labour for five-year terms, with some 1.2 million Indians serving, largely as plantation workers. Writer Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy is a fictional account of this slave trade (trafficking of nearly half a million people to Mauritius).

Don't just stand there.