Speech: Commemoration of 145th Anniversary of Girmit in Fiji

It is an honour to be here with you to remember the sacrifices of those who, 145 years ago, were forced to leave their homes to be enslaved on in a land far away.

As part of an empire, that until then, had been powered by slavery.

Britain officially ended slavery in the early eighteenth century.

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 its shackles.

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.

Commemorating 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 sinister system of labour was built.

This is where Fiji's Girmitiyas 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 untruth being that the new slaves, as they were, had agreed to work and that - in theory at least - were entitled to return passage in five years.

But, as you know better than anyone, the wait to go home never ended.

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

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

Illumination about this abusive period of history is a slow process. But when it comes you will have played a huge part in making it happen. Thank you for this work and I encourage you to keep going.

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 and exploits of colonial power, and by the decisions taken thousands of miles away more 100 years ago. But you also carry with you the enduring strength of your ancestors.

You are the heirs of this spirit. You are the holders and keepers of their stories.

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

We all have a responsibility to make sure the history we learn and pass on to our children includes 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 children, 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 comes naturally to everyone.

We must never forget what happened 145 years ago. Thank you for inviting me here today to remember with you.

Stay in the loop by signing up to our mailing list and following us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.