By Deepa Singh
“Coolie” in many South Asian languages commonly refers to an individual that carries heavy loads and does unskilled tasks. For Indian laborers working on plantation estates in British colonies circa 1890-1902, this simple word was shaped into a derogatory slur that eventually became a part of their identity. The word “coolie” began to take a literal form as workers carried the pain and suffering their British oppressors imposed upon them.
The British were in need of labor and a compliant population willing to work for cheap for their sugar plantations. British-hired recruiters would use outright fraud and deceptive methods like making Indians “fear[ful] of being beaten up, prosecut[ed] for kidnapping before unsympathetic magistrates or having their licenses canceled,” to coerce them into agreeing to travel to unknown locations as laborers. The Fiji Islands were one of the colonies where the laborers would travel.
During this time, approximately 60,995 Indians voyaged to Fiji. Of the first Indians to go to Fiji, “45,833 went from Calcutta and 15,132 from Madras.” Then the reality hit them: this was a trap. A long journey of hard labor and unfair working conditions awaited them.
In 1921, despite knowing the risks, people from Gujarat and Punjab joined the groups traveling to Fiji seeking economic opportunities. Records reveal that Fiji had the highest suicide record of indentured laborers among the British colonies. In an unfamiliar land away from everything and everyone they considered their own, many Indo-Fijians began experiencing, “ homesickness, jealousy, domestic unhappiness”,. This coupled with an inability to return home to India all contributed to the “coolie” diaspora’s suffering. This level of trauma, transferred to generations of Indo-Fijians to come, is a driving force behind the struggle of Indo-Fijian identity construction today.
As of 2018, 37.5% of the Fijian population is of Indian descent. Many Indo-Fijians immigrated abroad to become a part of other diaspora communities. Moving out of Fiji’s borders brought a new challenge for Indo-Fijians: attempting to converse with others a history and an identity that still remains an unfinished puzzle for the diaspora.
With the question of identity being widely discussed, the conversation and self-discovery of identity has fallen on younger generations, some of whom take great pride in their Fijian heritage. Pallavi, aka Fijiana, is a Fijian rapper living in California. In her song, “Identity,” she speaks about Indo-Fijian diaspora’s lack of representation, and the “coolie” diaspora globally. “I noticed the need to constantly insert the ‘coolie’ narrative since people around me constantly forgot about it,” Pallavi said. Even at a South Asian Activist camp Pallavi attended, there was still clear room to learn about Indo-Fijian issues. This fight for acknowledgment of Indo-Fijian history drives the need to wear Fijian culture’s forgotten customs as a badge of honor. Pallavi naturally tapped into her music career as a medium to showcase more representation of the “coolie” diaspora.
“I have been focusing on my Fijian Identity because I noticed that when I let people think of me as Indian or Indo-Fijian, it kind of erases my ancestors [from Fiji] and their struggles,” Pallavi said. This ideology sprouts from people automatically grouping Fijians with Indians. Furthermore, Pallavi’s desire to honor and remember Indo-Fijians’ plight is rooted in systematic erasure of the Indio-Fijian experience within wider British colonial intervention despite being as brutally used as indentured laborers by the British as other commonwealth populations.
“Being ‘coolie’ is like navigating the South Asianness which I carry on my skin, in my features, etc, whereas the other culture [Fijian culture], the struggles and the journey isn’t that easily seen, so I think [I] have to talk about that more,” Pallavi said. Indo-Fijians don’t choose to forget or discredit their South Asian heritage.
Rather, it’s the complexities in the “coolie” history that motivates cultural selections between Fiji and India. For newly arrived Indians to Fiji, the Indian culture reminded them of their old homes, and provided sanity in a place that felt insane to them. Naturally, adjustment to the new environment, newly gained relationships with native Fijian culture, and cultural similarities all allowed for the Indo-Fijian or Fijian culture that had emerged. For Indo-Fijians living abroad, an additional layer of complexity comes from the culture of their new home. Some Indo-Fijians maintain balance by omitting the traditional Indian culture and incorporating aspects that their forefathers decided to carry on. Ultimately, the relationship became an effort to consciously formulate an identity to pay respect to the hardships of Fijian forefathers.
This unsteady search for identity all depends upon the experiences heard or seen about the Fijian “coolie” diaspora. The younger Indo-Fijian generation relies on the oral histories of older generations to help them construct their own identity. “I don’t think we had that kind of privilege and ability to carry these kinds of stories. Most stories ended at my grandma, and I don’t even know if anything said is accurate,” Pallavi said. This lack of information limits young Indo-Fijians’ curiosity about their roots in India. Thus, even with the desire to tie themselves to a location in India, the inability to find a relation forces them to lean heavily on their Fijian heritage to ground them.
Indo-Fijian history is a puzzle. And with so many pieces erased forever, younger generations must fit together their information of the past and the present to create a new puzzle altogether. Call them Indo-Fijian, call them Fijian, or even call them “coolie”, people like Pallavi have taken on the mantle of educating others about the Fijian “coolie” narrative. They have taken the conversation back into their hands and have decided that it’s time to pull the rug off and put a mirror in faces that previously chose to not recognize the diaspora by automatically grouping them with another community. The displacement to Fiji left their ancestors to find a new place to call home, now their descendents are here, finding a place in the world.