On May 14, 1879 the ship Leonidas arrived from Calcutta carrying the first 498 Indian immigrants to a chain of islands in the South Pacific known as Fiji . Following in their foot steps came a total of 60,537 (some 24,655 actually returned under special provisions provided by the Imperial authorities ) Indians who roughed the journey of the Indian Ocean to work the sugar cane fields of the South Pacific. The basic historical fact that predicated this process of migration is the British Empire. A theory exists that the need for such labor migration arose, in a general sense, because of the parliamentary declaration ending slavery in the 1830s, creating a labor shortage among plantations and other labor-intensive agricultural occupations throughout the Empire; an over-populated India provided the perfect solution to this problem . Such far away corners as East Africa (Uganda and Kenya), the Caribbean (Trinidad and Tobago), and the South Pacific (Fiji) saw an influx of Indian immigrants for the express purpose, at least initially, of providing much needed labor for plantation and agricultural needs .
In Fiji specifically, the need for labor came from a variety of concerns on the part of the British colonial government. Namely, the government did not feel it appropriate to ‘liquidate’ the native Fijian society (especially considering the terms under which Fiji was ceded to the crown) by forcing the population into the sugar plantations. Instead, the government turned towards imported labor to meet the needs of sugar and agricultural production and India provided the perfect solution in light of the post-slavery period .
The arrival of a substantial Indian population in Fiji created several interesting historical developments that most certainly warrant further study. Perhaps one of the most engaging is the evolution of Indian culture in the Fijian context. One can make the argument that India, like China, has experienced a cultural continuity unmatched in the western world. From the earliest ‘recorded ’ texts there begins a system of belief, ritual, and culture that was passed down through the generations into the modern era. It was the heir to this cultural tradition that Indian migrants to Fiji carried with them.
Several anthropologists have, in fact, attempted to document the condition of Indo-Fijian culture in the Fijian context. Adrian C. Mayer, for example wrote the classic work (cited earlier) which attempts to document the patterns of life in Fiji among the rural Indian population. The ample anthropological literature, however, is not supplemented with much from historians. As such, there has been little in the way of historical analysis of the raw data anthropologists have provided in this field .
The critical question in my thesis, then, is: “How did Indians preserve the "core" elements of Indian and Hindu (as the case may be) during their time in Fiji? Did the Fiji experience leave a large cultural imprint that can be discerned in a different cultural context?” In essence, I will be looking at the patterns of cultural retention among the Indo-Fijians first for elements of the ‘native ’ Indian tradition and then for other cultural elements that may have been adopted in Fiji or in the United States. More specifically, I will be looking at critical rituals in the life of a Hindu, such as marriage and the funeral, and analyzing them for their cultural elements.
In the course of my research I do expect to be able to form a historical thesis: that in fact Indo-Fijians, both in Fiji and the United States, have preserved the ‘essential’ and ‘core’ elements of being Indian and Hindu with the Fijian cultural context having had little impact in particular reference to the ritual. The United States, however, new elements previously unseen in Fiji and India have been incorporated into Indo-Fijian culture, but the ritual roots of Indian religion remain. The primary agent enabling the preservation of Indian culture both in Fiji and the United States, according to my hypothesis, is mass media, popular culture, and the continued flow of migrants both to Fiji and the United States.
Up until 1920 Indian immigrants continued to make the trek to Fiji as indentured labor, and for a few years after came as free migrants. These people provided the necessary ‘revitalization’ of Indian culture and the maintenance of ‘native’ patterns of that culture. After 1920, however, Indo-Fijians were able to maintain their cultural connection ‘Bharat Mata ’ through the growing industry of Indian films and, in the U.S., through direct Indian migration.
The process of investigating and researching this process of cultural retention in Fiji and the United States is two-fold and breaks down along national lines: in terms of the Fijian experience, the evidence for the thesis will primarily come from ethnographies conducted in the last fifty years on peasant, rural, and Indian society in Fiji because it would be impossible to go to Fiji and conduct original field research. This anthropological data will be supplemented with articles, some of which exist in the diasporatic Indian press. In terms of the United States, however, the research will become more original in that it will involve some elements of field research conducted among the relatively substantial Indo-Fijian community in Northern California, and particularly Sacramento. As with the Fijian experience, this research will be supplemented with an appropriate number of articles dealing with the Indo-Fijian population.
Last Updated 15 March 2005.
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