by Fiona Paisley
In 1916, in order to focus Indian manpower on the imperial war effort, Indian indenture into Fiji was temporarily suspended. But should it resume after the war? A year earlier, two British men with personal and career connections in India, had travelled to the British colony of Fiji with this question in mind. They travelled from India into the Pacific, via Australia and New Zealand, in order to investigate the conditions of indentured Indians on the islands’ sugar plantations. Through their critical report published in 1916, Charles Freer Andrews and William Winstanley Pearson would contribute to the ‘ending’ of indenture after the war, and, they hoped, to the campaign for Indian independence and free Indian migration into the Pacific.
As the historian of Fiji, Brij Lal, has pointed out, the Andrews and Pearson report was only one instance in a much larger story of political agitation by ‘girmitiyas’ (the indentured) themselves. They worked with a range of Indian-Fijians, Indian unionists and others already active in Fiji during this same era. It is also the case that beyond the activism of Indians and Fijians themselves, the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand were invested in the outcomes of the report also, as each had their own ambitions in the Pacific. In the post-war era, these would be advanced through becoming the mandatory powers – administered through the League of Nations’ – in Samoa, New Guinea and Nauru.
That British imperial reputation was at stake in debates about indenture was also important to the White Dominions. By the first decades of the century, the ‘problem’ of indenture within the British empire had been increasingly difficult to ignore. By the interwar years, it would attract renewed significance thanks to the League of Nations’ Slavery Convention and the Forced Labour Convention of the International Labour Organisation that followed. Already in 1910 the Sanderson Commission had been established by the Colonial Office to investigate indenture in the British colonies of Mauritius, Jamaica, Fiji, and Natal (and also in Sri Lanka in relation to traditional forms of unfree labour). The commission found that indenture was a humane form of labour, as long as it was operated efficiently, and properly administered from recruitment through to monitoring conditions at destination. To achieve the required standards, the commission recommended a series of reforms. Andrews and Pearson would show five years later that the system of indenture from India into Fiji had not been improved: it remained far from just or efficient, and, in reality, created untold suffering in the lives of individuals while demeaning the reputation of the Indian people in general. Their findings contributed to the decision by the government of India and by British authorities to end indenture from India to Fiji, already suspended, following the war.
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