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Wilberforce Sahib

By Vimal Madhavan
October 2001, Cefn Hengoed
A digital story from Capture Wales

A tribute

Vimal looks back to his family roots in Fiji.

Sound of slow drum beat

"My grandmother, Kalu, was a doughty woman. She had to be, plucked as she was against her will from India and dumped, on her own, on a cane plantation in Fiji, the other side of the world. She would have had words to say to William Wilberforce:

"Wilberforce Sahib, you are famous, you got rid of a great evil of our times. Without your efforts, where would we be? In slavery, that's where. But even as your life's work came to fruition, as you lay dying in July 1833, and even as they promised to free African slaves, the plantation owners were finalising new plans. With Africa out of bounds, they descended onto the riches of Indian labour the next year.

They called it Indenture, Sahib. Ghandi G condemned it as a remnant of slavery. The yolk, he said, transferred from a black to a brown neck. In the process, it was polished, lightened and even disguised. But in the hideousness of its essentials it retained its original quality.

By the time Indenture ended in 1920, more than a million people had been encouraged, tricked or forced into leaving their homes in India to work on plantations in countries as diverse as Mauritius, the West Indies and Fiji in the Pacific. My destination, Sahib, along with the destiny of about 60,000 others, was Fiji. I'm not complaining now but at the time, I, a lone woman and a new life growing in my womb, had little chance against the kidnapper who dragged me to the ship. I was one of the 40 women he needed for every 100 men he signed up. I never saw my husband or my homeland again and he never saw the daughter born in Indenture.

But life is full of hopes, Sahib. Back-breaking work in cane fields did not break my spirit. Fighting the new slavery equipped us for political struggles ahead. And as my children and their children immersed themselves in the politics and development, I see how my spirit lives on in my children, their children and their children's children. Does yours, Sahib?"

Yes, she would have words. Her legacy includes a son, my father, who helped shape and deliver Fiji's independence; a grandson, one of my brothers, who also became a parliamentarian and another generation who are socially aware and active."

Sound of slow drum beat

Could you tell us something about yourself?
I am a journalist and chief sub-editor at the Western Mail. I have previously worked in the print media in Fiji and the Pacific and freelance for radio and print media in Australia and Britain.

What's the inspiration for your story?
My grandmother was always a part of our family story, although none of us brothers and sisters knew her. As I grew older and moved away from my own home country of Fiji to Britain, my grandmother's own voyage and dislocation started taking on a new meaning. The immensity of a decision such as changing countries put her enforced move in a different context for me.

How do you feel about your grandmother now?
She became a very real human being, flesh and blood, to me as I made this digital story. Nearly 100 years after her trip, as I watched her story, I felt a very real sorrow, at the way she had lost one family, and I marvelled at how she had rebuilt her life in a strange land.

Your comments

"Very enlightening and told in a way that brings the facts to life." Clive, Neath, Wales, Sept 2007.

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