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The Journey of Leonidas
Arriving with the number of 463 Indians aboard the Leonidas in Fiji, these indentured labourers were the ones to sow the seeds which would amount to the present day 40 percent of Fiji's population.
A receipt of one of the travellers of Leonidas; Source: Trove

Happened on 14th May 1879

It stood on the shore, the great metal giant, which was to change my life forever, along with the lives of four hundred and ninety-eight of my brothers and sisters. The life of a poor man is never easy. It is a circle of debt for us poor people. First, we borrow money for our stomach and then spend our lives paying it back. When we can't pay back anymore, we sell our bodies. Everything is always somehow less.

I was born a Chamar, a neechi jaat (lower caste). Since time immemorial our family has worked as leather tanners. That is why the upper caste people of my village stay away from me, because I am an achhut. Now, these firangis have come and for them even the upper caste Brahmins are achhut. The world is a funny place.

I am here in the line of four hundred and ninety-eight to pay back my debt. Not by money but my labour.

They don't need it here, so they have told me to go to a land that is far beyond, somewhere across all the waters and work there. Some funny name - Fiji! How does it matter for me where I work? I am just another poor man in a line. But I will surely miss my home and the village pond where I used to play with the other boys. Maybe someday I will return.

I don't know how to read, but something big is scribbled on the ship that they are taking us on. The symbols look something like this - LEONIDAS. I don't what it is or who he is! Maybe some King from the old times in whose memory they named the ship. I wonder what that King did in his life. Maybe he fought wars for wealth or maybe to keep his people free. I can never know. For me, it is not freedom.

In any case, we were all taken aboard. It was March. I could smell the leaves in the air. This smell would soon become a distant memory. I looked all around me.

Half of us were men and the other half women and children, some below twelve. I wonder what kind of life lay in front of them.

As the ship moved deeper into the water, Calcutta became a small dot on the horizon. Our land and our known lives were far behind us.

Things ran smoothly for the first few days. But then on the third day, some of us got sick. Doctor Superintendent Saheb said it was cholera and smallpox. He was scared and tried to isolate the sick people.

We did not understand and despite all his efforts, seventeen people died in seventy-two days.

I don't know who suffered the bigger loss, the person who sold the labour of these seventeen people or their families. Who knows what is bigger - emotions or money?

We reached this place they called Levuka on 14 May in 1879. But this was a sick ship. So they did not take us ashore immediately. We asked Captain McLachlan why they weren't taking us on the land. He said the last time they took people with measles on the island 40,000 of the population was wiped out! They wanted our labour but they were scared of the diseases we were bringing.

So, the captain took the ship on the leeward side and tried to anchor it but it was wrecked by a reef. But then the ocean came for help and as a wave hit, the ship was safely anchored. Then began the long wait. Even the resources were sent to us through the platforms they built, which would move as the tides of the ocean moved.

Then they took us to Yanuca Lailai, a small piece of land in the middle of the ocean near Fiji, where we were quarantined. Some of the houses were old, some newly constructed. There were armed guards all around us.

In the days that came fifteen more of us died because of dysentery, diarrhoea and typhoid. When we were finally released from that station in August, only four hundred and sixty-three of us remained.

Since then, many ships have come from my country that have brought more and more people here. It looks like we are almost half of the Fijian population. This land also feels like my own now. In all the stories of the past that people talk about, I don't know if someone will say mine. What is there to say? An indentured labourer travelled from Calcutta to Levuka with four hundred and ninety-eight others to work on a foreign island! People like Leonidas have left more fascinating tales behind, that is why schooner ships are named after them.

Avneet K Author
Avid reader, curious, enthusiastic knowledge seeker, in awe with the universe and in love with history. I believe life is right in the middle of what's gone and what's out there in the vast nothingness, the charted territory in the middle of uncharted ones.

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