From ‘Girmitiyas’ to the Government – The Indian slaves who brought prosperity and liberation to alien lands

indentured labourers

Girmitiyas’ (indentured labourers), the name given to generations of Indians, who were forced to leave the country in the middle and late 19th century to serve as laborers in the then British colonies where they eventually settled down for more than a century. Girmit is a corrupt form of the English word ‘agreement’; an agreement under which thousands of laborers used to emigrate, a labour so emigrating under Girmit is a Girmitia. The word ‘Girmitia’ was coined by Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who called himself ‘Pehla Girmitia’ (first Girmitia), as a recognition of his fight for the cause of the community.

Migration of unskilled manual workers from Bihar and other parts of India is not a new phenomenon. It began in the middle of the 19th century, when they left for Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, the Caribbean Islands and other distant lands during the British Raj as indentured labourers. Years of toiling by these people in their adopted countries has transformed barren lands into the mines of golden crops, bringing prosperity and abundance for themselves, fellow African labourers and the natives.

Most of them ended up leading lives of unmitigated hardship and abject penury. But some fought against all odds to not only to survive, but also to pave the way for a better future for their descendants. They embraced the local culture and assimilated themselves totally in the alien lands. In fact, some of their descendants went on to become the heads of the governments in those countries, underlining the triumph of human spirit over all impediments.

The illiterate indentured labourers empowered succeeding generations through a determined pursuit of education. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Cheddi Bharrat Jagan, Jagernath Lachmon,  Rajkeswur Purryag, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Navinchandra Ramgoolam and many others are the living symbols of the transformation of an oppressed community to leaders of society in the space of a few generations.

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (1900 – 1985) – The First Prime Minister of Mauritius

Often referred to as Chacha Ramgoolam, he was a Mauritian politician, statesman and philanthropist. He was a leader in the Mauritian independence movement, and served as the first Chief Minister and Prime Minister of Mauritius, as well as its sixth Governor General.

As the leader of the Labour Party, Ramgoolam fought for the rights of labourers and led Mauritius to independence in 1968. As Mauritius’ first Prime Minister, he played a crucial role in shaping modern Mauritius’ government, political culture and foreign policy. He is known as the ‘Father of the Nation’.

His father, Moheeth Ramgoolam, was an Indian indentured labourer who went to Mauritius aged 18 in a ship called The Hindustan in 1896.

Cheddi Bharrat Jagan (1918 – 1997) – The former President of Guyana

Cheddi Bharrat Jagan was first elected Chief Minister in 1953 and later Premier of British Guiana from 1961 to 1964, prior to independence. He later served as President of Guyana from 1992 to 1997. He is widely regarded in Guyana as the ‘Father of the Nation’.

Cheddi Bharrat Jagan was the eldest of 11 children born to parents who came from India to British Guiana as indentured labourers. His mother Bachaoni, and his father Jagan, along with two grandmothers and an uncle, were brought from Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1901. His family grew up in rural poverty and worked in the cane fields to support themselves.

Jagernath Lachmon (1916 – 2001) – The former President of Suriname

Jagernath Lachmon was a Surinamese politician of Indian descent. He was one of the founders of the Progressive Reform Party, an Indo-Surinamese party founded in 1947, where he served as the President for a long period.

Lachmon was the youngest of the six children. His parents were indentured labourers from Uttar Pradesh to Suriname. 

Navinchandra Ramgoolam –  The former Prime Minister of Mauritius

Navinchandra Ramgoolam, is the former Prime Minister of Mauritius and the leader of the Labour Party. He served as Prime Minister for the first time in December 1995. On 5 July 2005, he became prime minister for a second term, after his Alliance Social won the general elections.  His grandfather Moheeth Ramgoolam had left India in 1871 from Harigaon village in Bhojpur district to Mauritius to work as an indentured labourer.

Ramgoolam was able to visit his ancestral village Harigaon in Gaya district during a visit to India in 2008. After an emotional visit to his ancestral village, Ramgoolam had unveiled a bronze statue of his father, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who was a freedom fighter and the first prime minister of Mauritius, at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan. Ramgoolam’s visit to Harigaon had sparked off a greater interest among the people of Mauritius, to try searching for their ancestral roots.

Rajkeswur Purryag –  The President of Mauritius

Rajkeswur Purryag (known as Kailash Purryag) is the President of Mauritius, in office since 2012. He is the Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Mauritius. His great grandfather Lakshman Paryag sailed to Mauritius some 150 years ago to work as indentured labourers.

It was not surprising that Rajkeswur Purryag, the President of Mauritius, could not hold back his tears when he reached the Wajitpur village in the Patna district, the village from where his great grandfather Akshman Paryag had migrated 150 years ago. 

Their memory is embedded in my blood. My forefathers went to a distant place, but kept Bihar and India alive in their hearts.

Nothing was known about his forefathers except the fact that they came from somewhere in Patna district’s Masaurhi area. Rajkeswur himself had come to Bihar 25 years ago to locate his village but failed. It was only after he sought the help of chief minister Nitish Kumar that he not only found his village, but also was reunited with his long lost kin belonging to the same family tree.

Sir Anerood Jugnauth – The Prime Minister of Mauritius

Sir Anerood Jugnauth is a Mauritian politician and currently the Prime Minister of Mauritius since December 2014. He served four consecutive terms as Prime Minister from 1982 to 1995 and again from 2000 to 2003. He is the longest serving prime minister with more than 16 years of tenure. He also served as the president of Mauritius from 2003 to 2012.

Anerood Jagnauth is credited with the legacy of Mauritius’ ‘economic miracle’ and was honoured with Pravashi Bharatiya Samman Award for his continuous support for India’s causes and concerns and strengthening India’s relationship with Mauritius.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar – The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago

Kamla Persad-Bissessar is the seventh Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the sixth person to hold this position. She is the country’s first female Prime Minister. She was the first woman to serve as Attorney General, acting Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition of Trinidad and Tobago.

It was in 1889 that her grandfather Ram Lakhan Mishra had migrated to the Caribbean islands from a ship named Volga which carried 556 people. Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s ancestor carried the Ramayana and the Bhagwad Gita with them on their journey to an unknown future.

From Girmitiya to Government – The Story of Indians in Mauritius

Evidently, the illustrious descendants of the indentured labourers are aware of the hardships of their ancestors as well as their roots. While they acclimatize themselves with local cultures and learned new languages in their adopted lands, they could not sever the proverbial umbilical cords with the land of their forefathers.

These high-profile dignitaries are not the only ones trying to locate the land of their forefathers in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Every year, hundreds of well heeled people from foreign countries come to India in search of their roots. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs is running a scheme known as ‘Tracing the Roots‘ to facilitate PIOs (Persons Of Indian Origin) in tracing their roots in India, to help them find their ancestral lands. For more details please visit The Ministry Of Overseas Indian Affairs.

Image credit: johanfourie


Kakoli Mahanta

A post graduate in Economics, Kakoli Partha Mahanta worked for corporate finance sector for about 7 years. Mother of a cute 2 year baby girl, Kakoli is currently located in Bangalore, India, flourishing her writing skill.

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