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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Gujaratis of Fiji, 1900-1945 : a study of an indian immigrant trader community Prasad, Kamal Kant


This study concerns the Gujaratis of Fiji who comprise an important trading community within the large Indian population but who have not received extensive attention from scholars. It covers a time-span of forty-five years, from the beginning of this century to the end of World War II. During this period, which characterizes the crucial formative phase of their settlement in Fiji, Gujaratis belonging to various castes and from diverse backgrounds came to Fiji where they gradually became a noticeable and important trader element within the predominantly agricultural Indian population. In the process, they also acquired a negative image which is comparable to that of the dukawalla (shopkeeper) in Africa. Although other Indians were already residing in Fiji since 1879, as indentured laborers or as descendants of these laborers, Gujarat! contacts with Fiji began after 1900. Lack of sea routes between Western India and Fiji, and the prohibition of recruitment of laborers for Fiji in Bombay Presidency, provided little incentive for travel between the two areas. Moreover, Gujaratis who wished to travel to Fiji could only do so through the two sanctioned emigration ports, Calcutta and Madras. Rather than venture into an unknown area, most Gujarati immigrants went to East Africa where mercantile communities originating from Western India were long established. Fiji simply did not offer lucrative prospects until isolated groups from Gujarat proved the contrary. What caused Gujarati migration to Fiji? First of all, groups which found little fame and fortune in Africa began to turn to opportunities in other countries. Secondly, deteriorating conditions in Gujarat in the early twentieth century caused population movements to other parts of India and abroad. Failure of the monsoons, famines, reduction of landholdings among families, and the subsequent drop in agricultural productivity merely hastened the process. Thirdly, as opportunities in urban centers, especially Bombay, became limited, more and more Gujaratis left India in search of opportunity to supplement meager resources at home. Fourthly, British colonial territories which contained powerful white communities soon began to restrict the entry of Indians which initiated the push toward new frontiers such as Fiji. By contrast, Fiji welcomed 'free' immigrants because of the skills which they introduced; it maintained an open door policy toward this category of migrants until 1930. Gujarati penetration into Fiji was part of the movement of 'free' immigrants into the colony. The other two types of 'free' immigrants were Punjabis and 'returnees' (ex-indentured Indians who returned to Fiji after having been repatriated to India). Gujaratis came mainly to ply skills which they acquired in their homeland. Until 1920 isolated caste groupings carved out a particular area of operations in which they effectively utilized traditional caste skills. Most immigrants came for a stay of two years after which they had hoped to return to their homeland. However, this period was too short for the accumulation of large savings. The more important phase of Gujarati migration to Fiji took place after 1920. The breakdown of Fiji's isolation from the rest of the world in the 1920s and the extension of sea routes between Fiji and India facilitated movement between Gujarat and Fiji. The survival of the sugar industry and developing needs in the agricultural sugar belt of Fiji where the majority of Indians were residing opened new avenues for Gujaratis who had the aptitude to move with ease into entrepreneurial roles. Their tenacity in trade and commerce became more noticeable during the depression years when the arrival of more Gujarati immigrants made it difficult for local Indians to enter that sphere of activity. Consequently, in the 1930s, attitudes toward the unrestricted entry of Gujaratis changed in favor of stringent immigration controls. In the final analysis, the Gujarati immigrants introduced a different lifestyle and successfully maintained it. They also had the necessary expertise, the organizational know-how, and a considerable degree of group solidarity to assume roles which other Indians were incapable of doing. Though they did not adhere rigidly to the hierarchical social structure of their homeland, these immigrants were still linked to their respective jati nuclei in Gujarat through caste ideology and caste behavior. However, occupational specialization, based on the notion of pollution and purity, had little relevance in Fiji. A wide range of opportunities was available to all immigrants. Gujaratis settled mainly in urban areas because of their commercial orientation, and where their activities had the maximum potential for success. Their social life was built around the shop rather than around caste and religion, but the introduction of families in the 1930s obliged them to pay closer attention to the needs of the household, especially in the matter of religion. In effect, Gujaratis continued to exist as a marginal group within the Indian community; until 1945 they remained beyond the mainstream of Indian cultural, social, and political life in Fiji.

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