Coolie: The Story of The Girmityas

BATS Theatre, The Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

08/06/2023 - 10/06/2023

Kia Mau Festival 2023

Production Details

Written, Performed and Composed by Nadia Freeman

Produced by Miss Leading

A chance of a lifetime! 

To work and live in paradise, free travel, accommodation and food provided – The Dream.

Or nightmare for 60,000 Indian’s kidnapped or taken through coercion & blackmail to faraway countries to replace the gap left by the slavery system for something almost identical but rebranded.

Coolie: The story of the Girmityas is an immersive experience through the Pacific’s untold history of indentured labour from India to Fiji.

Join poet and music producer Miss Leading (AKA Nadia Freeman) as she performs this composition of live electronic music, poetry and song to tell the story of her ancestors.

Please note there will be a 15 minute Q&A session after the show on Friday with the President of the Fiji Indian Association.

“Freeman is an arresting performer, deeply likable and capable of slipping mercurially from one mood to another.” IRENE CORBETT Theatre Scenes

BATS Theatre, The Dome
Tues 8 – Sat 10 June 2023

Set Designer: Josiah Liston
Stage Manager: Isha Ramitha Bhatnagar-Stewart
Cast: Michael Mckeon
Script Advisor: Sameena Zehra

Music , Theatre ,

60 minutes

A powerful, mesmerising and moving theatre experience

Review by Lynda Chanwai-Earle 09th Jun 2023

In 2000, the small Pacific Island nation of Fiji made world headlines when George Speight and other hardline i-Taukei (ethnic Fijian) nationalists staged a civilian coup d’état to overthrow the democratically elected Indo-Fijian Government led by Mahendra Choudhry.

Speight led a group that seized parliament and held the country’s then prime minister and other MPs hostage for 56 days. During this coup, generations of Indo-Fijians whose ancestors were indentured labourers or Girmityas, were demonised, creating an exodus of refugees from Fiji.  

Fast forward to 2023. As we enter the Dome at BATS Theatre, actor Michael Mckeon, dressed as a dapper gentleman from our colonised past, hands us a flyer – The dream awaits… Destination Plantation”– and entices us into the auditorium with a short lecture that promises the chance of a lifetime, To work and live in paradise, free travel, accommodation and food provided…” Then the dapper gentleman exits, and the real story begins.

Coolie: The story of the Girmityas lives up to its promise as an immersive experience through the Pacific’s untold history of indentured labour from India to Fiji. An offensive term to many, the name Coolie was how indentured Indian and Asian labourers were identified throughout British colonies.

Poet/Music Producer Miss Leading (AKA Nadia Freeman) performs solo, her live electronic music, poetry and song lifting the story of her ancestors from the dirt, blood, sweat and tears of their buried past.

The simple set, comprised of two large white drops sweeping across the stage, is divided by a tapa cloth (masi) and an Indian sari. Wooden pellets and sleeping mats become the ships, islands and huts of our imagination. From the moment Freeman appears behind one white drop with her electronic synthesiser, she becomes a grotesque dance of shadow play.

Freeman’s electronic music is haunting, her soulful voice embraces us like the sounds of lapping waves across the idyllic white sanded beaches of Fiji… She lives up to her stage name (Miss Leading), lulling us into a sense of false security, just as her ancestors were promised.

Then Freeman delivers the un-sanitised true-life version, the brutality of lives lived by some 60,000 indentured labourers from India. These people were coerced, kidnapped or forced into slavery in the sugar trade, thousands of miles from home. Documentary-style voice recordings bring to life vignettes of real-life survivors of Fiji’s colonial past.

The very first image projected onto white is of an immigrant pass from the early 1900s. Later, Freeman reveals that this pass belonged to her great-grandmother.

“Some of us run, some of us are hung… Our history is missing… Our history is missing…”she sings, as she places an iron collar around her neck, signifier of the indentured.

England’s dark stain of rebranded slavery during its period of imperialist colonisation has been an embarrassing, buried history. The origin of ‘coolies’, or indentured Asian labourers, ironically came about after the abolition of slavery in England’s Act of Emancipation in 1834.

This emancipation of slaves led to a shortage of labour in the sugar, tea, coffee, rice and rubber plantations across the British colonies. Authorities introduced a system of indentured immigration. Millions of Indians, Chinese and Southeast Asians were tricked into thinking they could find a better life by emigrating or working in the colonies.

Freeman tells of babies laid to never-ending sleep on idyllic beaches while their starving parents toil in the sweltering heat of the plantations. An orange, free fruit plucked by a hungry child, becomes a reason for punitive action, denying this family their passage home to India. If some do make it back to India, they’re shunned by their village. Girmityas become outcasts, forced to return to the colonies or die.

Watching Freeman’s deft hands as they sweep across her keyboard is like watching a dancer. She captivates us, taking all the time in the world as she blows into a conch shell, whips sugar cane fronds or rattles gold jewellery in a bowl – recording the sounds in real-time into her synthesiser.

Freeman deliberately utilises these poignant objects to record the basslines for her rhythmical tracks as they play under evocative, haunting poetry and lyrics.

The Indian Indentured Immigration lasted around 100 years from the 1830s to 1924. Almost 1.2 million Indians were relocated to 19 colonies.

Back to the future, George Speight, who with 10 others was jailed for life in 2002 for leading the takeover of Fiji’s government in May 2000, has applied for a presidential pardon to Fiji’s Mercy Commission. He could be freed within the month.

Perhaps one tragedy of this period of Fiji’s recent history has been the re-stigmatisation and re-ghettoization of the Indo-Fijian people, Freeman’s people.

Freeman’s powerful, mesmerising and moving theatre experience reminds us that the illegal trade of human trafficking still exists throughout the world to this day, and that the forced servitude of any ethnic group is history we should avoid repeating.

FOOTNOTE: This short season has sold out!

Tonight (Friday the 9th of June), the show will be followed by a 15-minute Question and Answer session featuring Nadia Freeman and special guest Nirmala Balram. Nirmala has a passion for contemporary art and history in particular her Indo-fijian and Girmit ancestry. She is the conservator of ethnographic objects at Te Papa and currently working on her thesis on ‘intangible heritage values’ with Victoria University.


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