The Fiji Museum - Virtual Museum

Syria figurehead

The Syria was wrecked on Nasilai Reef on Sunday 11th May 1884 at around 8.30pm. Of the 497 indentured men, women and children and crew of 43 onboard, 56 indentured Indian immigrants and three lascar (South Asian) crewmen lost their lives.

Navigational mistakes and poor decision making by an inexperienced Captain and crew led to the Syria running aground, further poor decisions being made by the Captain immediately afterwards adding to the disaster. By the following night, news of the wreck had reached Suva and a rescue operation was immediately launched by Dr William MacGregor, the Chief Medical Officer and Acting Secretary for the colony. Nine boats set sail at around midnight and reached the site of the wreck shortly after midday on Tuesday. At this time the majority of the Indians were in the water on the reef, although many woman and children were still trapped on the ship.

With most of the Indians being unable to swim, they were completely dependant upon their rescuers. Despite worsening weather and rough seas the rescue went fairly smoothly and the last rescue boat reached Nasilai village at about 8pm, where they were received by the chief with warm food, water and shelter for the night before being transported to Nukulau Quarantine Station the next day. As there weren’t enough boats to transport everyone, the strongest 100 Indian men marched to Rewa, receiving food and fruit from Fijian men and women along the way.

In addition to the 59 people who died at Nasilai, another eleven died in the following fortnight. The loss of life would have been much higher except for the courage of the rescue crew, especially its leader Dr MacGregor who was awarded for his role, although writing that he felt hurt and ashamed that so many people had died while he had suffered nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises.

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