Muslim In Mauritius

The Arabs came to Madagascar where they established a settlement on the east coast, and also to the Mascarene islands which appear on their maps under names of Dina Arobi, Dina Margabin and Dina Noraze respectively — Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues as they are known to-day. A map drawn in 1153, by the famous Arab geog­rapher, Al Sharif El-Edrissi, shows fairly accurately the location of these islands.

The Arabs, it is true, did not settle in Mauritius as they did in Madagas­car; nor did they leave anything behind as proofs of their visits.

The presence of Muslims in Mauritius dates as far back as the early days of French colonisation since 1722 comprising mostly artisans and seamen and a handful of merchants from India.

In 1735, Mahé de Labourdonnais, The French Governor  brought from India,a group of skilled tradesmen. These workers,mostly from the Malabar coast area, settled in Port Louis and worked as artisans and seamen in the dockyard and harbour.

In a study of the population of the colony during the period 1768-89, historian Muslim Jaumeer mentions twelve Muslims of Indian origin who were born on the island. He came across the Muslim names in a number of notarised deeds of the time. These names were: Baboucamp, Assary or Assoury, Sabire, Fajaoux, Manbot or Maubotou, Azime, Dina, Bazardy, Darbarie, Mirza and Sadou. There is little doubt that among the African slaves brought in the colony by the white settlers to work on the sugar-cane plantations, there were also many Muslims whose identities were, however, lost under the Christian names given to them by their white masters. Most of the slaves brought to Mauritius were generally shipped from the east coast of Africa, notably from Quiloa and Mombasa , where there has always been a strong Muslim presence.

In 1758, a group of Indian merchants some of them were Muslims established themselves in the colony and did thriving business. The Muslims in Port Louis have to this day maintained “a rich tradition as merchants with many holding position from the days of French rule.”

The sailors and seamen, who worked in the harbour  known as lascars were all Muslims. The term lascar has come over the years to be singularly linked with the Muslims and has become a synonymous appellation for them

The colony continued to import workers from India, and over the years later, the number of Muslims settled in the island grew to such an appreciable size that by the year 1765 they began celebrating the Tenth Day of Muharram (Yamseh) as a public festival.

On 29 December 1798 The Muslims, who continued to celebrate the Muharram and fervant in the practice of their religion and culture petitioned The Governor Malartic, for the concession of a plot of land in Camp des Lascars to build a mosque or prayer house but their request was denied. But the Mus­lims were not deterred. Ever eager to practise their faith in congregation and as a community, they renewed their demand in another petition to the successor of Malartic, Governor Moliere (1800-03), four years later, on 02 February 1802,but again their demand was rejected. The Muslims, however, did not give up. Three years later, in 1805, they petitioned the Governor again — but this time to the successor of Governor Morliere, Governor Decaen. On 16 October 1805, Governor Decaen, in a magnanimous gesture, acceded to the request of the Muslims. By signing the Deed of Concession, Governor Decaen reckoned the sale of a plot of land in Camp des Lascars to a group of “lascars propriétaires” for the construction of a chapel for practising their religion. The chapel now known as Masjid Al Aqsa stands till to-day on what is known as Dr Hassen Sakir (formerly Pagoda) Street.

The Deed of Concession of the Mosque signed by Governor Decaen is an important document in the history of the Muslims in Mauritius. It is an undeniable proof of the presence of Muslims and of Islam in Mauritius since the time of French rule. It also shows that there were Muslims in the island who were owners of property — a rare privilege at a time when Hindus and Muslims alike shared a lot which was little better than that of the slaves.

Further, it also indicates that the Muslims were organised into a com­munity and that they felt strongly enough for their religion and culture to recognise the need for a Mosque. The first Mosque was hence built in 1805.

On 3 December 1810, The British Invaded the country and Robert Farquhar was named Governor of the new British colony. His term lasted till 1823.

Farquhar set himself to giving the colony a good network of roads. He obtained the services of hundreds of Indian convicts, who were mostly Sepoys found guilty of military or political offences. The first batch of convicts arrived in the colony in 1815 and many among them were Muslims. They built most of the early roads in Mauritius linking Port Louis, Moka, Quartier Militaire, Trois Ilots and Rivière des Creoles, and also participated in the construction of fortifications and other buildings, notably: the Fort Adelaide, commonly known as the Citadel.

In 1833 the first group of Indian workers, among whom were a re­spectable number of Muslims, arrived in Mauritius as indentured labourers to work in the cane fields. And, by the time the year was out, 1,160 men, 61 women, 22 boys and 11 girls were brought to Mauritius under contract to the sugar-cane planters.

The immigration of indentured workers from India continued with brief lapses till 1922 – by which time 450,000 labourers were brought into the colony. Of that number, a good many chose to return to India at the expiry of their indenture while many others opted to stay behind and settle in the colony. Those who stayed, either renewed their indenture or worked for their own account as day men or in small trades. The influx of Indian workers in Mauritius brought about a radical change in the make-up of the population in the island. In 1835, the Indians in Mauritius formed only a minor segment of the total population but a decade later they reckoned to almost a third and about twenty years later that fraction swelled to two-thirds — a proportion that has been maintained to this day with the Indo-Mauritians — Muslims included,forming the majority segment of the population. However, the Muslims by themselves represent a minority about 18%. They are dispersed all over the island with a majority living in the capital, Port Louis.

There was, in the colony, a small but influential group of Muslim merchants and traders — mostly of Gujerati origin ~ who were already playing a prominent role in commerce and trade feeding the principal resources of the colony, including the European financiers and capitalists. They were the wealthiest section of the Indian population of Mauritius and, although they did not have any political clout, the enviable position they held in the business sector and the economy conferred a position of prestige and respect not only on the Muslims but on the whole Indian community. In the succeeding generations, the descendants of these traders and immigrant workers would play a most significant role in every sector of the economic, social and political life of Mauritius.

The prestige as well as the cultural and social prospects of the Muslim community in Mauritius was considerably enhanced by the presence in the colony of a small group of Gujerati merchants and traders, who were doing flourishing business and wielding considerable influence in commerce and trade in the island. These merchants and traders were all from India and the large majority of them were Muslims. Most of them arrived in the colony at about the same time as the indentured labourers, that is, in 1835. The arrival of these traders in Mauritius was not binding by any contract as was the case with the indentured workers. They came of their own free will and with a certain amount of capital with which they started their business, they made a reputation for themselves in the mercantile community of Mauritius.

Unlike the indentured workers, who hailed mostly from the northern province of Bihar, in India, the Muslim merchants came mostly from the Gujerati-speaking areas of Cutch, Kathiawar, Kochin, Patna, Ahmedabad, Bombay and Surat in western India.

The Meimans, as the immigrants from Cutch were called, were the first to settle in the colony. They were followed, a few years later, by the Surtees, from Surat. They settled in Port Louis, Beau Bassin, Rose Hill, Flacq and Poudre d’Or. These Muslim merchants established firms and stores and became leading dealers in foodstuffs and textiles. They became a prosperous group who soon began to venture in the sugar industry as owners of sugar estates and factories and also of steamships and the docks. The export of sugar, the main product of the colony fell almost entirely in their hands while the import of grains , jute bags and textiles became more or less a Muslim monopoly.

The Meimans were mostly dealers in grocery items and building materials. Their place of business was located mostly in L’Hôpital (now Louis Pasteur), Deslimites (now Remy Ollier) and Queen Streets, inPort Louis. And, to this day many of the leading Muslim firms and stores are still located in that area which became celebrated and, for many years, was known as the Meiman Bazaar. In 1851, Mohamed Hajee Esmael, Hameer Cassim, Hajee Issop Noormamode and Osman Hajee Allarakia were the leading merchants and traders in the Meiman Bazaar.

The number of the Muslim traders in Mauritius rose steadily in the twenty years that followed as more and more of them continued to arrive and settle in the colony, and soon it came to pass that the number of businesses owned by Muslims in the colony exceeded by far the total number owned by all the other religious groups in the island. The Surtees, who generally specialised in the commerce of textiles, established them­selves mostly in the quadrangle bounded by Royal, Bourbon, Farquhar and Corderie Streets ~ which came to be known as the Surtee Bazaar. While there is not much that is left to-day in the area to remind us of the heyday of Muslim prominence in that popular commercial sector of the city, one thing is certain: the Surtees, like the Meimans who still maintain a high profile as dealers in foodstuffs and other household commodities, are reckoned till to-day among the most reputable textile dealers in Mauritius. Among the well known early traders in the Surtee Bazaar were: Molledina Abdoulla, Hassen Agha Mohammed, Elias Hajee Hamed, Mirza Mohamed and Sheik Abdool Razack.

Muslim merchants were among the main suppliers of food and other grocery items as well as clothing and building materials in Mauritius.

The Muslim traders, who were astute businessmen, also showed interest in their culture and religion and actively endeavoured to promote them among their fellow Indians — more particularly among their fellow Mus­lims. They helped build mosques, found madrassas (religious schools) and strove hard, as one writer put it, “to make their culture respected by the Europeans.” Besides, some of the first Muslim bureaucrats, profes­sionals, municipal councillors and parliamentarians were to come from among the descendants of these merchants and traders.

The Muslim merchants and traders formed a wealthy and prominent group and were highly respected in the colony by virtue of the prominence they enjoyed in its economic life and the aristocratic lives they lived.

The Muslim merchants and traders, as their businesses flourished in the colony, began to show interest in other areas of the island’s economy — that is, in the other industries ~ and try their fortunes in them. Some showed interest in the sugar industry while a few others dared to venture into wholly new areas and, in some few cases, even broke new grounds by playing a pioneering role in them. In 1893, Ellam Mamoojee and his brother Esmael Mamoojee bought the Bel Ombre Sugar Estate as well as its annexes at Beau Champ and Sainte Marie. Five years later, they sold it to Hajee Joosub Hajee Saleh Mohamed who, in turn, sold it to Hajee Jackaria Ahmed in 1900. In 1894, Abdoola Goolam Dustagir owned the Joli Bois Sugar Estate in Grand Port, which he later sold to Esmael Peermamode, who was a prominent member of the Surtee Bazaar although he was himself a Hallai Meiman.

In 1898, the well known firm Ajum Goolam Hossen & Co. owned the Bon Air Sugar Estate in Pamplemousses district and in 1900, the Atchia Brothers of Rose Hill were operating the sugar factory of L’- Industrie and also an aloe-fibre factory — the New Mill Fibre Factory. During the same period, Aboo Bakar Mohammed Taher owned an aloe fibre factory known as the Leonbergs. Both factories produced aloe bags used by the sugar plants for packaging sugar. Another prominent Muslim trader and industrialist at the time was Dawoojee Mohamad Vayid, who owned the Valetta Sugar Estate while another Muslim, Hajee Alhaman Sohawon owned some 2,000 acres of land under sugar cane cultivation in the southern districts of Grand Port and Savanne.

The business acumen of the Muslim traders was not to prove as suc­cessful in the administration and management of the sugar estates as it had been in their handling of commerce and trade. So much so, their venture in the industrial field was of short duration and, indeed, not a very successful one. To-day there are many Muslims who own large sugar plantations, yet none is involved in the ownership or management of a sugar factory.

The Muslim merchants shown also interests in the shipping industry and some of them were owners of ships.The export of sugar and the import of foodstuffs,textiles and other goods were handled almost entirely by Muslim Shipping companies as was the transportation of the indentured workers.

The Muslims were as well pioneer among the Mauritan Indian as Professionals and in the civil service. The worked mainly in the Port and Harbour Department. They realised early the value of education and worked hard to educate their children. The first medical doctors,chemists,attorneys,teachers,clerks and civil servants came from the Sakir,Sobedar,Goumany,Boudou and Dina families.

Dr Hasen Sakir was the first Mauritian Muslim and also the first Indo Mauritian to graduate from Medical School followed by Dr Idrice Goomany.

The first Mauritan Governor General was from the Muslim Community,

Sir Abdool Raman Osman (1973-1977)

On 1 July 1992  Mr Cassam Uteem became the first President of the Republic elected by the National Assembly of Mauritius.

Muslims as well played an important role in the political affairs of the country. The first Muslim Municipal Councillor was Dr Hassen Sakir elected in 1900. The first Muslim Mayor of Port Louis, Mr G.M.D. Atchia was elected in 1938 after being a Municipal Councillor for over sixteen years. It was indeed the first time in the annals of the town  that an Indo-Mauritian was so honoured. In 1959 Sir Abdul Razack Mohamed the most influential Minister in The goverment gave the Muslims political dignity and made them

As a community, a political force that no other party could henceforth ignore or treat with indifference.