While Cochin in Kerala is the venue for the Pravasi Bharatya Divas this year from 7-9 January, very few people realise that the lascars originated from this part of the world which is famous for housing the first historical mosque of India, Cheraman Jummah Masjid, built in 629 AD by Malik Ibn Dinar. Several streets in Plaine Verte also known as Camp des Lascars still bear the names of towns and cities of Southern India, namely Calicut, Goa, Malabar, Hyderabad, Bombay, Madras, Karikal etc. Dr Idrice Goumany, (1859-1889), who sacrificed his life while saving the lives of Indian immigrants and other citizens at the quarantine of Pointe aux Cannoniers, traced his roots in Cochin from where his grandfather came to Mauritius to work as lascar during the French rule.
The term “lascar” is intricately related with the history of the Indian Ocean but has been more than often ignored by historians, deliberately or inadvertently. This word is derived from the Arabic root, al-askar, meaning soldier.
The term “lascar” was applied to sailors or military men from the Indian sub-continent employed on European ships from 16th century until the beginning of the 20th century. The roots of the lascars can be traced back on the Western coast of India some hundred years after the advent of Islam. The Arab sailors who were on frequent trade expeditions to this area, were encouraged by the Indian princes and rulers of Southern India to settle on the coastal zone in order to impart their skills and knowledge in navigation, ship-building and maritime affairs to their natives. As from the 7th century onward, the close interaction of the Indian rulers with Arab sailors made them realize that they could wield tremendous power and authority through trade and maritime activities. The Indo-Arab partnership was consolidated by a kinship relationship that over years produced a class of people of Indo-Arab blood, known as lascars.
Expertise in seamanship
The birth of the port of Calicut on the West Indian coast was to a large extent the contributions of Arab traders and sailors as well as the nascent local community of lascars who played a critical role in the management and policing of port activities and in building, repairing and manning of sea-vessels. Around 1342 when Ibne Batuta, the famous Arab globe-trotter, visited India, he witnessed Calicut (today known as Kozhikode) as a prosperous and busy commercial port flanked with minarets and temples.
By the 15th century, the lascars had attained good reputation of their expertise in seamanship, shipbuilding and port activities and successive European powers, battling to hold their grip in the Indian Ocean region, relied heavily on the services of the lascars. In 1498, Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea, sought advice from the Arab navigator ibn Majid and hired a lascar at Malindi (a coastal settlement in East Africa) to steer the Portuguese ship across the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the Malabar coast of India. Portuguese ships continued to employ lascars in large numbers throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The need for employing the lascars arose because of high rates of sickness and death of European sailors on India-bound ships and their frequent desertions in India, thus leaving the ships short of crew for the return voyages. The Europeans preferred the lascars because of their daring spirit, hard work, resilience, skills and geographical knowledge of the Indian Ocean.
In 1735, the French governor, Mahé de La Bourdonnais set upon the ambitious task of transforming Port Louis into a naval base. He brought several batches of lascars to help him in the construction of Port Louis harbor and the port infrastructure. The lascars, who chose to settle in Mauritius, agglomerated in the eastern suburb of Port Louis, traditionally known as Camp des Lascars. In 1765, Mirza Itesa Modeen, a high official of the Mughal Empire who transited in Port Louis on his way to Europe, found the lascars as an organized group who invited him for the Iftaar in Ramadan.
In 1798 when the envoys of Tippu Sultan visited Mauritius, the lascars marked the occasion by organizing a procession of Moharram despite the fact that the French law recognized no religion other than Catholicism. It was after a long struggle for the assertion of Islamic identity and a relentless effort in lobbying the French colonial administration that the lascars were finally authorized to officially build their first masjid in 1805.
Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904)
The British empire had made extensive use of lascars in their bid to command the waves of the Oceans. The English poet and journalist, Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), who visited Bombay in the 1890s, made reference to the lascars and Sepoys in his writings when narrating his anecdotes about several groups of people he met in India. In 1810 when the British took over the possession of Mauritius from the hands of the French, they had retained the services of hundreds of lascars to help them in the naval battle. The term lascar is also used in Reunion and Seychelles to refer to Muslims. Just like Mauritius, which has a coastal place by the name of Pointe des Lascars, Seychelles and Rodrigues also have geographical points known as Anse Lascars and Baie Lascars, respectively.
The lascars have shed their sweat and blood in shaping the destiny of many countries in the Indian Ocean and East Africa. As the entire history of the Indian Ocean has been distorted and has been written from an Eurocentric angle, the contributions of the lascars have been either ignored or sidelined. Mauritius is currently in the process of revisiting its history with the objective of rectifying the imbalances, omissions or in exactitudes. The contributions of the Indian indentured labourers and the African slaves have now been officially recognized through the rehabilitation of the Aapravasi Ghat and Le Morne Heritage. It now remains to redeem the Chapter on the lascars. The erection of a monument in honour of the early lascars, recently announced by the Mauritian Prime Minister Dr Navin Ramgoolam, will be a symbolic but meaningful gesture in the direction towards truth and justice.