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NEW BOOK LAUNCHING The history of the “Lascar-Muslims” of Plaine Verte by Assad Bhuglah 

MOOMTAZ EMRITH

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(Windsor, ON, Canada)

Assad Bhuglah is a well known name in the literary sky of Mauritius. Truly, he needs no introduction. His is a name that is familiar thanks to his incisive weekly column in STAR on a wide variety of subjects. In fact, his column, I’m told, is eagerly looked forward to by his readers each week.

Gassy Sobdar (1791-1816), first Imam of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Plaine Verte, Port Louis (Photo: Courtesy Nasreen Banu Asheek)

Assad is a down-to-earth kind of guy, modest, sincere and honest. Those who know him will, unhesitatingly, vouch for it. I have known him for many years and have watched him evolve as a gifted and talented writer. Soon after he retired after a long and successful career in the Government service, he embarked, if we can safely say, on a successful career as a chronicler and historian. His first book was a biography of the long-forgotten hero of Mauritius: Dr. Idrice Ameer Goumany, who died a martyr at the youthful age of thirty while fulfilling his duty as a medical doctor at the Quarantine Station of Pointe aux Cannoniers in 1889. Assad followed his successful biography on Goumany with a couple of interesting plays in kreol and English as well as a romantic short story that was published in Pakistan.

In his book on Goumany, who was himself a lascar, Assad touched briefly on the pioneering role the lascarMuslims of Plaine Verte, have played in the development of Mauritius as a colony. These lascars were brought into the colony by Mahé de Labourdonais, then Governor of Isle de France, as Mauritius was then called. That was long before the arrival of the “Indian Indentured workers” in 1835. These lascars were all Muslims and practically all of them hailed from South India. They were the ‘pioneer-builders’. Mahé de La Bourdonnais had brought them as France was seriously set to making Isle de France (Mauritius) into a viable colony.  La Bourdonnais knew about the skills, talents and work ethics of those hard-working lascarworkers, who were all maritime people as they were somehow, in one way or another, connected with the sea, port and harbour work – hence the appellation lascars.  It would be the lascars who would build some of notable infrastructures and buildings in the Port Louis harbour – notably the docks. Those skilled lascarworkers participated actively into transforming the harbour of Port Louis into a remarkable port which helped make the new colony of Isle de France evolve as a successful colonial venture for France. It is little wonder then that Labourdonnais’s statue stands proudly facing the Port Louis harbour. It is a fitting tribute to his genius as a skillful administrator, who helped transform the beautiful island into a viable colony.  The lascars would leave their mark on the colony. The area where they lived was known as Camp des Lascars in the Eastern suburb of Port Louis — although people tend to refer to the region now simply Plaine Verte.  

A reproduction of Gassy Sobdar’s old house still standing in Plaine Verte after close to 200 hundred years of wear and tear (Photo: Courtesy: Nasreen Banu Asheek)

 It is a known fact that the lascarMuslims of Plaine Verte prevailed on the French authorities and got permission, in 1805, to build for themselves a mosque or as the French called it “une chapelle”. It was the first non-Christian house of worship ever allowed by the French colonial authorities to a non-Christian group. The ‘chapelle’ stands till to-day at what was known as Pagoda Street in Plaine Verte – a tangible testimony of the lascarMuslims who, in the face of stiff opposition, continued to practice their faith and were, finally, able to convince the French authorities to make an exception to them and let them practise “leur culte”. To-day that historic mosque in the east side of the city, is known as “Al-Aqsa Mosque”.

How did this formidable event come to pass in the history of the Muslims of Mauritius? This is what forms the subject of the new book of Assad Bhuglah. The man behind the project was Gassy Sobdar, a visioner and a deeply religious and inspired community leader who, in the face of strong opposition, was able to galvanise the small community of lascars behind him and get the colonial authorities to make an exception for them and allow them to have their own ‘lieu de culte’ to practise their faith. Gassy Sobdar would also be the first Imam of the Mosque. However, he was NOT actually a lascar. He hailed from Muscat, Oman.

Assad’s new book is titled « Gassy Sobdar and the Pioneering Lascars of the 18th and 19th Centuries » Mauritius” The book is to be launched finally by H. E. Eddy Boissezon, Vice President of the Republic on October 20, 2021 at Petrusmok Bookstore, Hennessy Park Hotel, at Ebène. Other notabilities, like former President Cassam Uteem, the Hon. Ministers Dr. Anwar Husnoo and Mrs. Fazila Dawreeawoo are also to be present and are to take part in the ceremony. It will sure be a great moment for Assad Bhuglah. He has put a lot of effort in the book. We wish him all the success he justly deserves with his new book, which, definitely, is a BIG addition to the written history of the colourful and diverse Mauritian diaspora.

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