Dr. MUSLEEM JUMEER,
Reference is made to the edition of Le Mauricien of 10th July 2020 wherein Mr. Moomtaz Emrith reviewed Mr. Anwar Yousouf Cara’s book « Sunee Surtee Muslim Diaspora : in search of my roots… ». Mr.Emrith, an expert in the history of Muslims in Mauritius, having authored the only book on the subject as early as the 1970s has, however, to my mind made a wrong representation of the relationship that existed between the different groups of Muslims in Mauritius during the Indenture Period (1835 – 1920s) and has sadly not kept pace with new research on the matter. I will restrict my analysis to two issues only: wealth and literacy, construction of mosques and madrassas.
Orality had an edge over literacy
Indians of Islamic faith can be separated into two main groups :1) merchants hailing from Gujarat coming to the island on their own as passenger immigrants and investing in the commerce of basic foodstuffs and clothing. The almost exclusive control they exercised on these products brought them to be excessively, not to say phenomenally, wealthy .2) Indentured Labourers brought to work under strict conditions bordering almost on slavery on the sugar plantations for a period of 3 to 5 years before they could stay settled down on the island. They lived in very difficult situations, below poverty line, were badly dressed and had to put up with much humiliation. Many managed to improve however their situation by dint of hard work and Islamic discipline and became rich.
The demarcation line between these two groups was obvious and the link between them was only by their common practice of Islam and the use of Urdu for communication purposes. The Gujerati merchants were generally fair-skin, cleanly dressed and commanded respect. The Indentured Muslims hailed from the Northern Indian states of Bihar, Orissa and Bengal, spoke the Bhojpuri dialect, lived on the sugar estates or in the rural villages and could hardly make both ends meet.
This stark physical difference between these two groups of immigrants has surely brought about the assumption that literacy comes with wealth. Moomtaz Emrith wrote “Many of these Muslim workers were, like their fellow Hindus mostly illiterate. One striking attribute of the Surtee merchants, was that they were ‘literate’ in their own language (Gujerati) and in Urdu”. This controversial statement is not supported unfortunately by any evidence or statistics . It is not so sure however that all the Surtee merchants were literate in either Gujarati or Urdu. Many of these immigrants were sent as representatives of well-established Surtee companies based in Surat or Bombay and keen on investing in the island. Once the business got going on a strong footing in Port Louis, a host of other people, close relatives of these representatives and belonging exclusively to the Surtee tribe were enrolled as hawkers to extend the business all over the island. These hawkers were not necessarily learned people. They needed to be physically strong, specially at the beginning of immigration, capable of travelling over long distances in rough conditions on foot initially and later on by cart, train or bicycle. These companies looked for trustworthy employees to sell their goods and collect their money. These hawkers would at a later stage once they had saved enough money opened their own shops, preferably in the capital.
Furthermore, literacy was not a major concern of 18th and early 19th centuries when for all social groups it was quite low, in varying degrees. For the Indians, it was even lower since the transmission of knowledge was mainly through the oral rather than the written channel. Orality had an edge over literacy. For the Hindus, the Sanskrit chants are mainly to be recited. For the Muslims, the memorisation of chapters of the Holy Quran is done best through the oral channel and is sufficient for someone to be considered literate. But for Eurocentric Mauritius, literacy is only valid after the acquisition of the western alphabets and for the authorities both the Indentured workers and the Gujarati merchants were regarded as illiterate unless they could sign their names in either English or French.
On the other hand, the majority of migrants who boarded the ship at Calcutta and Madras could not read and write in any languages but have we ever asked ourselves whether the totality of the so-called Indian Indentured Labourers were really agricultural workers? Were they asked to pass any test of competency as agricultural labourers before they were enrolled ? In actual fact, the dearth of such workers was so acute that anyone who passed himself off as an agricultural labourer and who looked physically fit was sure to be accepted. In this way, people who have never wielded the hoe in their life and who were victims of such push factors as floods, droughts, political persecutions, family problems etc. found their way into Mauritius. Amongst them were disgruntled intellectuals, pundits and imams, political activists fearing capture, bankrupt people and so many others from all walks of life who were running away from some personal obligations and who had opted for emigration. Many of these faked agricultural labourers were in fact learned people and the new role they would assign to themselves would be to provide a framework as a sort of guidance to the real agricultural labourers.
Ever since the occupation of the Isle de France, the very first Indian settlers, namely the Lascard Muslim sailors, of Free status, originating from the French factories of Pondicherry, Cassim Bazaar and Chandranagor had shown an attachment, rarely seen in other social groups, to their religion. Such attachment demands a deep knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals and practice of that religion. We have already illustrated this by bringing up the pathetic case of MERI BADULLAH and other Muslims whose births had never been declared at the Status Office under the control of the Clergy for fear of conversion despite the dreadful risk of being thrown into Slavery. The advent of the French Revolution in 1789 made their registration possible but unfortunately Meri died soon afterwards in child-birth after her marriage. Bonnefin has also stressed, in his thesis about the Catholic Church, the absolute resistance of these Muslims to conversion during the 1850s.
Religious fervour is consolidated by the erection of temporary places of worship and the first one was organized at Vieux Grand Port. The first mosque was built during the Royalisation Period, some years after 1665 on a plot of land “non-concédée” from contributions made by these poverty-stricken Lascards. Since then the number of mosques has kept increasing and it is generally claimed that the Gujarati Muslim merchants in view of their immense wealth have played a substantial part in the construction of these religious edifices. But this claim is not supported by historical findings. In actual fact, History shows that despite their colossal wealth, their contribution to educational matters, unlike the Catholic authorities, was minimal not to say inexistent.
According to the « Religious Meetings Ordinance » of 1889, the Government had to be notified of the places where religious gatherings for the purpose of prayers and other religious activities were likely to take place. A list of the location of all the mosques to be found on the island was compiled and submitted to the Governor for notification and approval.
According to that list which I consulted in London, the district of Flacq had the greatest number of mosques (7) followed by Pamplemousses, Moka and Grand Port (6 each), Plaines Wilhems and Port Louis (5 each), and Rivière du Rempart (3). Black River had only one mosque, situated at Camp Benoit.
An analysis of the plots of land on which these mosques were built shows that they were situated on land belonging to Old Immigrants (Indentured Immigrants who after serving initially on the sugar estates were living on their own in the villages) or their descendants. Only in 5 cases did the land donated belonged to Surtee merchants.
Surprisingly, except for the Jummah Mosque, no Meimon merchants’ name appears on the list.
This list is significant in many ways . It proves that the Indentured Muslims, once they had honoured their contract and moved out of the sugar estates, had developed entrepreneurial skills of all sorts linked mainly to agriculture and were in a position to improve their lot. They were thus able to acquire land, especially during the Morcellement period, land of poor quality for sure but enough to allow them to eke out a living and live a decent life. Some however managed to become quite rich and did not hesitate to invest in promoting their religion. Of course, contribution from the Surtees was a plus but the initiative for the promotion of Islam was entirely their own.
The establishment of the Surtee hawkers with their bales of textile goods in the villages in the vicinity of Port Louis or Rose Hill was facilitated by their interaction with the Old Muslim Immigrants ; they would be welcomed at the house of the most influential man of the village until all their goods are sold. In many cases, the possibility of contracting a second marriage with a village girl was real. In some villages where business was booming, textile shops were set up with the help of local families. The former hawkers would then invest in a shop in Port Louis and upgrade their status to that of merchants.
The list also reveals one important fact. Except for Port Louis and Rose Hill, the three cases where Surtees donated land for the construction of mosques were found in the remotest parts of the island, namely Rivière du Rempart, Flacq and L’Escalier. The transport network existing at that time did not allow these merchants/hawkers/Company’s representatives to return home as often as they would have wished and they had no choice but to reside in the villages and linked up with the local families. In many cases, this situation ended in a second marriage with a local girl, and the children born out of this union would be declared under the mother’s family name except in some exceptional cases where the father’s name would be given. Under these conditions, it was easier to establish a shop on the main Royal Road and the business could not but prosper in view of the complete lack of competitors. In other words, the existence of a dedicated Muslim population, well versed in the fundamentals of Islam facilitated the penetration of Surtee merchants in the rural areas.
Under the circumstances that we have defined above, Moomtaz Emrith’s statement that “ …the Surtees taught their Muslim brethen the practice of their faith, Islam and their Islamic culture…..” does not reflect exactly what the source documents would want us to infer. To confirm the new findings, the next step would be to search for all documents linked to each and everyone of these mosques, donators, benefactors, builders, officiating imams etc. and to end up with a comprehensive picture of the evolution of the internal mechanism affecting each social group. Our social History will be the richer.