Mauritania Table of Contents
Ancient mosque in Chinguetti
Courtesy Mary Pecaut
Before the nineteenth century, the European powers in West Africa were interested only in coastal trading; they attempted no important inland exploration and established no permanent settlements (except Saint Louis). The European mercantile companies on the coast were charged with making the highest possible profit. Four such French companies enjoyed an official French-government monopoly of the Senegal River trade from 1659 to 1798. Contact with the Maures and the black inhabitants of the valley came about only in the course of trade. From the beginning, French influence, competing with traditional trading partners north and east of Mauritania, came through Senegal.
In 1825 the new amir of Trarza, Muhammad al Habib, sought to reassert his sovereignty over the French-protected Oualo Kingdom to the south of the Senegal River by marrying the heiress to the kingdom. This action, which French authorities viewed as a hostile threat, combined with the amir's efforts to sell gum arabic to the British, brought a strong French reaction. Although the Maures were able to lay siege to Saint Louis, a large French expeditionary force defeated the amir's forces. The French concluded that to secure the continuing profitability of the gum arabic trade, they would have to forcibly occupy the northern bank of the Senegal River.
Implementing this new policy was Louis Faidherbe, the French governor of Senegal from 1854 to 1861 and from 1863 to 1865. In 1840 a French ordinance had established Senegal as a permanent French possession with a government whose jurisdiction extended over all settlements then effectively under French control, including those in Mauritania. By undertaking the governance of these Mauritanian settlements, French rulers directly challenged Maure claims of sovereignty. Under orders from the new government of Louis Napoleon to end the coutume, to secure the gum arabic trade, and to protect the sedentary populations of the southern bank from Maure raids, Faidherbe conquered the Oualo Kingdom. He then turned his attention to the amirates of Trarza and Brakna that had united against him. The Maures attacked Saint Louis in 1855 and almost succeeded in reclaiming the settlement, but they were repulsed and defeated a year later, north of the Senegal River. The treaties ending the war extended a French protectorate over Trarza and Brakna, replaced the coutume with a 3 percent annual rebate on the value of gum arabic delivered, and recognized French sovereignty over the northern bank of the Senegal River.
In addition to his military ventures, Faidherbe sponsored an active program to undertake geographic studies and establish political and commercial ties. In 1859 and 1860, Faidherbe sponsored five expeditions, including one that mapped the Adrar, to all areas of western and southern Mauritania.
Faidherbe's successors were content to maintain his gains and did not embark on further military ventures. French colonial policy at this time can best be characterized by the warning given by the Colonial Ministry to the governor of Senegal in the late 1870s, "Let us not hear from you." With France's virtual abandonment of Senegal, the relative calm created in the Chemama (see Glossary) and southern Mauritania through Faidherbe's efforts came to an end. The Maures resumed their traditional practices of internecine warfare and pillaging villages in the Chemama. In virtual control of the colonial administration, the commercial companies of Saint Louis sold arms to the Maures, while at the same time outfitting French punitive missions. Scientific expeditions into Mauritania became increasingly subject to attack, and their European leaders were killed or held for ransom. The obvious weakness of the French and their distraction with events elsewhere in the region emboldened the amirs to demand and secure the reinstatement of the coutume.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, after 250 years of French presence in Mauritania, the situation was little changed. The endemic warfare between different Maure groups may even have increased as French merchants made arms readily available, and colonial forces defended camps north of the Senegal River against Maure pillagers. Though formally under the "protection" of the French, the Maures were as fiercely independent as ever.
Data as of June 1988
Mauritania Table of Contents