Mauritania: Early History through Colonialism

Early History through Colonialism

By the beginning of the 1st millennium a.d. Sanhaja Berbers had migrated into Mauritania, pushing the black African inhabitants (especially the Soninké) southward toward the Senegal River. The Hodh region, which became desert only in the 11th cent., was the center of the ancient empire of Ghana (700–1200), whose capital, Kumbi-Saleh, located near the present-day border with Mali, has been unearthed by archaeologists. Until the 13th cent., Oualata, Awdaghost, and Kumbi-Saleh, all in SE Mauritania, were major centers along the trans-Saharan caravan routes linking Morocco with the region along the upper Niger River.

In the 11th cent. the Almoravid movement was founded among the Muslim Berbers of Mauritania. In the 14th and 15th cent., SE Mauritania was part of the empire of Mali, centered along the upper Niger. By this time the Sahara had encroached on much of Mauritania, consequently limiting agriculture and reducing the population. In the 1440s, Portuguese navigators explored the Mauritanian coast and established a fishing base on Arguin Island, located near the present-day boundary with Western Sahara.

From the 17th cent., Dutch, British, and French traders were active along the S Mauritanian coast; they were primarily interested in the gum arabic gathered near the Senegal River. Under Louis Faidherbe, governor of Senegal (1854–61; 1863–65), France gained control of S Mauritania. The region was declared a protectorate in 1903, but parts of the north were not pacified until the 1930s.

Until 1920, when it became a separate colony in French West Africa, Mauritania was administered as part of Senegal. Saint-Louis, in Senegal, continued to be Mauritania's administrative center until 1957, when it was replaced by Nouakchott. The French ruled through existing political authorities and did little to develop the country's economy or to increase educational opportunities for the population. National political activity began only after World War II. In 1958, Mauritania became an autonomous republic within the French Community.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Mauritania Political Geography