Colonial History of Mauritania

By | May 6, 2021

Arab invasion (14th-18th centuries)

Beginning with the conquest of the western Maghreb by the Arabs, Mauritania experienced a slow but constant Arab infiltration.

A third wave of immigration, this time from the north, was the Arab immigration of various groups from Yemen, displacing Berbers and Africans alike southwards.

It was not a sudden invasion, but a continuous infiltration that lasted two to three centuries. The Berbers, who did not want to mix with other groups, were pushed south, where they drove the black African population out.

In the 16th century, the black African population was largely pushed back to the Senegal River. Those who stayed in the north were enslaved and forced to cultivate the oases.

The Ur-Yemeni groups who settled in northern Mauritania disrupted the caravan trade, which then shifted to the east, which led to the gradual decline of the then large trading cities of Mauritania.

The last attempt by the Berbers to escape Arab rule was a thirty-year war (Char Bouba War 1644–74). The war for the liberation of the Sanhajah ended with an Arab victory over the Berbers, who had to submit to the Arab groups.

Towards the end of the 17th century, one of these Arab groups, the Banī Hassān, controlled the entire territory of what is now Mauritania.

According to commit4fitness, the current social structure of Mauritania can be traced back to the year 1674. The conquerors, Arab warrior groups, ruled the Berber groups who turned to clericalism in order to enjoy a certain advancement. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the black slaves who were subservient to both the warriors and the Islamic clergy.

These three groups speak Hassānīja, an Arabic dialect, and formed the so-called Moors. During this time, most of the black Africans lived in the basin of the Senegal River.


The Islamization of Mauritania was a gradual process that lasted almost 500 years. It began slowly with contacts between Berbers and the Arabs who carried out the caravan trade in the Sahara. Islam first spread to the larger settlements and was considered the religion of the top ten thousand.

The excavations of Chinguetti, which is still considered one of the seven holy places of Islam today, bear witness to this.

For centuries, the city was the most important meeting place for Mecca pilgrims from the Maghreb. It also became a center of Islamic, religious, and scientific learning. In addition to religious education, rhetoric, law, astronomy, mathematics and medicine were taught in schools. For many centuries all of Mauritania was known in the Arab world as “The Land of Chinguetti”. His medieval Islamic libraries, which are privately owned, still bear witness to the importance of Chinguetti. See also a video from the BBC and an article from the Modern Met with many photos.

Various traditional religious practices continued into the 11th century.

The conquest of Mauritania by the Almoravids led to the further spread of an Orthodox Islam, but only with the arrival of the Yemeni Arabs in the 12th / 13th centuries. Century led to his breakthrough. The gradual Islamization went hand in hand with the Arabization of society, as a result of which the Berber rulers over Mauritania lost their power to the Arab conquerors.

Old mosque in Chinguetti

Colonial times

In 1442 Portuguese sailors reached Cap Blanc and the island of Arguin.

Mauritania remained undisturbed until well into the 19th century because none of the colonial powers showed any real interest in the region. In the second half of the 16th century she developed a certain interest in Mauritania, particularly in the form of expeditions through the desert. French merchants in Saint Louis also bought gum arabic from the Moors in southern Mauritania.

The General Act of the Berlin Conference of 1885 on the division of Africa among the great powers of that time made it part of the French sphere of influence and an object on the international chessboard.

At the turn of the 20th century, the French began subjugating Mauritania from the south. The French colonial authorities guided geostrategic considerations in 1899 when they founded “Western Mauritania” because they were supposed to allow France to secure control of a transition zone between North Africa and French-West Africa and to “manage the void”. In 1904 Mauritania became a French colony and in 1920 a part of the Colonial Confederation of French West Africa (AOF). Mauritania was administered from Saint Louis and was politically, economically and administratively dependent on Senegal. The typical features of French colonial policy of assimilation and direct rule were not emphatically introduced in Mauritania.

The French pursued a laissez-faire policy in Mauritania by making use of the Moorish structures of rule.

The colonial administration was heavily dependent on Islamic religious leaders and traditional warrior groups to maintain its rule. At the same time, they used the hostility and resentment of these groups for their own ends.

After World War II, the French colonial system in West Africa was reformed and Mauritania became French overseas territory (1946). During this time, most of the French colonies are striving for independence, or at least some decisive reform.

There was only a minimum of political activity in Mauritania. France nevertheless implemented changes in practice that corresponded to the reforms demanded and granted everywhere else in French-speaking Africa.

On November 28, 1958, Mauritania gained autonomy within the French community. Prime Minister will be Mokthar Ould Daddah.

As early as 1958, Nouakchott “Place of the Winds” was declared the capital. In the place there was a village with a small French military post with 500 or 2000 residents. The new capital is still being planned by French architects and is designed for 15,000 people.

The project of an independent Mauritania in the 1960’s also arose from geostrategic considerations:

France saw in this above all a counterweight to the nationalist project of the Moroccan Istiqlal party, which propagated a greater Moroccan empire from Tangier to St. Louis on the Senegal River and Timbuktu in Mali.

In Mauritania itself there are two directions:

  • Moors with strong ties to Morocco pleaded for unity with Morocco, while the
  • the black African population in the south propagated the connection to Mali.

On November 28, 1960 Mauritania became independent as a presidential republic with the name Islamic Republic of Mauritania.