THE WEST SUDANIC EMPIRES

[Excerpted from Côte d'Ivoire/Ivory Coast: A Country Study. Robert E. Handloff, ed. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1988; and Mauritania: A Country Study. Robert E. Handloff, ed. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1987.]

Historical Setting

THE SAHARA HAS LINKED rather than divided the peoples who inhabit it and has served as an avenue for migration and conquest. Mauritania, lying next to the Atlantic coast at the western edge of the desert, received and assimilated into its complex society many waves of these migrants and conquerors. Berbers moved south to Mauritania beginning in the third century A.D., followed by Arabs in the eighth century, subjugating and assimilating Mauritania's original inhabitants. From the eighth through the fifteenth century, black kingdoms of the western Sudan, such as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, brought their political culture from the south.

The divisive tendencies of the various groups within Mauritanian society have always worked against the development of Mauritanian unity. Both the Sanhadja Confederation, at its height from the eighth to the tenth century, and the Almoravid Empire, from the eleventh to the twelfth century, were weakened by internecine warfare, and both succumbed to further invasions from the Ghana Empire and the Almohad Empire, respectively.

The one external influence that tended to unify the country was Islam. The Islamization of Mauritania was a gradual process that spanned more than 500 years. Beginning slowly through contacts with Berber and Arab merchants engaged in the important caravan trades and rapidly advancing through the Almoravid conquests, Islamization did not take firm hold until the arrival of Yemeni Arabs in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was not complete until several centuries later. Gradual Islamization was accompanied by a process of arabization as well, during which the Berber masters of Mauritania lost power and became vassals of their Arab conquerors.

EARLY HISTORY

The early history of the west Saharan region is largely unknown. There are some written accounts by medieval Arab traders and explorers who reached the important caravan trading centers and Sudanic kingdoms of eastern Mauritania, but the major sources of pre-European history are oral history, legends, and archaeological evidence. These sources indicate that during the millennia preceding the Christian Era, the Sahara was a more habitable region than it is today and supported a flourishing culture. In the area that is now Mauritania, the Bafour, a proto-Berber people, whose descendants may be the coastal Imraguen fishermen, were hunters, pastoralists, and fishermen. Valley cultivators, who may have been black ancestors of the riverine Toucouleur and Wolof peoples, lived alongside the Bafour. Climatic changes, and perhaps overgrazing and overcultivation as well, led to a gradual desiccation of the Sahara and the southward movement of these peoples.

In the third and fourth centuries A.D., this southward migration was intensified by the arrival of Berber groups from the north who were searching for pasturage or fleeing political anarchy and war. The wide-ranging activities of these turbulent Berber warriors were made possible by the introduction of the camel to the Sahara in this period. This first wave of Berber invaders subjugated and made vassals of those Bafour who did not flee south. Other Berber groups followed in the seventh and eighth centuries, themselves fleeing in large numbers before the Arab conquerors of the Maghrib.

SANHADJA CONFEDERATION

One of the Berber groups arriving in Mauritania in the eighth century was the Lemtuna. By the ninth century, the Lemtuna had attained political dominance in the Adrar and Hodh regions. Together with two other important Berber groups, the Messufa and the Djodala, they set up the Sanhadja Confederation. From their capital, Aoudaghast, the Lemtuna controlled this loose confederation and the western routes of the Saharan caravan trade that had begun to flourish after the introduction of the camel. At its height, from the eighth to the end of the tenth century, the Sanhadja Confederation was a decentralized polity based on two distinct groups: the nomadic and very independent Berber groups, who maintained their traditional religions, and the Muslim, urban Berber merchants, who conducted the caravan trade.

Although dominated by the Sanhadja merchants, the caravan trade had its northern terminus in the Maghribi commercial city of Sijilmasa and its southern terminus in Koumbi Saleh, capital of the Ghana Empire. Later, the southern trade route ended in Timbuktu, capital of the Mali Empire. Gold, ivory, and slaves were carried north in return for salt (ancient salt mines near Kediet Ijill in northern Mauritania are still being worked), copper, cloth, and other luxury goods.

Important towns developed along the trade routes. The easiest, though not the shortest, routes between Ghana and Sijilmasa were from Koumbi Saleh through Aoudaghast, Oualâta, Tîchît, and Ouadane. These towns along the route grew to be important commercial as well as political centers. The eleventhcentury Arab chronicler, Al Bakri, describes Aoudaghast, with its population of 5,000 to 6,000, as a big town with a large mosque and several smaller ones, surrounded by large cultivated areas under irrigation. Oualâta was a major relay point on the gold and salt trade route, as well as a chief assembly point for pilgrims traveling to Mecca. Koumbi Saleh was a large cosmopolitan city comprising two distinct sections: the Muslim quarter, with its Arab-influenced architecture, and the black quarter of traditional thatch and mud architecture, where the non-Muslim king of Ghana resided. Another important Mauritanian trade city of the Sanhadja Confederation was Chinguetti, later an important religious center. Although Koumbi Saleh did not outlive the fall of the Ghana Empire, Aoudaghast and particularly Oualâta maintained their importance well into the sixteenth century, when trade began shifting to the European-controlled coasts.

ALMORAVIDS

By the eleventh century, Islam had spread throughout the west Sahara under the influence of Berber and Arab traders and occasional Arab migrants. Nevertheless, traditional religious practices thrived. The conquest of the entire west Saharan region by the Almoravids in the eleventh century made possible a more orthodox Islamization of all the peoples of Mauritania.

The breakup of the Sanhadja Confederation in the early eleventh century led to a period of unrest and warfare among the Sanhadja Berber groups of Mauritania. In about 1039, a chief of the Djodala, Yahya ibn Ibrahim, returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca bringing with him a Sanhadja theologian, Abdallah ibn Yassin, to teach a more orthodox Islam. Rejected by the Djodala two years later, after the death of Ibn Ibrahim, Ibn Yassin and some of his Sanhadja followers retired to a secluded place where they built a fortified religious center, a ribat, which attracted many Sanhadja. In 1042 the al murabitun (men of the ribat), as Ibn Yassin's followers came to be called, launched a jihad, or holy war, against the nonbelievers and the heretics among the Sanhadja, beginning what later become known as the Almoravid movement. The initial aim of the Almoravids was to establish a political community in which the ethical and juridical principles of Islam would be strictly applied.

First, the Almoravids attacked and subdued the Djodala, forcing them to acknowledge Islam. Then, rallying the other Berber groups of the west Sahara, the Almoravids succeeded in recreating the political unity of the Sanhadja Confederation and adding to it a religious unity and purpose. By 1054 the Almoravids had captured Sijilmasa in the Maghrib and had retaken Aoudaghast from Ghana.

With the death of Ibn Yassin in 1059, leadership of the movement in the south passed to Abu Bakr ibn Unas, amir of Adrar, and to Yusuf ibn Tashfin in the north. Under Ibn Tashfin, the Berbers captured Morocco and founded Marrakech as their capital in 1062. By 1082 all of the western Maghrib (to at least present-day Algiers) was under Almoravid domination. In 1086 the Andalusian amirates, under attack from the Spanish Christian king Alfonso and the Christian reconquest of Spain, called on Ibn Tashfin and his Berber warriors to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and come to their rescue. The Almoravids defeated the Spanish Christians and, by 1090, imposed Almoravid rule and the Maliki school of Islamic law in Muslim Spain.

In Mauritania, Abu Bakr led the Almoravids in a war against Ghana (1062-76), culminating in the capture in 1076 of Koumbi Saleh. This event marked the end of the dominance of the Ghana Empire. But after the death of Abu Bakr in 1087 and Ibn Tashfin in 1106, traditional rivalries among the Sanhadja and a new Muslim reformist conquest led by the Zenata Almohads (1133-63) destroyed the Almoravid Empire.

For a short time, the Mauritanian Sanhadja dynasty of the Almoravid Empire controlled a vast territory stretching from Spain to Senegal. The unity established between Morocco and Mauritania during the Almoravid period continued to have some political importance in the 1980s, as it formed part of the basis for Morocco's claims to Mauritania. But the greatest contribution of the Sanhadja and the Almoravids was the Islamization of the western Maghrib. This process would remain a dominant factor in the history of the area for the next several centuries.

SUDANIC EMPIRES AND KINGDOMS

Although the Almoravids had substantial contacts with the Maghrib, influences from the black Sudanic kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai played an important role in Mauritania's history for about 700 years--from the eighth to the fifteenth century. Ghana, the first of the great West African Sudanic kingdoms, included in its territory all of southeastern Mauritania extending to Tagant. Ghana reached its apogee in the ninth and tenth centuries with the extension of its rule over the Sanhadja Berbers. This large and centralized kingdom controlled the southern terminus of the trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, and salt.

The capture of Koumbi Saleh in 1076 by the Almoravids marked the end of Ghana's hegemony, although the kingdom continued to exist for another 125 years. The Mandé, under the leadership of the legendary Sundiata, founded the second great Sudanic kingdom, Mali. By the end of the thirteenth century, the Mali Empire extended over that part of Mauritania previously controlled by Ghana, as well as over the remaining Sahelian regions and the Senegal River Valley. Sundiata and his successors took over Ghana's role in the Saharan trade and in the administration and collection of tribute from vast stretches of the Sudan and the Sahel.

The slow decline of the Mali Empire that started at the end of the fourteenth century came about through internal discord and revolts by the inhabitants of vassal states, including the Songhai of Gao. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Songhai Empire had replaced the Mali Empire and extended to Mauritania and the upper Senegal River Valley. At the end of the sixteenth century, a large Moroccan force defeated the Songhai, bringing to an end the seven centuries of domination of the western Sudan (and a large part of Mauritania) by strong, centralized black kingdoms.

ARAB INVASIONS

Beginning with the Arab conquest of the western Maghrib in the eighth century, Mauritania experienced a slow but constant infiltration of Arabs and Arab influence from the north. The growing Arab presence pressed the Berbers, who chose not to mix with other groups, to move farther south into Mauritania, forcing out the black inhabitants. By the sixteenth century, most blacks had been pushed to the Senegal River. Those remaining in the north became slaves cultivating the oases.

After the decline of the Almoravid Empire, a long process of arabization began in Mauritania, one that until then had been resisted successfully by the Berbers. Several groups of Yemeni Arabs who had been devastating the north of Africa turned south to Mauritania. Settling in northern Mauritania, they disrupted the caravan trade, causing routes to shift east, which in turn led to the gradual decline of Mauritania's trading towns. One particular Yemeni group, the Bani Hassan, continued to migrate southward until, by the end of the seventeenth century, they dominated the entire country. The last effort of the Berbers to shake off the Arab yoke was the Mauritanian Thirty Years' War (1644-74), or Sharr Bubba, led by Nasir ad Din, a Lemtuna imam. This Sanhadja war of liberation was, however, unsuccessful; the Berbers were forced to abandon the sword and became vassals to the warrior Arab groups.

Thus, the contemporary social structure of Mauritania can be dated from 1674. The warrior groups or Arabs dominated the Berber groups, who turned to clericalism to regain a degree of ascendancy. At the bottom of the social structure were the slaves, subservient to both warriors and Islamic holy men. All of these groups, whose language was Hassaniya Arabic, became known as Maures. The bitter rivalries and resentments characteristic of their social structure were later fully exploited by the French.

EARLY EUROPEAN CONTACTS

Despite the Almoravid domination of Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there seems to be little evidence of contact during that time between Mauritania and Europe. The inhospitable coastline of Mauritania continued to deter voyagers until the Portuguese began their African explorations in the fifteenth century. Lured by legends of vast wealth in interior kingdoms, the Portuguese established a trading fort at Arguin, southeast of Cap Blanc (present-day Ras Nouadhibou), in 1455. The king of Portugal also maintained a commercial agent at Ouadane in the Adrar in an attempt to divert gold traveling north by caravan. Having only slight success in their quest for gold, the Portuguese quickly adapted to dealing in slaves. In the midfifteenth century, as many as 1,000 slaves per year were exported from Arguin to Europe and to the Portuguese sugar plantations on the island of S#ao Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea.

PRE-EUROPEAN PERIOD

Little is known about the original inhabitants of Côte d'Ivoire. Historians believe that they were all either displaced or absorbed by the ancestors of the present inhabitants. The first recorded history is found in the chronicles of North African traders, who, from early Roman times, conducted a caravan trade across the Sahara in salt, slaves, gold, and other items. The southern terminals of the trans-Saharan trade routes were located on the edge of the desert, and from there supplemental trade extended as far south as the edge of the rain forest. The more important terminals--Djenné, Gao, and Timbuctu--grew into major commercial centers around which the great Sudanic empires developed. By controlling the trade routes with their powerful military forces, these empires were able to dominate neighboring states.

The Sudanic empires also became centers of Islamic learning. Islam had been introduced into the western Sudan by Arab traders from North Africa and spread rapidly after the conversion of many important rulers. From the eleventh century, by which time the rulers of the Sudanic empires had embraced Islam, it spread south into the northern areas of contemporary Côte d'Ivoire.

Ghana, the earliest of the Sudanic empires, flourished in present-day eastern Mauritania from the fourth to the thirteenth century. At the peak of its power in the eleventh century, its realms extended from the Atlantic Ocean to Timbuctu. After the decline of Ghana, the Mali Empire grew into a powerful Muslim state, which reached its apogee in the early part of the fourteenth century. The territory of the Mali Empire in Côte d'Ivoire was limited to the northwest corner around Odienné. Its slow decline starting at the end of the fourteenth century followed internal discord and revolts by vassal states, one of which, Songhai, flourished as an empire between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Songhai was also weakened by internal discord, which led to factional warfare. This discord spurred most of the migrations of peoples southward toward the forest belt.

The dense rain forest covering the southern half of the country created barriers to large-scale political organizations as seen further north. Inhabitants lived in villages or clusters of villages whose contacts with the outside world were filtered through long-distance traders. Villagers subsisted on agriculture and hunting.

Five important states flourished in Côte d'Ivoire in the pre-European era. The Muslim empire of Kong was established by the Juula in the early eighteenth century in the north-central region inhabited by the Sénoufo, who had fled Islamization under the Mali Empire. Although Kong became a prosperous center of agriculture, trade, and crafts, ethnic diversity and religious discord gradually weakened the kingdom. The city of Kong was destroyed in 1895 by Samori Touré.

The Abron kingdom of Jaman was established in the seventeenth century by an Akan group, the Abron, who had fled the developing Asante confederation in what is present-day Ghana. From their settlement south of Bondoukou, the Abron gradually extended their hegemony over the Juula in Bondoukou, who were recent émigrés from the market city of Begho. Bondoukou developed into a major center of commerce and Islam. The kingdom's Quranic scholars attracted students from all parts of West Africa.

In the mid-eighteenth century in east-central Côte d'Ivoire, other Akan groups fleeing the Asante established a Baoulé kingdom at Sakasso and two Agni kingdoms, Indénié and Sanwi. The Baoulé, like the Asante, elaborated a highly centralized political and administrative structure under three successive rulers, but it finally split into smaller chiefdoms. Despite the breakup of their kingdom, the Baoulé strongly resisted French subjugation. The descendants of the rulers of the Agni kingdoms tried to retain their separate identity long after Côte d'Ivoire's independence; as late as 1969, the Sanwi of Krinjabo attempted to break away from Côte d'Ivoire and form an independent kingdom.