Collaboration, Modernity and Colonial Rule: Sidiyya Baba and Mauritania
By David Robinson
The Desperation of the Sidiyya in the Late 19th Century
Things went badly for the Sidiyya in the late nineteenth century. Sidiyya al-Kabir died in 1868 and was succeeded by his son, a noted poet. A cholera epidemic swept the poet away in 1869, leaving Baba to be raised by other members of the family as well as a Kunta shaikh. The family kept a low profile for the next two decades. In the late 1880s Baba began to resurrect the family tradition. He was a brilliant student of the Islamic sciences and Sufism; he soon projected a career on a broad canvas similar to that of his grandfather, and assumed the name "Shaikh Sidiyya." He launched his diplomatic career in 1886, when he gave sanctuary to the two sons of the recently assassinated Trarza Emir, Mohammed Fal.
Baba faced a more precarious situation than his grandfather: the increasing violence and disruption of bidan society. To the east, in Tagant, Sidiyya influence was threatened by Bakar wuld Su`aid Ahmad, the head of the Idaw `Ish coalition. Bakar maintained an active network of war, production, trade, and protection extending from the Senegal River into the Adrar. He took a clear stand of opposition to the growing influence of the French in Mauritania, particularly their elimination of the "customs" payment which he had long received for transporting and protecting gum caravans along the Senegal River.
In Brakna Sidiyya hegemony was contested by the Ijaydba, a zwaya group that had long-standing claims on key resources in the region, including wells, pasture and fields ranging from the river to the desert. They opposed the Sidiyya claims to religious and legal supremacy in southern Mauritania. The Ijaydba tended to ally with fractions of the emiral houses of Brakna and Trarza opposed to Sidiyya interests.
The broader context was the Trans-Saharan trade, which was changing rapidly. Warriors, herders and traders pressed increasingly into the southern zones, closer to the river, the source of grain and
Both groups defied the usual division between hassan and zwaya. They claimed descent from the Prophet, engaged in Trans-Saharan trade and provided their own protection. By the end of the century the Awlad Bu Sba’ had moved with force into the Adrar and all of the coastal region down to
Sidiyya Baba was also preoccupied with the situation in the reigning house of the Trarza. The emiral confederation of southwestern Mauritania played a large role in control of river traffic, farming in the lower river valley, the supply of gum, and access to central and eastern zones of Mauritania. The royal family was related by marriage to the ruling house of Walo in the Lower Senegal valley, where they maintained claims to tribute and lands despite the "renunciation" clauses in a treaty signed with Governor Faidherbe. They had similar interests in Jolof and Cayor, and they monitored closely the French construction of the railroad from Dakar to Saint-Louis in the 1880s.
Emir Mohammed wuld Lhabib, remembered as a great foe of Faidherbe, dominated the Trarza confederation until his assassination in 1861. Thereafter his descendants engaged in a bitter struggle for the succession. Sidiyya Baba and other zwaya provided sanctuary and mediation, but they were not able to unify the family around any one figure. Lhabib's son Sidi maintained a semblance of unity
It was this threat and strife, expressed as fitna or “civil war,” which propelled Baba to action. By the late nineteenth century, he was prepared to explore radical options for the stabilization of his fiefdom. He was desperate to save the Sidiyya heritage. The Ijaydba, allied with the Brakna emiral fraction of the Awlad al-Sayyid, almost captured him in 1896. Baba considered migration with his entire camp to the left bank of the river, in search of security. In this context the French intervened in 1897-8. They were concerned about the stability of their trading interests in the Trarza and Brakna zones. They helped establish some order in the emiral houses and in the distribution of wells contested by the Ijaydba and Sidiyya.
If my father [sic; grandfather] Shaikh Sidiyya al-Kabir had known the French and seen what I witnessed today with my own eyes, he certainly would not have given his benediction and prayers to the Moors in their quarrels with Faidherbe.
The visit prepared the way for active collaboration at the time that the French embarked on the “pacification” of Mauritania in at the end of 1902. Baba represented an important breakthrough for the Europeans, since the maraboutic or zwaya classes of bidan society were traditionally more hostile to “infidels” or “Christians” than the political elite. Baba also shared similar racial attitudes to the French. He confided to Dudu Seck his respect for the Islamic civilizations of North Africa, and emphasized his disdain for the little "black kinglets" in the south which had never known civilization. Baba’s visit and developing relations also laid the groundwork for the modernizing changes in Trarza society during the 20th century.
In 1900 Baba played a minor role in the liberation of a French mission in the Adrar. The following year he was again on the defensive. The Abyayri, Daiman and Idawali, all zwaya groups in the bidan classification, had to take refuge from the Awlad Bu Sba`. A bit later Xavier Coppolani, a Frenchman trained in Algeria and fresh from a tour of the Timbuktu area, came to Saint-Louis as a great Islamicist to take up the challenge of extending hegemony among the bidan. He sketched out a model of "pacification" of a new territory, to be called Mauritania and to be constructed with the support of the zwaya, the clerical "pacifists" of bidan society. In Sidiyya Baba he found an immediate ally - indeed someone that I have called a “co-architect for colonial Mauritania.”