Collaboration, Modernity and Colonial Rule: Sidiyya Baba and Mauritania
By David Robinson
Sidiyya Baba and the Creation of Colonial Mauritania
Unlike his contemporary Shaikh Saad Buh, Sidiyya Baba was not reluctant in his support of the Coppolani pacification, the Gouraud conquête, and the consolidation of colonial Mauritania. Indeed, as the fatwa suggests and the narrative of Gouraud's campaign reveals, Baba pushed openly, consistently and intensively for French control. His situation at the outset of the French campaigns was so desperate, and the forces arrayed against him so multiple, that it was fully one decade before he could secure his investments and relations - in other words, the diverse forms of his and his family's economic capital. Baba was dependent on a particular colonial configuration and continuing support from French authorities in Saint-Louis and Dakar.
Baba became the key internal resource for Coppolani’s campaigns in Brakna in 1903-4, Tagant in 1904-5, and then for Gouraud’s mobilization to take the Adrar in 1908-9. Butilimit became the most important staging area for the Gouraud conquest.For some time it was the most advanced telegraph post connected to Saint-Louis. Under Administrator Jean-Baptiste Théveniaut, it became the training point for the meharistes or camelry. Baba made his own camels available for the effort along with mounted troops from the Awlad Abyayri. He gave his own lodgings, constructed in cement blocks and with facilities such as a bathtub, to the commanding officers of the French. He provided constant and invaluable intelligence from his own networks, and actively strategized with the French officers who organized the conquest and establishment of colonial Mauritania. In addition to Coppolani, Gouraud, and Théveniaut, their number included Montané-Capdebosc, Louis Frèrejean, Henri Gaden, and many others who stayed in Butilimit and depended upon its logistical services.
[He] is a completely different type of human being than the marabouts that I have seen up until now. He is strikingly different from the fat materialistic man who is Shaikh Saad Buh. I had my proof right away. He launched into a scientific conversation with Capitaine du génie Gérard who gave him some instruction in astronomy and physics.... He shows that he understands.... Even in Europe, he would appear sophisticated, well spoken, cool and calm. He is a school master, a moral authority, an Arab scholar of the olden days, a "marabout for the Whites."
In almost every respect the French drew a contrast between Baba and his contemporary Saad Buh.
Baba invested heavily in the Coppolani venture. He committed his resources to the Tagant campaign: 1000 camels, Abyayri units and envoys to his Kunta allies. He was deeply affected by the assassination -- and by the freeze on operations for three years. He and the French Islamicist had come to rely on each other and believe in their ability to bring stability to bidan society through the domination of the zwaya. Now the forces of resistance threatened to gain the upper hand again. Ma El Ainin, the illustrious brother of Saad Buh, now became the champion of the jihad of resistance. He was received with pomp and circumstance by the sultan of Morocco in Marrakesh in 1906. At the same time the sultan sent a relative into the Adrar to test the attitudes of bidan towards Moroccan and French interests. The threat of Moroccan intervention, even if it was just symbolic support of resistance to the Infidel, was a cause for concern. From this point on the policy of "pacification" and reliance upon the zwaya was called into question. The French began to talk of conquête and to consider reaching out to the hassan classes as well.
The uncertainty about the French ability to control their Mauritanian holdings, combined with the difficulty of maintaining the southern regions without possessing the Adrar, added to the insecurity of the Sidiyya. The Ijaydba pressure continued. The conflicts with the Awlad Bu Sba` intensified in 1905; the French forced a truce, because they needed both sides in their effort to establish the new colony. At the same time Baba received letters from distinguished clerics in the Adrar urging him to break his alliance with the infidel and return to the "Muslim fold," or alternatively to abandon the Dar al-Islam of the bidan.
The pressure on Baba from these Muslim sources was intense. It was also recognition of his prestige among the zwaya of the Saharan region, including his mastery of the Islamic sciences contained in his library. In one letter Hassana, a son of resistance hero Ma El Ainin and director of his network in the Adrar, evoked the Moroccan hegemony in the south and challenged the Sidiyya leader's commitments very directly:
The Sultan [of Morocco] told the Christians that the country of the Moors belonged to him and that they must not try to take it....[He] told them that the contested territory belonged to him since Ali Shandor [Emir of Trarza...] and that he had a seal given him by the Sultan....These events motivated the Sultan to send a mission headed by his cousin....This mission will receive the submission of Muslims and provide arms and troops to those who desire it. Once submission has been made to the representative of the Sharifian court, it will serve as proof of the Sultan's argument. If then the Christians leave the country, everything will return to normal. Otherwise it will be jihad. Those who defend the cause of religion will be supported and those who ally with the French will be considered enemies. I wanted to alert you in time and to ask your aid for the defense of religion.
At this low point in the fortunes of his high-stakes wager, Baba did not hesitate. He went to Saint-Louis for several weeks in March 1907 to celebrate his five years of service to the colonial cause and mark the return of Commandant Montané-Capdebosc from France. He welcomed the extension of the telegraph line and the appointment of a French doctor to Butilimit. He sent one of his sons to accompany a scientific mission along the coast. All of this was preparation for the big effort in 1908: to gain French commitment to the conquest of the Adrar.
During his stay in Saint-Louis Baba rebuffed the overtures made to him by the influential Creole family, the Devès, who opposed the expansion into Mauritania. He was an active protagonist for the conquest of the Adrar. He could not afford to rely on the traditional commercial lobby and the General Council housed in Saint-Louis. In order to save the fortunes of his family he needed for the French to assert themselves through the creation of colonial Mauritania. Nothing less would do.
Governor General Roume, his Secretary General Martial Merlin, and his Director of Muslim Affairs, Robert Arnaud, had already given considerable thought to the conquest of the Adrar and to Sidiyya Baba as a counter to Ma El Ainin. They brought in Henri Gouraud, veteran of campaigns in French West Africa, to restart the expansion to the north. In June 1908 Baba traveled to Dakar, to the government general, to meet Minister of Colonies Milliès-Lacroix. His role was not ceremonial. On the contrary, he argued forcefully, together with Gouraud, for the conquest of the Adrar. Gouraud and Baba made a significant impact on the Minister. Preparations for the campaign began in the last half of 1908. Again the Sidiyya and Abyayri provided indispensable logistical support. Henri Gaden, member of the Gouraud "team" and future lieutenant governor of Mauritania, was stationed at Butilimit to ensure the maximum flow of information between the forward troops and Saint-Louis. Supply columns were organized from Saint-Louis and northwestern Soudan. The meharistes or camelry were ready. In January 1909 Gouraud defeated the forces of resistance, built a post at Atar and installed a member of the emiral family of Adrar as the French representative.
Baba mobilized his entire network on behalf of the campaign. He sent envoys on missions and supplied a steady stream of intelligence on tribes, their alliances and intentions. Twice in 1909 he visited the Adrar, where he received expressions of submission from warrior and clerical leaders based on his established reputation as an Islamic authority but also as an ally of the Europeans. Gouraud used Baba's support for the French in his declaration of sovereignty over the Adrar in January, and in his memoirs gave a fitting tribute to his ally after Baba arrived in early June: "In making this tiring and dangerous journey, the shaikh gave a stunning proof of his pro-French sentiments."
In his writings on Mauritania, Gouraud recognized fully the importance of Sidiyya Baba’s support, not just on the material side but also in his knowledge of Islamic sciences and law and his ideological role in the upcoming conquest:
Cheikh Sidia had written letters to his various adversaries, stressing counsels of peace and assuring them that the Quran did not oblige them to fight against an enemy that had proved his superiority, and in guaranteeing them that the French respected the Muslim faith. He himself was the proof positive. He gave them a sort of fatwa to reassure their religious scruples...
The letters of Cheikh Sidya were read by Cheikh Hassana on the demand of the assembly of notables. Present were several of the sons of Ma el Ainin. But when Chaikh Hassana proposed a unified response [of resistance] to Sidia, he had little success, since each one reserved the right to respond in his way and in his own time. [H Gouraud, Mauritania Adrar. Souvenirs d’un Africain (Paris: Plan, 1943), p 204.]
The disarming impact of Sidiyya’s letters to hesitant marabouts of Mauritania cannot be overestimated.
With the conquest of the Adrar Baba could finally consolidate Sidiyya holdings in the south. He maintained his flocks and transhumance zone. He strengthened his agricultural base in the river valley. He sent his sons and disciples on collection tours in the peanut basin of Senegal. And he received frequent cash gifts from the administration.
- The Sidiyya Network and the Senegalo-Mauritanian zone (circa 1880-1920)
The Sidiyya Network and the Senegalo-Mauritanian zone (circa 1880-1920)