Collaboration, Modernity and Colonial Rule: Sidiyya Baba and Mauritania

By David Robinson

In the late 19th century, France conquered much of West Africa and created a federation of colonies called Afrique Occidentale Française. The "missing" piece was the far western portion of the Sahara and Sahel, what became the territory of Mauritania. Most of its people were nomadic, Muslim and speakers of Arabic. They had strong ties to Morocco, the still independent sultanate, and a strong sense of belonging to the Dar al-Islam. The French would need a charismatic and respected Muslim authority to create a stable colony.

As the French prepared to move into the Sahara, a potential ally emerged. Sidiyya Baba (circa 1862-1924), scion of a small but influential lineage of clerics and traders, found himself surrounded by rivals and enemies in the southwestern zone called Trarza. He saw opportunity in linking with the colonial government and formed a close bond with Xavier Coppolani, a specialist in Muslim societies called in to organize the "pacification" of Mauritania.

In this gallery we tell the story of Baba, his fundamental role in the creation of French Mauritania, and the innovations and "modernizations" which he brought to his corner of the colony.

Browse Image Collection
Sidiyya Baba praying in the middle of his courtyard at Butilimit, which served as the French staging area for much of the conquest of Mauritania.
Examine a Fatwa
Sidiyya Baba composed a fatwa or decree setting out the rationale in Islamic terms, for collaborating with and even submitting to a non-Muslim power.
Learn about the Sidiyya Network
Sidiyya Baba developed a network of influence in southwestern Mauritania and much of Senegal, an area we call the "Senegalo-Mauritanian zone" portrayed on this map.