While relatively understudied as compared to many of its neighbors, Mauritania has a rich history. As a place where North and West Africa meet, ideologies, diverse people, and goods carried on trans-Saharan trade routes have long circulated throughout this region. Subsequently, recent scholarship has drawn on network theory to explore this region, considering the movement of networks of commodities—slaves, gum Arabic, drugs, intellectual production, and Sufi orders. Islam arrived as early as the 10th century; today almost 100 percent of the population is Muslim. The country’s population mirrors its geographic location, and inhabitants include black African groups (Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof), the Arabic-speaking Bīḍān who claim Arab or Berber descent, and the Ḥarātīn, ex-slaves or slave descendants of the Bīḍān. Relations between these groups have at times been tense, including in 1989 when disagreements over grazing rights led to the displacement of thousands of people and over a thousand deaths. France colonized Mauritania in the early 1900s, although resistance in the north continued into the 1930s. While Mauritania was not as central to colonial interests as some other regions, the French did shift the power balance between some groups, introduce new forms of education systems, and provide new economic opportunities. Historically, much of the country’s population was nomadic with some black African groups and slaves farming in the more fertile south, but droughts throughout the 20th century made it increasingly difficult to maintain this lifestyle, and many people began to settle in rapidly growing urban areas. While slavery had been widely practiced in the region by all ethnic groups, these ecological shifts along with expanded opportunities for wage labor led to an erosion of this institution. Slavery remains an important issue both in Mauritania and in the international media because, although it was legally abolished in 1981, citizens and activists argue that some vestiges of this institution endure. Mauritania became independent in 1960, and the first thirty years of independence were marked by single-party or military rule. Since then it has had a series of varying levels of democratic governments, but a coup in 2008 and subsequent opposition boycotts of elections suggest that this is still a work in progress. While the economy has experienced growth in the early 21st century, much of the population continues to live in poverty. The country is also known for its rich musical and poetic traditions as well as for being the home of leading Muslim scholars.
Overviews of Mauritania in English are rare, but there are a variety of good French sources. CRESM-CEAN 1979 and Devey 2005 both provide overviews of Mauritania’s history and other important aspects of life, including Islam, political organization, and the population. Austen 2010 provides a comprehensive introduction to the Sahara region, with a focus on the trans-Saharan trade. Chassey 1984 focuses on the colonial period, considering French administrators’ impact on Mauritanian life and the years immediately following independence. While Désiré-Vuillemin 1997 may simplify Mauritania’s complex (and fluid) social structure, the author provides a detailed history starting with the region’s prehistory and moving to the late 20th century. Pazzanita 2008 is a useful resource for scholars getting acquainted with this country, providing entries on important persons, events, and institutions. Jourde 2012 is helpful for getting an overview of recent political developments and human rights issues. The CIA World Factbook is a good place to go for up-to-date statistics about the country, and the Economist Intelligence Unit: Mauritania has statistics and articles that focus on the economy and politics.
Austen, Ralph A. Trans-Saharan Africa in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Book provides a brief history of the trans-Saharan trade through the colonial era. Also explores the economic and social role of Islam in the Sahara and details various empires and states that arose during this period. Clearly written, this book would work well as a text in undergraduate classes.
Chassey, Francis de. Mauritanie 1900–1975. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1984.
This book gives an overview of Mauritania’s colonial history as well as that of the period immediately following independence.
This online resource provides a concise overview of many aspects of Mauritania, including politics, economy, and society. It is especially useful for locating relatively up-to-date statistics.
CRESM-CEAN. Introduction à la Mauritanie. Paris: CNRS, 1979.
This edited volume contains chapters on Mauritania’s prehistory, political system, and decolonization. Others focus on Islam, the social structure, the political system, and the country’s international relations in North Africa and further afield. Although dated, the book is useful for getting a sense of Mauritania in the post-independence period.
Désiré-Vuillemin, Geneviève. Histoire de la Mauritanie: des origines à l’indépendance. Paris: Karthala, 1997.
Provides a detailed account of Mauritania’s history, including its prehistory and the introduction of Islam into the region. Analyzes the history of some of Mauritania’s ruling emirates and their relations with each other and eventually the French. Although the book focuses on the Bīḍān, the author also briefly examines the Halpulaar.
Devey, Muriel. La Mauritanie. Paris: Karthala, 2005.
Written by a journalist, this book provides a sweeping, accessible overview of this country. Covers history from the precolonial period up through the present and has chapters on the economy and cultural life. Includes helpful sidebars that track elections since independence, list political parties, and provide excerpts from travelers’ accounts.
Provides coverage of Mauritania’s economy and politics.
Jourde, Cedric. “Mauritania.” In Countries at the Crossroads 2011: A Survey of Democratic Governance. Edited by Sarah Repucci and Christopher Walker, 405–424. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.
This series, published annually from 2004 to 2012, evaluated government performance in seventy different countries on issues including accountability, civil liberties, rule of law, and anticorruption. Also includes suggestions for improvement. Mauritania also appears in the 2005 and 2007 editions. Available online.
Pazzanita, Anthony G. Historical Dictionary of Mauritania. 3d ed. Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow, 2008.
This helpful book, now in its third edition, is a useful resource to scholars new to Mauritania. Comprised of over three hundred entries that cover topics including biographies of well-known Mauritanians, political parties, historic events, and institutions. Also includes a variety of maps and a chronology of important events.
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