By MURPHY BROWNE (ABENA AGBETU)
Mauritania is a country on the African continent which gained its independence from France on November 28, 1960. The French colonized Mauritania in 1850 when Louis Faidherbe, the leader of the French military presence in Senegal, decided to expand France’s occupation of land in Africa.
France had long coveted territory on the African continent and at one point colonized/occupied territory in Central, East, North and West Africa. France’s colonization/occupation of the African continent began when the French invaded Algeria (North Africa) in 1830. According to White American Professor John Douglas Ruedy, writing in his 1992 book, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation, about the aftermath of the French conquest of Algeria: “A French commission in 1833 wrote that ‘we have sent to their deaths on simple suspicion and without trial people whose guilt was always doubtful…we massacred people carrying safe conducts…we have outdone in barbarity the barbarians’.”
The French and other European tribes seized the opportunity to continue exploiting Africa and Africans after slavery by holding a three-month long meeting to formalize the thievery of African land. The White men had been stumbling over each other in their covetous rush to claim African land, which sometimes led to physical confrontations with each other so they decided to meet and agree on who should control what part of Africa.
That first “Scramble for Africa”, where several White men representing 14 countries spent three months (November 15, 1884-February 26, 1885) carving up the African continent and sharing it amongst members of European tribes, led to years of occupation by Europeans of every part of Africa except Ethiopia.
In his 2010 book, From African Foreign Policy and Diplomacy from Antiquity to the 21st Century, African Professor Daniel Don Nanjira, a member of the Luhya from Kenya wrote: “Europe’s interest in Africa was prompted by the dictates of the new imperialism. The Berlin Conference on the Partition of Africa (November 15, 1884-February 26, 1885) mainly was held to create international guidelines for territorial acquisitions, control, exploration, and administration. It was not for the good of the colonized Africans, but was intended to protect the interests of the home countries in Europe.”
In that first “Scramble for Africa” at the Berlin Conference, White men from 14 countries spent three months drawing random borders with no consideration for the African people they would inconvenience or traumatize. These White men greedily divided the African continent among themselves because they were seeking wealth for their countries.
With the strength of their armies and the recently invented machine gun, White men and women occupied the best parts (most fertile and mineral rich land) in every African territory they invaded.
In many cases they first sent in their missionaries, like so many “Trojan horses”, to “Christianize” the Africans in a devious “divide and conquer” strategy. When the European armies descended on these newly created “countries”, there were Africans who had already succumbed, been brainwashed or coerced into accepting the new religion and were used to spread dissension among their people.
Many of these Africans had been convinced of the “superiority” of the Europeans and were very susceptible to accepting without question the “rights” of the conquering hordes. Any Africans who resisted the European occupation/thievery of their land were barbarously and cruelly dispatched by the “superior” weapons used by the European occupying armies. In every case the Europeans claimed the best land, displacing the Africans and forcing them to become a cheap source of labour whose work was exploited to enrich the Europeans.
This quote from the 1997 book, Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts, by H.J. de Blij and Peter O. Muller, sums up the aftermath of the Berlin Conference: “The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one. The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent. By the time independence returned to Africa in 1950, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily.”
It is no coincidence that this outright greedy grab for African land was formalized by White men after the invention of machine guns, such as the Gatling gun in 1861 and the Maxim gun in 1883. Armed with the Maxim, which could fire 600 rounds per minute, the African resisters of colonization hardly stood a chance.
Mauritania was not only colonized by the French but had also been occupied and colonized by Arabs before the advent of the Europeans. The indigenous Africans were first enslaved by the Arabs, who claimed the land in modern day Mauritania and even after the French colonized the country, the practice of enslaving Africans continued.
The French, although they had abolished slavery in their Caribbean colonies since 1848, obviously turned a blind eye to the continued Arab enslavement of Africans in Mauritania during the colonial period. The last two countries to abolish slavery in the west were Cuba (1886) and Brazil (1888). Although Mauritania gained its independence from France on November 28, 1960, the institution of slavery (enslavement of Africans) was not legally abolished until 1981. However, it was not a crime to enslave Africans until a new law criminalizing the practice of enslaving Africans was adopted by the Mauritanian Parliament in August 2007.
In spite of the law criminalizing the practice of enslaving Africans in Mauritania, the practice continues in 2014. In his 2012 book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, White American author Kevin Bales writes: “As in the nineteenth-century American South, in Mauritania race matters intensely. Racism is the motor that drives Mauritanian society. White Moors generally disdain their Black slaves and regard them as inferior beings. The ruling White Moors’ deep cultural and economic vested interest in slavery makes them as ready to fight for this privilege as the southern states of the United States fought for theirs.”
In Mauritania, an African country where Africans are the majority, a minority group (30 per cent) of non-Indigenous people who call themselves “White Moors” hold (40 per cent) of people who are identified as “Black Moors” in slavery. This “Moor” designation seems to come from the fact that both groups are members of the same religion, Islam. The “Black Moors” have traditionally “belonged” to the “White Moors” so this designation continues into the 21st century and change is fiercely resisted by the “White Moors”. The remaining 30 per cent of the population are Africans (many are Christians) who are not members of the dominant religion of Mauritania and have never been enslaved.
One would think it would be so easy for a “Black Moor” to escape their enslavement and pretend to be a free African but that is not the case. The majority of “Black Moors” have been conditioned to believe that it is their natural state to be “slaves” to the “White Moors” who physically, emotionally, spiritually and sexually abuse them and their children. These enslaved people work from dawn to dusk in the homes and businesses of their enslavers and are never paid. In some cases their children are given away as gifts to other enslaver families, very reminiscent of the experiences of Africans who were enslaved by White people in this part of the world (the Caribbean, Europe, Central, North and South America) up to the 1880s.
There are a few brave souls who put their lives on the line in an effort to end the enslavement of those unfortunate Africans who are enslaved in Mauritania. Biram Dah Abeid (a descendant of the so-called “Black Moors”) is the president of the IRA (Initiative pour la Resurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste) and representative to the “Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization”, which is an international organization that facilitates the voices of unrepresented and marginalized nations and peoples worldwide. Dah Abeid has been beaten, imprisoned and was sentenced to death by the Mauritanian government because of his activism.
As a peaceful advocate for the formal abolition of slavery in Mauritania, Dah Abeid has been likened to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the biggest threats to the Mauritanian authorities is Dah Abeid’s efforts to unite the “Black Moors” and other African communities in Mauritania (www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/08/freedom-fighter).
His non-violent activities, challenging the Mauritanian authorities to enforce the anti-slavery legislation in the country, have been met with violence. It is ironic that a group of people (“White Moors”) who invaded and occupied African land advocated for their independence from the colonizing French, yet continue to enslave the majority of people who are indigenous to Mauritania and Africa. This is very similar to the minority White population of South Africa, who kept Africans in abject poverty and refused them basic human rights for decades.
On November 28, when Mauritanians are celebrating 54 years of independence and freedom from French colonization, unfortunately not every Mauritanian will be celebrating freedom.