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Home » Historical Geography, Place Names, Sub-Saharan Africa

Ethnic Politics and the Relocation of Ghana, Benin, and Mauritania

Submitted by on December 10, 2011 – 10:52 pm 7 Comments |  
Map Showing Modern Ghana and the Old Empire of GhanaAs was recently mentioned in the GeoCurrents discussion forum, the names of several modern African countries were derived from former African kingdoms (or empires) located in different places. When the British Gold Coast gained independence in 1957, for example, it was rechristened Ghana, a name borrowed from the Ghana Empire (830-1235 CE) in what is now Mali and Mauritania. In 1975, the leaders of Dahomey changed its name to Benin, even though the former Benin Empire (1440–1897 CE) was situated in what is now Nigeria. Mauritania is also seemingly displaced, as the ancient Kingdom of Mauretania was located in what is now Morocco and Algeria.

Adopting such venerable names is generally understood as an attempt to borrow the glory of the former kingdoms, enlisting their prestige to give a measure of historical significance to modern states whose borders were created by European colonial powers. In each case, however, the designation of the new names was a rather more involved process.

Map Showing Modern benin and the Old Empire of BeninBefore 1975, the West African country sandwiched between Nigeria and Togo had been called the Republic of Dahomey. That name derived from the Kingdom of Dahomey (1600-1894 CE), a once-powerful state that had dominated the coastal zone. Under the colonial regime, a larger region extending well inland was dubbed French Dahomey. The independent Republic of Dahomey followed in 1960. After a Marxist coup toppled the government in 1972, the country’s new leaders wanted a clean break from the past, and in 1975 they renamed the state the People’s Republic of Benin. After the fall of the communist government in 1990, the official name was shortened to the Republic of Benin.

According to the Wikipedia article on the People’s Republic of Benin, the new name was chosen to reflect the Benin Empire “that had once flourished in neighboring Nigeria.” Most sources, however, maintain that the new name referenced not the Empire but the Bight of Benin, the adjacent stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. The country’s new leaders rejected the name “Dahomey” because they considered it too ethnically exclusive, since the old kingdom of that name had been closely identified with the Fon people of the coastal zone. The new name, based on physical geography, seemed less divisive—even though the term “Benin” ultimate derives from the former Benin Kingdom of the Edo people in what is now Nigeria. The capital of that state, Ubinu, gave rise to the term “Benin City,” which was generalized to cover the entire kingdom, and was subsequently applied to the adjacent sea.

In the case of Ghana, formerly the British Gold Coast, the new name directly refers to the old Kingdom (or Empire) of Ghana. Yet interpretations of the name change vary. According to the U.S. Department of State, “The Gold Coast was renamed Ghana upon independence in 1957 because of indications that present-day inhabitants descended from migrants who moved south from the ancient kingdom of Ghana.” Any such “indications” of major population transfers, however, are weak to non-existent. A more common view holds that modern Ghana’s founders wanted to reflect the prestige and power associated with West Africa’s first major empire.  But as was the case with Dahomey/Benin, issues of ethnic and regional inclusivity also played a role. According to a 2004 GhanaWeb article, Kwame Nkrumah— founder of the country—selected the new name after examining its history and etymology in great detail. He chose “Ghana,” the author argues, in part because of its association with the inland portion of West Africa. Since “Gold Coast” referred historically to the southern part of the country, continuing under that name would have alienated the northern peoples. As many northerners are Muslims, the association with the former Islamic state of Ghana would be advantageous in this regard.

Map Showing Modern Mauritania and Ancient MauretaniaThe specific connection between the modern and ancient states of Mauritania/Mauretania is also contested. In this case, the place name is of colonial origin, as the French dubbed their holdings in the region Mauritanie.  According to the Wikipedia, the name was derived from “the ancient Berber Kingdom of Mauretania, which later became a province of the Roman Empire, even though the modern state covers a territory far to the southwest of the old kingdom.” But according to the Library of Congress “country study” of Mauritania, the name actually derives from the pseudo-ethnic term Maure, which in French denotes the Arab and especially the Berber inhabitants of northwestern Africa, cognate with the English word “Moor.” Maure, in turn, stems from the Latin Maurus, meaning “coming from Mauretania.”

Map of French West Africa from 1936If “Ghana” and “Benin” were selected in part to signal ethnic inclusivity, the same cannot be said of “Mauritania.” The country is deeply divided along racial lines, with the Arab- and Berber-descended Bidhans, also known as Maures or Moors, maintaining hegemony over the people of sub-Saharan African descent. According to the Wikipedia, “The descendants of black Africans abducted into slavery now live in Mauritania as ‘blacks’ or haratin and partially still serve the ‘Moors’ (whites), or bidhan, as slaves.” The Anti-Slavery Society reports that approximately eighteen percent of the people of Mauritania are currently enslaved to one degree or another.

The Mauritanian government officially abolished slavery in 1981, and finally outlawed the practice in 2007. Several human rights organizations, however, claim that such laws are not enforced, and that those who struggle against the practice of slavery face persecution. In January 2011, three anti-slavery activists who had publicized the enslavement of a ten-year old girl were sentenced to a year in prison for the crimes of “unauthorized gathering” and “rebellion.” In August 2011, Amnesty International reported that, “The draconian response to the work of these activists suggests that the Mauritanian authorities are trying to cover up the fact that slavery takes place in the country.”


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  • Ambergris

       You require some nuance and additional information when writing about Mauritania. For example, it is important to underline that not all the black population was “abducted into slavery”. In the southern part of the country along the Senegal River and the tri-state area with Mali and Senegal, also known as Futa Toro, there are indigenous black tribal groups like the Toucouleur, Soniké or Peuhl herders who are not slaves and even keep slaves within their own communities. The slaves or ex-slave Haratins do not associate with the other black groups and often adopt the condescending attitude of the Bidhans (which in the local language Hassaniya means “white”) towards their southern neighbors. This is repaid in kind by the indigenous black peoples’ poor opinion of them. The Haratins, like the Coloured in South Afriuca who speak Africaans, are Hassaniya speakers and tend to identify with Arabo-Berber culture. They even have their own political party which is often the means of the small political elite to have access to political positions and carve out a slice economic pie which has recently been enhanced with the coming on stream of offshore oil deposits to add to iron ore mining and lucrative offshore fishing.
         Finally the term “slavery” must be contexualized. In the US it immediate conjures up images of southern plantations. In fact, slavery in Mauritania, as in many other Arabic and south of the Sahara states, was domestic in origine. In traditional Mauritanian pastoral nomadic society, they serve the family or the clan as domestic servants or look after their herds or fields. They freely mingle with the families and even eat and celebrate with them. Offsprings of Bidhan men and black women have even risen to relaytively important positions in Mauritanian society although as a whole the group has low status and faces discrimination. Mauritania is still far from the day when it will have a black president either from the indigenous black tribal grouping or from the Haratins unless there is an unexpected overthrow of Bidhan hegemony.

    • Domestic slavery is not better than other kinds. And the case mentioned in the article actually suggested me rape and child slavery rather than plantations (I imagine Mauritania as a mostly desert country where no plantations can exist).

      This is a problem that affects not just Mauritania but other parts of Africa. In the Sahel the pastoralist groups specially have strong traditions of slave trade, regardless of whether they are speakers of Arab, Berber, Chadic or other languages. In other parts of Africa child slavery is also way too common, either for plantation work (notably cocoa plantations) or for domestic service and sexual abuse.

      No variant is tolerable. And certainly this does not help the development of Africa, which needs of a proud and free people.

      • Thanks for the comments. I agree that no variant of slavery is tolerable, but I would argue that some forms are worse than others. The Sahel does seem to be a major area for slavery today, although the practice is evidently widespread in parts of South Asia and elsewhere. As the Anti-Slavery Society website shows, coerced labor (debt-bondage) is fairly common in agriculture in the United States.  See:

    • Many thanks for the additional information.  I realized when writing the post that the actual situation is more complicated, and I considered dropping the last paragraph and a half as a result. But I do think that slavery in Mauritania is a problem, as I tend to trust the Anti-Slavery Society and Amnesty International. Still, as you say, nuance is important, and I thank you for providing some.

  • Ambergris

         Although I cannot vouch for it, I have always reckoned that the Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca, word for Mauritania—ganar—has its origine in the medieaval Ghana empire which covered much of what is today southeastern Mauritania. The  Wolof expression for Bidhan Maurianians is nar (meaning Arab) ganar. This would make an interesting link between West Africa’s past and a contemporary perception of ethnicity in the region.
         Can anyone confirm or infirm this hypothesis?

  • Ambergris

         Nobody is justifying slavery in whatever shape or form or denying it is a problem. However, the distance between moralistic posturing and social realities on the ground can be daunting. Since 1960, the Mauritanian government has officially abolished slavery at least three times. That it still subsists says reams about the government’s inability to alter long-standing social relationships and the lack of social mobility in Mauritanian society and politics dominated by tribal, ethnic and religious brotherhood networks.

    A Bidhan Mauritanian friend of mine from a noble family would like to shed the past when he has a steady flow of the family’s ex-slaves knocking on his door for a handout making sure that he does not forget his obligations to the family’s dependants. As he quips tongue in cheek: “It would be better if Mauritanian society evolved along the lines of Post-Civil War America when slavery was morphed into “wage slavery”.

    Ritualisitic denounciation of slavery in Mauritania from the West won’t unloosen these bonds of dependence, even in their latest avatar. In a parlous, largely rentier economy, with swelling shantytowns fueled with people fleeing the parched and impoverished interior, the population tends to hang on to links of solidarity—albeit in the form of dependence—which offer some form of social safety net. Mauritania is not heading into a brave new world. These structures and mentalities will evolve slowly (let’s not forget the inglorious record of the US in its treatment  former slaves) as Mauritania comes to grips with the forces of modernity.

    • Many thanks for the insightful comments. Such social structures are indeed difficult to break, but they can evolve into something less exploitative. I have witnessed something similar in the highlands of northern Luzon in the Philippines, where slavery (in a supposedly tribal society) gradually gave way to patron-client relationships, which in turn grew looser over time. The imposition of laws against slavery and other forms of labor coercion, however, were important in this process. 

      But it does seem that the Mauritanian government been dealing poorly with the situation by prosecuting anti-slavery activists. If you have any insight on this issue, please let us know.