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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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