FROM A to Z SERIES
In far West Africa some two million people form
the nation of Mauritania, a desert almost the size of Texas and California
combined. With over 500 miles of coastline there must be some fantastic
beaches. But there's no tourism. The capital city, Nouakchott,
lies 300 hard miles north of the metropolis of Dakar in Senegal.
Dakar is where most of Mauritania's business
gets done. Everywhere else is too far away across the desert.
People are all over the desert looking for oil when politics allow, but
so far Mauritania has not struck it rich. Salt mining is a traditional
occupation, and lately iron, copper, and gypsum have been extracted, but
the modern nation has never paid its costs. France is the major backer.
A lot of people in the northern desert are nomads,
herding their flocks in a tradition dating back to before the time of Abraham.
Like most herding cultures, they have been fond of raiding and robbing
and enslaving the local agriculturists whenever possible. Over the
centuries, the major nomad tribes in Mauritania developed among themselves,
as it were, proprietary looting rights in strips of the southern farming
regions, whose inhabitants, though not at all peaceful, found themselves
at a disadvantage against the nomads, and eventually forced to submit.
Thus it was that some significant proportion
of the southern population found itself bound in serfdom and/or chattel
slavery to nomads.
Slavery was a normal way of life everywhere until
the 19th century, and even then, when the French were becoming really active
in West Africa, it was such a large territory, there was so much to do!
In the upshot, aside from an emancipation proclamation of sorts in 1908,
not much was done. The neglect of the problem continued after independence.
Mauritania finally formally proscribed slavery in 1980, and there is no
doubt that some of the employment relationships in that country are still
The predatory relationship of the north upon the
south is at least two thousand years old. During the Roman era, when
the coasts of modern Morocco and Algeria formed the province they called
Mauretania, the introduction of the camel allowed the development of caravan
trade between the Mediterranean coast and the fertile south, where slaves
and gold were to be found. The guidance and protection of the caravans
became a nomad enterprise.
In the 9th century a group of nomads, Berbers of
the Sanhaja clan, took a northern outpost of the Ghana empire, a caravan
station called Audaghost. A resurgent Ghana recaptured Audaghost
in 990, throwing the Berbers back into the desert. Not too long after
that some of the Sanhaja chiefs converted to Islam, and Berber society
was structured such that in no time virtually all the nomads had converted
with them. Adopting a position of extreme zealotry, the united nomads,
known as the Almoravids, prosecuted Holy War against both the south and
the north, conquering Ghana in 1076 and spreading northward as
far as Spain. During their century of power they struck gold
dinars from their capital, Sijilmasa in Morocco, and other mints in Spain
and North Africa. But none hail from their homeland in Mauritania.
The Almoravid dynasty deteriorated after about 100
years, leaving anarchy in the wake of its demise. Into the political
vacuum stormed a hoard of Bedouin migrants from Arabia. Tens of thousands
of them spread across North Africa over several centuries, overrunning
the Berber tribes with both numbers and ferocity. The resisting Berbers
retreated into the desert, where they became the Tuareg and their relatives.
Those who submitted mingled with the Arab conquerors and became the people
known to us as the Moors.
The Moors set up essentially normal Arab emirates
in the Mauritanian territory. None of them are known to have issued
The Portuguese sailed by during their explorations,
and in 1461 set up a trading station on Arguin island. Over three
centuries the station was successively occupied by Dutch, English, and
finally French agents, who were chiefly interested in a slice of the trade
in that uniquely useful plant product: gum arabic.
During the 19th century the Mauritanian emirs became
less cooperative with the French traders, who found their profits being
squeezed. Military missions were dispatched from Senegal to pacify
the hinterland. Early in this current century administration was
conducted from Dakar, but in 1904 it was separated from that colony, and
in 1920 it was incorporated into French West Africa, though the capital
remained in the town of St. Louis in Senegal until 1957!
The territory was difficult to govern. Much
of the population was bellicose and always on the move. Vendetta
warfare was constant. The French naturally tended to concentrate
their energy where the money was, and to neglect less profitable regions
The territory acquired a governing assembly in 1946,
along with representation in the French parliament. In 1958 it voted
to become a member of the proposed French Community, and independence came
in 1960. The leader, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, was a northerner.
The political winds in Africa were blowing militantly nationalist.
Daddah promoted an activist mass party, in
1966 withdrew his country from the French Community, and in 1973 launching
his own currency, the ouguiya.
Mauritania quarreled with Morocco over the disposition
of the Western Sahara, formerly held by Spain. An agreement was reached
dividing the territory, but an independence movement sprang up, backed
by relatively oil-rich Algeria, that has endured to this day. Mauritania
found itself sucked into the conflict. Things went badly, and in
1978 the army kicked out strongman Daddah and ended Mauritanian involvement
by abandoning the claim. Military government in the '80s was succeeded
by a new, democratic constitution in 1991. Many parties now contend
in the legislator, but the president is a colonel. The country is
trying to play by the rules, and is making payments on its debts, but most
of the people are still nomadic herders, still bent on enslaving the southerners.
They find no incentive to change.
Not too many people go to Mauritania, so it's coins
are not very common. With about 160 ouguiyas to the US dollar the
currency is actually worth something compared with the CFA franc.
The 20 ouguiya coin will exchange at 12 US cents, as against their SCWC
value of 8.00 in uncirculated. Well, actually, there are small quantities
of Mauritanian coins on the market, so that it is usually possible to find
them at a discount, but they will still go for 30 times their face value
or more. Only one coin is common in the market: the aluminum khoum.
It was worthless when it was issued, and as they have been trickling out
the price has been dropping steadily over the years.
Mauritania was involved in the 1984 Mystery Sports
Promotion along with other nations without influence like Bhutan, Congo,
and Guinea-Bissau. Some of the involved nations repudiated the coins
issued in their names. There never were that many around. Now
they're hard to find. I have seen the 1975 gold coin. I have
not seen the 1973 double mint set. I know of no tokens.