Collaboration, Modernity and Colonial Rule: Sidiyya Baba and Mauritania
By David Robinson
The Sidiyya Network
In the Trarza setting, and among the zwaya families, lived a small, inconspicuous group called the Awlad Abyayri (Oulad Biri in some renditions). Inconspicuous, that is, until a leader emerged in the 19th century who built a vast economic and religious network and a reputation for resolving the numerous disputes that riddled the desert and steppe coalitions. He was the grandfather of our subject, and he went by the name of Sidiyya al-Kabir, “Sidiyya the Great” ( c 1789-1868). He got his start by traveling to the Timbuktu area to study with the renowned Kunta marabouts, Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti and his son Sidi Muhammad. With these illustrious credentials he returned to the southern Mauritanian zone in the 1820s. At some point in the 1830s he spent some time in Morocco and began to accumulate documents - manuscripts and some published books - that formed the basis for the vast Sidiyya library of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The library (we show part of a "typical" library of a cleric, not unlike Sidiyya's) anchored the reputation of Sidiyya al-Kabir for wisdom about Islamic theology, civilization and their application to local and regional problems. He became Shaikh Sidiyya, his title communicating a person of mature wisdom in the Islamic sciences and their application. Sidiyya Baba would follow in the tradition of his grandfather, and his reputation for wisdom enabled him to counter many of the accusations of collaboration with the “infidel,” accusations that he faced over the last decades of his life. He also became known as Shaikh Sidiyya.
With this training and this library the grandfather began to construct a network of trade, production, legal consultation, diplomacy and Sufi leadership along the lines of what the Kunta lineage built in the Timbuktu area. He participated in the commerce of gum, salt, animals and slaves. Like most of the upper classes he was a slaveowner. His slaves, black with origins in the “south,” did most of the manual work around the homestead, took care of his baggage when he traveled, and performed errands of many kinds. Shaikh Sidiyya acquired interests in lands, wells and oases in southern and central Mauritania. He resolved disputes, arranged marriages, and gave a wide variety of counsel, with the goal of establishing greater peace and prosperity in the region. He extended that counsel to the emirs of Trarza, Brakna and the other kaleidoscopic confederations of southern Mauritania - including sanctuary for some opposition candidates for the emir-ship. Finally, he helped to spread allegiance to the Qadiriyya order, the dominant Sufi affiliation of the Sahara and Western Sudan. Initially he emphasized the Kunta version of his mentors; over time he put his own stamp on the Qadiriyya and created what we can call the Sidiyya.
Sidiyya al-Kabir established his main base at Butilimit, an area of pasturage some 200 miles north of the Senegal River. Butilimit was in eastern Trarza, and it was well positioned to encourage influence across a broad swath of nomadic societies in southern and central Mauritania. Sidiyya achieved visibility and notoriety for the French by intervening in the struggle for the emir-ship of the Brakna confederation at mid-century. In 1856 he helped organize a coalition in opposition to the candidate of the French, who were headquartered in the town of Saint-Louis close to the mouth of the Senegal River. Governor Louis Léon Faidherbe noted Sidiyya’s mobilization skills in accounts to Paris and articles in the local paper, Le Moniteur. Sidiyya was classed as a "resistance foe" for the French -- and a "resistance hero" for many Mauritanians looking back on these episodes.
But in fact Sidiyya al-Kabir just had different priorities. The French in the mid-nineteenth century were but one contender, albeit a strong one, for commercial and political pre-eminence along the Senegal River. The major preoccupation for the Sidiyya network was the maintenance of influence and wealth in the larger region. The influence extended all along the Senegal River, into Saint-Louis, and as far south as the Gambia and Futa Jalon. The archives and oral tradition give glimpses of the operation of this influence. One disciple, Cerno Falil Talla, opposed the jihad of Al-Hajj Umar in Futa Toro in 1858-9 and apparently paid for it with his life. Another, Cerno Brahim Kan, preached emigration from French influence and attracted followers to his community of Maqama, a name meaning sanctuary and located on the north bank of the Senegal, in the 1860s. Shaikh Sidiyya also had allies among the chiefly families of Senegal, most notably Bokar Sada Sy, the long-reigning Almamy of Bundu in the Upper Senegal and a close ally of the French. Sidiyya was a powerful player in the northern portion of what I call the “Senegalo-Mauritanian” zone.
Sidiyya al-Kabir was not without his opponents within the zwaya constituencies of southern Mauritania. Indeed, he and the Awlad Abyayri were upstarts in the eyes of the clerics of the Tashumsha fractions, who had dominated scholarship, adjudication and diplomacy in Trarza since the late seventeenth century. The Tashumsha maintained a strong position at the emiral court, among Muslims in Saint-Louis, and through much of the Senegalo-Mauritanian zone. Some of them gradually accepted the distinction and influence of Sidiyya al-Kabir, and by the late nineteenth century were linked to Butilimit through marriage and collaborative networks.
- Map of the Senegalo-Mauritanian Zone
Map of the Senegalo-Mauritanian Zone