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Colonisation Pacifique?: Examining the Contradictions of Xavier Coppolani’s Expansion into Mauritania

[Image of Xavier Coppolani. Image from Wikimedia Commons.] [Image of Xavier Coppolani. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

In 1899, Louis Gustave Binger, the head of African affairs at the French Ministry of Colonies, received a proposal outlining a plan to bring a large swath of North African tribal territory under French control. The proposal covered a vast expanse of land, primarily desert, stretching up from the Senegal River to the bottom of the Kingdom of Morocco and eastward toward the south of Algeria. The name used in the proposal to delimit this geographical area was “la Mauritanie occidentale.” This was the first time that the name Mauritanie had been used in reference to this particular expanse of territory; the third-century Berber kingdom of Mauretania that later became a province of the Roman Empire was in fact located north of the area described in the plan.

The proposal’s author was Xavier Coppolani, a French Corsican who was raised and lived in Algeria. He was working as an administrator within the French colonial administration when he submitted it. Reportedly an admirer of the language, culture and religion of the Arab peoples, he had an impressive level of fluency in Arabic and was also well versed in Islamic poetry and texts. According to Coppolani himself, it was his deep interest in and love for the Arab world that formed the basis of the philosophy that would inspire him to push for French colonial expansion into the territories of modern Mauritania.[1] 

The combined influences of his professional position and his personal passions led Coppolani to the conclusion that the most beneficial course of action for the French to take in the region would be a “colonisation pacifique.” Coppolani observed both the obvious indigenous dissatisfaction with French colonial rule in Algeria and the recurring intertribal conflicts in the territories of Mauritania and envisioned a solution to these ills: a Muslim population living in unity under the French flag.  However, according to this doctrine, French rule was to be contingent upon the maintenance of respect and understanding of local culture and tradition. Indeed, he proposed that the French obtain local submission to their authority solely through negotiation and persuasion. 

When the French sent Coppolani to Timbuktu in 1898 to convince the local tribal chiefs to recognize French rule, he had the opportunity to test this doctrine.Thanks to Coppolani’s persuasive personality and the amorphous quality that his competence in local language and culture endowed him with, the local chiefs acquiesced. Coppolani returned from his mission emboldened by the belief that his theory of conquest by consent had been validated.  He was determined to apply it in the territories of Trarza and Brakna, north of the Senegal River. Having received a positive response from Binger about his proposal for the territories of Mauritania, a date in December 1902 was set for a peaceful incursion into the region. 

However it would not take long for a sharp divergence to emerge between Coppolani’s theory of a ‘colonisation pacifique’ and its practical application, with fatal consequences for Coppolani himself.

Tribal Society, Colonial States and International Trade

At the time of direct colonisation by the French, there was a diverse pre-existing hierarchical network of families, tribes, religious leaders and Sufi religious brotherhoods that were spread across the regions of Trarza, Brakna, Tagant and Adrar. Within Arab Moor society, families and tribes generally fell into the class of either warrior or peaceful Marabout, with physical strength and religious knowledge respectively forming the bases of authority within each of these social strata. The warrior tribes were the dominant class, but the Marabouts held a position of moral authority as their guidance in religious and social matters was often sought by the former, in exchange for the provision of protection. This social hierarchy was established following the Charr Bouba war of 1644 and was then integrated into the new emirate system that was created in the aftermath of that war.  The first emirates to emerge were named after the two leaders of the victorious tribes – Trarza and Brakna. 

The relationship between the emirs of the newly established emirates, and between the different tribes that were loyal to them, varied from being one of strategic cooperation to outright civil war. How they behaved toward one another was largely determined by their calculations on how best to attain and maintain a position of economic superiority. 

In practice this meant procuring the resources to produce goods that were of value to European traders: namely gold, slaves and the cherished acacia gum. The nature of the rivalries and ever-shifting power dynamics in the Trarza and Brakna was not unlike that of the relationship between the European colonial states which held stakes in these regions. Over the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European activity and influence in West Africa was successively dominated by the Spanish and the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and from 1815, increasingly by the French. Moor tribes would sometimes cooperate between themselves to inflate the prices of goods which were in high demand in European nations.  At other times, however, it would better suit the interest of the tribe to forge a tactical alliance with a European state in order to hamper the potentially destructive influence of a rival tribe.

In 1815, France took control of Senegal from Britain and established a permanent colonial administration in the Senegalese city of Saint Louis. The following decades would see a complex and often violent economic relationship develop between the French and the populations north of the Senegal River – both Arab Moor and African.  France initiated and emerged victorious from two wars against the Trarza Emirate – once in 1825 and again in 1854.  The primary concern in both of these instances was the potential expansion of the Emirate’s territory and economic influence and the impact that this would have on the burgeoning commercial trading sector in the colony of Senegal.  In the commercial companies of Senegal, warrior tribes such as the Edaouïch found an eager market for the goods they acquired by raiding the villages of the Marabouts. As central authority in the Trarza Emirate gradually gave way to internecine conflict in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was the families and tribes of this region that frequently fell victim to raids and pillages by warrior tribes of the north.  The French traders and commercial companies helped sustain this situation by purchasing the acacia gum and slaves acquired by the warrior tribes or by exchanging them with them for arms.

It is hardly surprising then that representatives of these companies were outspoken in their opposition to Xavier Coppolani’s plan for expansion in the territories whose volatility directly benefited their profits.   When word reached them of Coppolani’s proposal to Binger, they sent him a letter outlining their grave concern about the impact that the plan would have on their business operations, as its stated goal was the ‘pacification’ of the region, including bringing an end to slavery there.[2] Noel Ballay, the Governor of the Saint Louis administration at the time, shared these concerns as the trade in gum, slaves and arms made up a significant proportion of the local budget. However, Ballay was replaced by Ernest Roume in 1902, who viewed Coppolani’s plan as a preferable alternative to the potential consequences of the deteriorating security situation in the Trarza. In addition, Coppolani succeeded in receiving the green light for his mission from the French government by addressing himself to the Ministry of Colonies using liberal humanist language to discuss the merits of expansion, both for the French and the indigenous population.

From "Peaceful Colonization" to Violent Conquest

The first push into the Trarza region began on 14 December 1902, when Coppolani, accompanied by two French officials and a translator, organized to meet with the emir Ahmed Salem.  Salem’s authority was being challenged by other rival tribal chiefs in the region, including members of his own family.  This position of vulnerability offered him a credible motivation to cede to French authority – the security offered by a French protectorate in the Trarza meant that he would retain a certain degree of power against his rivals.  Similar motivations lay behind the decisions of the two great religious leaders of the region – Cheikh Sidiya Baba and Cheikh Saad Baou – to welcome Coppolani.  The two Cheikh acted as heads of Sufi religious brotherhoods which wielded a great deal of power and influence among local populations, so their acceptance of Coppolani and his mission served as a significant source of legitimation.  Cheikh Sidiya Baba, whose family and tribe had long suffered at the hands of northern warrior tribes pillaging the villages of his region, even went so far as to issue an official fatwa welcoming Coppolani.  In turn, Coppolani guaranteed Sidiya Baba’s own tribe’s safety in the Trarza.

While Coppolani may have succeeded in convincing himself and some of his superiors that tribal acquiescence to French authority was a validation of his theory of “colonisation pacifique,” it is not too difficult to find other reasons which plausibly explain why certain chiefs welcomed the French presence while others revolted against it.  Coppolani’s fluency in Arabic and familiarity with Islamic culture no doubt served as valuable assets during the initial phases of his mission. However, ultimately the stance of the emirs and Cheikh with regard to the French was determined by their calculations on how best to maintain their own positions of relative power and security.  This is evidenced in the numerous defections and shifts in allegiance which occurred among the tribes of the Trarza and Brakna, indicating that self-preservation was the underlying motive, rather than any romantic attachment or loyalty to Coppolani and the French. 

Coppolani’s support base was thus somewhat schizophrenic in nature - a tendency which was exacerbated by northern warrior tribes campaigning for an armed resistance to the French. Given the material benefits that these tribes had been reaping by pillaging the villages of the southern Marabout tribes that had now come under French protection, a discontent began to spread as their interests came under threat. This discontent found a voice in Cheikh Ma-el Aïnin, who successfully rallied the tribes of the northern Adrar region by employing rhetoric which valorized jihad and resistance to colonialism. The Moroccan Sultan Abdelaziz offered material, military and moral support to Ma-el Aïnin, who in exchange recognized Morocco’s claim to sovereignty in the territories over which he held influence.  Meanwhile, as the French protectorate extended further into the Trarza and Brakna regions of the south it became increasingly militarized in order to ensure the local population’s safety against raids carried out by the afore-mentioned northern warrior tribes. 

At this point, Coppolani was eager to continue the French push into the northern Adrar region, which would extend colonial rule to Morocco, at that time still independent. Documents detailing his correspondence with the Ministry of Colonies suggest that he was both well aware of the campaign being mounted against him by Cheikh Ma-el Aïnin in the Adrar region and willing to confront it militarily in order to achieve his goal. But French government officials were more cautious about hastily proceeding into the north of the country, as the situation in the Trarza and Brakna regions remained precarious. Given the conflicting allegiances and double-dealing of many tribal chiefs and emirs, the French largely dedicated their resources to reinforcing control over these areas from 1902 to 1904. 

In August 1904, Coppolani was designated Commisaire Général de la Mauritanie. The authority afforded to him by this new position allowed him to broaden the mandate for colonial expansion in Mauritania, and he succeeded in convincing government officials of the feasibility of a push into the Adrar region. However, the growing hostility to French colonialism meant that the mission was now peaceful in name only. This time, Coppolani would be accompanied by a rifle and artillery unit, led by Captain Louis Frèrejean, who was charged with addressing all hostile elements during the excursion. As the mission progressed into 1905, Coppolani sought to sway the opinion of as many families and tribes as he could in favor of the French. Frèrejean led skirmishes and organized ambushes against all those who resisted. 

The most prominent of these was the Edaouïch warrior tribe, who had collectively taken up Cheikh Ma-el Aïnin’s jihad against the French. Frèrejean and Coppolani provoked the fury of the Edaouïch when French forces killed their emir, Bakar Ould Soueïd Ahmed, during a midnight ambush on his camp led by Frèrejean on 5 April 1905. One week later, a small group led by Sidi Seghir Ould Molai Zein, a member of the religious brotherhood led by Cheikh Ma-el Aïnin, attacked Coppolani’s encampment at Tidjikja. Coppolani was fatally injured in the violence that ensued, leaving Frèrejean to head the mission.

An investigation following his death revealed letters of correspondence between the slayed Edaouïch emir Bakar Ould Soueïd Ahmed and Cheikh Ma-el Aïnin in the tent of the former. The fact that these long-standing rivals had been cooperating with each other demonstrates the extent of opposition to Coppolani’s mission in the Adrar. Frèrejean initially continued the violent push north, which proceeded under different leaders and at varying paces, until a protectorate was eventually established over the entire territory in 1934. 


In spite of the stark contrast between the original ethos of Coppolani’s mission and the manner in which it was eventually carried out, there are indications that Coppolani was acting upon his own initiative and principles – however misguided they may have been – rather than merely serving the needs of the colonial administration.  This can be seen, for instance, in the initial resistance to his project on the part of the French administration in Senegal and within certain quarters of the French government. This resistance was based upon the official fear of any disruption of the delicate balance which existed between the warrior tribes who traded primarily in acacia gum and slaves, the French commercial companies of Senegal who bought these goods and sold them on to Europe and the colonial administration in Senegal who profited from this lucrative trade. The human rights rhetoric adopted by Coppolani, as well as his opposition to slavery, scared the commercial companies into lobbying the local government heavily against his proposal for an expansion into Mauritania.

On a geopolitical scale however, Coppolani’s plan proved useful to the French empire and its strategic goals of the time.  It served to link the two distant colonies of Senegal and Algeria, thereby keeping the influence of rival colonial powers at bay, while simultaneously paving the way for the colonization of Morocco. Seen in this light, it is clear that the ethos of respect, tolerance and pacifism which appeared to underpin Coppolani’s mission, in fact served as a convenient tool of ethical legitimacy for the French empire. It is also clear that there was a strict limit on the extent to which this principle could be applied; local ways of life were to be respected and upheld only insofar as they did not pose any threat to the far more pressing dictates of colonialism. This unveils Coppolani’s liberal humanism to have been typical orientalist posturing, which may serve to clarify what would otherwise seem to be a contradiction between his purported admiration and respect for the Muslim populations of North Africa and the condescension that necessarily underpinned his attempt to pacify them.   

There are two great ironies in his Xavier Coppolani's attempt to realize his dream of a unified Muslim population living under a French flag.  First, rather than unifying the society, his incursions actually deepened divisions between the warrior tribes of the north and the peaceful Marabouts of the south. And secondly, a rather impressive and perhaps unprecedented degree of unity was actually achieved among those tribes who resisted the French push into Mauritania – a factor which may well have facilitated the coordination required to carry out the attack in which Coppolani was killed.

[1] Désiré-Vuillemin, Geneviève. Histoire de la Mauritanie, dés origines à l’indépendance. Paris, Karthala, 1997.

[2] Coppolani, Xavier, Mauritanie Saharienne : Novembre 1903 à Mai 1904 : Mission d’organisation des territoires du Tagant. Paris, l’Harmattan, 1999

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