Some Brits when they hear the word Mauritania will think of an enormous and rather impressive ocean liner built in the early twentieth century, the RMS Mauretania, sister ship of the unlucky RMS Lusitania sunk by a U-boat in 1915. But that’s Mauretania with an ‘e’ from the Roman North African province. This is Mauritania with an ‘i’, the enormous country in north-west Africa, with a long and varied history.
Part of that long history includes invasion by us, perhaps inevitably bearing in mind its long coastline and its position not a huge distance, in global terms, south of these islands. One of the main things we were after there was gum (not chewing gum, but gum arabic). And we weren’t the only ones. Competition from other European powers was enthusiastic, and at times more than just enthusiastic. It was, frankly, violent.
In 1445, Prince Henry the Navigator set up a Portuguese colony on the island of Arguin, the main aim of this venture being gum arabic and slaves. In 1633 the Dutch pinched Arguin. Then we got hold of it in 1665. Then the French had it again. Then the Brandenburg/Prussians got in on the act. Then France. Then the Dutch. Then the French. Locals must have wondered whose flag they would see when they glanced up next.
And these gum wars weren’t fought just at Arguin. There was another gum arabic trading port on the Mauritanian coast at Portendic. In 1834, this was reckoned to be a British port, to the apparent irritation of the nearby French governor of Senegal who sent two warships to the port and ordered two British merchant ships waiting to load gum arabic to get out of there. When they refused to do so, the French opened fire on the locals and the gum they were waiting to load, and continued even though a British flag had been placed on the gum. There was much debate in Parliament over this gum crisis with the French, and the Royal Navy was accordingly sent out to protect our ships.