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The Toucouleur People

of West Africa



General Historical Background



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The Toucouleur are a Negroid Muslim people, one of the Fula/Fulani groups, but with a clearly distinct identity. Although there is insufficient evidence as to which peoples they are descended from, it is undeniable that they have, in some way, their roots in the Fula race whose own origin is still being researched.

It seems likely that the nomadic, cattle-raising Fulani emigrated from Ethiopia, or an area adjacent to it, and in their search for pastures and water for their animals, eventually arrived on the northern borders of Senegal in the 10th century. Apparently then, and for a long time after, the whole area was a melting pot of people-groups. There would have been much intermarriage.


The West African Empires

While the exact ethnic origins of the Toucouleur are hard to determine, it is quite certain that they are descendants in some way of the ancient rules of the Tekrur Empire.

Another popular explanation is that the Toucouleur are a cultural mix of the ethnic groups that used to inhabit the northern regions incorporated in the Tekrur Empire. Notably these ethnic influences include the Sereres, the Maures and the Bedouins, Soninkes and nomadic Fulani herders.

In medieval times, parts of Senegal belonged to the empires of Mali, Ghana and Songhai.

It is here, in the middle 16th century, that the Futa Toro State was established. At that time the Toucouleur had to withstand the attacks of the Berber groups that were forced south by the Arabs, infiltrating the area and mixing with the black people.

The Toucouleur dominate this area from the early 18th century and through a protracted, 'holy war' (1852-1864) set up the Segu Tekrour empire, which endured a turbulent reign in the Western Sahara, till the conquest by the French in 1893.
From the name of the empire in this region, Tekrour, it is thought that the French derive the name Toucouleur.
The name Toucouleur has nothing to do with "all colours" or "two colours", as some English speakers have thought! Arab geographers called the Toucouleur "Takarir" - inhabitants of the Kingdom of Tekrur.

The Jihad of Umar Tal 1852-1863

The founder of the Segou Tekrur empire, al-Hajj 'Umar Tal (c. 1795-1864), was a Toucouleur cleric of the austere Tijaniyah brotherhood. Round about 1848 Tal moved with his followers to Dinguiraye (now in Guinea), on the borders of the Fouta Djallon region, to prepare the founding of a new state that would conform to the stringent moral requirements of his order. He thus set about training an elite corps in which religious, military, and commercial considerations were combined.
Equipped with European firearms, this force was ready by about 1850 to embark on a jihad, or holy war, against his neighbours. Tal and his Toucouleur force first came into conflict with the Bambara chiefdoms to the north, then two years later moved northward again, across the upper Senegal River to conquer the Bambara kingdom of Kaarta.
Checked by the French in their westward return down the Senegal River, the Toucouleur quickly overran the Bambara kingdom of Segu (1861) and thereafter conquered the Fulani of Macina. Finally they then extended their dominion as far north as Timbuktu (now in Mali)
In 10 years al-Hajj 'Umar's armies had conquered an empire almost as large as that of the Sokoto Fulani Empire. 

Revolts in the Tukulor Empire 1864-1890

This Segou Tekrur empire, though almost as large as that of the Sokoto Fulani to the east, was by no means so soundly based. Whatever 'Umar's original motives may have been, his followers seem to have been as much concerned with amassing riches and power as with converting their subjects to Islam.
Numerous risings against Toucouleur authority by the conquered Bambara and Fulani continually shook the empire, and in 1864 'Umar himself was killed. His son and successor, Ahmadu Seku, inherited a patrimony torn by inner conflicts and rival claims to power.
For the sake of internal order, Ahmadu Seku Tal, in the 1880s began to disband his army and put increasing reliance on the loyalty of subject peoples. The policy failed; not only did Ahmadu fail to win new loyalties, but he lost the adherence of the Toucouleur themselves as they saw their privileged position erode. The French exploited the situation by constructing forts within Toucouleur territory and signing treaties of friendship with the Toucouleur and their neighbours.

The Franco-Tukolor War 1854-1893

In 1854, at the request of local merchants, Napoleon III appointed as governor, Commandant Louis-Léon-César Faidherbe, who immediately began to establish French military hegemony. He soon came into conflict with 'Umar Tal, who was establishing an economic and military power base in the upper Niger Valley. A military stalemate in this strugle, after 1857 led to a truce of coexistence.
When Faidherbe retired in 1865, French power was paramount over most of the territory of modern Senegal; and growing exports of peanuts, through the new colonial port of Dakar, were providing some economic resources.

The French, who established a fort at Médine in western Mali in 1855, viewed the Ségou Toucouleur empire as the principal obstacle to their acquisition of the Niger River valley. Fearful of British designs on the same region, they engaged in a series of diplomatic overtures and military operations to push the boundaries of their control eastward.
Between 1880 and 1881, primarily through diplomatic efforts and the signing of protectorate treaties with chiefs at Bafoulabé and Kita,.the French succeeded in expanding their control from Médine 200 miles east to Kita.

In 1883 Gustave Borgnis-Desbordes launched a series of military campaigns against the Tukulor and the forces of Samory Touré, a Dyula Muslim leader who had founded a state to the south of the Tekrur. Desbordes captured Bamako during that year, giving the French a presence on the Niger.
Between 1890 and 1893 French troops swept the Segu Tekrur empire, Colonel Louis Archinard launched a series of successful military operations conquering Segu, Macina, and Timbuktu in turn. Ahmadu Seku Tal succumbed to the French in 1893, which led to the final conquest of Ségou, and his former empire was soon firmly incorporated into the French overseas territory.


Geopolitical history

During the colonial era, Senegal came initially under French control. It was then ceded to Britain in 1763 as part of the settlement of the Seven Years War (over North American territories) but returned to the French in 1817.

After the fall of the Toucouleur empire in 1893 the West African territories were subdivided into governable regions by the various imperialist powers in the Western Sahara, predominantly the French.

To the middle of the 1900's with colonialism at its low point, territories and protectorates throughout started gaining independence. Subsequently Guinea gained independence from France in 1958; and Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali followed suit in 1960.

From 1959-60 Senegal was briefly part of the Federation of Mali.


Conflict with Mauritania

A sudden and drastic deterioration of relations between Senegal and Mauritania occurred in 1989. Long-standing ethnic and economic rivalries between the two countries exploded into violence in April 1989. These tensions go back a long way but intensified and flared-up over land issues, as more arable land became available with the completion of dams in the Senegal River.

Traditionally Toucouleur have always had ground and villages on both sides of the Senegal River, especially in the higher up-river parts, i.e. the Futa region. When Mauritanian herdsman crossed into Senegal and trampled fields with their herds, clashes erupted between the farmers and the herdsman. In the ensuing incident two of the herdsman were shot and killed.

This resulted in a counter-reaction: In Mauritania bloody clashes followed between the Maures (who control both the army and the government) and the Black African minorities (mainly Toucouleur and Soninke). Black Africans were chased out of Mauritania, or fled for their lives as the Maures turned on them in vengeance - not only from the villages in the river area, but from wherever they were found in Mauritania. Especially in Nouakchott, the capital and in Nouadhibou (ex-Port Etienne) reprisals were severe. Many people were unable to get away and were murdered. The Mauritanian government stripped 200,000 blacks of their property and forced them into exile in Senegal.

The Senegalese government in turn, repatriated 130,000 Mauritanians, and in various Senegalese towns violence also occurred against Mauritanian Maures.

Since then quite a few Toucouleur and Pulaar have been living with other refugees in encampments on the bank of the Senegal River on the Senegalese side. Officially the dispute was settled in May 1992 and diplomatic relations restored.

A solution is being sought to repatriate and give indemnity to the Toucouleur that were forced into exile but as yet the Toucouleur are still waiting for resettlement. Whatever the solution, the Toucouleur might be wary to return to Mauritania especially in view of the fact that they were so cruelly stripped of their land and livelihood.

To date not much has changed with the situation, and refugees have started to settle on a semi-permanent basis, eking out as much of a living as they can. The situation is not resolved and matters of citizenship and ID documents remain daily problems on both sides of the river. Despite official denials and actions, Senegalese in Mauritania are constantly treated in a harsh and prejudice way.



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