Encyclopedia of African History
Kevin Shillington, ed. Vol. 1. New York & London. Fitzroy Dearborn. p. 538-539
The Fulbe are one of the most widespread ethnic groups in West Affica and have
played a prominent role in West African history. Known primarily for their expertise
as cattle pastoralists, the Fulbe, over the past 1,000 years, have spread across
2,000 miles of savanna, from Senegambia in the west to Cameroon in the east. They
are easily the most significant pastoralist group in all of West Africa. They were
also the single most instrumental black African group in spreading Islam, the dominant
religion, throughout much of the savanna region of West Africa. Today they number
about ten million in many different countries. They are still the dominant pastoralist
group in the Sahel and savanna regions of West Africa.
Because of their widespread geographic distribution across anglophone and francophone countries, the Fulbe have been known by a variety of names in the literature. Arbitrary distinctions between Muslim and non-Muslim, and nomadic and sedentary Fulbe have caused variations in terminology. Even today there is considerable confusion about what term to use, and who is actually Fulbe. All Fulbe speak the language of Fulfulde, which has numerous dialects, depending on location. The Fulbe of Senegambia call themselves Haalpulaar'en (speakers of Pulaar, the local dialect of Fulfulde). In addition, Fulbe in Futa Toro are often called Futankobe or Futanke, while those of Futa Bundu are known as Bundunkobe. During the colonial period, the French divided the Haa1pulaar'en of Senegal into “Toucouleur” or “Tukolor,” whom they considered primarily agnicultural and centered in Futa Toro, and “Peul” or “Peuhl,” using the Wolof term for primarily pastoral peoples inhabiting the upper river region and the Casamance. The French also mistakenly labeled the so-called Tukolor as radical anti-French Muslims and considered the Peuls as docile non-Muslims.
The government of Senegal, many Senegalese, and some scholars continue to differentiate between Tukolor and Peul to the present, inaccurately treating them as separate ethnic and linguistic groups. Many Senegalese, especially the Wolof, refer to the Fulfulde language as Tukolor. Guinea Fulbe are often called Pula Futa, after their center of concentration in Futa-Djallon. In northern Nigeria, the Fulbe are called Fulani, borrowing the Hausa term, and in Sierra Leone and Gambia, the Malinke term, Fula, is most often used to refer to local Fulbe. In Niger, the Fulbe are labeled Woodabe, or “red” Fulbe, because of their apparently lighter complexion than other groups. Some Europeans, especially in anglophone regions, divided the Fulbe into “town” Fulani, who mostly farmed, and “cattle” Fulani, who were more pastoralist and usually non-Muslim.
Hence, a people with an essentially similar language, culture, and identity are found in the literature under a confusing variety of names. Scholarship now confirms that all these groups are essentially Fulbe, and that the term Fulbe (or Fuulbe) is the most accurate designation. The term Haalpulaar'en, which many Fulbe use for themselves, is also acceptable.
The origins of the Fulbe have caused considerable speculation among early European ethnographers and have continued to puzzle later Western anthropologists, linguists, and historians. Fulbe oral traditions suggest an origin in Egypt or the Middle East, a common theme in West African Muslim traditions. According to these origin myths, the Fulbe then migrated westward until they reached the Atlantic Ocean. They then moved south into the highlands of central Guinea. Based on these traditions, some early ethnographers ascribed an Egyptian, Arab, or even Jewish origin to the Fulbe who appeared to be lighter-skinned, taller, and more “Caucasoid” than other West African groups. Some commentators claimed that the Fulbe were not African at all but a Semitic people. These ethnographers also concluded that the Fulbe spread from North Africa and then east to west, finally drifting southward in a deliberate and calculated pattern.
Linguistic evidence suggests that the Fulfulde language belongs to the West Atlantic subgroup and is closely related to Wolof and Serer, both spoken originally in western Senegambia. Therefore, the modern Fulbe and their language, Fulfulde, originated in Senegambia, probably in the northern river area of Futa Toro. The original Fulbe may have descended from a pastoral group inhabiting the Western Sahara in the Chadian wet phase 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, before moving into the Mauritanian Adrar as the Sahara driied up. Later they may have gradually filtered down to the lower and middle Seneual River valley, the area known as Futa Toro, and intermarrying with local groups. From Futa Toro, the Fulbe most likely spread into the Sahel zone along the Senegal and Niger Rivers, and then further east. They also migrated south from Futa Toro into the upper Senegal River valley, the upper Casamance region, and eventually into the Futa Djallon highlands of Guinea. Existing landowners throughout West Africa had no reason to treat the pastoralists as competitors for resources and did not hinder their spread. Occasionally clashes did occur between the migratory Fulbe and settled farmers, but more often the interaction was peaceful cooperation. It is also likely that the Fulbe migrated to areas that were suited to cattle herding and that did not require considerable defense from farmers. The migratory process was not a single set mass movement but a series of short and long-distance moves, sometimes temporary and sometimes permanent, occurring at various intervals over hundreds of years.
The Fulbe have always maintained a strong sense of identity separate from other West African groups. They have consistently been aware of their occupational specialty and distinctive appearance. In fact, many Fulbe may feel “racially” superior to their agricultural neighbors and have incorporated some of the early European ideas about a North African or Middle Eastern origin into their traditions. The Fulbe have also emphasized their independence and mobility, in companson to their settled neighbors.
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Curtin, P. Economic Change in Precolonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.
Horton, R. “Stateless Societies in the History of West Africa.” In History of West Africa: Volume One, edited by J. Ade Ajayi and Michael Crowder. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.
Stenning, D. Savannah Nomads. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.