The name of the country is derived from the Latin Mauretania, meaning “west,” which corresponds to the Arab name of North Africa, Maghreb. The Romans referred to the Berber people as Maures
The French occupied the country in 1860 in close cooperation with Maur religious leaders. Mauritania became a nation after the destruction of the kingdoms of Fouta Toro and Walo Walo and the Arab-Berber emirats of Trarza, Brakna, Taganet, and Adrar. As a result, the country has two main ethnic groups: black Africans and Arab-Berbers. The black African group includes the Fulani, Soninke, and Bambara. The Maurs include the Arab-Berbers (Beydan) and the black Maurs known as Haratin. The Haratins are black Africans who were enslaved by white Maurs. White and black Maurs consider themselves Arab, whereas black Arabs see themselves as African. The most important common denominator is Sunni Islam.
As a result of ethnic clashes between pro-arabization groups and black Africans, the authorities have banned discussion of population issues to maintain the myth that Mauritania is the land of the Maurs with a tiny minority of black Africans. The most recent estimate of the population is 2.5 million. Because population growth in the black African communities in the south is much higher, white Arab-Berbers have become a minority. According to the latest estimates of ethnic distribution, the Haratin community accounts for 40 to 45 percent of the total population, while the white Arab-Berbers account for 25 percent and black Africans 30 percent.