Abyssinian Somaliland

June 22, 2007 at 7:19 pm | Posted in New Book | 1 Comment

SOMALIA – Past & Present Chapter 6: Abyssinian Somaliland

King Menelik sent the following a circular on 10 April 1891 to European Heads of State in which he outlined the boundaries he claimed for his empire: “While tracing today the actual boundaries of my Empire, I shall endeavour, if God gives me life and strength, to re-establish the ancient frontier (tributaries) of Ethiopia up to Khartoum, and as far as Lake Nyanza with all the Gallas.”

To seek a favourable response for his claim, he underlined his Christian credentials. He wrote, “Ethiopia has been for fourteen centuries a Christian island in a sea of Pagans. If Powers at distance come forward to partition Africa between them, I do not intend to be an indifferent spectator.”

“As the almighty has protected Ethiopia up to this day, I have confidence He will continue to protect her and increase her borders in the future. I am certain He will not suffer her to be divided among other Powers.

“Formerly the boundary of Ethiopia was the sea. Having lacked strength sufficient and having received no help from Christian Powers, our frontier on the sea coast fell into the power of the Mussulman”, Menelik said.

“At present we do not intend to regain our sea frontier by force, but we trust that the Christian Powers, guided by our Saviour, will restore to us our sea-coast line at any rate, certain points on the coast.”

1 Menelek presented himself as the defender of the Faith in Africa against the possible designs of the Muslims. It would appear that his plea struck sympathetic cord in the hearts of some Europeans. His plan received support from European Governments. Rennell Rodd openly justified and encouraged King’s claim that his country too should have its share of the African territories to be divided among the colonial powers.
In a report to the Government, Rodd said: “It will be enough here to state that it has become sufficiently effective to make it an extremely difficult task to negotiate with a King, who, fully confident that his pretensions had been made publicly known and had remained undisputed; confident, moreover, that, as a Christian African Power, his claims to a sphere of influence were better founded than those of Powers whose seat of Government is in another continent.”
On 8 December 1885 King John of Abyssinia told Queen Victoria among other things: “The Kings of England before Queen Victoria, and the rest of the Christian Kings of the world, were friendly with the Abyssinians, and waged war against the Moslems to convert to Christianity; but they never interfered with the Abyssinians because they were Christians. I have said this openly and frankly to you because we are Christians, and have confidence in each other.” Time has changed, people have changed, but the guiding principle of Abyssinia remains the same.

Britain had signed protection treaties with the Somalis in the last quarter of the 19th century, but even then it had no intention of defending the Somali people or risk the lives of their citizens for the Somali territories. The British officials were concerned some of them pondered what they would do if the Abyssinians decided to give effect to their claim. W. Lee Warner, an official in the Political and Secret Department of India Office, contended in a report dated 25 November 1896, that the British established Civil Criminal Courts on the Coast, rebuilt Berbera in 1888, fortified the ports, erected jails and “in many effective ways established ourselves. “Our garrison consists of barely 200 men scattered about.” Le Warner argued, “We have no force at Aden or on the coast which can resist Abyssinian incursions. If we remain, the settlement of our limits with Abyssinia seems an urgent and immediate necessity. If we retire, we had better do so in accordance with settled plan and without unnecessary appearance of compulsion. The failure of Italy to hold her African protectorate without collusion with Abyssinia has its lessons”.

Lee-Warner’s suggestion was a clear betrayal of the trust that the Somalis bestowed on Britain and a flagrant violation of the treaties signed by them which created the British Protectorate. In all the protectorate treaties signed by the Somali Elders of the tribes, there was a clause which prohibited the Somalis to enter into correspondence or treaty with any other foreign power or to cede, or part with, territory. Britain was not bound by that clause, and considered itself free to cede, or sell Somali territories to whomsoever they wished. There were no clauses that prohibited the British “to cede” Somali territories to others, and the Somalis being so ignorant of what would happen in the future, just signed or put their thumb mark on the treaties by which the destiny of their own homeland was to be decided.
Le-Warner said: “If we only want food supplies from the coast, we can still get them without asserting by force our right to the whole of the Protectorate as delimitated with Italy. Three solutions are possible. Events will show which is the best of them:
1. We can abandon not merely Biyo Kaboba actually held by Abyssinian, but also a considerable part of hinterland, retaining the ports.
2. If that will not secure peaceful occupation, we can give Abyssinina one of our ports.
3. If events prove that we cannot remain on the coast without a strong military establishment there, we might retire altogether, making a treaty with Abyssinia that live-stock shall be exported free, that imports and exports from Zaila and Berbera shall not be charged more than the present, and the ports shall not be given to any European power without our leave.
He also said: “The next step, I think, is to follow the precedent of 1877, and address the Foreign Office an enquiry whether:
1. We must deal in this matter with Makunan or with Menelek;
2. We can assign Zaila to Abyssinia, if such surrender seems desirable (a) without further reference to Turkey, (b) without reference to France our neighbour at Jabuti.

To show how much the British cared less about the Somalis and how they wished to appease Abyssinia at the expense of Somalia, the British colonial officer told his government: “As to whether it is fair on the tribes, with whom we have protectorate treaties, to abandon them, that is a question which we must consider ourselves”.

2 Earlier Captain Hunter too argued in a memorandum he sent to his government in 1884 saying: “This Residency has no knowledge of, or concern with, Abyssinian politics; but with France at Tajourra, Turkey at Zeila, and Italy at Assab, Southern Abyssinia will be pretty well dominated by other European powers”. He believed that to prevent this domination by another European Power and to maintain their own Britain could pursue another alternative. He wrote:

“There is one alternative which can be suggested as regards Tajourah and Zeylah, but it is not possible for this Residency to pronounce on its merits. Let Tajourra and Zeylah be offered by the British to King Menelek of Shoa on such conditions as Her Majesty’s Government think suitable. The local tribes, there is reason to believe, would not oppose such a course, and if we do not give Menelek a port, France or Italy will, for Obokh and Assab were acquired, we all think here, principally with the object of treating favourably with the King of Shoa”.

3 This was the bitter fact. The British cared more for the provision for Aden than the Somali people and their territories. They cared for their friendship with the Abyssinians than with the Somalis. However, by sheer luck, the British intention did not materialise, other wise, not only Ogaden, but also a big portion of the Somalia’s northern region would have been today under the Ethiopia rule.

1. Foreign Department, Secret E, October 1891, N.233-249, NAI, New Delhi, India.
2. NAI, Foreign Department, Secret letter N.189, dated 28 October 1896, New Delhi, India
3. NAI, Foreign Department, Letter N.3478, dated Bombay Castle, 4 July 1884, Confidential, New Delhi.

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