British Somaliland

June 22, 2007 at 7:09 pm | Posted in New Book | 1 Comment

SOMALIA – Past & Present Chapter 1 : British Somaliland

The early penetration of foreign powers into the Somali territories began in 1517 when Sultan Salim I annexed Egypt to the Ottoman Empire. Forty years later, the Portuguese were driven out of the Red Sea. The Turks occupied Zeyla, but not Berbera, and placed a garrison there. This was withdrawn in 1663 and Zeyla came under the rule of Imam of Sanaa in Yemen. Throughout this period Berbera remained independent.

Berbera seems to have attracted the attention of the British for the first time in 1825. It was the time when Britain’s East India Company was expending its possessions in India. In April of that year the ship Mary Anne, under the command of Captain Linguard touched Berbera for, what they called, trading purpose; apparently thinking that the inhabitants of the town would not even notice their presence. But he was attacked by the inhabitants while on shore. One of his passengers and one of his native crew were killed, and his second officer was wounded. With the help of some of the natives, Captain Linguard and his party succeeded in getting on board of another boat, Duria Dowlat, which took them to Aden.

The British sent an expedition consisting of two King’s ships Tamar and Pandora and the East India Company’s vessel Amherst to Berbera to avenge the action of the inhabitants.
Arriving at Berbera, the British attacked the inhabitants and apparently forced the Sheikhs of the Habr Awal tribe to sign a treaty on 6 February 1827, by which the Shaikhs agreed to compensate both Linguard for his losses and for the bereaved families for the loss of their men.

According to the treaty, the Sheikhs “bound themselves to remain at peace with the British Government and to allow British vessels to trade unrestrictedly at ‘any port under the authority of the Sheikhs of Habr Awal tribe,’ similar privileges being accorded to them in respect to British harbours.” This was a meaningless gesture intended to convey symbolic equality for the Sheikhs who were in no position to carry on their goods to the British ports.

The British were systematically extending their overseas empire. When they occupied Aden on 19 January 1839 their interest in Somaliland increased. A year later, the British Political Agent at Aden, Captain Moresby was sent to meet the Shareef of Mocha and obtain his permission to conclude a treaty with the Governor of Zaila. As a result of his visit, not one but two treaties were concluded; one with the Shareef of Mocha on 1 September 1840 and other with the Governor of Zaila two days later.

Tajoura and Zaila became of great interest to the British largely because in 1840 British Government purchased the islands commanding the approaches to these two harbours. These islands known for the slave trade were never occupied. They were principal outlet of trade for southern Abyssinia.

In 1840, rumours about an expedition from Bourdeaux (France) heading for the port of Zaila reached the British Government. It asked its Political Agent at Aden to establish and ensure the British influence among the inhabitants of the African coastline near Aden as the settlement of any other power on that coast would have been “highly detrimental to the British interest”. The Government especially directed the Political Agent to purchase a station that would command the harbour of Tajoura. Captain Moresby and Lieutenant Barker were entrusted by the Political Agent with the task of ensuring that the Sultan of Tajoura signed a treaty ceding the Mussa Islands to the British. The two officers succeeded and the desired treaty was signed on 19 August 1840. The British formally took possession of the islands on 31 August 1840. The treaty had two important clauses, according to which Sultan Mahomed bin Mahomed agreed not to enter into any treaty or bond with any other European nation without first consulting the British authorities at Aden. He also agreed not to acquiesce in any bond or treaty detrimental or injurious to the British interests.

In 1847, the Imam of Muscat sent an emissary to Berbera to claim the port of Berbera his by right, but the Somalis refused to acknowledge this. Lieutenant Cruttenden, who visited that coast in April, reported that the Mijertain Somalis paid tribute to the Imam.

Towards the end of 1851, the British Political Agent at Aden reported disturbances between two tribes, which led to the closure of Berbera trade. The problem was that the British discovered that Sheikh Ali Shermarke, the Governor of Zaila, had written a letter to the Turkish authorities at Hudeida proposing to place Berbera under the Turkish flag.

Towards the end of March 1852 a boat from Aden flying the British flag was attacked off Berbera. The British blamed the squadron of Sheikh Ali Shermarke for the attack. He was asked to compensate the owner of the boat and further pay a fine of Rupees 500 for the “insult to the British flag”. Shermarke asked for the fine to be excused. The Assistant Political Agent at Aden Lieutenant Cruttenden feared that the Pasha of Yemen would resent the fine as Shermarke was a Turkish subject. While the Political Agent Captain Haines observed that Shermarke was not a Turkish subject but a Somali by birth and that the “outrage was purely of his doing and without the knowledge of any other authority.”

In 1854 a mission, named Somali Expedition, under the command of Lieutenant Richard Burton, was dispatched to explore the country between Berbera and Zanzibar. In a report dated 22 February 1855, Lieutenant Burton described Sheikh Shermarke as a Chief who had “rented” Zaila and its dependency Tajoura from the Turks. Burton added that, “the height of Shermarke’s ambition was to fly the British flag at Tajoura and Zaila. He described the Sheikh as a good ruler, who maintained tranquility at Zaila.

Richard Burton who stayed in Zaila, from 31 October to 27 November 1854, wrote in his book, “First Footsteps in East Africa”, published in 1856: “The Governor of Zaila, El Haji Shermarke bin Ali Salih, is rather a remarkable man. He is sixteenth, according to his own account, in descent from Ishak El Hazrami, the saintly founder of the great Gar Hajis and Awal tribes”. He went on to recommend the establishment of a British Agency at Berbera, a measure strongly supported by Brigadier-General Coghlan, British Resident at Aden, who also wanted it to “Secure our daily provision which is now at the mercy of any Arab fanatic whose hatred of us or our friends may impel him to acts of aggression”. (Emphasis added)
On 19 April 1855, Burton’s Mission was attacked and Lieutenant Croyan of his party was killed. For this “offence”, the British blockaded the port of Berbera thinking that this would force the Chiefs to surrender the alleged murderers of Croyan. The Chiefs did not surrender the “murderers”. Eventually the blockade was lifted on 9 November 1856 after a treaty was signed between the British and the Chiefs. This treaty, as the earlier one, secured the commercial interests of the contracting parties; it further bound the Somalis to abolish the slave traffic.

Berbera was of the greatest value to the British as the garrison at Aden obtained its supplies of fresh provisions from there. The British authorities were apprehensive that their supplies could be stopped at any time. The Political Resident noted that disorder existed among the tribes in the territory. It was a place where, “every man has his share; the assembly is a democracy without laws and regulations of any kind.”

As far as commerce was concerned, the Somalis exported mainly ghee, (clarified butter), to Aden. According to The Periplus of the Erythreaen Sea, the Somalis had learned the art of clarifying butter, and exported it in the 19th century by the same class of ships that had brought it to them from India in the First century. The ghee will keep in the tropics not only for years but for centuries. The account given by Burton (First Footsteps in East Africa, pp. 136 and 247) shows that modern caravans took it for trips of six weeks or more under the same hot climate of Somaliland. Lieut. Cruttenden in his description of the Berbera Fair wrote of modern ships laden with ghee in jars, bought in Somaliland for trade elsewhere; probably along the Arabian coast.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the Somalis in the north established the Somaliland National Society (SNS) which became active. It was composed of a diverse group of town-based Somalis from the independent business sector, and people generally better educated and with a wider range of experiences. It absorbed some smaller parties that had started in the early 1930s before the war but which had not had much impact. Civil servants were prohibited by the Protectorate government from joining political parties, though many were clandestinely involved or sympathetic. In 1946 they merged with the Somali Transport Company (STC), a self-help organization led by Mohamed Jama Urdoh. In 1951 it reorganised itself and assumed a new name, the Somali National League (SNL) and it set its own political programmes as follows: (i) independence and unification of the Somali people under one political unit, (ii) social, political, and economic development, and (iii) the cessation of tribal feuding.

The National United Front (NUF) was not originally a political party, but was an organisation created in 1955 by the Somalis in British Somaliland to put pressure on the British to reverse the decision on the handing over of the administration of the Haud and Reserved Area to Ethiopia. The NUF provided a political framework for all parties including SYL and SNL and other organisations like the Somali Officers’ Union that represented the civil service, to have their say.

The NUF sent a delegation that represented all such groups in the Protectorate to Britain, and subsequently to the United Nations to protest the ceding of land to Ethiopia. The delegation was led by Michael Mariano. Later the NUF evolved into a political party in its own right. The NUF was led by Michael Mariano and the other main political party, Somali National League, was led by Mohamed Ibrahim Egal.


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  1. runtii websadka aad buu macqull u yahay waana kuwa og dhaw oo runta sheego
    Thanks friend for the share

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