Turkish Involvement

June 22, 2007 at 7:11 pm | Posted in New Book | Leave a comment

SOMALIA Past & Present Chapter 2 : Turkish Involvement

Although the British had gained a firm foothold on the Somali territory, they warily watched the maneuvers of other powers who were also flexing their muscles in the age of imperialism. On 25 February 1870, Major General Sir E.L. Russell, the British Political Resident at Aden, wrote to C. Gonne, Secretary to British Colonial Government in Bombay, India, that he had received a verbal report from Subedar (Non-commissioned officer) Mahomed Mahmood that the Somalis had been somewhat taken by the display made by the Egyptian (Turkish) Bey, who paraded his men with band playing and they thought the Turkey must be a great nation.

Russell wrote that if some British vessels-of-war did not soon visit the ports of Bulhar and Berbera and demonstrate the British power to them, they will fall into the hands of Egypt and Turkey. The problem was that the ship Sind had no troops on board and evidently was not a warship. It was looked on as a trading vessel. On the other hand, the Ottoman vessel Khartoum with the Bey would remain at Bulhar or Berbera until the season closed, in about five or six weeks. During this time, Russell cautioned that “unless we can hinder it, it is probable the Somaliees may submit to the Ottoman or Egyptian rule. This will be ruinous to Aden, as all our livestock and a large portion of our trade come from these ports; and if we may judge from the territory on the Red Sea under Turkish rule, it will be disastrous to the country.” He went on to recommend that a British warship be sent as soon as possible to Bulhar and Berbera. He said: “The Somalees know the straightforwardness of our Government, but they are barbarians, and are attracted by present display; and I fear, unless I can give ocular evidence of our power, as would be by a vessel-of-war visiting the country, I shall not be able to undermine the action of the Turkish Bey.” Russell’s letter reveals how the British regarded themselves as superior moral beings and the Somalis as barbarians who only understood the language of force.

Subedar Mahommed reminded the Somalis that they had signed an agreement with the British Government not to sell either Berbera or Bulhar to any foreign power. The Subedar drew the attention of Russell to the fact that the agreement was made when the British withdrew the blockade of these ports some 40 years back, and the British ensign was planted at each place, and the agreement was sent to Calcutta and approved. Russell did not know that they had an agreement with the Somalis. He said, “I will search the Office records, and see if any trace of it is to be found. I require the Sind to take the Native Infantry Relief to Perim, and when this is completed, about the 2nd of March, I shall send the Sind again to Boolhar, and shall endeavour, by advice and presents, to gain the Somalees to object the disposal of their territory.”

Russell’s apprehension did not abate. He again wrote on 4 March 18701 to the Secretary to Government of Bombay, saying that he heard from Berbera through a local person that the Bey of the Egyptian Government had re-embarked the guns, soldiers, and tents, and landed them at Berbera and that it was his intention to hold on to the sea coast territory of Berbera and Bulhar for his government.

The General informed: “The (Ship) Sind has just returned from taking the relief to Perim, and will be sent again to Berbera on Monday to watch affairs, and to prevent, if possible, the tribes from committing their country to Moslem rule.”
This was the first time that the British official explicitly mentioned religion in his dispatches to his superiors. Whether this was the British policy, or not, at this time, the Political Resident explicitly stated that he sent his men to Berbera “to watch affairs and to prevent, if possible, the tribes from committing their country to Moslem rule.” (Emphasis added)

Unknown to the Somalis the British and Turkish governments were competing with each other for the control over their territories. In 1870, there were rumours that the Turkish authorities in Egypt had appointed Momtaz Pasha as Governor of all the African Coast from Suez to Cape Guardafui, including Bulhar and Berbera.

After nearly a month General Russell heard the rumours again. This time he decided to write to the Turkish Pasha, Commander of the Khartoum (ship), on 5 April 1870, and told him that the Somalis were under treaty engagements with the British. The Pasha rejected the contention and claimed that these countries and all the surrounding countries were under the Sultan’s Government, and therefore there was no necessity to take them, as they were already under the Turkish flag and that his present object was to settle disputes.

The British did not give up. Disputing Pasha’s contention, Russell again wrote to him two weeks later on 19 April saying that the British was unaware that Berbera and Bulhar were claimed by the Turkish Government. The British had been at Aden for more than 30 years and they would have certainly heard of the Turkish claims before. He argued that in 1855-56 they had blockaded the ports of Berbera and Bulhar, and that the then Turkish Government had offered no remonstrance. Furthermore, the Chiefs and elders would not have subsequently entered into an independent treaty with the British had the two ports been under the Turkish rule.

In 1874, Redhwan Pasha, Commanding the Egyptian Corvette Lateef, closed the port of Bulhar and did not allow any British ship to enter. On this occasion, the British Government had to swallow their pride and told the Political Agent at Aden that, “it would be advisable that some amicable understanding should be come to with the Turks, about the commercial and other advantages, which the British wish to preserve at Berbera and elsewhere. Moreover, as long as these are maintained, we should not oppose the extension of the Turkish power on the African Coast of the Gulf of Aden.” Britain at this point of time was not interested in taking on the Ottoman Empire. No matter how much they quarreled, in the end the colonial powers always understood each other and reached a compromise at the expense of the peoples of the territories.

Three years after this incident, the Turkish and British Governments reached an understanding over the Somali territories by concluding a convention on 7 September 1877 for the recognition of Turkey’s jurisdiction over the Somali Coast, as far as Ras Hafun. The Khedive (Turkey) agreeing on his part to declare Bulhar and Berbera free ports, and entering into further engagements with regard to commerce and navigation, the appointment of Consular Agents, and the suppression of the slave-trade in the territory so recognized to be under Turkey’s jurisdiction. The Turkish Sultan moreover undertook for himself and his successors that no portion of the territory in question shall ever be ceded to any other foreign Power.

Marques of Salisbury, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote in a letter, 1224 dated Foreign Office, London, to the British Ambassador at Constantinople, Sir A.H. Layard, on 10 October 1878.

“In view of the necessity of obtaining supplies for the British station at Aden, it is of importance to Her Majesty’s Government that the ports on the opposite coast should be in the hands of a friendly Power able to keep the native tribes under proper control and willing to allow unrestricted intercourse for British trade.” In the letter His Lordship made an assessment on the condition prevailing in Somalia. He wrote:

“In its normal condition of Somali rule, it had no particular master, each member of the community assembled has a voice in the administration of affairs; hence broils were incessant”. Unfortunately, the conditions in Somalia are not much different in the twenty-first century than described in this letter.

After nearly a year later in 1879, Ambassador Layard informed his government that in his response to his query, he had received an answer1 from the government of Turkey that it considers that, “authority of the Sultan should be established at once over that country, so as not to permit any foreign influence from taking advantage of the present state of things. Consequently Tewfik Pasha has been directed by telegraph to take possession of it in the name of the Sultan, and to prevent any foreign authority from being established in it on any pretext whatsoever.”

However, next day, 14 July 1879, the Ambassador sent other telegram (N. 548) to his Government, saying that Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey says that note on Somali question, of which “I telegraphed you substance yesterday, was sent to me by mistake, and has withdrawn it.”

In 1880, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Earl Granville, informed the British Agent and Consul-General in Cairo, E.B. Malet, that the British Government wanted one of the Assistants attached at the British Resident at Aden, be given a Consular Commission, which would give him jurisdiction over the territory from Tajoura inclusive to Ras Hafoon, and to enable him to visit the Somali coast.

As the territory was under the Turkish Authority, Melet spoke with the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moustapha Pasha Fahmy in Egypt on the subject. After obtaining no objection from the Turkish authority, the British Government appointed Captain F.M. Hunter, who was at the Bombay Staff Corps to the post of 2nd Assistant to the Resident at Aden.

1. NAI, Foreign Department, Telegram N.544, dated 13th July 1879.


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