No European traveler of the northern Somali country reported a single plague from 1833 to 1887. Dr. Frederick Forbes was the exception. He noted in passing a disease that killed hundreds of people in Berbera in 1832. He neither characterized the disease as an `epidemic’ nor attempted to name the disease. His evidence for the occurrence of the epidemic was a large number of graves in the town (Bridges, 1986). Neither Lt. C.J. Cruttendon, Richard Burton, Captain S.B. Miles, Captain F.M. Hunter, H.M. Abad, Colonel E.V. Stace nor Captain Robert Moresby, to name a few, reported a single plague in the country. Lt. C.J. Cruttendon who visited the country twice in 1848 and went inland, never mentioned or reported any plagues. He stated rather that the population of the country was not only healthy but also `very great’ (Cruttendon, 1849). Richard Burton, moreover, who visited the country in 1856 and stayed in the interior for six months, did not report a single epidemic in the Somali country. Burton had no reason to flatter the Somali. He was almost killed in his second expedition in 1857, when men suspicious of his intention attacked his camp and wounded him with a spear. What makes his account unique is that in the nineteenth century Africa was often portrayed as a sick continent (Prins, 1989). In his travels in Zanzibar and its interior, for instance, Burton was never shy about portraying (and often exaggerating) the disease environment (Burton, 1872, 187 ff.). With respect to the Somali country, he did not observe any epidemics. He noted, for instance, that smallpox occasionally killed hundreds of people in Ethiopia. However, he did not report the disease in the northern Somali country. He only reported the prevalence of chickenpox and the rare incidence of consumption. He stated that the Somali people suffered from few and simple maladies and added that he had seen old people “hale and strong, preserving their powers… in spite of eighty or ninety years” (Burton, 1854, p. 127). Captain S.B. Miles who visited the country in 1872 also did not report a single epidemic. He stated that the people were “troubled with very few diseases and have little need of medicine; they have a remedy for ulcers and know how to heal spear-wounds quickly by applying powdered bark of the kurraa, which is a powerful styptic” (Miles, 1872). Captain F.M. Hunter who signed treaties with Somali elders in 1884 that paved the way for British conquest and later became the first consul of the Somali coast Protectorate, never mentioned in all his reports a single outbreak of smallpox or other contagious diseases. The relative isolation of the people, the nature of pastoralism and the absence of large or even small urban centers with a permanent population, created an environment which precluded the frequent occurrence of epidemic diseases.

Once the relative isolation of the people of the interior of Somaliland ceased, however, epidemic diseases broke out frequently and consequently the population of the country declined. The massive movement of troops and refugees and political instability, during the early colonial period, were the central factor in the breaking of the relative isolation of the people and the spread of diseases in the early colonial period. As Paul Zeleza put it, epidemics occur when the “society’s biological and cultural adaptation to the disease environment has been broken by the intrusion of a new disease or by population disruptions caused by war or famine, adoption of new productive activities and intensified contact with foreigners” (Zeleza, 1993, p. 41). Smallpox epidemics ravaged the country in 1899, 1901, 1904±1905, 1910±1912, 1919±1920 and 1935± 1936; influenza in 1918; cholera in 1892 and 1899; malaria, relapsing fever and venereal diseases in the 1920s and 1930s.

Perhaps no other disease better illustrates the nature of the new disease environment in the continent than rinderpest. Though a disease of livestock and wild animals, it nevertheless had a tremendous impact on people. The disease had no history in Africa in the pre-1860s. In that decade, however, it reached Egypt from Asia. However, it quickly died out. It made a re-appearance in the continent during the period of colonial conquest. In 1884, Italy occupied Massawa and Kassala and, in order to feed its forces, imported cattle from southern Russia. The cattle were infected with rinderpest. The disease gradually spread eastwards from Eritrea. Then in 1889, it broke out with vengeance in Somaliland and rapidly spread to Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eastern Africa. By 1896, it reached South Africa. The disease decimated livestock and wild game throughout the infected areas since livestock and game had no immunity to the disease (Davies, 1979, p. 13; Zeleza, 1993, pp. 45±46). Overall, it killed 90% of all stock in Eastern Africa, Ethiopia and Somaliland. `Almost overnight’, wrote Davies, “the greater part of the wealth of tropical Africa was swept away” (Davies, 1979, p. 15) Lord Lugard stated that the epidemic “in some ways has favored our enterprise” of conquest. For “(p)owerful and warlike as the pastoral tribes are, their pride has been humbled and our progress facilitated by this awful visitation” (Davies, 1979, p. 17).


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