During the same decade, other epidemics broke out in Somaliland, such as cholera in 1892 and smallpox in 1899. The etiology of the 1892 cholera epidemic followed a pattern familiar to scientists and historians. First of all, the transmission of the vector of the disease is indirect. The “infection is spread solely by infected humans, whose excetra may contaminate drinking water and food” (Speck, 1993, p. 643). Hence, the two key factors in the spread of the disease were the appearance of an infected person and the state of public health; the disposal of faeces, the water supply and the nature of housing. The 1892 cholera epidemic was introduced into the country by Ethiopian expeditionary forces, which raided Somali pastoralists as far as the northern Haud and carried off stock. Infected persons reached Hargeysa and thus spread the disease. The town at the time was a refuge for those displaced by the Ethiopian expeditions, which were attempting to assert Ethiopian suzerainty over the Ogaden and the Haud through actual occupation. The state of public health of the settlement, at the time it was a settlement rather than a town, was anything but satisfactory. The settlement shared one well, which was probably the means through which the disease spread. The well was contaminated and the people of the settlement became inflected. The epidemic that broke out killed hundreds of people in Hargeysa. The disease then spread to Berbera, as many of the refugees fled northwards. Since the refugees were poor and hungry, many of them died of the disease and starvation (Stace, 1892). The political instability that emerged as a result of the scramble over the Somali country was central in the spread of the disease.

Such political instability played also a crucial role in the 1899 smallpox epidemic. Another Ethiopian expedition in 1899 reached close to Hargeysa and forced Sheikh Madar, the founder of the town, to evacuate the settlement. Infected refugees reached the town long before the Ethiopian forces reached it and spread the disease. Smallpox is spread directly from an infected human being to others. The transmission of the disease hence is airborne and occurs often over a distance no more than a few meters. It is a `classic epidemic disease’ in that it affected and survived in all regions and in all periods until recently. However, it could achieve endemicity, as already pointed out, in large cosmopolitan populations. Where the disease is not endemic, infected persons must introduce it from the outside. During the era of conquest of Africa, people fleeing wars or famine often introduced it, as Marc Dawson pointed out. He stated that the “most important cause of epidemics was the social reactions to famine” (Dawson, 1979, p. 245). Famine altered social and economic patterns “thus presenting the opportunity for endemic smallpox to become epidemic”. Some of the social reactions to famine were increased trade, larger and more frequent population movements and greater population densities. Famines, for instance, increased raiding, through which the disease was spread. Overall, the increased “population mobility was the principle factor responsible for the increased frequency of smallpox” (Dawson, 1979, p. 247). In the case of Somaliland, the 1899 epidemic was introduced into the country, by the Ethiopian expeditionary forces and infected refugees. Refugees infected with smallpox entered Hargeysa and from there the disease spread quickly and reached Berbera where 2,000 people died of the disease (General Staff, 1925, p. 38). Probably more people died in the interior, though the military report gave no figures.

Smallpox epidemic was also introduced into Somaliland in 1904 and 1905. The disease was introduced by imperial forces mobilized by the British from India, Arabia and Central Africa, whose task was to destroy the forces of Sayyid Muhammad Abdulla Hassan. As a result, a smallpox epidemic swept the country. The disease affected most adversely the refugees who were infected in the interior and who then moved to the towns. According to Dr. Drake-Brockman, the “highest mortality has occurred amongst the destitute fugitives who had been in too weak a condition to withstand the attack and consequently a very large number succumbed both at Berbera and in the interior”. He treated 1,630 cases in Berbera of which 800 died, i.e. 50% (Drake-Brockman, 1905). An even large number probably died in the interior, as the report indicated.


The worst smallpox epidemic ravaged the country in 1910±1912. The social conditions for famine and the political instability that rocked the country from 1910 to 1913 created the unchecked spread of the disease. In 1910, the British withdrew from the interior and consolidated their rule only over the coastal towns, mainly Bulhar, Berbera and Zeila. The British adopted, in other words, a coastal concentration policy. The object of the strategy was to kill two birds with one stone: one the one hand to cut British expenditure, on the other to use the Isaaq and Dhulbahante pastoralists as a `buffer’ against the Sayyid (Manning, 1913). The burden of the war against Sayyid was in essence transferred to the pastoralists. Colonel William Manning, the Acting Commissioner of the territory, for instance, stated that the only way the `dormant virility’ of the Isaaq, their `virility’ was dormant because hitherto they refused to support the British against the Sayyid, could be rekindled through a “little rough usage from the Dervishes” (Jardine, 1923, p. 194). The Isaaq were expected to “throw up” a competent leadership and to fight the Sayyid once he gives them “a little rough usage”. In general, the idea was to teach the pastoralists “by its very absence the real value of British administration” (Byatt, 1911a,b). Meanwhile, the Sayyid reached an equally tragic decision. He decided to use force against all the people whom he suspected of being sympathetic to the British. The Sayyid, according to Sheikh Jamac Cumar Ciise, used persuasion from 1899 to 1910, to win the support of the population. However, in 1910, he reached the conscious decision that persuasion is ineffective. He chose to `try the spear’ (Ciise, 1974, p. 155). These two events: the British decision to withdraw to the coast, arm the Isaaq and Dhulbahante and the Sayyid’s equally tragic decision to use force in order to effect unity, created the social conditions for the spread of disease and famine.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.