By 1940 northern Somaliland was probably the only African British dependency without any form of Western education. The main problem was Britain’s lack of interest in her Somaliland Protectorate owing to the persistent Somali antipathy for British Colonialism and the general unproductiveness of the area.

By Patrick Kakwenzire,

Department of History,


Makerere University

The Foreign Office assumed responsibility for the administration of the British Somaliland Protectorate in 1898 and appointed Lt. Col. Hayes Sadler as Britain’s first Consul-General. Prior to these develop­ments, Britain had been studying all kinds of travelers’ reports about the purported mineral wealth of the region and about the Somali attitude towards European intruders. Richard Burton, for example, notwithstanding the Somali attack on his party, contended that “the Somali admire our rule, respect our power, comprehend our forbear­ance and they evince a gentleness of disposition and a docility which offer fair hopes to civilization in this region of barbarism.”1 However, such views were not shared by all writers on Somaliland, and indeed did not tally with the record of the Somali treatment of the various shipwrecked European seamen.

In spite of the contradictory literature about the Somali, it was generally held that once European values had been inculcated through Western education the Somali would, in due course, become amenable to British colonial rule. A move towards the desired goal had already been made by French Capuchin Fathers who sought and acquired permission to build a mission at Berbera in 1894.

Whatever hopes might have been cherished by Britain, let alone the Catholic Missionaries, were soon to be shattered by the lukewarm and often hostile attitude of the Somali towards the mission’s religious and educational programs.

The failure of the mission to make any headway, particularly in its educational aims, was the first setback in Britain’s optimism in the Somali receptiveness of European values. Britain’s anxieties were soon confirmed by the inception of the anti-colonial Dervish movement led by Sayyid Muhammad Abdille Hassan (popularly known by the derogatory epiphet of “the Mad Mullah”) which challenged British authority from 1900 to 1920.2

Following the intensification of the Dervish operations and Bri­tain’s subsequent decision in 1910 to withdraw her administration from the interior of the Protectorate, the mission was expelled and allowed to take with it such of its converts as wished, to accompany it to its new site in Aden.

Thereafter Britain took no further steps either to encourage missionary work or to initiate any educational program of her own. Her one and only pre-occupation were to deal with the Dervish move­ment which was then in its tenth year of existence. Between 1910 and 1919 Britain’s fortunes in her Somaliland Protectorate reached their lowest ebb. During this period, the Dervishes succeeded in capturing the eastern and southern parts of the Protectorate, pinning the British administration to the Western section.

The Introduction Of Western Education In Northern Somaliland, 1920-1939
Picture shows:- The Sheikh School Football Team. © IWM K 8547

It was not until the end of World War I that Britain was able to spare the necessary manpower and resources for the overthrow of Sayyid Muhammad’s Dervish movement.

The demise of the Dervish movement in February 1920 brought relief to Britain and the local administration. It was generally believed that, with the disappearance of the Sayyid, the British would, without further difficulty, bring the Protectorate into line with the other British dependencies. The Treasury, more than any other department, was relieved to see the end of the Dervish period, for it expected the local administration to initiate taxation and other revenue-earning pro­jects which, in turn, would make the Protectorate self-reliant. Hitherto the Protectorate had received grants-in-aid averaging £100,000 per annum.3

For the first time in the history of the Protectorate, the esti­mates for the 1920-21 financial year showed a definite shift of the Pro­tectorate’s attention from military to civil administration. A number of projects were provided for, the most important being education, medical services, and roads. On the question of revenue, however, the local administration regarded the time as premature for initiating radical measures such as direct taxation. The omission of any substan­tial revenue-earning proposal provoked the Treasury to “urge that the question of bringing Somaliland into line with the other East African Protectorates by the imposition of some form of direct taxation of the natives should receive earnest consideration.”4

On the Protectorate’s scale of priorities, education was considered the most vital and urgent. It was through Western Education that Britain hoped to plant new values and attitudes among the Somali, and especially among those who had followed Sayyid or sympathized with his cause. The existing form of education by 1920 consisted of a large number of Koranic schools which were scattered in different parts of the country. The curriculum in these schools was limited to the study of the Koran and Arabic. On the coast, there were three such schools: one at Berbera, another at Zeila, and the third at Bulhar —- all receiving a small subsidy from the colonial administration. Their average attendance in 1919 was 72 pupils at Berbera, 16 at Bulhar, and 37 at Zeila. A majority of the pupils were the sons of Indian and Arab traders.5

In the estimates for 1920-21 Geoffrey Archer, the Governor of the Protectorate, provided for the establishment of the first Govern­ment secondary school, arguing that “the time has come when the local demand for educational facilities in the country can no longer be ignored . . . . We hope eventually to recruit our clerical and subordinate departmental establishment from the school, which will be beneficial to the natives of the Protectorate and in the interests of economy.”6

Towards the end of 1921, Archer invited E.R.J. Hussey, Chief Inspector of Schools in Sudan, to visit Somaliland, study the educational requirements of the country and draw up a detailed plan for introducing an educational program. Hussey’s educational scheme was elaborate and extensive. He was at one with Archer in advocating that the aims of the educational program should be “the production of a responsible and literate type of Somali, into whom the proper ideas have been inculcated in his training………………  It is fully realized both at home and abroad that one of the chief objects of our colonial administration should be gradually to guide the various races and peoples under our control along the path of real progress, and to teach them to take a more intelligent interest in their own affairs.”7

The most important features of Hussey’s scheme included the appointment of the type of headmaster who would “endeavor to become the friend and father of the pupils under his charge. He should endeavor to implant and foster in the school the English public school spirit, and build up characters on that foundation.”8

In addition to the establishment of a Government secondary school, the existing Koranic schools — or at any rate some of them — would be placed under the general supervision of the Headmaster, and their curriculum would be diversified to include, besides Arabic and Koranic studies, such subjects as Arithmetic, Hygiene, and Geography. Admission to the Government school would be on the basis of competitive examination. Hyssey then went on to claim that “the Somali are far more alive to the advantages to be derived from education and more anxious for its development than the majority of the native races of Africa.”9

Hussey’s scheme was commended in the Colonial Office as “asto­nishingly complete.”10 The problem, however, remained one of fin­ance. The Colonial Office and the Local administration had proceeded thus far in the hope that the Treasury would sanction the estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for 1920-1921. Some £3,397 had been earmarked to cover the pay of the headmaster, the foundation of the school, and the re-organization of at least four Koranic schools. With­out waiting for the Treasury’s decision, Hussey, on return to Sudan, selected Richardson, then a teacher at Gordon College, for the post of Headmaster of the proposed Government school. Richardson’s creden­tials which made him commendable in the eyes of Hussey and Archer were his fluency in Arabic, his two years experience at Gordon College, and the fact that he had “commanded a battalion in France during the War, and in his University days he was an associate blue.“11

The Treasury’s decision, coming a month after Richardson had assumed his duties, was a blow to the local administration and the Colonial Office. The education scheme was rejected on the grounds that unless the Protectorate could devise new sources of revenue, particularly through direct taxation, all development projects should be held in abeyance. Richardson was sent packing, empty-handed.12 Henceforth the question of taxation and that of development became inextricably intertwined.

The Treasury’s insistence that the Somali should pay for, or at least make a substantial contribution towards, any development pro­jects forced the local administration to start experimenting with various revenue-earning measures which were known to be unpopular with the Somali. Archer had already warned the Colonial Office of the dangers pertaining to the idea of introducing direct taxation. However, in view of the Treasury’s attitude, he was prepared to give it a cautious trial. Indeed, Archer’s proposal for direct taxation was the first of its kind in the entire Somali-inhabited country as neither the French nor the Italians had attempted it in their respective Somali colonies.

In the middle of 1921, Archer summoned a conference of the administrative officers, the Somali Akils (agents), and the prominent Sheikhs to discuss his tax proposals as well as work out a strategy for their implementation. The main feature of the proposed tax system was that it would take the form of annual fixed tributes for each tribal section, the rationale being that it would have been impossible to col­lect taxes on an individual basis from the mobile Somali nomads.

Although Archer’s taxation scheme was fairly well-received, some representatives from Burao District opposed it on the grounds that the taxation of Muslims by infidels would contravene Islamic law. On return from the conference, the Akils and Sheikhs were heck­led and in some cases stoned by angry mobs who accused them of a sell-out. Archer adopted a defiant attitude and proposed the formation of an airforce to enforce the taxation measures. However, the Secre­tary of State for the Colonies would have none of this. He wrote, “1 am strongly opposed to the introduction of tribute proposed since it appears likely to lead to general unrest. I do not regard the formation of a Protectorate air force as practicable under present circumstances.”14 With the collapse of Archer’s tax proposals and the Treasury’s intran­sigence, the fate of Hussey’s educational scheme was thereby sealed.

It was not until 1928 that any mention of education for the Somaliland Protectorate was made again. Credit for the revival of this long-forgotten issue goes to the six Somali graduates who had just completed their studies at Gordon College and returned to their homes in Somaliland. These first Somali graduates of Gordon College were appalled by the relative backwardness of their country and took it upon themselves to campaign for the introduction of Western education. They brought a great deal of pressure on the then Governor, Harold Kittermaster. The latter was thus forced to open the whole question, notwithstanding the Treasury’s well-known attitude.

By 1928 the annual expenditure of the Protectorate on education amounted to £30, this being the administration’s subsidy towards the three Koranic schools on the coast. In the unique circumstances of Somaliland, Kittermaster proposed the introduction of an educational scheme organized along the lines of a reformatory school. “I am inclined”, he wrote, “to the opinion that a reformatory school is the best line of development. My idea is to start a reformatory school at Hargeisa at which instruction would be given in agriculture and tech­nical education. A certain amount of clerical education would also go with it . . . it might be found possible to enlarge the scope of this school by admitting thereto other boys who might wish to attend.”15 What Kittermaster proposed to do was, more or less, to educate the Somali by force. The merits of this policy, as he saw it, was to circumvent the anticipated Somali resistance to a free Western educational pro­gramme.

Kittermaster’s proposed scheme was submitted to the Colonial Office Advisory Committee on Native Education in Tropical Africa where it found a hostile reception. The Committee felt that “to intro­duce education for the Somali by way of reformatory schools would be a bad thing. There was, however, a strong feeling that something should be done by way of providing some opportunities for education in Somaliland.”16 The overwhelming feeling of the Committee was that it would be disastrous to foster Western education through a criminal institution; the free citizens would never respect it. The Somali, it was held, ought to accept Western education on its own merit or do without it; Britain would be none the worse. Kittermaster’s proposals ipso facto lapsed.

Instead, the Committee recommended an improvement of the existing Koranic schools, particularly those on the coast, “so that boys going from there to Gordon College would be less handicapped than at present.”17 Guided by the committee’s recommendations, Kitter­master proceeded to draw up a program by which the Koranic schools were to be reformed. If the Koranic schools could agree to be inspected regularly by a Government inspector of schools as well as diversify their curriculum, Kittermaster was prepared to increase their subsidy and give them any other assistance they might require. The amount of subsidy he proposed to allocate would depend on the stan­dard of education and the number of pupils in each of the schools. Schools with twenty to thirty pupils would qualify for an annual grant of £9 each; those with thirty-one to forty pupils would receive £18 annually each, and those with forty-one and above would receive £27. The subsi­dized schools would, in addition to the subsidy, receive free supplies of books, visual aids, and other educational equipment.18 The whole scheme was earmarked for £250 in the first stage, so that “if the people appear inclined to work with the Government in these schools, I shall feel encouraged to go on to the second step in development, i.e. the establishment of the existing school at Berbera on a better basis by the provision of better buildings and better staff.”19 The second stage of development would entail, inter alia, the expansion of the curriculum to include History, Hygiene, Geography, English Physical Education, and Social Services. The most brilliant boys would proceed from there to Khartoum or Aden for further education. Vis­cher commended these proposals, describing them as “wise and very sound”.20

The Treasury, hitherto the main stumbling block, was won over, at least to the extent that it agreed to finance the first stage of the program. The cards were now on the table of the Somali themselves. Kittermaster invited the parents of the pupils then attending the three Koranic schools on the coast and laid the whole plan before them. To his disappointment, the package deal was rejected in its entirety. Kitter­master was informed that the Somali preferred to be poor but indepe­ndent to being rich but subservient.21 He toured the interior with a view to finding some support for his educational scheme and returned empty-handed. Throughout the country, his scheme met with luke­warm and often hostile reception. The Colonial Office instructed Kittermaster to shelve the plan altogether. In view of the Somali opposition to taxation, education, and several other colonial projects, Britain adopted stagnation as the policy to be pursued as from 1931.

The question of Somaliland education was laid to rest until 1936. Its re-opening was connected with the fundamental economic and political changes brought about by Italy’s invasion and occupation of Ethiopia. Once Italy had become the de facto government of Ethio­pia, she initiated a number of economic, social, and administrative policies which were intended to transform Ethiopia into a modern industrialized country. Among many other things, the Italians con­structed modern roads opened new markets, and invested a good deal of capital in the industrial sector.

Britain’s attitude towards Italy’s occupation was, at the official level, hostile. Indeed Britain spearheaded the anti-Italian campaign in the League of Nations. Yet, in the Horn of Africa itself, Italian occupa­tion of Ethiopia had brought nothing but positive results to the hither­to impoverished British Somaliland Protectorate: (a) Italy sought and acquired permission to use the Protectorate for her transit trade with Ethiopia. (b) Italy sought and acquired permission to construct a modern road from Berbera right across the Protectorate up to Jigjiga. (c) She established an effective administration in the Ogaden and there­by brought to an end the state of war which had existed on the south­ern border of the Protectorate for many years.22

As far as Britain was concerned, the positive effects of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia were underlined by the Protectorate’s increase of its revenue and the corresponding decrease of the imperial grants-in-aid. For the first time in the Protectorate’s history, no grant-in-aid was needed in 1938. With regard to the Somali response to the new oppor­tunities, it was reported that “many who never thought of trading pre­viously, are taking caravans over the border and doing very well. A sign of prosperity is a brisk demand for building plots in Hargeisa town.”23

The improvement in the Protectorate’s financial standing led to serious doubts as to whether there was further justification for Britain to persist in pursuing the policy of stagnation. Another consideration was whether, in view of Italy’s radical policies across the border, Britain could indefinitely remain static on her side of the border without undermining her prestige and reputation.

A breakthrough was made in 1936 when the local administration submitted the Protectorate’s estimates of revenue and expenditure in which education was earmarked for £7 350.24 This sum was intended to build seven Government secondary schools.

After the proposal had been studied by the Colonial Office ad­visors on education, “the view was expressed that it would be preferable to start not with seven schools but with a single station school at Berbera and to follow this up, as soon as practicable, by the esta­blishment of further schools on the same lines…..”25.

The Colonial Office’s views were appreciated by the local ad­ministration and at the beginning of 1938 practical steps were taken to establish the first Government Secondary School. The school would be headed by a European headmaster who would, in addition, be the Director of Education for the whole Protectorate. The onus of imple­menting the second part of the program was to rest on his shoulders.

The curriculum in the new schools was to include Writing, Read­ing, Arithmetic, Hygiene, Islamic Studies, Arabic, Geography, History, and Stock Raising. During these early stages of planning, the question of the language of instruction was not given serious thought, it being taken for granted that the Somali would welcome the use of the Somali language as the primary language of instruction, with Arabic as a supplement. The administration was soon to discover how mistaken it had been in its assumptions.

Towards the end of March 1938 the District Officer for Burao reported the following rather alarming news, “on or about 13th instant Ibrahim Egal arrived from Berbera; he brought a letter with him from the religious leader3 of the Qadiriyya sect in Berbera addressed to the Salihiya in Burao  … the gist of the letter was an appeal for opposition to the Government schools, as this would tend to bring the boys up as infidels and would be harmful to the Mohammadan Religion. It was suggested in the letter that the new Director of Education was a Mis­sionary in disguise.“26

Three months elapsed before these incidents were reported to London, a factor which underlined the administration’s under-estimation of the strength of the nascent resistance movement. This delay in taking prompt action increased the movement’s popularity and militancy. In July Hargeisa was reported to have been affected: some two Wadads (itinerant religious teachers), namely Sheikh Abdullahi Adan and Sheikh Abdullahi Gaileh, delivered a sermon in the Hargeisa Mosque against the proposed educational program, stressing, in particular, the dangers pertaining to the introduction of written Somali. So far as these two Wadads were concerned, it was hot only Islam which was at stake but the whole status and future of the Somali race.

By August the resistance movement in British Somaliland had assumed dangerous dimensions and gained a substantial number of supporters. Earlier on, the Colonial Office had decided to instruct the Governor to omit the teaching of written Somali and proceed with the rest of the program. However, the directive was withdrawn gan to stone Ellison and companions. Ellison and three of his junior staff were injured in the incident and the school buildings were dama­ged. Before the situation got out of hand, however, the District Officer, Burao, arrived with his police force which opened fire on the crowd, killing three people and dispersing the rest.29

A commission of inquiry which later investigated the incident concluded that the resistance movement had been engineered by the Wadads who had alleged not only that Ellison was a Catholic priest in disguise but also that he had actually gone to Burao to proselytize inside the Koranic school buildings. With these allegations, the Wadads had managed to incite the people to violence.

Ironically the Burao rising, far from discrediting the educational program, strengthened it. The Wadads’ machinations were condem­ned by the majority of the leading Sheikhs and elders. Similarly, the British were encouraged by the renewed support to go ahead with the program. Unfortunately, this was nipped in the bud by the out­break of World War H. Thereafter the question of Somaliland education was shelved until 1942.


By 1940 northern Somaliland was probably the only African British dependency without any form of Western education. The main problem was Britain’s lack of interest in her Somaliland Protectorate owing to the persistent Somali antipathy for British Colonialism and the general unproductiveness of the area. Thus, Britain never attempted to formulate and define any clear educational policy for Somaliland as she had already done for the more manageable and profitable depe­ndencies such as West Africa, Uganda, and Sudan. Whereas Britain’s commercial, missionary, and economic interests in the other parts of Africa made it imperative for her to create a class of educated colla­borators, the absence of such interests in Somaliland made the creation of that type of classless necessary. Britain’s interests in Somaliland were solely strategic and these could be well, and perhaps better, look­ed after without having a class of critical educated Somali. Thus, the task of advocating western education for Somaliland was shouldered by individual administrative officers on the spot who happened to have an interest in the matter or by some official in the Colonial Office who happened to be reminded that Somaliland was lagging behind. Because of the general lack of enthusiasm on the part of the British Govern­ments and public, any proposal to introduce Western education in Somaliland could be thrown out with impunity by the Treasury on the pretext that the Somalis were not paying taxes or by the local officials following assurances by Ellison, the newly appointed Director of Education, that he would successfully persuade the Somali to accept the whole scheme. He would go to them and convince them that the teaching of written Somali had nothing to do with Christianity or race categorization. Far from winning over the Somali, Ellison made matters even worse; he was by then popularly known and addressed as “padre” and nothing would convince them to believe otherwise.

Even by the end of his unsuccessful country-wide tour, Ellison was determined to press on with the scheme in its entirety. He wrote, “I agree with His Excellency that it would be a sign of weakness to surrender to the Berbera leaders over the language question . . . If at this stage Somali were not to be regarded as a compulsory subject the Berbera leaders would realize at once, and obviously take advantage of the fact that they had won the day, and I think this would weaken our position.”27

In October the Colonial Office reiterated its stand: Ellison must proceed with the opening of the Berbera School and forget all about the controversial language issue. It was strongly felt in London that the goodwill of the Somali and the overall advantages of opening the school outweighed whatever concessions in pride Britain might have to make by giving in over the language issue. Accordingly, the Berbera State School was opened on 1st December 1938, with forty-five pupils_ increasing to sixty within the first two weeks.

Ellison’s prediction about the Somali interpretation of Britain’s retraction over the language issue was soon vindicated. The opposition to the Berbera School, far from diminishing, intensified. Plowman, then acting Governor, received a petition stating that “as long as the Somali teaching and the “padre” are in the school, we will not at all accept any teaching in it, as this gravely changes our religion and pol­lutes our land.”28 This was considered absurd by the Colonial Office and the local administration since the Somali had been informed that the teaching of written Somali would be omitted. Both the Colonial Office and the local administration resolved not to give in to more irrational demands.

By the beginning of 1939, the administration was busy laying foundations for opening up more schools in the interior as originally planned. In connection with these plans, Ellisson went on another extensive tour of the country with the aim of reaching a mutual under­standing with the elders.. Part of his itinerary included Burao where he arrived on 20th May and proceeded to inspect a local Koranic school which he intended to upgrade. While the inspection was in progress, an angry mob numbering nearly two hundred collected and be‑ on the pretext that the Somali would not learn to write their language in Roman orthography. After Britain had replaced the Italians in their Somaliland Colony, the British sphere of influence increased in size and therefore Somaliland became more valuable than hitherto. Hence in 1942, notwithstanding the fact that the Somalis were still not paying taxes, Britain was prepared to launch a serious educational program for the hitherto neglected northern Somaliland.


  1. Burton, R. as quoted by Brockett, A. “British Somaliland Protec­torate to 1905″: Oxford Ph. D. 1969, p. 23.
  2. For a detailed account of Sayyid Muhammad Abdille Hassan’s Dervish movement, see Lewis, I.M. The Modern History of Somali­land:4London 1965, Chapter IV; also P.K. Kakwenzire, “Colonial Rule in the British Somaliland Protectorate, 1905-1939”, Univer­sity of London, Ph. D. thesis, 1976, Chapters I – V.
  3. C.O. 535/56 Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for 1920-21.
  4. C.O. 535/64 Treasury to C.O. 27/10/1921.
  5. C.O. 535/56 Report on the Somaliland Blue Book for the Year 1918-1919 by D. Jardine, Secretary to the Administration.
  6. Estimates of Revenue of Expenditure 1920-1921. op. cit.
  7. C.O. 535/62 Hussey’s Memorandum on Somaliland Education 5/12/1920
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Minute by Machtig, 1st Class Clerk in the Colonial Office.
  11. C.O. 535/65 Archer to C.O. 2/2/1921.
  12. C.O. 535/67 Treasury to C.O. 11/3/1921.
  13. C.O. 535/67 Archer to C.O. 3/7/1921.
  14. C.O. 535/67 Milner to Archer 3/7/1921.
  15. C.O. 535/85/38052 Kittermaster to C.O. 14/4/1928
  16. Minute by Vischer, Secretary to the Committee.
  17. C.O. 535/85/38052 Minutes of C.O. Advisory Committee on Native Education in Tropical Africa 17/10/1929.
  18. C.O. 830/3 Education Department Annual Report for 1938.
  19. C.O. 535/85/38052 Kittermaster to C.O. 26/11/1929.
  20. Minute by Vischer
  21. C.O. 535/94/38465 Kittermaster to C.O. 8/5/1931.
  22. In January 1937 Britain and Italy signed the Transit Trade and Grazing Rights Agreement which established political and econo­mic co-operation between the Protectorate and the Italian regime in Ethiopia.
  23. Annual Colonial Report No. 1815 for 1936 P. 15.
  24. C.O. 535/119/46075 Estimates of Revenue & Expenditure for 1937.
  25. 830/3 Education Dept. Report op. cit.
  26. C.O. 535/129/46062 Lawrence to C.O. 4/7/1938.
  27. C.O. 535/129/46062 Ellison to C.O. 2/9/1938
  28. C.O. 535/129/46062 Plowman (quoting parts of the petition) to C.O. 8/12/1938.
  29. C.O. 535/132/46062 Plowman to C.O. 22/5/1939.


Burton, R.F. First Steps in East Africa. (London, 1956).

Brockett, A.M. “British Somaliland Protectorate to 1905”, Oxford Ph. D. Thesis, 1969.

Lewis, I.M. The Modern History of Somaliland. (London 1965).

Beshir, M.O. Educational Development in Sudan, 1898-1956 (Oxford, 1969).

Drysdale, J. The Somali Dispute. (London 1964).

Colonial Office Files (Public Record Office, London):

C.O. 535 (Somaliland) Series Vols. 56-132.

C.O. 830 (Somaliland Education) Series Vol. 1 and 2.

C.O. 537 (Wingate’s Mission to Somaliland) Vol. 44.

Annual Colonial Reports (British Somaliland) 1920-1939.

Kakwenzire, P.K. “Colonial Rule in the British Somaliland Protecto­rate, 1905-1939.” London Ph. D. Thesis, 1976.



Author(s): Patrick Kakwenzire

Source: Transafrican Journal of History, Vol. 9, No. 1/2 (1980), pp. 153-164

Published by: Gideon Were Publications

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