Letter From Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan To The British Governor Of Somaliland, June 1905

Lidwien Kapteijns


Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan (1856-1921) was a Somali religious leader who for more than twenty years (1898-1920) led a holy war against the Christian colonizers of his country (in particular the administration of British Somaliland) and their local Somali allies. After four costly British expeditions against him (1901-04), Italian and British diplomatic overtures led the Sayyid to accept a peace agreement, which gave him a small autonomous area in Italian Somaliland and a port on the Indian Ocean. The treaty of Ilig (May 1905) gave the Sayyid both too little and too much. It gave him too little because his followers coveted the lush grazing of the Nugaal valley beyond his new borders. It gave him too much since the Sayyid used this new international recognition to realize some of his state-building ambitions, including a ‘blue water policy’ and the development of a small merchant fleet.

The letter presented below was written shortly after the Ilig agreement. Archival notes indicate that it was written c. 1 June 1905, at Biyo Ado (near Gabba) on the coast. It was addressed to E.J.E. Swayne, commander-in-chief of the first British military expedition against Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan and Commissioner of the Somaliland Protectorate.

The letter was carried by a Dervish delegation led by Abdallah Shihiri, who himself translated it into English in front of Swayne. Abdallah Shihiri, a former British naval interpreter, had been part of the Dervish movement from its inception. He had been the leading Dervish representative in the Ilig negotiations and remained one of the Sayyid’s closest advisers until his defection in 1906. In 1909, with Italian and British assistance, he denounced the Sayyid in front of the leader of the Salihiyya brotherhood, Muhammad Salih. The latter expelled the Sayyid from the brotherhood, an ex-communication which seriously weakened the Dervish movement.

In the letter presented below Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan first reassured Swayne that he had accepted the peace settlement, that he would avoid conflict, that he would treat Swayne’s messengers well, and that he, if provoked by Somalis in British territory, would raise the matter with Swayne before taking military action.

The second issue Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan raised was the special character of the Dervishes; as they were the people of the Book (the Qur’an), of the shari’a (Islamic Law), and of God, they were bound to avoid lies, deceit, slander, and greed.

Third, the Sayyid complained about certain individuals in the British camp, the naval interpreter Ali Utubi, Magan Aman, and the aqils (the headmen appointed and paid by the colonial administration) of the Darood clan family residing in Berbera. The Sayyid expressed satisfaction about hajji Muse Farah (here called by the nickname of ‘Igarreh’), the most trusted and highest-ranking Somali official in the Protectorate administration, on whom he, in other letters, often heaped scorn. Risaldar-Major Muse Farah had started his colonial career as a policeman in Aden. He had joined the Protectorate staff as a member of the mounted police and distinguished himself during the British expeditions against the Sayyid. In 1906 he became a ‘native political agent’ and in 1912 he became ‘Chief Native Assistant’, in charge of local intelligence. He was the most trusted Somali adviser of Swayne and later governors. For Jardine, Muse Farah was the Sayyid’s counterpart, as he was in the pro-government camp what the Sayyid was in the anticolonial resistance movement.

The Sayyid’s fourth point continued the complaints about saboteurs in the British camp. He took credit for the administration’s discovery of their intrigues by referring to his karama – in Sufi terms, the power to work miracles. In an earlier letter, the Sayyid had ordered Swayne to leave the country in one hour. Now he explained (and indirectly apologized) for this demand; he had acted only out of love for his country and had become angry at the unfounded news that the British would build a railway inland from Berbera. Yet the Sayyid still expected Swayne to leave the country, in his own time and without the use of force.

Fifthly, the Sayyid raised concerns about the livestock, possessions, and relatives his Dervishes had left behind in the Protectorate. In their absence, others might make decisions about these (for example marrying off young women) and reap rewards. The Sayyid insisted that Swayne prevent this.

Sixthly, the Sayyid asked for assistance, kind treatment, and all kinds of presents.

In the postscript, after receiving, as the archival notes indicate, a delegation of Bagheri Ogaadeen people who complained of Ethiopian raids, the Sayyid accused the Ethiopians of attacking his people in spite of the peace agreement. His appeal to Swayne to do something about this is ill-tempered and far from polite.

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Although the body of Arabic diplomatic correspondence the Sayyid composed during his lifetime was vast, in general only the rather loose English translations prepared by Indian officials of the Somaliland administration have been preserved. Most original Arabic letters were kept in Somaliland, where most appear to have been lost. Although the translations (quoted extensively in Jardine’s The Mad Mullah of Somaliland), more or less succeed in conveying the general meaning of the letters, the present Arabic text allows us to hear the Sayyid, as it were, ‘speak’ Arabic. For scholarly conclusions about the Sayyid’s Arabic, which was of course not his native tongue but the language of his education and religious training, we must await expert linguistic study. However, even impressionistically, the Sayyid’s relatively low-brow, colloquial, and grammatically not always correct Arabic, with its distinct Egyptian and Sudanese ring, contributes another small clue to the life and character of this flamboyant historical personality.

Arabic Text

Arabic Text - Letter From Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan To The British Governor Of SomalilandArabic Text - Letter From Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan To The British Governor Of SomalilandArabic Text - Letter From Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan To The British Governor Of SomalilandArabic Text - Letter From Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan To The British Governor Of SomalilandArabic Text - Letter From Sayyid Muhammad Abdallah Hasan To The British Governor Of Somaliland


Praise be to God in all circumstances. Thereafter: this letter comes from Muhammad b. Abdallah and all the Dervishes to General Swayne. The objective of the letter consists of several things. First, we inform you that our people arrived and informed us that you treated them well. They informed us that you put the country14 in order. Also, that you say that you will go away from the country, that is, from the Nugaal and Buuhoodleh and their environs. At this, we rejoiced greatly. They also informed us that you have asked from us that no discord may arise ever. They also told us that you love us greatly and moreover praised you much. Now we let you know that we have accepted the peace settlement; we will not cause discord. If discord is caused by the people who are with you, we will inform you of this situation and will not move against them except after notifying you. We also let you know that the country is secure; no one is in fear of us. If an individual or group comes from you to us, we will treat them well. This is one issue.

Secondly, we inform you that we are not like [other] people, for lying is forbidden to us, as are deceit, slander, and greed. You will never see lies or deceit from us because we are people of the Book, people of the shari’a, people of the truth, and people of God, and God has made lying, deceit, slander, greed, and all evil deeds unlawful for us. If we tell you something, do not doubt it, and do not ever let something different from what we said enter your mind. This is another issue.

Thirdly, I inform you that the people who are with you are evildoers and do not like the peace settlement in general or in particular. They do not like the government; they want you to suffer loss, they covet your money and do not understand anything. They have two colors; at times they come to you and at other times to us. The greatest evildoers are those in whom you have put your trust, foremost Ali Utubi and all the aqils of the Darood. But Magan Aman is insolent. As for Muse Igarreh, from him, one hears only reconciliation and he does not like corruption and loss. If you want peace on all sides, then arrest the evildoers, most of all Utubi and the Darood aqils. Discipline Magan Aman. Don’t discount my words, for my words are sincerity and truth. You will see the upshot of my words. This is another issue.

Fourthly, don’t listen to the words of slanderers; we, similarly, will not listen to their words. Know that we heard that they changed our words and our writing. They informed you that the Dervishes set out to attack you, but this is false. They want to cause trouble; you are witness to this. We also inform you that they wrote us a letter with no good in it, and it is shown in this way that they undermine your cause, so how would they not undermine my cause? I heard that God exposed them and that their lies were revealed to the administration. This only occurred because of my [good] intention, my [honest] heart, and my miraculous power. How would it be possible for me to be corrupt, while I am the wisest of people and the greatest in learning, intelligence, forbearance, and conviction. Indeed, I wrote to you only good and kind [words]. I asked you to leave my land by your own choice and decision, without coercion or force. But what prompted me to mention ‘in one hour’, which sowed doubt in your heart; what prompted me was only my love for my land.

As for the mention of the railway, the people whose names and affiliations I mentioned to you announced that you intended to put it [the railway] in our land. We were bewildered and flew into a rage, but now I inform you that my heart is calm, settled, and at ease. This is another issue.

Fifthly, I inform you that our people, children, and possessions are with you in your trust. We wish that no one interferes with us, that no one marry our people, treat our children unjustly, or take our wealth. How could this be possible while they are in your trust! This is another issue.

Sixthly, we desire from you that you are with us in every way, even with assistance and support against our enemies at any time; we will be with you like that. We also ask from you kind and gentle treatment and presents of all kinds and variety as your generosity and rank allow. We take pleasure in all that you asked from me. This [is what I have to say] and [I conclude with] peace.

[Postscript:] […] guarantee of security and agreements. But they raided my people and my Dervishes and took my wealth and the wealth of my people, both persons, and property. They killed many people, certainly one thousand individuals and more, and wealth that cannot be counted. How is that possible if a peace agreement has taken place between the influential and the common people? If your words are sincere, then look into this repulsive matter, take care of this, and give orders regarding this.

[Three imprints of the same seal]:

Sayyid Muhammad/ Abdallah/ Hasan.


Source: Sudanic Africa, Vol. 6 (1995), pp. 1-10

Published by: Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (University of Bergen)

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