Chapter 4: The Partition Of The Horn from the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics and The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa – The Horn of Africa can be thought of as a triangle, whose up-tilted eastern point extends so far into the Indian Ocean that it is approximately due south of Tehran. The “Horn,” of course, is not a definite territorial jurisdiction, but for the purposes of this book, we define it arbitrarily (but conveniently) as the region inhabited mainly by Somalis.


Chapter 4: The Partition Of The Horn

From the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa

Somali Nationalism International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of AfricaSaadia Touval

Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts • 1963

In this chapter

European contacts with the Horn of Africa were limited until 1869 when the opening of the Suez Canal focused attention upon the area’s strategic importance. The heightened interest in the area and the wave of European imperialist expansion in Africa led to the establishment of the European colonies and protectorates in the 1880s. This coincided with the consolidation of power in Ethiopia under Menelik II and the extension of Ethiopian authority into areas which were previously under only nominal Ethiopian suzerainty. By the end of the century, the Horn had been partitioned among Britain, France, Italy, and Ethiopia.


The colonial administrations were preceded (as elsewhere in Africa) by explorers and adventurers. In modern times the exploration of the East African coasts—Somali and Eritrean—was first undertaken by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, but their activity soon subsided. British, Portuguese, French, and Dutch merchantmen en route to or from India visited the area occasionally, but no really systematic explorations were undertaken until the 1830s.


With the growth of trade among India, Arabia, and Zanzibar there occurred a number of shipwrecks along the Somali coasts in which the survivors were badly mistreated by the native tribes. These incidents drew the attention of British authorities in India.1 When the British occupied Aden in 1839 they initiated systematic exploration of the nearby coastal areas. Lieutenant W. C. Barker of the Indian Navy, a member of the British mission to the Ethiopian Kingdom of Shoa, visited the Somali coast along the Gulf of Aden in 1840. Lieutenant W. Christopher, commanding the East India Company’s brig-of-war Tigris, visited the coast along the Indian Ocean in 1843. Of particular value were the explorations of Lieutenant C. J. Cruttenden of the Indian Navy, who was an Assistant Political Agent in Aden and who familiarized himself with the Somali coastal plain facing the Gulf of Aden.2 The French too sent several expeditions, starting with Charles Guillain in 1848 commanding the corvette Ducouëdic.3

The interior beyond the coastal plain, however, remained inaccessible to Europeans for many years. The first European to penetrate any distance into the interior was Richard F. Burton. In 1854, after his celebrated visit to Mecca disguised as a Moslem, he undertook to visit Harar. The center of a fertile region in the highlands, some 200 miles from the coast, Harar was ruled at the time by a local Amir whose reputation for savage fanaticism deterred Europeans from exploring the area. The town acquired a certain mystique, which attracted Burton:

Harar, moreover, had never been visited, and few are the cities of the world which in the present age when men hurry about the earth, have not opened their gates to the European adventure. The ancient metropolis of a once mighty race, the only permanent settlement in Eastern Africa, the reported seat of Moslem learning, a walled city of stone houses, possessing its independent chief, its peculiar population, its unknown language, and its own coinage, the emporium of the coffee trade, the head-quarters of slavery, the birth-place of the Kat plant, and the great manufactory of cotton-cloths, amply, it appeared, deserved the trouble of exploration.

Burton chose again to travel in disguise and completed the expedition successfully, returning with much valuable information. Shortly thereafter Burton set out on another African expedition, but his camp at Berbera was attacked by Somalis and he was forced to return to Aden. This was in 1855.4

In the preceding year John H. Speke, who was Burton’s associate and protege, and who later discovered the sources of the Nile, had started out from the coast near Las Khorai, near the eastern end of what later became British Somaliland, in an attempt to reach the Nogal valley far to the south. He became the first European to visit the Dolbahanta and Warsangeli areas but was obliged to return without reaching the Nogal.5 There was a lull in the explorations during the 1860s, but activity was renewed in the 1870s and 1880s. Among the more successful explorers during this period were the Germans Hildebrandt and Paulitschke, both of whom visited Harar, and the Frenchman Georges Révoil, who penetrated to the valley of the Darror near the tip of the Horn.6

The great wastes of the Ogaden remained, however, terra incognita until 1885. Attempts by Italian, Greek, and French traders to reach the interior of the Ogaden in the 1880s met with disaster; the adventurous Europeans were killed before they got far. For example, this was the fate of an Italian expedition led by Count Porro in April 1885. More fortunate was the British explorer F. L. James. In that same year, he traveled from Berbera to the Webi Shebeli and returned with an abundance of valuable information, marking the first successful European expedition into the Ogaden.7


British interest in the Somali coast was at first motivated mainly by concern for the security of trade and communications with India. The looting of wrecked ships prompted the British government to conclude treaties with Somali tribes, providing for the protection of crews and cargoes of storm-wrecked vessels. The first of these treaties concluded in 1827 between Captain Bremer of H.M.S. Tamar and the sheiks of the Habr Awal tribe, was occasioned by the plunder of the brig Marianne and the murder of her crew near Berbera in 1825. The treaty declared that “henceforth there shall be peace and friendship between the subjects of his Majesty the King of England and the Sheiks of the Habr Owul [Habr Awal] tribe and their men.” It included an agreement for the protection of commerce and provided compensation for lives and property lost in the Marianne incident.8

The 1839 establishment of the protectorate over Aden brought an increase not only in British exploration but also in British diplomatic activity in the area. The following year, Captain Robert Moresby, on behalf of the East India Company, concluded treaties with the Sultan of Tajura and the Governor of Zeila, territories nominally under Turkish suzerainty. Under these treaties the company acquired title to two small islands off the coast; the Sultan of Tajura sold the island of Mussa to the British for the price of “10 bags of rice,” and the island of Aubad was ceded by the Governor of Zeila without compensation. The same two personages undertook “not to enter into any Treaty or Bond with any other European nation or person,” without bringing the subject “to the notice” of the British authorities at Aden. Subsequent contacts with the Somalis led to an agreement in 1855 between the Governor of Aden and the Habr Toi jala tribe for the suppression of the slave trade. British relations with the Somalis were not always peaceful. The raid on Burton’s party in Berbera in 1855 resulted in a blockade of the coast and led finally to a new treaty with the Habr Awal in 1856.9

A great change in the geopolitical evaluation of the region occurred with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. As the Red Sea became a major avenue of trade and other traffic with India and the Far East, its shores acquired considerable strategic importance. Coinciding with this geopolitical transformation, there was a revival of Egyptian activity directed at acquiring control of the sources of the Nile. Egypt’s expansion-minded ruler, Khedive Ismail, sent expeditions into Sudan and Equatorial Africa, made war on Ethiopia, and dispatched forces to occupy certain sections of the east coast of Africa as far south as Kismayu, near the equator.10

The Red Sea coast was subject to the nominal suzerainty of Turkey but was actually governed by local potentates. In 1865 the Sultan of Turkey had assigned the administration of the Red Sea towns of Suakin, Massawa, and their dependencies to the Egyptian Khedive. Consequently, in 1870, when ships were plying through the great canal, an Egyptian governor was appointed over the whole coast from Suez to Cape Guardafui, and Egyptian posts were established in the Gulf of Aden ports of Zeila and Berbera, and in other locations in the area. A further force was dispatched inland in 1875 and took possession of Harar.

These measures provoked the opposition of the British government, which repeatedly stated that it did not recognize the Turkish Sultan’s claims to sovereignty over the Somali tribes between Zeila, near the western end of the Gulf of Aden, and Ras Hafoun, on the Indian Ocean just around the tip of the Horn.11 British objections to the Egyptian and Turkish claims led to protracted negotiations between the British and Egyptian governments. In September 1877 an agreement was finally reached, whereby the British government recognized Egyptian “jurisdiction, under the suzerainty of the Sublime Porte, over the Somali Coast as far as Ras Hafoun.” Britain’s concern lest the region come under the domination of a rival European power jeopardizing the safety of British sea-communications is reflected in the terms of the agreement. It included a pledge by the Khedive “for himself and his successors, that no portion of the territory, to be thus formally incorporated with Egypt under his hereditary rule, shall ever be ceded to any foreign Power.” The treaty was, however, conditional upon formal assurance by the Turkish government, which also exercised nominal suzerainty over Egypt itself, “that no portion of the Somali Coast, . . . shall more than any other portion of Egypt . . . be ceded on any pretense whatever to any foreign power.”12 Since the Turkish government did not grant such an assurance, the agreement remained inoperative.

Though the British acquiesced in the Egyptian occupation of the Somali coast facing the Gulf of Aden, they strongly objected to the Khedive’s claims to sovereignty over the coast facing the Indian Ocean, between Ras Hafoun and the Juba River. Instead, the British government supported the claim of the Sultan of Zanzibar to suzerainty over this area. In 1875 the Khedive sent a force which occupied the towns of Brava and Kismayu, as a prelude to a push from the coast to Lake Victoria and the sources of the Nile. But, largely as a result of British pressure, the project was given up and the troops were withdrawn.13

The coast facing the Gulf of Aden and the town of Harar in the interior remained under Egyptian rule until 1885. As a result of the pressure of the Mahdist revolt in Sudan, the Egyptian government had decided to curtail its commitments and to withdraw from Harar and from the entire Somali coast. Harar was evacuated in May 1885, and control was transferred to Amir Abdullahi Ali, the son of the former despot. The town remained under Ali’s inept rule until its conquest by Menelik of Ethiopia in January 1887.14 As for the Somali coast, past which paraded the Suez Canal traffic of all nations, the Egyptian decision to withdraw did not pass unnoticed in European capitals. The European powers were engaged at the time in the “scramble for Africa.” Among them, Great Britain was the most vitally interested in the Gulf of Aden, because a hostile power in possession of the Somali coast at Bab al Mandab, the waterway between the Gulf and the Red Sea, could easily disrupt imperial communications with India and other British possessions in Asia and the Pacific.

As the Egyptians were about to withdraw, it gradually became clear to the British that they would have to occupy the area themselves if they intended to prevent other European powers from establishing themselves on the Somali shore. To the British, the only acceptable alternative seemed to be the establishment of effective Turkish authority over the area. The reversion of the coastal towns to their local rulers was not considered a practical alternative at that time, because the avid eyes of Europe were fixed on Africa, and the independence of the local potentates was likely to be rather short-lived.

Thus, during July 1884 the British undertook a series of diplomatic moves to prepare a legal basis for occupying the Somali coast. They reiterated their earlier reservations about the validity of Turkish claims for the coast between Zeila and Ras Hafoun. They also notified Turkey that Britain would be ready to recognize the Sultan’s authority over the coast as far as Zeila, provided Turkey took steps to maintain its authority after the Egyptian withdrawal and pledged itself not to cede the territory to any foreign power. In August, while the Turks were considering the situation, the British notified them that in view of information regarding the imminent outbreak of disturbances in the area, British forces would be sent there at once to maintain order, unless the Turks themselves were ready to take immediate steps for the occupation of Zeila. As the British had probably foreseen, the Turks were slow in reacting to this challenge. Since no clear reply was received from the Turkish government, the British put a force into Zeila and took the position that they “will continue to occupy Zeila until measures have been taken by the Porte for relieving them of this duty.”15

In December the French took possession of Tajura, and Italy extended its holdings around Assab near the lower end of the Red Sea. Turkey was in no position to undertake any positive steps. It contented itself with protesting against Italian expansion and reiterating its claim to the entire coast as far as Ras Hafoun.16

Meanwhile the British busied themselves during the last half of 1884 making a new crop of treaties with the Somali tribes east of Zeila. Since there was still some uncertainty about the ultimate disposition of the region, and about Turkey’s role, these treaties stopped short of extending British protection to the tribes. But the treaties with the Habr Awal, Gadabursi, Habr Toljala, Habr Gerhajis, and Issa, concluded between July 1884 and January 1885, all contained pledges by the tribes “never to cede, sell, mortgage or otherwise give for occupation, save to the British Government, any portion of the territory presently inhabited by them or being under their control.”17

During 1885 it became clear that the Turkish government was not in a position to maintain its sovereignty over the coast; so the British government proceeded to extend formal protection. In the early months of 1886, supplementary treaties were concluded with the Habr Awal, Habr Toi jala, Habr Gerhajis, and Warsangeli tribes. The British government undertook to extend to the tribes and their respective territories “the gracious favor and protection of Her Majesty the Queen-Empress.” On their part, the tribes promised: “to refrain from entering into any correspondence, Agreement, or Treaty with any foreign nation or Power, except with the knowledge and sanction of Her Majesty’s Government.”18

On July 20, 1887, the European powers were officially notified in pursuance of the General Act of the Berlin Conference that a British Protectorate had been established on the Somali coast from Jibuti eastward to and including Bender Ziadeh on the 49th meridian of longitude.19


French actions along the Somali coast, unlike British policy, tended to be from the outset somewhat haphazard and inconsistent. British policy was guided by the strategic necessity of securing imperial communications, and all British actions were directed to that end. Britain was not particularly interested in the commerce of the area, her only concern in this respect being supplies for Aden. France, on the other hand, had three principal motives: her need for a base and coaling station along the long route to Madagascar and Indochina, her desire to develop trade, and later, the exigencies of the competition among the powers. These factors brought about periodic spurts of activity, subsiding after a while and then reviving again until they led in 1885 to the formal establishment of the French colony and protectorate.

Early indications of French interest in the area date back to the 1830s and 1840s, when several French scientific expeditions visited the Red Sea and its coasts. One of them, led by C. E. X. Rochet d’Hericourt, visited the Kingdom of Shoa in 1839 and 1840 and helped stimulate interest in that mysterious country. The same man was sent on a second mission in 1842 and 1843, signed on behalf of France a “political and Commercial Treaty” with Sahle-Selassie, the King of Shoa.20

A period of inactivity set in and lasted until 1858 when Henri Lambert, French consular agent at Aden, entered into negotiations with Ibrahim Abu-Bekr, a local potentate on the Gulf of Tajura, regarding the cession of a port on that little body of water. The interest of the French probably had been reawakened by the Suez Canal project and by their operations in China and Indochina in 1857 and 1858, indicating the desirability of maintaining a coaling station in the general vicinity of the Gulf of Aden. Lambert’s negotiations ended in tragedy when he was assassinated on one of his trips to Tajura. But the relation he had established with Abu-Bekr ultimately proved to be useful, as did the on-the-spot investigations of Comte Stanislas Russel, heading another French mission in 1858. Captain (later Admiral) Fleuriot de Langle took a force to Tajura in 1859, looked into Lambert’s death, brought the culprits to justice, and restored French prestige in the area.21 Then he reopened negotiations with Abu-Bekr and other Danakil chieftains regarding the cession of a port in the Gulf of Tajura.

These negotiations were successful and the chiefs delegated one of the members of the Abu-Bekr family to go to Paris, where a treaty was ceremoniously signed on March 11, 1862. It provided for the cession of Obock, situated on the north shore of the Gulf of Tajura, and the adjoining coastal plain. Moreover, the chiefs pledged themselves to report to the French every proposal for cession of territory made to them by a foreign power and to reject any such overture which had not first received the assent of the French government. Two months later, the French flag was hoisted at Obock, and France officially took possession of the place.22

For nearly twenty years Obock lay forgotten by France. This neglect can perhaps be explained by France’s other preoccupations during this period. Italian affairs required continued alertness and attention during the 1860s. The Mexican adventure of Napoleon III was another distraction. Then came the preparations for the inevitable conflict with Prussia and that disastrous war itself. During the 1870s France was greatly preoccupied with internal affairs, and her principal foreign ambitions were directed toward regaining her lost western provinces. Indochina remained relatively peaceful during these two decades, and French communications through the new Suez route did not appear in danger. A campaign waged by the author and traveler Denis de Rivoyre for the establishment of French enterprises and a supply depot at Obock met with general apathy and was not encouraged by the government.

The 1880s, however, saw a general revival of French interest in colonial affairs. In 1881, de Rivoyre’s efforts were rewarded with partial success. The French established two companies, which proceeded with the construction of installations at Obock—the “Compagnie Franco-Ethiopienne” and the “Société Française d’Obock.” At the same time, Obock became the base for French commercial enterprise in Abyssinia.23

The 1882-1883 insurrection in Indochina and the 1883 outbreak of war in Madagascar demonstrated again to the French government the necessity of establishing a naval station and a supply base along the Suez route to the east. There was no French base between the Mediterranean and Madagascar or India, and the French navy was dependent upon the British facilities at Aden. In view of the colonial rivalry between Britain and France at the time, this dependence was considered by the French as extremely unsatisfactory; therefore they decided on the military development of Obock, which was ideally situated for the purpose. The man chosen to carry out the new policy was Leonce Lagarde, a man of vision as well as action, who immediately proceeded to extend and fortify the French foothold there.

During 1884 and 1885 a series of treaties were concluded with the Sultans of Gobad and Tajura providing for the cession of their territories to France, in return for which French protection was extended to the Sultans and their peoples. A similar treaty was signed with the Issa Somalis in March 1885. French Somaliland was fast taking shape. Through these treaties, France acquired the coastline from Ras Dumeira to Ambado as well as undetermined portions of the interior. The limits of French possession were extended eastward by a treaty with Britain in 1888. Subsequently, commercial activities were transferred from Obock to Jibuti, where conditions were considered favorable. The government of the territory also moved to Jibuti in 1892.24


Italian interest in East Africa was motivated by aspirations for imperial grandeur and was a by-product of the rise of Italian nationalism. Concurrently with the struggle for domestic unification, interest was displayed in the establishment of overseas colonies. One of the individuals active in this movement was Cristoforo Negri, a historian, economist, and diplomat, who started investigating various possibilities for imperial expansion as early as the 1850s. The government under Cavour was receptive to the idea, and several expeditions to African and Asian waters received official support. Although the quest for a colony did not limit itself to any one region, there was a marked interest in Africa. Negri himself repeatedly wrote about the possibilities in the Red Sea area and along the East African coast nominally under Zanzibar’s suzerainty. Because of domestic preoccupations, nothing came of the colonial drive until 1869 when a station was established at Assab. The principal object was to provide a coaling station in the Red Sea, but the acquisition nevertheless stimulated the drive for the exploitation of the fabled riches of Abyssinia.25

Italian interest in Ethiopia and the neighboring areas persisted through the 1870s and resulted in pronounced activity in Eritrea and along the Red Sea coast. However, it was only in the 1880s that  Italians were attracted to the Somali coast facing the Indian Ocean, part of the domain of the Sultan of Zanzibar at the time. The impetus came from commercial interests. An Italian trader, Vincenzo Filonardi, living in Zanzibar and witnessing the growing German and British activity on the East African coast, repeatedly called the attention of the Italian government to the trade opportunities there. His memoranda took several years to bear fruit, but in 1884 the Italian government decided to send an exploratory mission to Zanzibar and to the Benadir region on the mainland.26

The mission, headed by Captain Antonio Cecchi, left on the frigate Barbari go early in 1885 and, after surveying the mouth of the Juba River, reached Zanzibar in April. Its main accomplishment was a commercial treaty and the establishment of an Italian consulate in Zanzibar. The Italians, after waiting a few months, also raised the question of acquiring sections of the mainland coast, but the Sultan’s reaction appears to have been firmly negative. Then, in October 1886 the Sultan unexpectedly offered to cede to Italy the port of Kismayu and “the region of the Juba.” The offer seems to have been a diplomatic ruse, perhaps intended to thwart the signing of an Anglo-German agreement delimiting the boundaries of the Sultan’s domain and partitioning it into British and German spheres of influence. Soon after the offer was made, it was withdrawn, resulting in a sharp protest by the offended Vincenzo Filonardi, who had become the Italian consul. Another incident occurred in the spring of 1888, when, after the death of Sultan Barghash and the accession of his brother Sultan Khalifa, Filonardi again demanded the cession of Kismayu and the mouth of the Juba. The demand was refused—according to the Italians in an offensive manner—and the Italians broke off relations in protest.27

The crisis was soon resolved with the help of the British government. The British proposed that the Italians try to negotiate for the coveted concessions on the Benadir coast through the friendly services of Sir William Mackinnon, Director of the British East Africa Company. The Italians proceeded upon this suggestion, and in August 1888 arrived at a preliminary agreement with the company for the transfer to Italy of a concession which the company expected to acquire over certain territories on the East African coast. The Sultan gave his assent to the deal in January 1889, and an agreement between the Italian government and the British East Africa Company was signed on August 3 of that year. Finally, on November 18, the territories concerned were transferred to Italy, the Italians acquiring control over the towns of Brava, Merca, Mogadishu, and Warsheikh. The port of Kismayu was placed under the joint occupation of the British East Africa Company and the Italian government.

Italy acquired its rights in Benadir under the terms and conditions of the Sultan’s concession to the British East Africa Company. Italy was granted administrative authority over the territories and was obligated in turn to make certain payments to the Sultan’s exchequer. The territories in which Italy acquired concessions were rather limited. The authority of the Sultan of Zanzibar over Brava, Merca, and Mogadishu extended landwards only within radii of ten miles, and his authority over Warsheikh only within a radius of five miles. But the Italian government assumed a protectorate over those portions of the coast lying between the aforementioned towns and so notified the European powers on November 19, 1889.28

Britain’s motives in assisting Italy in the realization of its ambitions with respect to the Somali coast are not entirely clear. The episode may have been connected with the Anglo-Italian rapprochement and with the agreements signed between the two powers in 1887 concerning the Mediterranean and Middle East. Moreover, the British probably hoped that Italy might be helpful in checking the growing German activity in East Africa, and forestalling German claims to Mijertain where the German East Africa Company had concluded a series of treaties with local chiefs in 1884. Indeed, even as the Italians were being handed their concessions in Benadir, they were busy extending their influence to Obbia and Mijertain to the north.

Consul Filonardi negotiated with representatives of the Sultan of Obbia, and on February 8, 1889, signed a treaty with the Sultan himself establishing an Italian protectorate over the area. For the next two months, Filonardi visited various locations along the coast in an effort to cement relations with local chieftains and to persuade the recalcitrant Sultan of the Mijertain Somalis to sign a similar treaty. The Sultan finally consented, and on April 7 signed a treaty placing his domains under an Italian protectorate. The Germans at first objected on account of the earlier treaties between the German East Africa Company and local chiefs. However, as Germany had not claimed a protectorate and had not notified the powers in pursuance of Article 34 of the General Act of the Berlin Conference, its objections did not rest upon a solid legal basis. In negotiations between the two countries, the matter was soon settled in Italy’s favor, and the Italian Protectorate in Mijertain became recognized by the European powers.29

Thus, by 1889, Italy had established its influence over the Somali coast from Bender Ziadeh, on the Gulf of Aden in the north, to Kismayu on the Indian Ocean in the south. The legal status of the territories underwent several modifications during the next two decades, and the extension of effective Italian authority over the area was slow. In 1892, following the establishment of a British protectorate over Zanzibar in 1890, the title over the Benadir towns that Italy hitherto held through the British East Africa Company was transferred directly to Italy. In 1905, in agreement with Britain as the protecting power, Italy purchased the territory from the Sultan of Zanzibar, and the nominal suzerainty of the Sultan over the Benadir coast thus came to an end. At the same time, Italy’s trading and storage rights at Kismayu, first acquired by agreement with the British East Africa Company in 1889, were put on a new legal basis by an exchange of notes with the British government.30

The administration of the territory also underwent changes in its early years. By an agreement concluded in 1893 between the Italian government and “V. Filonardi and Co.,” a commercial company under the directorship of the same Vincenzo Filonardi who had been the Italian consul in Zanzibar, the company became responsible for the administration of the Benadir concession. But the venture proved to be a commercial failure, and in 1896 the Italian government assumed provisionally the administration of the territory, pending the organization of a new firm.

The “Commercial Company of Benadir” was soon formed, and assumed the administration of the territory in accordance with a convention between the Italian government and the company, signed on May 25, 1898. The new company was hampered by difficult local conditions, insecurity, and lack of capital; moreover, it came under severe criticism at home. The compulsory labor the company recruited was described by its critics as slave labor, which it indeed resembled. The criticism led the company in 1903 to dispatch a commission of inquiry consisting of Gustavo Chiesi and Ernesto Travelli. Their report criticized severely not only the local officials but also the Italian government and its representatives in the area. Partly because of the pressure of public opinion, and partly because of deteriorating security conditions resulting from the activities of the rebel Mullah Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan, the Italian government resumed direct administration on May 1, 1905.

The Italian protectorates in the north, Obbia, and Mijertain, which were the responsibility of the Italian Consulate General in Aden, were the scene of considerable unrest during the early years of the new century. At times the Mullah controlled sizable portions of the area. Attempts at military repression being unsuccessful and agreements with the Mullah failing to last, it was deemed necessary to place the entire Somali area under an integrated military and administrative control. Thus, in April 1908, Benadir in the south and the protectorates in the north were unified to form Italian Somaliland.

Effective Italian authority was extended inland very gradually. Besides the difficulties of terrain and communications, the Italians often encountered a hostile native population, and in some cases incurred heavy losses of life. The most serious incident of that kind occurred in 1896 when Captain Cecchi and thirteen other Italians were killed by Bimal tribesmen, near Lafole. The activities of the Mullah were another obstacle to the extension of the Italian administration. Consequently, it was not until 1914 that the effective Italian administration reached all parts of the territory. Still, the Mullah continued to disturb the peace, and only with his final defeat and death in 1920 was the country at last pacified.31

We must return to this remarkable man in the next chapter in order to relate him to the tradition of Somali nationalism.


The history of the British involvement in East Africa and of the acquisition of Kenya and Uganda is of only marginal concern for us here. Most of the area lies outside the Horn of Africa, and at the time when Britain acquired it, the Somalis occupied only its fringes. Later these Somalis moved deeper into the territory, and their numbers were augmented by new arrivals from the Italian and Ethiopian territories in the north.

Britain’s interest in territorial acquisitions in East Africa was aroused mainly by German activities in the region. Until the 1880s the British government did not wish to assume direct responsibilities in the area but preferred to exercise its influence indirectly through the Sultan of Zanzibar. As late as 1877, London apparently discouraged a scheme of Sir William Mackinnon, then Chairman of the British India Steam Navigation Company, to acquire a concession over portions of the east coast of Africa nominally under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Zanzibar. But the British position changed in 1885 after the German Emperor granted a charter of protection to the Society for German Colonization, which had previously concluded a number of treaties with tribes in the interior.32

In order to prevent further German encroachments the British government supported the establishment of a company for the purpose of administering, under a concession from the Sultan of Zanzibar, those portions of his domain which were recognized by an Anglo-German agreement as the British sphere of influence. It was also intended that the company acquire territories from the native chiefs within the British sphere. This was how the Imperial British East Africa Company got its start in 1888. The official encouragement for its activities is embodied in a royal charter granted to the company in the same year.33

From the outset, the company encountered financial difficulties. It was gradually compelled to relinquish its responsibilities for the administration of the territory, and the functions were taken over by the British government. The company’s difficulties finally led to its dissolution and to the extension of a British protectorate over British East Africa in 1895.34

With the growth of Britain’s involvement in Egypt, British attention turned to the sources of the Nile, and in particular to the Lake Victoria region in Uganda. At the same time, the troubles that missionaries were having in Uganda caused concern in England. Interest in that territory was heightened, too, by reports about possibilities for the agricultural development of fertile areas there. Since the best access to Lake Victoria and Uganda led from the Indian Ocean coast, rather than up the Nile, the value of the newly acquired sphere of influence, including Kenya, greatly increased in British eyes.35

The border between the British sphere and the Italian territories to the north of it, established by the Anglo-Italian protocol of 1891, was the Juba river. The river was apparently considered a convenient reference point; but it did not represent an ethnic boundary, since both sides of the border were populated by Somali tribes. A similar situation exists along the boundary between the British territories and Ethiopia, established in 1907. There the border cuts across Somali and Boran Galla tribes.36

Though the Somali population in British East Africa was relatively small when that protectorate was established in 1895, it grew considerably thereafter as the Somali tribes continued to migrate southward from Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia. With the establishment of British authority in what is now the Northern Frontier Province of Kenya, the Somali expansion southward was halted. But, by then, the Somalis occupied approximately one-fifth of the total territory of Kenya—almost half the Northern Frontier Province.


The scramble for Africa coincided with the resurgence and extension of central authority in Ethiopia under Menelik. Already, as King of Shoa and one of the vassals of Emperor John IV, Menelik displayed great energy and skill in consolidating his position and extending his power into the neighboring Somali and Galla territories. The extension of Ethiopian authority was pursued even more vigorously after his accession to the imperial throne as Emperor Menelik II in 1889.

Ethiopian expansion was motivated by two principal factors.

One was the desire to redeem all territories which according to Ethiopian traditions were once part of their empire. According to Menelik, Ethiopian domains extended as far as the Nile city of Khartoum in the north, Lake Victoria in the west, and the ocean in the south and east.37 The historical basis of these claims is rather shaky. As far as the Horn of Africa is concerned there is evidence that in the third century A.D., an Ethiopian king conquered much of the Ogaden, but his possession of the region was apparently shortlived. In the tenth century, Ethiopia conquered Zeila on the Gulf of Aden and the neighboring coastal sultanates but lost them by the beginning of the next century. However ill-founded historically, Menelik’s territorial claims reflected a national myth which by itself was a powerful driving force.

The second factor motivating Menelik’s expansionist policy was a defensive reaction to the establishment of European colonies in the vicinity. Italy, Britain, and France were pushing inland from their respective coastal possessions, and Menelik endeavored to keep them as far as possible from the center of his power in the highlands, through the expedient of extending his own frontiers. In this, he was moderately successful. Menelik also greatly desired an outlet to the sea. Such an outlet was required not only for purely commercial reasons but also for the free importation of armaments, upon which Ethiopia’s military strength depended. However, this ambition was frustrated at the time.38

Menelik’s expansion into Somali-inhabited territories began in 1886 soon after the Egyptian withdrawal from Harar. The departing Egyptians, with British support, had set up the son of the previous ruler as the independent head of a Harar principality. The new ruler was easily defeated by Menelik’s forces, which occupied Harar in January 1887. Ras Makonnen, Menelik’s able general, was appointed governor of the area and placed in charge of the Ethiopian drive eastward toward the French and British possessions, and southward into the Ogaden. In the autumn of 1891, Ras Makonnen took Imi on the Webi Shebeli, and then continued to press toward the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, the Italians were advancing inland. A serious clash in this area was averted at the time by the outbreak of hostilities in the north and the Italian defeat at Adowa in 1896.39

Ethiopia’s expansion into Somali-inhabited territories brought into the open the traditional antagonisms between Ethiopians and Somalis. The Ethiopians forced the Somali tribes to pay tribute and to provide cattle and beasts of burden for Ethiopian garrisons, and there were frequent clashes between Ethiopian forces and the tribesmen.40 For many years the Ethiopians’ occupation of the Ogaden remained incomplete, for their authority did not extend far beyond the scattered military posts established throughout the region. The continuing friction with the tribesmen was instrumental in stimulating Somali self-consciousness and reviving the memories of past conflicts with Ethiopia.

The biggest and most dramatic of those conflicts had taken place in the sixteenth century. That war has not been forgotten by either side. To politically minded Somalis it is a nationalist inspiration, to the Ethiopians a reminder of lingering danger.

To be continued …..

About This Book

In this first book on the emergence of Somali nationalism, Saadia Touval draws on extensive research and firsthand knowledge to explore the complex and dangerous situation in easternmost Africa. He describes the land and people, the spread of Somali tribes with their Moslem culture, the arrival of Europeans during the nineteenth century, the development of national consciousness, politics in the new Somali Republic and French Somaliland, problems presented by the Somalis of Kenya and Ethiopia, and the overriding question of boundary lines. Finally, he discusses the prospects for a peaceful solution.

About the Author(s)

Saadia Touval lectures on Political Science and African Politics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

The book is worth buying: Available from De Gruyter


  1. F. L. James, The Unknown Horn of Africa (London: George Philip & Son, 1888), pp. 2 – 3; R. F. Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa (London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1856 ), pp. xxxiv-xxxv.
  2. The British explorations are reported in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (London), as follows. Vol. XII (1842): W. C. Barker, “Extract Report on the Probable Geographical Position of Harar; with Some Information Relative to the Various Tribes in the Vicinity.” Vol. XIV (1844): “Extract from a Journal by Lieut. W. Christopher, Commanding the H. C. Brig of War ‘Tigris,’ on the East Coast of Africa.” Vol. XVIII (1848): W. C. Barker, “On Eastern Africa,” and C. J. Cruttenden, “On Eastern Africa” (two articles with the same title). Vol. XIX (1849): C. J. Cruttenden, “Memoir on the Western or Edoor Tribes, Inhabiting the Somali Coast of Northeast Africa.” Further accounts of these early explorations are in Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society, vols. I-XIX, 1836 – 1873, passim.
  3. G. Révoil, Voyages au Cap des Aromates (Paris: E. Dentu, 1880), pp. vii-viii.
  4. Quotation is from Burton’s First Footsteps, pp. xxv-xxvi. For the Berbera adventure see pp. 441 – 458. For the Harar trip see not only this book but also Burton’s “Narrative on a Trip to Harar,” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. XXV (1855) .
  5. For Speke’s diary see Burton, First Footsteps, pp. 461-507.
  6. G. Révoil, La Vallée du Darror, Voyage aux Pays Çomalis (Paris: Challamel aîné, 1882) . For an account of an earlier expedition by Révoil, to the Indian Ocean Coast, see his Voyages au Cap, cited above. On Paulitschke’s expedition, see P. Paulitschke, Harar: Forschungsreise nach den Somalund Galla-Ländern Ost-Afrikas (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1888).
  7. James, pp. 5-7.
  8. A Complete Collection of the Treaties and Conventions at the Present Subsisting between Great Britain and Foreign Powers, ed. Sir Edward Hertslet, vol. XIII (London: Butterworths, 1877) , pp. 5 – 6.
  9. Treaty with the Sultan of Tajura, ibid., pp. 6-8; with the Governor of Zeila, pp. 8-9; on the slave trade, pp. 9-10; and with the Habr Awal, pp. 10 – 12 . On the punitive measures taken in the Berbera affair, see Burton, First Footsteps, pp. xxxvi—xxxvii.
  10. W. L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, second edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1 9 5 6), p. 102.
  11. The Map of Africa by Treaty, third edition, ed. Sir Edward Hertslet (London: H.M.S.O., 1909 ), vol. II, pp. 614 – 617; M. F. Shukry, Equatoria under Egyptian Rule, the Unpublished Correspondence of Col. {afterwards Maj. Gen.) C. G. Gordon with Ismail the Khedive of Egypt and the Sudan during 1874-1876 (Cairo: Cairo University Press, 1953 ) , pp. 69 – 72 ; G. Douin, Histoire du Règne du Khédive Ismail, vol. III, part 3 (Cairo: Société Royale de Géographie d’Egypte, 1941 ) , pp. 547 – 602.
  12. Hertslet, Complete Collection of Treaties, vol. XVIII (London: Butterworths, 1893), pp. 359-361; Shukry, just cited, pp. 87-93.
  13. See R. Coupland, The Exploitation of East Africa, 1856-1890, The Slave Trade and the Scramble (London: Faber & Faber, 1939), pp. 271-299; Shukry, PP· 63-93, 300-302.
  14. Douin, as cited, pp. 602-627; The Earl of Cromer, Modern Egypt, vol. II (London: Macmillan & Co., 1908), pp. 49-53. See also P. Paulitschke, “Le Harrar sous l’administration égyptienne,” Bulletin de la Société Khédiviale de Géographie, IIe serie, no. 10 (Cairo, 1887), pp. 575-576.
  15. British and Foreign State Papers, vol. 76, 1884-1885 (London: William Ridgway, 1892), pp. 674-677, 681.
  16. Ibid., pp. 678-684. Italy, besides expanding its holdings around Assab, tried unsuccessfully to obtain British consent for the dispatch of an Italian garrison to Zeila in order to establish a joint Anglo-Italian occupation. See F. Salata, Il Nodo di Gibuti (Milan: Istituto per gli studi di Politica Internazionale, 1939), pp. 12-16.
  17. British and Foreign State Papers, vol. 76, pp. 101-107. The treaties also contained provisions regarding commerce and the slave trade. In addition, the treaties with the Habr Toljala and Habr Gerhajis also provided for the protection of wrecks of vessels.
  18. Ibid., vol. 77, 1885-1886 (London: William Ridgway, 1893), pp. 1263-1269.
  19. Ibid., vol. 81, 1888-1889 (London: H.M.S.O., no date), p. 936.
  20. C. E. X. Rochet d’Hericourt, Second Voyage sur les deux rives de la mer Rouge dans les pays des Adels et le Royaume de Choa (Paris: Arthus Bertrand, 1846); for the text of the treaty, signed on June 17, 1843, see PP· 375-378· See also Alexandre de Clercq, Recueil des Traités de la France, vol. XV (Paris: A. Durand et Pedone-Lauriel, 1888), pp. 340-341; and G. Hantoux and A. Martineau, Histoire des Colonies Françaises, tome IV (Paris: Pion, 1931), p. 581. Shoa, formerly a semi-independent kingdom, now is a province of Ethiopia.
  21. Hantoux and Martineau, p. 581; G. Angoulvant and S. Vigneras, Djibouti, Mer Rouge, Abyssinie (Paris: J. Andre, 1902), pp. 9-11; E. Rouard de Card, Les Possessions Françaises de la Côte Orientale d’Afrique, Extrait de la Revue Générale de Droit International Public (Paris: A. Pedone, 1899), pp. 2, 3-5; Comte Stanislas Russel, Une Mission en Abyssinie et dans la Mer Rouge (Paris: E. Pion, Nourrit et Cie., 1884), pp. 196, 216-218, 263-266, 281.
  22. Alexandre de Clercq, vol. XIV, part 2 (Paris, 1886), pp. 513-516; Herts- let, Map of Africa by Treaty (our note II, above), vol. II, pp. 628-629.
  23. For details about de Rivoyre’s activity, see the pamphlet published by the Société des Etudes Coloniales et Maritimes, Les Comptoirs Français de l’Afrique Orientale (Paris: Morris Père et Fils, 1879). For a French official announcement dated Dec. 25, 1880, about the great risks involved in undertaking any private activity at Obock, see Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. II, pp. 629-630. See also Hantoux and Martineau, vol. IV, p. 582; H. Deschamps, Côte des Somalis (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1948), p. 43; Angoulvant and Vigneras, pp. 16-18.
  24. For the text of the treaties, see Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. II, pp. 630-633, 726-728. See also Alexandre de Clercq, vol. XIV, pp. 348-349, 418-419, 423, 429-430; E. Rouard de Card, Les Traités de Protectorat Conclus par la France en Afrique, 1870-1895 (Paris: A. Durand et Pedone-Lauriel, 1897), pp. 38-43, 162-164; Deschamps, just cited, pp. 45-46.
  25. Italy, Ministry of War, Somalia (Rome, 1938), pp. 15-28, 183-188; Raffaele Ciasca, Storia coloniale dell’ Italia contemporanea (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1938), pp. 232-233. See also C. Negri, La grandezza italiana (Turin: Tip. Paravia e comp., 1864); Italy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, l’Italia in Africa, vol. II (Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1955), pp. 35-38.
  26. Ciasca, just cited, p. 235; Italy, Ministry of War, Somalia, pp. 47-48, 200-201; C. Cesari, La Somalia Italiana (Rome: Fratelli Palombi, 1934), pp. 39-56.
  27. On the Cecchi mission and subsequent events, see Ciasca, pp. 235-237; Coupland (our note 13, above), pp. 444-445; Italy, Ministry of War, Somalia, pp. 49-50, 52-54, and (for text of Cecchi’s reports on the 1885 treaty negotiations) 203-216. For text of treaty see British and Foreign State Papers, vol. 76, pp. 269-273. For the text of the Anglo-German agreement see Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. Ill, pp. 874-876, 882-887. On the 1888 incident see also G. Hamilton, Princes of Zinj (London: Hutchinson, 1957), pp. 191-192.
  28. Ciasca, pp. 237-238; Italy, Ministry of War, Somalia, p. 54; Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. I, pp. 362-364, vol. Ill, pp. 1088-1093, 1125.
  29. For treaties with Obbia and Mijertain, see British and Foreign State Papers, vol. 81, pp. 132-134. After the treaty with the Sultan of Mijertain, the boundaries of the protectorate were amended and the powers notified on May 20, 1889. See Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. Ill, pp. 1123-1124. Also: Italy, Ministry of War, Somalia, pp. 54-56; and Ciasca, pp. 238-239.
  30. Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. Ill, pp. 954-960, 1094-1100.
  31. For details on the administrations of the territory in these early years, mentioned in the last four paragraphs, see Italy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, l’Italia in Africa, vol. II, appendix, table IV. On the Filonardi company, see Italy, Ministry of War, Somalia, pp. 63-91; the same book, passim, discusses later developments. On the period of the Commercial Company of Benadir, see Cesari (our note 26, above), pp. 74-86. For the commission of inquiry’s report, see Le Questioni del Benadir: Atti e Relazione dei Commissari della Società Signori Gustavo Chiesi e Avv. Ernesto Travelli (Milan: P. Β. Bellini, 1904). For text of convention between Italian government and Commercial Company of Benadir, and for later developments, see Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. Ill, pp. 1104-1107, 1214. On the unrest, see Ciasca, pp. 275- 283. Considerable information, though presented with a strong anti-Italian bias, can be found in E. Sylvia Pankhurst’s Ex-Italian Somaliland (New York: Philosophical Library, 1951), pp. 38-76. For the story of the Mullah, see our Chapter 5.
  32. P. L. McDermott, British East Africa or I BE A: A History of the Formation and Work of the Imperial British East Africa Company, second edition (London: Chapman & Hall, 1895), p. 3.
  33. Ibid., pp. 10-12; Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. I, pp. 339-362. For the treaty dividing the region into British and German spheres of influence see British and Foreign State Papers, vol. 77, p. 1130.
  34. Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. I, pp. 380-381.
  35. See F. D. Lugard, The Rise of Our East African Empire, vol. II (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1893), pp. 563-594, 610-611.
  36. On the Juba border, see Hertslet, Map of Africa by Treaty, vol. Ill, p. 948. The border was subsequently amended with the cession of Jubaland to Italy in 1924 (see Cmd. 2194 and 2427). On the border with Ethiopia see Cmd. 4318.
  37. See Menelik’s circular note to the European sovereigns dated April 1891, reproduced in Clement de la Jonquière, Les Italiens en Erythrée (Paris: Henri Charles-Lavauzelle, 1897), pp. 145-146.
  38. For an exposition of Ethiopian objectives by Ras Makonnen, see H. G. C. Swayne, Seventeen Trips Through Somaliland, second edition (London: Rowland Ward, Ltd., 1900), pp. 172-173.
  39. D. Mathew, Ethiopia: The Study of a Polity 1540—(London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1947), pp. 242-243; Guebre Selassie, Chronique de Meneli\ II, Roi des Rois d’Ethiopie, vol. I (Paris: Maisonneuve frères, 1930), pp. 242-245, 307ÎÎ3. For contemporary accounts, see Swayne, passim; and P. Paulitschke, Harar: Forschungsreise nach den Somalund Galla-Ländern Ost-Afrikas (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1888).
  40. Swayne, pp. 115-176, 214—215, and passim.

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