BRITISH SOMALILAND is a country which has, I fear, an indisputable claim to being styled “The Cinderella of the Empire” and the least progressive of all our Dependencies in tropical Africa. I suggest that the present is a specially opportune time for taking stock of our position in that torrid and turbulent region, not only because the exceptional difficulties that face the Administrator in Somaliland constitute a very special claim to our sympathy and attention at all times, but also because it so happens that the year 1924 has marked the fortieth anniversary of our Protectorate over the Somali tribes. For it was in I884 that difficulties in Sudan constrained the Egyptian Government to abandon their Somali claims – an event that led to a British officer with a handful of police and sepoys proceeding post-haste to Berbera. In the following year, separate protective treaties were concluded with six of the eight Somali tribes now under British protection. Thus, as it was not until the following decade that Protectorates were declared over Zanzibar, Nyasaland, Uganda, and East Africa, Somaliland can claim to be the doyen of all our East African Colonies and Protectorates. But whereas these other dependencies have progressed beyond recognition under our tutelage, the Somali has remained a Peter Pan and a very attractive Peter Pan – who has stubbornly declined to grow up. Unlike her sister Protectorates, Somaliland has no industries and no mines, no railways and no schools; and little trade, as trade, is understood in more prosperous and progressive Colonies. Moreover, she is still dependent upon Grants-in-aid and Loans-in-aid from Imperial funds, the local annual revenue being about 80,000 Pounds only, while the Government of the country can scarcely be carried out, even in the most modest lines, with an expenditure of fewer than 150,000 pounds a year. This failure to progress is attributable to three causes. First, the Mad Mullah, whose activities destroyed the peace of the Protectorate for twenty-one years; secondly, the barren and unproductive nature of a great part of the country; and thirdly, the Somali’s ultra-conservative and independent character. The first of these causes operate no longer; for nearly four years have now passed by since that very able and remarkable Somali, Muhammad bin Abdalla Hassan was gathered to his fathers. As regards the other two causes, I propose in this paper to discuss certain features of the Somali country and some aspects of the Somali character from the standpoint of the future progress and prosperity of the country.
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Geographically, Somaliland is not unfavorably situated, and it is by far the most easily accessible of any of our East African Dependencies. Berbera, the capital, is but 160 miles across the Gulf from Aden, and is, therefore, but twelve days distant from London and six from Bombay. It cannot be said that this proximity to our main Imperial trade route has been of many benefits to the Protectorate in the past, but it might prove at any time to be of incalculable value. For example, some eleven years ago petroleum was discovered a few miles inland from Berbera, and more recently coal, similar to Nigerian coal, has been found very near the coast. If the petroleum should ever prove to exist in commercial quantities, or the coal be of sufficiently high quality, then Berbera, which is favored with a good natural harbor, might well become a port of call for motor ships or steamers traveling East. And thus the whole financial position of the country would be revolutionized.
The area of the British Protectorate is 68,000 square miles, and the population is estimated to number some 300,000. Thus, a country which is 10,000 square miles larger than England and Wales combined supports a population whose numbers do not exceed the population of an average English county. Judged by African standards, indeed, Somaliland is a province rather than a colony. Of the provinces in Nigeria, for example, no less than twenty support a greater population, and one province can boast a population eleven times as great as that of Somaliland. I question whether under the economic conditions that exist at present in Somaliland a larger population could thrive even with the low standard of living that now prevails.
The general conception of Somaliland is an arid desert scorched by a burning sun, devoid of all vegetation, destitute of wealth, and forbidding in aspect. This description is accurate enough when applied to a narrow strip stretching any distance from a maximum of sixty miles to a minimum of 200 yards from the coast to the maritime hills, but the traveler inland soon finds himself in more hospitable country. Grass, box trees, acacias, flowering aloes, gum, myrrh, and frankincense trees bedeck the mountain slopes; in some sheltered spots the juniper and the fig tree flourish wild; in a few gorges, maidenhair lines the rocky pools; and almost everywhere the giant euphorbia lends an artificial and stage-like effect to the scene. From the mountains, one passes to a vast undulating plateau that slopes very gradually southwards to the Webbi Shebeli. Here you get large strips of rolling open pasture land with grass that stands as high as a man’s waist; great areas of dense bush; and only very occasionally barren desert devoid of vegetation.
Climatically, the coastal belt can fairly be described as infernal. The heat is the most intense that it has been my lot to experience anywhere; and when I say that the barren rocks of Aden offer a pleasant and almost invigorating change after residence in Berbera, those who know their Aden but have never visited Somaliland will realize that the epithet ” infernal ” is no exaggeration. Some forty-five miles from Berbera, at an altitude of 5000 feet, lies Sheikh, which possesses a most delightful and invigorating climate. Even at mid-day, it is seldom unpleasantly hot there, while in the evening a fire is nearly always acceptable and sometimes necessary. I should very much like to hear that the headquarters of Government had been transferred from Berbera to Sheikh. Whatever disadvantages may accrue from the creation of artificial capitals in our tropical Dependencies, they are to my mind more than counterbalanced by the advantages derived from a healthy headquarters where the European can live and work in health and comfort. In Somaliland, where the climate of the traditional capital, which cannot but sap the energy of the strongest and keenest, contrasts so greatly with that of a healthy and invigorating hill station but 45 miles distant, the case for a change seems almost indisputable. South of the main mountain range, in which Sheikh is situated, the temperature on the great plateau is as a rule high, but with considerable variation, from 45 degrees F. or less in the early morning to 100 degrees F or over in the early afternoon; but, in consequence of the elevation of the plateau and the dryness of the air, the heat is less oppressive than is indicated by the thermometer. The annual rainfall differs greatly throughout the country. It is often less than an inch at Berbera, and it is sometimes as much as 50 inches at Sheikh.
Little is known of the origin of the Somali people. At some date B.C. which is difficult to determine, the Gallas, the stock from which the Somalis are descended, were driven from Southern Arabia into the region now known as Somaliland, where they presumably intermarried with the original Negro inhabitants. In the early years of Muhammad’s mission, about A.D. 616, there was a further influx across the Red Sea from the Arabian to the African coast; and from this date onwards Arabs settled in Somaliland and intermarried with the Galla tribes, thus creating the Somali race. Whatever the circumstances attending these incursions may have been, the distant affinity of the Somali language to Arabic and the merely dialectal difference from Galla leaves one with no doubt that they are descended from both these races. Both in temperament and appearance, however, the Somalis have inherited far more from their conquering Arabian forbears than from the Negroes who originally inhabited their country. They are of good physique, with heads well set on spare but athletic frames, with proud bearing and carriage bespeaking their consciousness of racial superiority over their neighbors. Their profile is often classic; the forehead is finely rounded and prominent; the eyes are moderately large and deep-set; the nose is usually straight, although sometimes it is snub or aquiline; the lips are not too thick and never averted as in the Negro; and the hair is never woolly, but ringlety, and sometimes even quite straight. In color, they vary from light to dark brown, and from dark brown to black. Judged by any standard of beauty, the Somali is physically of an extremely attractive appearance, and I can recall a very tall and athletic sepoy of the Somaliland Camel Corps whose head and features were in all but color a perfect reproduction of the Hermes of Praxiteles.
The Somali race is divided into two great divisions which are again subdivided into tribes, eight of which are domiciled in the British Protectorate. These tribes are all further divided into innumerable sub-tribes, clans, sections, and families, which only unite to face a common danger. Dissensions may arise, and often do arise, as between one tribe and another, or as between two sections or sub-sections of the same tribe; and such dissensions lead to fratricidal warfare which, in a country where practically every adult man owns a rifle, often entails much loss of life and property. All the tribes are nomadic and are continually moving with their camels, their most treasured possession, their sheep, goats, and oxen in search of fresh grass and water-holes. Differences of opinion over grazing and water, permanent supplies of which are only found at two or three especially favored places in the Protectorate, are the chief causes of inter-tribal warfare. Scattered over the country may be found half a dozen marinas or settlements of Mullahs and other holy men. Around these settlements, Jowari, a kind of millet, is cultivated, and ten years ago this represented the only attempt at cultivation in the country. Of recent years, however, particularly in the Hargeisa district, the natives have begun to grow cereals in a small way on their own initiative; but the success of such enterprise must eventually depend on irrigation. The visit of an irrigation engineer might have far-reaching results, not only for these few budding agriculturists but also for the great mass of Somalis who must remain a pastoral people dependent upon adequate supplies of water and grazing for their livestock.
From time to time, but particularly between September and March, chosen representatives of each tribal section repair to the coast towns to retail their sheep, goats, and oxen, and hides and skins. For their livestock, they have a sure and convenient market at Aden, which is almost entirely dependent on Somaliland for its meat supply, while the hides and skins go to European and American middlemen in Aden, who attach a special value to the Somali sheep-skin. These are the only exports of any commercial consequence. With the proceeds of these sales, the Somali buys cotton-cloth from Manchester or America or Japan wherewith to clothe himself, and rice from India and dates from Basra to supplement his simple diet of meat and milk. The volume of this export and import trade differs little from year to year, and it is difficult to see how it can be substantially increased in the absence of any industries or mines. Paradoxical as it may appear, it is nevertheless almost true to say that when the country is prosperous, trade tends to languish. For, given good rains and good grazing, and the live-stock in good condition, the Somali can afford to subsist to a greater extent on the meat and milk of his flocks and herds, and is not compelled to export in order to supplement his diet with rice and dates from abroad. As is the case in other parts of British Africa, the hides and skins exported from Somaliland leave much to be desired as regards flaying and butchering; and an improvement in this respect would lead to enhanced prices being forthcoming. In Nigeria, steps have been taken to remedy a similar defect, and a Political Officer recently devoted some of his leave to study the subject with a view to the education of the natives in approved methods of flaying and butchering.
Enough has been said to show that the great mass of the Somalis are still living the same primitive and nomadic life today that their ancestors have lived from time immemorial always on the move in search of water and grass, forever scanning the horizon for the rain they so seldom see, and usually ready for a fight if they think that thereby they may increase their livestock at the expense of their neighbors. The tribe is the mainspring of the Somali’s existence. In his youth, he may go abroad to seek his fortunes. As a trader or a cattle-dealer in Eastern Africa or Aden; as a miner in South Africa or Australia; or as a seaman with headquarters at Port Said or Cardiff, he has proved that he can make a very good living for himself. But he will always cherish the same ambition to return to his tribe and the tribal life and invest his savings in live-stock. He is exceptionally immune against denationalization. When abroad he may array himself in European clothes, complete with celluloid collar, guardee tie, and patent leather boots; but when he returns to his country he will scornfully discard all the paraphernalia of European civilization and dress himself once more in a robe of cotton cloth which he wears as proudly as the Roman wore his toga. This reveals a very different outlook on life from that displayed by most other Africans. In West Africa, for example, the native is usually anxious to imitate the European and the European’s mode of life. He believes that if he acquires a certain degree of literacy and wears European clothes, he has by these facile processes risen to the same plane of civilization as the European, differing from him solely in the color of his skin; and when the European does not accept him at this valuation, he is greatly perturbed and believes that his failure to be accepted as an equal is attributable to color prejudice. This desire to imitate the European, although it has many unpleasant and indeed laughable aspects, cannot but promote the progress of a country. When you have an ever-increasing section of a primitive community desiring to blossom forth as clerks and merchants, clergymen, doctors or lawyers, you are bound to get progress in some direction, and it is the difficult duty of administrators to see that progress is directed into the best channels. In Somaliland, the position is very different. There is no doubt that the British officer, both as soldier and administrator, has won the respect and admiration of the Somali in a very high degree. But this feeling of respect and admiration does not carry with it any desire to imitate the European or his standards of life and action. During the war, I was discussing the situation with a traveled Somali. We were talking of the characteristics of the various nations involved, and I was prompted to inquire who he thought were the greatest nations. He was quick to reply that the British were the greatest, and quicker still to add that the Somalis were equally great. I remember he placed the Arabs third and the Germans fourth. When I asked him why the British ruled over the Somalis if both were equally great, he replied that he supposed it was because the British possessed so many more rupees. I quote this conversation because it was characteristic. The Somali regards himself as the inferior of no man. He is a very fanatical Muhammadan, and, as such, he either scorns or pities the infidel, and also most other Muhammadans, whom he regards as unorthodox. This spirit of superiority and independence, coupled with religious fanaticism, has made the Somali ultra-conservative and suspicious of all change. For example, like all other natives of Africa, he is fully alive to the advantages of education as adding to his wage-earning capacity; but when discussing the question of establishing a school in the Protectorate he is apt to become distrustful and suspicious and to fear that any school established by a Christian Government might prove to be an institution aiming at the Christianization of his children. There can be no doubt, however, that the most clamant need of the country is the establishment of vernacular schools, such as exist in the Sudan, and of a secondary school on the lines of the Gordon College at Khartoum with the dual object of molding the character of the future tribal chiefs and of replacing Indians by Somalis in the subordinate posts of Government Departments, thus providing useful and lucrative employment for the natives of the country and affecting a considerable saving in the salary bill of the Protectorate Government. I do not make this statement without fully recognizing the manifold dangers that must attend the creation of a literate class among a highly intelligent and quick-witted race such as the Somalis, but I believe that real profit and advantage will accrue to the Protectorate from a school where character-training is given the most prominent part in the educational system.
Prior to the rise of the Mad Mullah in 1900, Somaliland was a happy hunting-ground for the sportsman and naturalist; and the Somali profited considerably from the number of visitors who came to his country bent on the sport. But of recent years visitors from the outside world have been few and far between, partly owing to the disturbed state of the country and partly on account of provisions against the slaughter of big game; though these restrictions were spurned by the natives in 1910 to 1913, when the interior of the country was evacuated by the Government – a loss which Nature has done something to repair during the last decade. Lions and leopards may be found throughout the British Protectorate, while the visitor who is prepared to go somewhat further afield to the central Ogaden country may see elephant and a local sub-species of pointed-lipped, double-horned rhinoceros. But it is the number and variety of her antelopes that makes Somaliland particularly attractive to the naturalist. There are the greater and lesser kudu, the hartebeest, and the dibatag or Clarke’s gazelle; the gerenuk or Waller’s gazelle, the aoul or Soemmering’s gazelle, and the dero or Speke’s gazelle, and the oryx, all abound, while a small antelope, the dikdik, may be found in almost every thicket. The game birds include partridges, sand grouse, guinea-fowl, and as many as three varieties of bustard. When we bear in mind that Somaliland is easily and comfortably accessible from this country and that the climate of the interior is remarkably healthy when judged by African standards, we have every reason to hope that in years to come Somaliland may regain her position as one of the most popular resorts of those who seek out the remote corners of the world in search of sights and adventure. The comparatively dull coastal region may now be traversed by motor-car, and thereafter the traveler will find that pony and camel transport, as available in Somaliland, offers one of the most comfortable means of progression known in tropical Africa.
I have endeavored in this paper to indicate briefly one or two of the avenues whereby British Somaliland may proceed to an era of progress and prosperity comparable to what is now being enjoyed in other Dependencies in tropical Africa. It is customary, I know, to regard the Protectorate as having a very murky past and no future. I am not one of those who subscribe to this pessimistic view; but, if it be accepted, and should it prove justified in the future, then I am certainly not one of those who believe that our success as administrators in such a country as Somaliland can be measured by trade returns or the annual budget. There can be only one criterion of success in such a country, namely, the increased happiness of the people, and of that there is ample proof in Somaliland.
It will be within your recollection that the evacuation of the interior in 1910 was followed by a period of unprecedented chaos and anarchy in the Protectorate, when the natives abandoned themselves to a positive orgy of inter-tribal and inter-sectional warfare, using against each other the arms and ammunition which had been doled out to them for defence against the Mullah. In this holocaust not less than one-third of the male population is said to have perished. From 1914 onwards the interior has been gradually reoccupied and administered; and, thanks to the untiring and devoted efforts of our District Commissioners, peace and unity are gradually replacing strife and anarchy. I am informed that during the last two years the country has experienced a period of peace and contentment such as the Somali people have not enjoyed for over two decades. Nothing perturbs the proud and independent Somali more profoundly than the threat that we will evacuate their country and abandon them again to their own devices if they do not behave themselves.
During the eighteen months that have elapsed since the publication of my biography of the Mad Mullah, I have received letters from men well known in this country whose names, however, are not likely to be found inscribed on the roll of membership of the African Society inquiring why we should continue to ” interfere,” as they style it, in such a worthless and waterless country as Somaliland. The answer to such inquiries is a simple one. For not only does the ardent desire of the natives that we should implement the treaties made with them forty years ago create a moral obligation that cannot be denied, but, as I see it, we also owe a very material debt to the Somalis, a debt which can only be measured if, indeed, it can be measured at all – in terms of the lives and treasure that would have been sacrificed in the Great War if the port of Berbera, commanding the Red Sea, had been in enemy hands on the 4th of August, 1914.
Somaliland: The Cinderella of the Empire
Journal of the Royal African Society
Vol. 24, No. 94 (Jan. 1925), pp. 100-109