British Somaliland must be considered along with British East Africa; it being part of that horn of Africa wherein Great Britain, France, Italy, and Abyssinia have spheres of influence. The partition of Somaliland was due to the retirement of the Egyptian garrisons in 1884. At first, the British protectorate was under the ‘charge of the British Resident at Aden, but in 1898 a separate commissioner was appointed to British Somaliland. Effective occupation is confined to the coast, where the harbor of Berbera is of some importance. The doings of the Mullah in the interior have given an unfortunate prominence to Somaliland.

The Oxford Survey Of The British Empire: Africa

By Andrew John Herbertson and Osbert John Radcliffe Howarth


The object of this series is to furnish a survey of the British Empire and its constituent parts in their geographical and allied aspects, together with their economic, administrative, and social conditions, at the present time. History has not been included as an integral part of the scheme, except for the inclusion of a general historical summary in the General Volume; for the rest, historical references have been included only in so far as they were found desirable for the explanation of existing conditions. The history of the Empire has been brought under review elsewhere, notably in the Oxford Historical Geography edited by Sir Charles Lucas.

Chapter XIV British Somaliland

By H. 0. Beckit,

M. A., Assistant to the Professor of Geography in the University of Oxford.

The British Somaliland Protectorate includes all the parts of the northern coast of the so-called ‘Horn of Africa’ and its hinterland that lie west of the 49th meridian, which the frontier follows from the sea as far inland as 9° N. lat., thence continuing straight to 8° N., 48° E., and then passing along the 8th parallel to 47° E., and still almost wholly by straight lines, successively west-north-west, north-west, and north-east, to the sea again close to the Gulf of Tajura. It is thus a section, about the size of England and Wales, arbitrarily cut out of the great triangular Somali peninsula, which in many respects forms a continuation of Arabia, and, in point of view of the structure, of the Indian Deccan as well.

The Oxford Survey Of The British Somaliland 1914
VIEWS FROM SHEIKH, SOMALILAND (Visual Instruction Committee)
The Oxford Survey Of The British Somaliland 1914
VIEWS FROM SHEIKH, SOMALILAND (Visual Instruction Committee)



The peninsula has a general south-eastward slope, with its greatest heights close along the northern edge; broadly it would seem to be a great block of the earth’s crust, slightly tilted so as to stand highest in the north and west, and bounded by a series of fractures to north, north-west, and south-east. The irregularities in its surface, whether due to interior dislocations or to the varying local effect of water, wind, and weather, have been considerably reduced by infilling of depressions through the want of a system of perennial rivers to transport the waste of the land to the sea.

Geology and relief

Both the hydrography and the geology so far as it is known, of the British portion of Somaliland, will be more easily understood in connexion with a brief statement of the main features of the relief. It should first of all be noted that in this, the higher part of the crustal block summarily described in the last paragraph, the range in altitude is much greater, and the master lines of mountain and lowland more nearly approach a west and east direction than further south. There is in fact a series of belts of country, roughly parallel with the coast, which can be most fully made out by making a traverse southward from near Berbera. Here the succession is as follows:

Zonal distribution of surface characters: the Guban

  1. A narrow coastal plain, sandy or pebbly — much of the sand being the waste of a slightly uplifted coral reef —gently rising to 300 or 400 feet above sea-level. This is of recent formation and broken in places by low hills of limestone and chert which have been regarded as of Cretaceous and possibly Eocene date.
  1. A maritime range, reaching 1,500 feet and more, formed of Cretaceous limestone dipping to the south.
  2. A series of aggraded basins with alluvial deposits, in which streams wind in broad sandy beds.
  3. Another belt of hills, usually from 2,000 to 3,000 but in places 4,000 feet high, of gneiss, partly overlain by Jurassic limestone which also has a general southerly dip; the more rugged summits are in the crystalline rock. In both this and the outer maritime range the valleys are mostly steep-sided, boulder-strewn, and often difficult of passage.
  4. A more elevated terrace, forming plains higher than (3) but lower than (4), in part alluvial. Nos. (1) to (5) are known as the Guban (i. e. burnt), and are here from 30 to 35 miles wide, but narrowing to a mere strip less than 2 miles wide before the eastern frontier is reached.

The Golis range

  1. Steep rise to a crest, here called the Golis range (5,000 to 6,000 feet), dissected by gorges and gaps which form routes to the interior, and here and there broaden out into enclosed upland plains. In front of the actual crest inns a stony ledge, a mile or two wide, covered with thin soil, and known as the Mirso or ‘haven’. The lower slopes of this rise are in Archaean gneiss, with dykes of pegmatite; schists and granitic rocks also occur, the latter outcropping in isolated peaks as much as 5,000 feet above the sea. The top of these old rocks corresponds generally with the Mirso ledge. Immediately overlying them is a thick Eocene (‘Golis’) series, beginning with red and purple sandstones and conglomerates containing iron (about 800 feet), succeeded by thin shale and then by a cave-forming limestone (about 250 feet thick).

The Ogo

  1. Terraces known as Ogo, with a relatively gentle faille towards south and south-east, apparently everywhere underlain by the upper Golis limestone, whose somewhat irregular surface is often masked by a thin cover of sands, clays, and gypsum.


The terraced descent northward from the crest about Hargeisa further west forms a much-dissected series of plains, known from their generally transitional character as Ogo-Guban. The soil here is often rich and dark with vegetable humus; the descents to the dissecting valleys are steep, and the intervening uplands often rocky.

7a. Somewhat further to the east there begins a continuous depression with a very slight slope towards east-south-east and a mean altitude of about 3,000 feet, intervening between (7) and (8), where absolutely no bedrock outcrops. The eastern half of this depression forms the Nogal Valley, 50 miles north of which the head only of the not dissimilar Darror valley lies within British Somaliland.

The Haud

  1. The Haud, a great rolling plateau, almost waterless in the dry season, and passing far beyond the southern boundary of British Somaliland, with subsidiary hills rising from it, the Bur Dab, for instance, and other ranges along the southern edge of the Nogal; but these are sometimes only outliers formed by erosion out of the higher parts of the plateau. The Haud is almost entirely if not wholly underlain by the Golis limestone, and usually has a reddish sandy or clayey soil. What is really a detached portion of the Hand, equally poorly watered, but stony, lies between the Darror and Nogal valleys and is properly known as the Sorl.

The geology of the north-eastern region is undetermined; it seems probable that the limestone is there appreciably thicker, but that some of the stratigraphic elements of the western and central maritime belts are here submerged beneath the sea; the external ranges and plateau scarp are all squeezed against the coast.

Orographic features

One or more of these orographic elements may be missing on parallel traverses made further east or west, yet along any meridian, there is to be found a coastal lowland of no great width, hacked by a somewhat undulating table-land from which it is parted by a steep scarped slope corresponding with a geological fault that forms the topmost and biggest step of a series descending to and beneath the Gulf of Aden. Other faults probably occur along the seaward face of the maritime and other ranges of the Guban; these form the risers to lower steps in the same great staircase, the backward sloping treads of which have been partly flooded with rock waste from above. The crystalline substratum of the belt (4) appears to be a detached portion of the Archaean rocks of the Golis scarp, let down by faults. The crest of this eroded fault scarp reaches altitudes from 4,000 to 7,000 feet and runs right across British Somaliland and beyond it, both eastward with some decline in height to Cape Guardafui, and westward, where it joins the higher, largely volcanic plateau of Harrar (Abyssinia); similar volcanic rocks, probably of Tertiary date, occur in the extreme west of British territory, and now form tabular hills bounded by cliffs with heavy screes at the foot and a rugged surface. These extrusive rocks can be connected with the fractures and founderings which, as has been already stated, terminate the Somali plateaus to north and north-west.


The drainage, though incomplete by reason of the very low rainfall, follows three main directions: (1) down the main scarp slope by many parallel courses perpendicular to the northern coast, which is not, however, always reached by any surface stream in each wadi (in Somali, tug); (2) usually rather east of south down the inland slopes of the Ogo in lateral valleys which cut the high land into blocks; (3) along the plateau somewhat south of east in the axial Darror and Nogal valleys, which open out, but do not carry continuous rivers, to the Indian Ocean.

There are, indeed, no permanent rivers in British Somaliland; the coastal scarp streams (1), and the lateral drainage (2), towards the two axial depressions (3), form torrents which only flow seasonally and in dwindling volume to varying distances from their source before they are lost by evaporation or by percolation underground.

The same fate overtakes even the Tug Der (or ‘long wadi’), which after the rains gathers a great part of the lateral drainage, including some from the southern Haud, and in consequence floods its aggraded bed, but rarely if ever flows as a surface stream into the lower Nogal valley, which is its direct continuation. The longest of the lateral wadis is the Jid Ali or Durrero Tug, leading to the Nogal across the Sorl, down the inward slope from the Warsangli plateau crest (an eastward continuation of Golis, here called the Hadaftimo Mountains) near to long. 48°.


For water-supply, however, the whole of the running streams would be hopelessly inadequate: they are supplemented by rocky pools in the ranges, by clay-floored pans called ballis in the lower interior plateaus, which hold rain-water perhaps for a month or two, and by more or less permanent wells where groundwater can be reached. Great care is commonly needful to avoid penetrating the clay bands in the alluvial deposits where many of the wells and ballis occur, so as not to let the water which the clay holds up waste itself in the underlying sands. Even on recognized caravan routes, dependable wells are often spaced very far apart — sometimes as far as 100 miles. A good deal of the well water especially that from gypsum rock in the Nogal Valley, is impregnated with sulphuretted hydrogen, though exposure to light and air largely does away with the smell and flavor; the tainted water is thought to be all the better for stock. Groundwater in the maritime plain, where surface streams often fail to reach the sea across the recent sand and alluvium, is brackish: Berbera, for example, draws a supply of somewhat better quality through a pipe-line 7 or 8 miles long from the maritime hills at Dubar.



The predominant feature of the climate is dryness: it is generally hot, but except during particular seasons in the coastal lowland, not unhealthy. The complete lack of long-period observations very much reduces the significance of any numerical values that can be quoted for the rainfall, but it can safely be asserted that, as is common in generally arid regions, the amount is not only slight but also exceedingly variable. On the coast, wherein other respects too the closest approach is found to true desert climate, the precipitation will not exceed 3 or 4 inches annually — setting aside exceptional years — and is frequently much less: in the high plains (Ogo) near the Golis range it seems to be something over 10 inches, generally more in the mountains, but less again as we pass into the Hand. On the whole, rainfall diminishes also from west to east, but is particularly variable, both locally and from year to year, in the usually drier eastern districts.


Trustworthy statistics of temperature are also deficient, but the mean daily range, even on the coast, is almost as great as the mean annual (i.e. the difference between the mean temperature of the hottest and the coldest month): in the higher interior, which usually has much lower temperatures, the daily range is considerably greater — especially where the surface is bare of vegetation. Even in the interior, however, maximum temperatures are occasionally very high, particularly during the prevalence of sand-storms: altitude reduces the average values, but this is sometimes compensated by the loss of the moderating influence of the sea.

A few approximate figures, all according to the Fahrenheit scale, may be given for what they are worth. Air temperature in the shade along the coast may exceed 110° about September, and minima as low as 60° are most exceptional: the higher plains of Guban are even hotter. In Ogo-Guban the extreme range lies between 50° and 100°: at Sheikh, in an upland plain near the seaward edge of the high plateau, minimum values of 40° in the cool, and over 65° in the hot season, against maxima of rather under 80° and just over 90° respectively, have been registered; while in the Hand the highest figures may rival, and the lowest will be only a little lower than those of the coast. Nowhere except in the maritime ranges or plateau crest of the north-east does the temperature seem to fall below freezing-point (to about 25°).


Seasonal distribution of the climatic elements is also not quite the same on the coast and inland. A monsoonal type of wind movement prevails, the year being divided into four (or five) unequal periods, thus:

 (1) Jilal or dry season, from about the middle of January to March or April: the latter part of the north-east monsoon — mostly a steady breeze.

 (1a) Kalil, calm and sultry, corresponding with the change to the south-west monsoon, about April.

 (2) Gu, fertile and rainy, bringing the first rains at the beginning of the less regular south-west monsoon: properly in May and June, but often earlier in the interior.

 (3) Haga or hot season, July to October, with a continuance of largely thunderstorm rain in the interior.

(4) Dair, a relatively cool season, about November to early January, with the second rains brought by the early north-east monsoon: in the interior, these second rains rather belong to an earlier season, that of the departing south-west monsoon.

The monsoons

The south-west monsoon, or karif, prevails from May to September, gradually changing to the north-west in the extreme west: it is accompanied by frequent mists in the interior, and along the coast by calms and squalls, increasing in force until August, and generally unfavorable to navigation by native sailing boats, which are regularly laid up — except for coastwise traffic west of Berbera — during this dangerous time of Bat Hiddan (i.e. sea closed).

From November to March the sea-breezes of the north-east monsoon prevail, and sailings east of Berbera and across the Gulf arc renewed, this period being known as that of Bad Furan (i.e. sea open): wind direction becomes east or even south-east in the extreme west. It is at the beginning and end of the karif season that the climate of the coastal districts growls oppressive and somewhat unhealthy. Strong winds, of gale force in the Haud, generally blow over the interior during the middle and later part of Haga. All the time that the karif wind blows, violent sand or dust-storms are a frequent and unwelcome feature right down to the coast, though they are said to be inimical to the fly and mosquito pests, as well as to nobler animals.

Seasonal rainfall

The high temperatures over the land reduce the precipitation that would otherwise be produced during the period of sea-breezes, and, in the interior highlands especially, the rains are essentially summer rains whose incidence corresponds with, but rather lags behind, the attainment of maximum altitude by the sun in its apparent northward and southward oscillation. The sim becomes vertical at noon over British Somaliland during April and August, and it may be noted that farther south the seasonal rains are more fully identified with the double passage of the equatorial belt of calms and predominant convection currents: in the northern or British area, there is a combination or transition between this equatorial arrangement and the special regime of monsoonal winds alternately on and offshore.



The universally low rainfall, conjoined with high temperature and the prevalence of limestone and other permeable rocks, gives the vegetation a characteristically scanty, semi-desert aspect. There are minor distinctions depending on soil and ground-water, and the combined result is an alternation of scrub and savanna with occasional jungle and absolute desert, and a notable general tendency to a thorny or spinous habit in many plants. The main features of the distribution can only be given here in a generalized form, in connexion with the surface divisions already enumerated.

of the maritime plain,

The seaward edge of the maritime plain is bare, but its inner portion carries thornbush, notably khansa [Acacia nubica) and kidthi {Balanites aegyptiaca), and some grass. The maritime ranges are brown and sterile, in their higher parts bearing only low scrub, but in the intermont plains dense thorn jungle and reedbeds follow the sandy stream beds while the often stony divides between the water-courses are covered with low acacia and occasional coarse grass: where there is shade in deeper ravines among the hills, and pools at least of water throughout the year, several varieties of wild fig grow: many trees support creeping vines. Dense jungle or low scrub with grasses and flowering plants occurs on the higher ranges of the great scarp, with real woodland on the actual crest, as in the woods of box and cedar — Burton’s ‘Somali pine’ (Juniperus procera), called deiyib by the natives — of the Mirso, the table-lands of Ogo-Guban, and Golis; and the best grasslands, together with the most varied flora in the country, are found here and in the Ogo. The useful gum, myrrh, and frankincense trees, which led the ancients to name the country Regio Aromatifera, grow mostly on the higher slopes and plateaus hereabouts and in the maritime hills; the gum resins classed as bdelliums, in the Hand and interior valleys as well. Much of these high lands about the great scarp has a characteristically park-like aspect.

Of the inland plateau

The plateau further inland, including the Hand, is either almost impenetrable thorn jungle, including many acacias with an undergrowth of aloes, of which the finest is of the species known as hig {Sanseviera ehrenhergii), varied by strips of grassy plain or bans, or else barer desert (locally called aror). In the depressions like the Nogal, trees and bushes are usually more open and rather less thorny: the trees commonly grow along the banks of water-courses and at the margins of what are flooded lands after the rains. The grasslands of the far interior have frequently sprung up on burnt-over stretches of the thorn bush. The best of the grasses is called by the Somalis daremo {Andropogon or Chrysopogon aucheri), grows a foot or more high, and never quite withers up; next in value is the shorter dihe (Sporobolus somalensis); the coarser kinds like durr (Andropogon kelleri), 4 or 5 feet high, are most useful as fodder for camels, which also browse on many of the bushes and shrubs. In some of the valleys palms, including the date, and fig trees grow locally, and there is a number of characteristic ground creepers in the inland regions.

Several species of cactus are common, and the giant euphorbia called hassadan reaches a height of 60 feet in Golis and elsewhere.


The wild fauna is naturally more numerous, and also more varied, away from the coast and beyond the British southern frontier; but even in the maritime tracts of Guban the pasture provides food for a large wild ass and for several species of antelope, including the little dih-diks {Madoqna philiphsi and swaynei — M , quentheri is confined to the Haud), oryx(O. beisa) and Soemmering’s gazelle, both extending throughout the country, as well as the lowland gazelle (G. pelzelni, replaced by Speke’s gazelle beyond the maritime hills), and, about the rocky hills, the beira {Dorcatragus melanotis). Hares, and several species of sand-grouse (Pterocles), bustard, and francolins, with occasional ostriches, are also found over the maritime tracts. Farther into the high land occur hartebeeste (Bubalis swaynei), the giraffe-like gorenuk or Waller’s gazelle (Lithocranius valleri), the nimble klipspringer (Oreotragus saltator), greater and lesser kudu (Strepsiceros), together with wart-hog everywhere near water, and troops of baboons along the mountains. Smaller mammals include mongooses, a ground squirrel, a rock rabbit, and peculiar varieties of small rats and mice. Birds are numerous, among them turtle- and ring-doves, green pigeons and parrots, starlings, hornbills, woodpeckers, and common quail. On the lower inland plateau of the Hand and Nogal we have to add the dibatag or Clarke’s gazelle, not quite so long-necked as the gerenuk, to most of the graminivorous animals already mentioned.

Preying on these creatures, or at any rate upon most of them, and on the flocks and herds belonging to the Somalis, a varied collection of carnivores exists, among which the lion, leopard (three species), lynx, serval and civet cats, both striped and spotted hyenas, jackals, and foxes should be mentioned. A good deal of the extension of our knowledge of the country during the later years of the nineteenth century was in fact clue to the temptations it offers to big-game hunters: but its repute with them was already somewhat waning before it became very largely a closed land as a result of the British withdrawal to the coast: the elephant, for example, seems to be suffering gradual extinction, or expulsion to the less accessible lands farther south.

Insects & c.

Insects of certain kinds are only too numerous, e.g. mosquitoes (both stegomyia and anopheles), ticks, blood-sucking horseflies — with allied camel and dog parasites — and locusts. The last-named often furnish the food for the common marabou stork, when carrion is not to be had. There are also scorpions, and some very large spiders; and the nests of termite ants built around dead trees and bushes, whose general shape they follow, are a characteristic feature in many views.


Economic geography

Economic geography can be very briefly discussed for a country whose people are still in the nomadic pastoral stage of development. Incidental treatment of their pastoral activities will be found farther on. There is, indeed, a little scattered agriculture, mainly of millet (jowari) in and around the towns and tarikas (below); but Mining and Manufactures are alien terms quite out of place if applied to the small home industries carried on by the Somalis and especially by certain semi-servile tribes. For these minor items in the life of the people, reference should be made to the sections dealing with the tribes and their social culture.

Communications on land

Methods of transport are primitive but vitally important in the economic and social conditions prevailing. Like nearly all of the facts connected with human activities in this country, they show strikingly a process of natural development and adaptation to physical conditions hardly less complete than that illustrated by the lower life-forms. So long as transportation continues unreformed, order and progress in a Western sense cannot possibly begin: the relative decline of the trade of the port of Zeyla since the French railway from Djibouti was opened furnishes an instructive lesson.

Not only is there no railway, built, building, or actually projected, in the whole of British Somaliland, but there are not even roads in any proper sense: the nearest approach to one is the rough track, in parts fit for wheeled traffic, constructed during the military operations of 1902-4 between Berbera and Bohodle by way of the Sheikh pass across the great scarp; but of this only the steep sections through the ranges were permanently improved. Traffic still finds a much easier means in pack animals, mostly camels, which can pass everywhere except where they are confined to defiles in the ranges, or through the thorn bush, where narrow clearings have to be made. Camel caravans regularly make one journey to the coast annually from places far beyond British territory, two or more from points north of about the seventh parallel; they commonly do from 15 to 25 miles in a day’s journey of 7 or 8 hours, halting during the middle of the day, or marching only at night, to avoid the heat. A Somali camel’s load may be taken as from 2 to 3 cwt.: the best come from the eastern districts, the rugged volcanic country that occurs in the west being unfavorable to these animals, so admirably suited to the service of man in the semi-desert plains of the interior. Rather undersized donkeys are similarly employed to a much smaller extent, mules still less; and the Somali uses his hardy pony entirely for riding, notably on tribal raids and for hunting. Camels are never ridden by adults in health. The clayey bottoms of the interior become so heavy during the rains that travel is in places than almost impossible.

Oversea Communications

As previously explained, there is a regular trade, coastwise and across the Gulf, particularly to and from Aden, in sailing boats called buggalows, belonging to the natives, and in dhows of between 50 and 300 tons from Basra and the Red Sea ports; but this traffic is partially suspended during karif, and a great deal of the Aden, together with the rest of the foreign trade, is carried on in steamers, nearly all British. Country craft also engages in the pearl fisheries, both locally and even as far off as the Persian Gulf.

The 440 miles of the coast are low and swampy in the extreme west, with shoal-water reaching far offshore, afterwards becoming sandy; but beyond Berbera, the hills and bluffs approach and sometimes actually reach the sea; there are, however, no considerable indentations to form good harbors. Though there are few or no offshore obstacles to navigation — Meit or Burnt Island, about long. 47° 15′, and affording some shelter from the eastward, is practically without a fellow — inshore reefs, commonly of coral, obstruct some of the minor anchorages. Tides only rise from 5 to 9 feet, so that passage over them is not open for vessels of any size. Breaks in the coral reef generally indicate an outflow, not very far below sea-level at any rate, of land water, the presence of which has no doubt attracted the population often found at these points, as well as made them comparatively accessible from the sea.

Berbera Port

Save for Zeyla in the far west, on a low mudbank, which at high tide forms an island behind a hooked spit, but shallow and reached by a somewhat awkward passage, the only sheltered harbor is at Berbera, at the back of which a number of more or less practicable passes leading to the interior exist. Here a recurving sand spit, resting on coral, and a mile and a half long, continues the line of the coast farther east and encloses a deep bay, open only to west-south-west, and with good anchorage on a sandy bottom, at the head of which the largest town in the country with a population in the trading season exceeding 30,000, has grown up; it has two piers, one of them accessible to small craft at all states of the tide. At Bulhar, between Berbera and Zeyla, and at Hais, farther cast, are only open roadsteads, where landing in surf boats is often necessary; native vessels use a number of still smaller and less convenient ports of call.

External Trade

The last of the old military system of inland telegraphs was abandoned in 1912; wireless installations maintain telegraphic communication with the rest of the world through Aden, which, with Djibouti, is the nearest submarine cable station, and also between Berbera and Bulhar.

The bulk of the trade which these very moderate facilities have to support is inconsiderable, so inconsiderable that the significance of annual, or even average values is much diminished by the high proportion of any actual increase or decrease that is due to the accident of military or other temporary government requirements. The usual imports are mainly of grain (rice and jowari), and a little tea from India, of cotton piece goods from India, Europe, and North America, and of dates from Basra; and the total value is about £250,000 yearly. Produce of the country worth rather over four-fifths of the average imports is usually exported; the chief items are sheep, goats, some cattle and ponies, and hides; ostrich feathers, ghi (clarified butter), hig fiber, civet, myrrh, frankincense, and gums, with guano from Meit Island and mother-of-pearl from near Zeyla may also be mentioned. Almost all go to Aden, the live-stock for consumption, and other articles for transshipment — sheepskins and goatskins, for example, to the United States via London. A great deal of the trade in the seaports passes through the hands of Indians, Arabs, and Jews.



The population appears to be stationary at about 350,000: the natural hardships of life in a semi-desert are against an increase, and the impetus given by somewhat increased trade since the ports at all events have been under civilized control is perhaps more than compensated by the additional deadliness imparted to tribal warfare by the introduction of modern firearms, an illicit trade in which persists along the coast. Since 1911 there has been a census in the ports, but everywhere else estimates only can be made of the number of the inhabitants. Except for seaports, there are no towns, hardly any permanent villages, and no regular buildings; and society is wholly tribal. In 1911 the population of Berbera, as has been stated, was over 30,000; that of Zeyla and Bulhar, about 7,000 each; all have very much less out of the trading season when different caravans come down from the interior.

Ethnology, social conditions, and culture

Virtually the whole of the people are of a single race, that called, by a title of rather uncertain derivation, Somali. Their relationship with their neighbors the Galas, whom they have driven away to the south-east, but whose ruined buildings and abandoned tillage, in many parts of the country, bear witness to a somewhat higher stage of civilization, also remains obscure. Some of the ruins may perhaps be really the creations of Arab proselytizers and traders who have since withdrawn to the coast. The Somali appear to be of mixed Hamitic and Semitic origin, or rather to be Hamites Semitized partially in blood, as physiognomy often suggests, but to a much greater degree socially, by perhaps repeated influx from southern Arabia.

They are described by those who have known them best as intelligent, brave, and cheerful, lovers of freedom and of their home — despite the fact that they have ever been roamers far beyond their own boundaries — but excitable, vain, and above all avaricious; in physique rather lithe and active than muscular, as is natural with the nomad life and spare living imposed by the physical conditions of the land. The same influence of the environment can be seen in their personal independence, e.g. in the very limited obedience paid to tribal chiefs, when these are not men of outstanding character and ability; in the desert, it is only the Attest who prevail. Of foreign influences, the most profound has been that of the Arab, whose nature and history is sufficiently similar to permit of the Somali absorbing a great deal from him, his religion not least of all. Like their neighbors the Arabs, and the Egyptians, all the pure-blooded Somalis are Muslims belonging to the Shaf’i sect of the Sunnis. The strictest observance of religious tradition is found near the coast; inland, itinerant mullahs dependent on charity, or others who live in small colonies or tarikas, the only permanent settlements in the interior, around which usually some millet (jowari) is cultivated, maintain an irregular national allegiance to Moslem principles.

Divisions of the Somalis

The full-blood Somalis are divided into two main stocks, called Darod and Ishak after Arab eponyms from whom they are traditionally descended, and now occupying the east and the west of the country respectively. The primary sub-divisions are as follows;

Group, Tribe, Range.
Eastern Warsangli Darror valley and vicinity,
Dolbahanta Nogal valley and vicinity.
Western Habr Gerhajis West of Warsangli and Dolbahanta
Habr Toljaala Between Habr Gerhajis and Habr Awal.
Habr Awal Behind Berbera and Bulbar.
Gadabursi Between Habr Awal and Esa
Esa Extreme west behind Zeyla (in greater numbers in French Somaliland)

Of these, the Esa alone do not boast Arab blood, and should not perhaps be regarded as belonging to the self-styled ‘noble’ or ‘gentle’ (Aji) Somali of the full blood. There are also three interesting dependent or outcast peoples (called Sab), the Midgans, Yebirs, and Tomals; many of the first two are still pagan, and possibly represent an earlier population, while the Tomals, or Gomals, are of mixed Midgan and Somali blood.

The Midgans are hunters, keeping dogs and using poisoned arrows, and also workers in leather; the Tomals, smiths who make axes, knives, spears, swords, and so forth, nowadays out of imported iron and brass-wire; and the Yebirs, mere gipsy beggars with a reputation for wizardry that enables them to impose on the superstitious Somali. All three, having a less self-sufficient way of life than the nomad herdsmen who are their masters, are scattered among the latter, often as family dependents, instead of having a separate tribal life of their own. Domestic slavery has never been a Somali institution, at any rate not in the territory now nominally British.


Somali society is still patriarchally organized, and the various tribes, each tracing its descent to a common ancestor, tend to be continually and elaborately sub-divided on a family basis. When not temporarily and partially concentrated in the coast towns after caravan journeys, the Somalis live in small vagrant communities, each known as a reer or karia, which rarely stays at one place more than a few days together, moving repeatedly to wherever it can find new grazing, not eaten off, and not customarily or forcibly appropriated by other tribesmen. By their camp they build a zariba of thorn bushes — when they cannot find and re-occupy some old one — to protect the live-stock from wild beasts, living themselves in gurgis, or portable dome-shaped huts ingeniously made something like gipsy tents of a framework of flexible sticks, planted in the ground all round and bent over to form a series of interlacing arches, and covered with bark mats and sometimes hides overall. These materials can easily be carried from place to place on the camels’ packs, and the huts built with them withstand the strongest winds.

Clothing, food

During the last generation or so the tobe or maro of imported cotton cloth, worn much like a Roman toga, has become the universal wear, superseding the girdle of tanned skins that was once often the principal garment. The staple and at tunes the sole food is provided by the

milch camels, goats, or sheep; even the herdsmen’s riding ponies are given camels’ milk with their water. Camel and other meat is occasionally eaten, and, in droughty seasons especially, the diet is supplemented with grain obtained by barter.


Riches have for ages meant to the Somali simply flocks and herds, and he commonly invests all his gains, however, earned, in this form of property, the most convenient for his wandering life. The tending of the stock, and especially of the camels, which are almost the only animals to which the Somali shows kindness, is practically the only work that the men will deign to do; thus they will build the zariba, but the women have to set up the gurgis and do most of the manual labor. Grazing camels are usually attended by the young men, often at some distance from the reer, other livestock by old women and young children; the older girls help with the flocks when on the move, but at other times they and the younger women spend much of their time making mats and hans — vessels of plaited grass in which sour milk is carried. It has been estimated that there are between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 camels in British Somaliland, and perhaps 4,000,000 sheep; the latter carry little wool and are usually white, with blackheads and necks, and as a rule hornless. Cattle, of a small, short-horned, hump-backed variety, are rare except about the Golis range, around Hargeisa, and in the Nogal valley.


Tribal government is loosely organized, as stated above, but the aqils or wealthiest and most powerful elders or heads of families more or less lead the shir or tribal assembly. Chiefs, often called sultans and usually chosen from a particular family but not strictly hereditary, have limited authority over the larger tribal units which is really measured by the power of their own particular clan. In a country where, during the dry season at any rate, there is rarely water or grazing enough for large herds in any one place, a scattered sectional life of necessity prevails, and it is almost impossible for lasting combinations for mutual support to come into existence. Blood feuds, for the most part arising out of quarrels over the watering-places, or out of camel-stealing, lead to a constant state of clan war, but not to the establishment of centralized governments.

Even that exceptional man Muhammad bin Abdullah Hassan, commonly known as the Mad Mullah, in spite of the fanatical religious feeling which he has aroused, has been able to maintain permanent authority over hardly any of the tribesmen except Dolbahanta, among whom he has lived longest, and from whom he is maternally descended. It seems as if any unifying political influence, adequate to suppress tribal turbulence, disorder, and bloodshed, must be imposed from without.

Since 1910, such control has been exercised by a British Commissioner or Acting Commissioner with head-quarters at Berbera, responsible (since 1905) to the Colonial Office, only over a narrow coastal strip; and the protectorate over the tribes within boundaries agreed upon in British treaties with France, Italy, and Abyssinia (1888-1897), has been merely nominal. Since the abandonment of military operations against the Mullah after 1904, an approximate balance between normal revenue and expenditure obtains, and grants-in-aid from the imperial government have not always been necessary; about four-fifths of the receipts are from the customs levied on imports and exports at the three ports of Berbera, Bulhar, and Zeyla, where British district officers continue to be stationed.

Read the full Book here:

The Oxford Survey Of The British Empire: Africa

Including South Africa, Rhodesia, Nyasaland, British East Africa, Uganda, Somaliland, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and Egypt, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast, Nigeria, Walfish Bay, With Mauritius, and Other Islands in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans

By Andrew John Herbertson and Osbert John Radcliffe Howarth

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