Somaliland, Ethiopia, Eritrea: Intertwined political, historical perspective 1869-1950 – Sanderson Beck excerpts


The Suez Canal opened in 1869, and that year an Egyptian ship visited Berbera. The next year Muhammad Jamal Bey claimed the Somali coast at Bulhar and Berbera for Egypt, which occupied Somalia until 1884 and promoted Islamic culture. Northern Somalia was a dependency of the Ottoman empire. In 1875 Egyptians occupied Harar, and their administration of Zeila and Berbera was confirmed by the Ottomans. In 1877 the British recognized Egyptian jurisdiction, but during the crisis in Sudan in 1884 they persuaded the Egyptians to evacuate northern Somalia. In the next two years the British made several treaties with northern clans such as the Isa and Majerteyn. The Genoese shipping company of Raffaele Rubattino had bought the land of Assab from Afar’s Sultan of Obock in 1869, and ten years later they sold it to Italy, which occupied that part of Eritrea in 1883. The east coast as far north as Mogadishu was a dependency of Zanzibar. When the Omani empire was partitioned in 1886, Italy obtained the east coast of Somalia. In June 1884 the French appointed Léonce Lagarde to govern Obock, and the next year their small protectorate around Djibouti became known as French Somaliland. The British encouraged the Italians to head off the French and claim Eritrea from Assab to Massawa in February 1885.

Ancient city of Zeila

In 1887 the British signed more treaties with Somali sultans, and on July 20 they declared by the General Act of the Berlin Conference that the coastal section between the French and Italian colonies was a protectorate called British Somaliland. In 1888 the British and the French agreed on a border between Zeila and Djibouti. Italy’s consul Vincenzo Filonardi started a company to manage Benadir, and in 1891 he established an Italian station at Adale (Itala). In 1892 the Sultan of Zanzibar leased to Italy the ports of Brava, Merca, Mogadishu, and Warsheikh for 25 years at the rate of 160,000 rupees per year, and they proclaimed the protectorate of Italian Somaliland. Somalis wanted to maintain their independence, and some clans took up arms to assert them. The British had to send expeditions against Isa in 1886 and 1890, against the Habar Gerhajis in 1893, and against the Habar Awal in 1895. Some Italians were massacred at Harar in 1887, and the Bimal people killed fourteen Italians in 1896. Menelik’s Ethiopia tried to occupy Ogaden but met Somali resistance. By 1900 about twenty clans in northern Somalia were fighting each other.

Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called “Mad Mullah” (ALAMY)
Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called “Mad Mullah” (ALAMY), Source:

Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Hassan was born on April 7, 1864, and he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1894. There he studied with the Sufi, Sayyid Muhammad Salih (1853-1917), and he joined his Salihiyya tariqa (way) before he returned to teach at Berbera. Al-Hassan was concerned about Christian proselytizing and wrote polemic poetry. He preached against smoking, chewing the Kat plant (Catha edulis in the benzedrine family), alcohol, and other indulgences and luxuries. By April 1899 he raised an army of 3,000 men from several clans to defend Islam and their Somali homeland. In August he made peace between two Habar clans and with their support occupied Burao, a center of the Isaq clans, in the middle of British Somaliland. That month he wrote an open letter to the British accusing them of oppressing Muslims and ordering them to pay tax to a Muslim ruler or face war.

Taleh was the capital of the Dervish state.

In September the Sayyid led a jihad against Christian Ethiopia, plundering and destroying the Dandariwiyya settlement at Shaykh. When Dulbahante’s garad (clan-leader) ‘Ali Mahmud sided with the British, the Sayyid’s agents assassinated him. Al-Hassan faced enemies and withdrew to live with his relatives among the Ogaden Darod. They imported rifles and ammunition from the French at Djibouti and from ports in Majerteyn, and his force increased to about 6,000 Dervishes, as they were called. In March 1900 they looted Jigjiga and raided the Idagale Isaq, making the Isaq clan their enemy. When Muhammad Zubayr sent a delegation to the Sayyid, he made unreasonable demands and put to death the 23 elderly envoys.

In five years the British sent four successful expeditions against them, though on April 17, 1903 at Gamburu Hill nine British officers and 189 men were killed. The British called al-Hassan “the Mad Mullah.” In January 1904 Sayyid’s forces were weakened by a major battle at Jidbale, and he withdrew to the Italian Majerteyn Protectorate. On March 5, 1905 he signed the British-approved Treaty of Illing with Cav. G. Pestalozza, the Italian consul from Aden, making peace with Britain, Italy, and Ethiopia. The Anglo-Italo-French Agreement signed on December 13, 1906 pledged cooperation to maintain the status quo in Ethiopia and recognized Ogaden as an Italian sphere of interest.

The Sayyid wrote poetry defying the British, and he raised another army in 1908 that attacked the British, who began pulling back from the interior in November 1909. After the evacuation was completed in April 1910, the Isaq used firearms for internal conflicts. The Sayyid’s reputation was further damaged when he had the respected Qadiriyya Shaykh Uways bin Muhammad of Brava assassinated in 1909. His raids drove many clans from their grazing land, and a famine in 1911-12 killed about a third of the people in British Somaliland. In August 1913 his Somali army destroyed the new camel constabulary. The British reacted by forming an alliance with the Ethiopian Governor of Harar, but then they were preoccupied with the First World War for four years. In February 1915 the British did capture the Dervish fort at Shimbereris. Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abd Allah al-Hassan died of influenza (or perhaps malaria) at Imi on December 21, 1920.Italian Somaliland imposed an annual hut tax, and the British taxed Somalis’ livestock. In 1907 the Government opened a school in Mogadishu to teach Italian to Somalis, and soon it had a trade school. In 1908 Governor Carletti ordered the Resident Commissioner at Giumbo to reserve 10,000 hectares of arable land for Italian farmers, and serfs were forced to work for them. During the First World War the French made 2,000 Somalis labor; 400 of them were killed, and 1,200 were wounded. Italians continued to force Somalis to work on their plantations, and many Somali protests rose up in the years after the war. When colonial administrators ordered the Somali chiefs and elders to surrender firearms and ammunition, Hadji Hasan of the Galjal Haya refused and sent a defiant reply to the commissioner. He was captured, but the Bantu Eile people rebelled near Bur Acuba.

In 1920 the Duke of the Abruzzi founded the Societa Agricola Italo-Somala on the Shebelle to develop a consortium for producing cotton, sugar, bananas, oil, and soap. In 1924 each worker was allocated one hectare, half for his own use and half for the company at its rates. When labor was inadequate, the Administration used coercion to recruit workers from the Baidoa and Bur Hacaba regions. Governor Cesare Maria De Vecchi (1923-28) authorized extending motor roads by 6,400 kilometers. By 1929 missions were operating elementary schools at Merca, Brava, Gelib, Afgoi, Villagio, Baidoa, Kismayu, and Ras Hafun.

Yusuf Ali Kenadid

When the Italians announced they were incorporating Obbia and Majerteyn, their sultans could not agree to fight together against the aggressors. Obbia was annexed in 1925, and Sultan Yusuf ‘Ali Kenadid was sent to Mogadishu with a pension. The Italians appointed ‘Umar Samatar as chief of the Majerteyn clan, and he seized El Bur’s fort with his forces. When Italian forces besieged them, the people in the area led by Herzi Gushan, Sultan ‘Ali Yusuf’s district commander, besieged the Italians. The Italians lost 38 men including the Italian Resident before retreating to Bud Bud on November 15. Fifteen days later Italians were ambushed and defeated at Bot. Samatar led some followers across the border into Ethiopia and campaigned against Italians in the Ogaden at frontier posts. Majerteyn’s Sultan ‘Uthman Mahmud held out against the invaders for two years before he was arrested at the end of 1927. His son Herzi Bogor was supported by traditional chiefs, and they also attacked several Italian bases.

Governor Guido Corni (1928-31) encouraged the economic and political infiltration of clans into Ethiopia. The Aljuran sultan Ololdin was paid and armed by the Italians to attack Ethiopia’s expeditions gathering tribute in the Mustahil region. In September 1931 a large Ethiopian force evicted the Italian post from Mustahil and threatened the Italian headquarters at Beletweyn. Yet on December 5, 1934 at Walwal the Italians used superior weapons to force the Ethiopians to withdraw. Salt was a major export, and by 1933 the plant at Ras Hafun was producing 260,000 tons of salt annually. In the late 1930s about 200,000 Italians migrated to work in Italian Somaliland. On May 7, 1936 Italian armies began the invasion and conquest of Ethiopia, and the Fascists imposed discriminatory laws based on race. In 1939 still only 1,776 Somali and Arab pupils were in elementary schools in Italian East Africa, but this was more than in British Somaliland. In August 1940 the Italians invaded British Somaliland, and they held it for seven months before its liberation by the Allies. French Somaliland had a Vichy regime until it declared for De Gaulle in 1942.

Governor Harold Kittermaster

In British Somaliland the Somalis believed that attempts to impose Western education threatened their religion, and proselytizing by missionaries was strictly banned in 1910. Direct taxes imposed in 1921 were resisted, and riots broke out at Burao in 1922 and at Baro in 1936. The British Government provided nearly £200,000 a year, and Governor Harold Kittermaster invested much of it in agriculture and famine relief. The Colonial Development Fund paid for digging wells that eventually prevented such bad famines. Local revenue covered less than half the budget for British Somaliland, though exports, mostly hides, skins, cotton, and bananas, helped reduce the annual deficit from nearly 131 million lire in 1927 to under 29 million in 1934.

Until about 1930 some 300 slaves a year were being transported through Djibouti to Arabia. The French also met resistance and deported the Sultan of Gobaad to Madagascar in 1931. Awsa’s Sultan Yayu arrested Lippmann, the new French governor at Dikhil. In 1935 his successor, Albert Bernard, and sixteen of his Somali troops were murdered at Morheito. Colonial administrators often partitioned frontiers without considering the grazing needs of clans. Isa was divided between Ethiopia, the British, and the French. In 1932 the officer in charge of the Anglo-Ethiopian commission to fix the boundary was killed.

In the early 1920s the poet ‘Isman Yusuf Kenadid devised a new Osmaniya alphabet for the Somali language so that they would not have to use the Arabic script or Latin letters. Somalis organized social political organizations. The former colonial official, Haji Farah Omar, became a nationalist in 1920, and the British exiled him to Aden, where he founded the Somali Islamic Association. In Djibouti the Seamen’s Union was founded in 1931. The Somali National League was formed in 1935. Educated Somali clerks began agitating for employment security, agriculture, and education, and in 1937 they organized the Somali Officials’ Union. That year shaykhs opposed to innovations in education led riots that forced the Government to stop secular education in Qur’anic schools and not use the Roman alphabet for teaching the Somali language.

In 1941 the British were welcomed as liberators by the Somali people. They disbanded the Italian police, and British officers recruited the Somalia Gendarmerie which increased to 3,070 Somalis and Africans under 120 British officers by 1943. A police school was opened to train Somali officers. Agriculture improved, and by 1943 Somalia was supporting itself with food. Restrictions that Italians had placed on political associations were abolished. Thirteen representatives of the main clans founded the Somali Youth Club at Mogadishu on May 13, 1943. Military Governor Gerald Fisher (1943-48) was credited with progressive policies, and the Protectorate Advisory Council was formed in July 1946. That year the British Military Administration estimated that the Club had 25,000 affiliates, and the next year the name was changed to the Somali Youth League (SYL). Their four goals were to unite all Somalis, educate the young, use constitutional means to eliminate prejudices, and to develop the Somali language with the Osmaniya script. Nineteen public elementary schools were added by 1947 along with three private schools and a teacher training center for Arabs and Somalis.

Elections were held for assembly leaders, and District and Provincial Advisory Councils were formed. The Patriotic Benefit Union (Jumiya) represented southern Rahanweyn and Digil tribes, Bantu people, and local Arabs, and on March 25, 1947 they formed the Hizbia Digil-Mirifle Somali political party. Other groups supporting the Italians joined to form the Conference. On January 11, 1948 the SYL, which opposed returning to Italian rule, held a large public rally in Mogadishu that was attacked by armed Italians and their supporters. A battle developed, and 51 Italians were killed. In September 1948 the Four Power Commission made their report. The British, French, and Americans were willing to give the trusteeship over Somalia to Italy, but the Soviet Union favored collective trusteeship by the United Nations. On November 21, 1949 the United Nations General Assembly gave the trusteeship of Somalia to Italy for ten years, angering many Somalis. The Italian Trust Administration for Somalia was formed and approved by the UN Assembly on December 2, 1950.

After Ethiopia’s Emperor Yohannes IV was killed in March 1889, the Italians moved into the northern plateau and established their colony of Eritrea by the end of the year with the capital at Asmara. In the treaty signed at Wichale on May 2 the Italians recognized Menelik as Emperor of Ethiopia, and he recognized Italian sovereignty over Eritrea. In December 1894 the Bahta Hagos rebellion protested the confiscation of land for settlers. Governor Ferdinando Martini (1897-1907) curtailed settlement plans and presided over moderate development. Italian administrators relied on the Eritrean elite to collect taxes and let the Eritrean chief speak for the people. In 1908 the Italians began recruiting Eritreans to control Somalia and to pacify Libya, and they trained 10,000 by 1910. The Italians had a railway built from Massawa to Asmara that was completed in 1911, and it was extended to Keren in 1922 and to Agordat by 1930.

At the end of 1923 the first Fascist governor, Cesare de Vecchi, arrived in Italian Somaliland with armed police, machine guns, and artillery. In 1925 the Sultan of Obbia was deposed and sent to Mogadishu. In July the British transferred the port of Kismayu and its hinterland to the Italians. Many laborers migrated from Tigray. The Italians only allowed elementary education, and only 1,500 students were enrolled by the early 1930s. Some could get more education from Catholic and Swedish missionaries. The Italians were afraid that the Swedes were encouraging Ethiopian nationalism. In 1932 they stopped allowing in Swedish and American missionaries, and in 1935 they expelled the Swedish mission. Young Eritreans often went to Ethiopia for education. Eritrea had no newspapers or magazines in the native language. In the 1930s the Fascists classified Eritreans as Africans and denied them Italian citizenship. In 1935 Italy created a banana monopoly by forcing people to buy Somali bananas at twice the price other Europeans paid for other bananas. By 1939 those speaking Tigrinya had become 43% of the population.

In 1941 the British defeated the Italians and governed Eritrea with a military administration, allowing many Italians to stay. Christians wanting to unite with Ethiopia formed the Unionist Party. The Christian Separatists who wanted an independent Eritrea eventually became the Liberal Progressive Party. In 1946 the Muslims formed the Muslim League, and they also favored independence. Italy gave up any claim to Eritrea in the peace treaty of 1947. The four Allied Powers could not agree on what to do with Eritrea and turned it over to the United Nations in 1948. Fighting broke out between Christians and Muslims in 1949 in several places. After Haile Selassie offered to send Ethiopian battalions to help UN forces in Korea, the United States was confident that Ethiopia would protect American interests in Eritrea. On December 2, 1950 the United Nations General Assembly voted 46-10 that Eritrea would be “an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia.” Twelve days later the Bolivian Eduardo Anze Matienzo was appointed UN Commissioner to help draft a constitution for Eritrea.

Copyright © 2010 by Sanderson Beck


  1. It is astonishing to read that the 1948 massacre of Italians & pro-Italy Somalis was originated by an attack to a SYL rally. Sanderson Berck mistakenly wrote in the article: “the SYL, which opposed returning to Italian rule, held a large public rally in Mogadishu that was attacked by armed Italians and their supporters. A battle developed, and 51 Italians were killed.” BUT IN REALITY THERE WAS NO SUCH ATTACK! The Italian Conference supporters were doing a peacefully rally and were massacred with bloody attacks by SYL members (with support from some Kenyans soldiers and from a small group of English colonial personnel) , as stated by the same British authorities a month later. BD


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