Somalia Table of Contents

The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw political developments that transformed the Somali Peninsula. During this period, the Somalis became the subjects of state systems under the flags of Britain, France, Italy, Egypt, and Ethiopia. The new rulers had various motives for colonization. Britain sought to gain control of the northern Somali coast as a source of mutton and other livestock products for its naval port of Aden in present-day Yemen. As a result of the growing importance of the Red Sea to British operations in the East, Aden was regarded as indispensable to the defense of British India. British occupation of the northern Somali coast began in earnest in February 1884, when Major A. Hunter arrived at Berbera to negotiate treaties of friendship and protection with numerous Somali clans. Hunter arranged to have British vice consuls installed in Berbera, Bullaxaar, and Saylac.

The French, having been evicted from Egypt by the British, wished to establish a coaling station on the Red Sea coast to strengthen naval links with their Indochina colonies. The French were also eager to bisect Britain's vaunted Cairo to Cape Town zone of influence with an east to west expansion across Africa. France extended its foothold on the Afar coast partly to counter the high duties that the British authorities imposed on French goods in Obock. A French protectorate was proclaimed under the governorship of Léonce Lagarde, who played a prominent role in extending French influence into the Horn of Africa.

Recently unified, Italy was inexperienced at imperial power plays. It was therefore content to stake out a territory whenever it could do so without confronting another colonial power. In southern Somalia, better known as the Banaadir coast, Italy was the main colonizer, but the extension of Italian influence was painstakingly slow owing to parliamentary lack of enthusiasm for overseas territory. Italy acquired its first possession in southern Somalia in 1888 when the Sultan of Hobyo, Keenadiid, agreed to Italian "protection." In the same year, Vincenzo Filonardi, Italy's architect of imperialism in southern Somalia, demanded a similar arrangement from the Majeerteen Sultanate of Ismaan Mahamuud. In 1889 both sultans, suspicious of each other, consented to place their lands under Italian protection. Italy then notified the signatory powers of the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85 of its southeastern Somali protectorate. Later, Italy seized the Banaadir coast proper, which had long been under the tenuous authority of the Zanzibaris, to form the colony of Italian Somaliland. Chisimayu Region, which passed to the British as a result of their protectorate over the Zanzibaris, was ceded to Italy in 1925 to complete Italian tenure over southern Somalia.

The catalyst for imperial tenure over Somali territory was Egypt under its ambitious ruler, Khedive Ismail. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, this Ottoman vassal sought to carve out for Egypt a swath of territory in the Horn of Africa. However, the Sudanese anti-Egyptian Mahdist revolt that broke out in 1884 shattered the khedive's plan for imperial aggrandizement. The Egyptians needed British help to evacuate their troops marooned in Sudan and on the Somali coast.

What the European colonialists failed to foresee was that the biggest threat to their imperial ambitions in the Horn of Africa would come from an emerging regional power, the Ethiopia of Emperor Menelik II. Emperor Menelik II not only managed to defend Ethiopia against European encroachment, but also succeeded in competing with the Europeans for the Somali-inhabited territories that he claimed as part of Ethiopia. Between 1887 and 1897, Menelik II successfully extended Ethiopian rule over the long independent Muslim Emirate of Harer and over western Somalia (better known as the Ogaden). Thus, by the turn of the century, the Somali Peninsula, one of the most culturally homogeneous regions of Africa, was divided into British Somaliland, French Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, Ethiopian Somaliland (the Ogaden), and what came to be called the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya.

Although the officials of the three European powers often lacked funds, they nevertheless managed to establish the rudimentary organs of colonial administration. Moreover, because they controlled the port outlets, they could levy taxes on livestock to obtain the necessary funds to administer their respective Somali territories. In contrast, Ethiopia was largely a feudal state with a subsistence economy that required its army of occupation to live off the land. Thus, Ethiopian armies repeatedly despoiled the Ogaden in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress