Without Our Knowledge (2) By Prof. Abdisalam Yassin


Since there was a race between European, and in some cases non-European, colonial prospectors to grab the land of weak and unorganized societies in Africa, the French turned up in the Red Sea coast and took hold of Obokh with the clear intention of expanding towards Zeila. This French move upset the British colonial officers in Aden and forced them to execute their carefully crafted plans to occupy Somaliland. Relating these events as they unfold, Walsh wrote:

The French then established an obokb {garrison} . . . and no protest by Major Hunter succeeded in making them “quit it”. They therefore continued in possession, and Hunter was greatly annoyed at having thus been “done” by Abubuker and his son Boorhan,

It was patent to all that the French had scored the first trick, and Hunter thereupon sent a detachment of British and native troops to garrison Zeila for the safeguarding of British and Egyptian interests against further encroachments. Hunter then decided to place me at Berbera as H.B.M.’s Vice-Consul, with as my personal guard the forty specially trained police that we had organized and kept ready at Aden for service in Somaliland.

Although the British colonial administration had put their plans together to take over Berbera, the town was still controlled by the Khediva’s ailing Egyptian rule. It appears from the shrewdly constructed plans of Walsh and his chief that the Egyptians were preparing to leave Berbera and seemed to have made prior arrangements to hand it over to the British when they leave. However, one local Egyptian official had other ideas. He got in touch with a rival European power (Germany in this case) and encouraged it to occupy the port before the British moved in. The colonial field was neither level nor plain. There was a mixture of enterprising individuals, colonial officials, and colonial administrations that were engaged in plots and counterplots to take over countries of weak and unorganized populations.

In situations like this, there was no room for moral values, and as the adage goes, the end justified the means. A clear example of this was the kind of trickery that Walsh and Hunter resorted to in order to get rid of the Egyptian official who was posing a challenge to their plan to move into Berbera when the Egyptians depart. Describing their plot, Walsh wrote:

On 4th August, 1884, Hunter took me and my escort to Berbera in a Royal Indian Marine vessel. We called on the Governor, Ebrahim Bey Sabet, who had been sent en mission from Egypt to assist Captain Hunter. The Bey complained that the Deputy-Governor, Boorhan Effendi (an Egyptian), was intriguing with a European power to occupy Berbera before that port was handed to the charge of a British officer.

Since it was obviously essential to oust this rascal as soon as possible, Hunter and I then and there concocted a letter in Arabic, instructing the Bey to send Boorhan Effendi to Egypt by the next Khedival steamer. Hunter, however, had no Arab clerk or seal of office with him, and he foresaw that the Bey would not act on a letter which simply bore his signature and no seal of office. I suggested, therefore, he should forward this letter to me, and direct me by an endorsement thereon to hand it to the Bey. This I would do under my seal of office as H.B.M.’s Vice-Consul.

Hunter left for Aden the same evening. The next morning, in uniform, I attended the Bey’s divan, and presented Hunter’s letter ordering the expulsion of Boorhan, the Deputy-Governor, from Berbera. The latter, however, refused to vacate his post. Fortunately Admiral Radwan Pasha arrived during the afternoon in the Khedival liner, hoping to meet Captain Hunter, and I showed the Admiral the instructions given to the Bey. Radwan Pasha said that he could take Boorhan with him at noon the next day, and in this way he did ship him back to Egypt. This prompt action, in my opinion, rendered Hunter and myself a great service; we learned later that Boorhan was in communication with some German prospectors.

Walsh was now the Vice-Counsul of the British Government in Berbera. Nevertheless, this title was merely a façade he was given to don until he replaced the Egyptian Governor as the local British colonial administrator. It appeared that this replacement was inevitable to happen, however, when it came to the most effective way to do it, there were differing opinions within the colonial establishment. Some parties advocated the use of force while Hunter and Walsh adhered to a peaceful penetration bolstered by diplomacy and discrete use of force. Referring to these differences, he wrote:

Major Hunter was pressed by the British Resident at Aden, by the Government of Bombay, and by the Admiral on the East India Station, to employ military and naval forces (or a combination of both) for the occupation of Berbera and Bulhar. Some officious person then wrote to my father urging him to protest at the India Office in London against exposing me to the certainty of being attacked, and probably killed, if not protected by a sufficient force of regulars.

My father at once assured the Secretary of State that his son was perfectly aware of the dangerous nature of the duty on which he was employed. Of late, my father admitted, the danger had increased, since Somali-land was on the brink of adherence to the cause of the Mahdi.

However, Major Hunter and I had fully considered the probability of this obstacle to a peaceful penetration, and were both still of the opinion that with a guard of forty well-trained riflemen Berbera could be safely held. We had, moreover, the aid of the coastal clans and ftiendlies on the coast, the latter represented by their akils ; while the notables and Arab traders and all classes at the ports would also in their own interests support us, and had indeed promised to do so.

From Walsh’s narrative, it was now apparent that they landed in Berbera with their force of forty men and were confident that they would succeed to hold on to this town and its vicinity. With regard to our questioning of a measly force of forty men and their European commander entering a country and taking it over, our doubts wane when we learn from Walsh’s report that the coastal clans, what he called “friendlies on the coasts”, meaning representatives of inland clans who were in berbera, namely the Akils, and Arab traders in the port supported the uneventful incursion and the takeover of the town. It is evident that just as they accepted Egyptian rule in Berbera and its hinterland, the clans, the owners of the land, approved its occupation by the British.

The clans were disorganized, squabbling, and backward. Without any form of indigenous central government and a strong army, they were in no position to take on enterprising armies of colonial powers with navy fleets and modern weapons. In the end, inadequate and undeveloped governance and obvious lack of knowledge and skills succumbed to developed governance and advanced knowledge and skills. The masters became masters because they were well-organized and powerful and the meek became meek because they were disorganized and weak.

There is a twist of irony in Farah Nur’s verse. “It is a world, bought and sold, without our knowledge”, for It was with the knowledge of the local inhabitants and not without it that at one time Egypt seized their land and ruled it while at another Britain claimed and took it over from Egypt. There was a stiff contest between those with knowledge and advanced technology for the domination and rule of those without knowledge and with primitive technology, and being obviously an unequal contest, it was won by the advanced and the powerful. The weak and his property subsequently became the property of the strong.

In the next article, we will look into how the mere appearance of power enabled the small contingent led by Walsh to lay down the grounds for nearly 80 years of British rule in Somaliland.

Abdisalam Mohamed