British Empire and Somalia

Categories: BritishHistory

Examining Britain as more than just a place of exile by my parents. The difficulties surrounding seeing this country not as a plague of bitterness but a place for betterment, and accepting that this is home. To do this, I must understand my origin and how the two nations that form my identity came to know each other.

For around 80 years until 1960, parts of Somalia was under rule by the British Empire, known as British Somaliland. By the 19th century, British Somaliland became a key strategic area for the Empire, due to it facing the Middle East and being on the East Coast of Africa.

Somalia became of strategic importance after 1839 after the British captured the Aden port of now Yemen. From 1839, it was a key stop-point on route to India. The Somali coast became key mainly because that was where the British got their meat from, becoming the main provider of meat for those stationed or stopping off at Aden.

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The British initially chose not to intervene in Somalia, however they sent observers and ethnographers to see and record what was happening. By 1884, the Northern part of the Somali coast which was occupied by Turk-Egyptian rule had left and withdrew, opting to return to Sudan as there was uprising there and they had felt that that was in need of concentration. With the Turk-Egyptian rule gone, it left a void. Which was down to either French or British to fill. Britain got there. It was an inevitability. By the start of the 20th century, over ninety percent of Africa had been carved up by competing European countries.

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Somalia was known as the “Cinderella of the British Empire”, a rather sarcastic take due to the British not improving the state of Somalia whilst under their colony. Many that look at the British Empire as a success and admire the Empire point towards the development & infrastructure they contributed (railways, legal systems, etc) regardless of the costs (in truth still felt till today). However, unlike Somalia, countries such Kenya, Cameroon, India were experiencing far greater success and got the better end of the bargain. Somalia felt hard done by, as the transaction by other countries of their independence at least in return came with sustainable networks of infrastructure. Somalia was given the loss of self-determination without any positive legacy. It must have almost felt as if Somalia was surrounded by colonised nations full of resource and prosperity, almost an El Dorado, and they had got the short end of the stick. The reason that the British gave for this? There were no feasible resources to make any considerable changes. In truth they were not enthusiastic about Somalia. Many British colonial officers had committed suicide during their positing there, as Somalia was seen as the hardship posting. Somali’s were seen as different from the rest of the African countries. They were pugnacious and argumentative towards the British, presenting sophisticated arguments asking why and probing about the British and their presence in Somalia.

By 1899, Said Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, a new type of Somali religious leader had come along. He had left to Makkah and came back to Berbera, instantly began challenging the British. The British had try to tax him upon his return, he bemusedly questioned who these people who had came to his homeland were and dismissed them while building up a movement for a potential uprising. They nicknamed him “Mad Mullah” and tried to ostracise him. The movement he started was called the Dervish. The movement had two main objectives. The initial, which was his main objective, was to fight against Abyssinian empire (the only independent African empire left on the continent). The second objective was fighting against the incumbent oppressors, the British. The British looked to his mobilisation of armed forces and a war brew from that. Years of rebellion, living on the knife edge in a colonial struggle, no pretense of civility between the groups. It is interesting to analyse the partnering Abyssinia and the stark difference with Somalia at the time. The truest form of juxtaposition; Abyssinia and Somalia, freedom and growth compared to destitute and captivated.

By 1939, Somalis were being recruited by the British Navy. From Aden to India, they were given an opportunity to travel. That is how the first batch of Somalis settled in to the UK. This is where the Liverpool, Cardiff, Hull communities mainly came from.

British were eventually forced out by Italian forces in 1941.

By 1960, Somalia took independence. Some were allowed to take opportunities within the empire but at the cost of displacement from home and removal of true identity. That sense of longing is something that continues to be past on from generation to generation impacting those who once felt this was a going to be a short stay to those whose language and culture is foreign and foregone yet still have a yearning. Even though that home that was left behind has changed beyond all recognition.

Many had hoped that the newly formed state would come with unbridled opportunities and an influx of development. The reality couldn’t be more different. Disillusionment and disappointment. An elite and corruption which emerged from the colonial bureaucracy. The new state was identical to the colonial state, ruling through the same way. Changing the nomenclature of the system of governance and dressing it up as an independent state would not suffice for its citizens. The transition from colonial system to post-colonial system was immensely arduous (not just for Somalia but an issue for all colonised nations, however Somalia due to being underdeveloped compared to the rest was in a lot of ways in a worse-off position). Finding a system that works best after being spoon-fed small portions of your own large cake was always going to be problematic (corruption would always be enticing, the right governance is unknown, the citizens are frustrated and intolerant, there is a want for myopic policies to make up for years of being colonised).

The post-colonial vacuum was filled by small political parties that reflected clan groups. By late 1960’s, Siad Barre came to power and claimed to try and reunify the five points of the Somali star: British Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, Northern Eastern Province of Kenya, Ogaden, Djibouti (fragments of imperial boundaries, which forms Greater Somalia). By the late 1970’s, after a sluggish war with Ethiopia for Ogaden, the contentious area that the British carved out and gave to Ethiopia, Siad Barre turned to within and a civil war was born. From optimistically proposing to try and bring unity, the outcome was an exacerbation of the plight of this fractured country mainly as a result of the decades of being ruled. Somalia feeling far from free of the scars of colonial rule. So much is spoken about the British Empire’s lasting infrastructure it leaves behind, however what isn’t documented is the lasting impact of oppression, corruption, uncivil behaviour which inevitably stays as remnants. One of the deepest misconception is that the British sowed the seeds for democracy, in truth the British ruled through an austerely paternalistic manner. That then naturally led to power being perceived as the holy grail when given full autonomy and thus being abused.

Now, discourse about the long-lasting civil war which led to the utter collapse of the state and mass migration has reduced to tribal tension. A mere war due to one clan not seeing eye to eye with another, which is truly disheartening. When analysed, just like any nation suppressed for a lengthy period of time, being let free springs open its layered history of problems, the proverbial can of worms. A comprehensive and combination of issues. The conflict was about economics, land ownership, politics, military, Aid and resources, allies. All of this reduced to tribal wars. The reason why that is so problematic is the negative connotations that comes with it. This sort of rhetoric leads to not only foreign nations disregarding Somalia but also the diaspora feeling that there is no hope.

It is interesting, when you reflect over the Brexit fiasco and the Leave voters reasoning, which essentially boiled down to two fundamental arguments; first being a yearning of the past. They were the omnipotent and omnipresent Empire, who like Rudyard Kipling alludes to in “The White Man’s Burden” were doing these uncivil and barbaric people a favour as of course the British know whats best for them. A time where Britain had its hand in all pots and was the dominant force. The second being a more interesting observation with glaring irony. Leavers are resentful that Brussels and EU establishment are “undemocratically” having that much say for UK and taxing Britain to that extent. This is a nation that made its wealth from doing just that throughout its “glorious” empire reign.

As I reflect over my country and its situation now, I can’t help but try to understand what life would have been like without the colonial rule. Its citizens still left questioning their self-perception and destroyed by self-hatred infused by mental colonisation. I wonder when that will disappear. As for the diaspora like myself, being at odds with the place I call home yet I struggle to call home the place my ancestors only knew; an odyssey paved by cognitive dissonance rather than sentiment.

In the end, the audacity to hope for a better Somalia comes from the same hope my country had when they wished for the displacement of its colonisers. A hope which seems far in the future for now, however closer than we ever were. Only now at least the same forces holding us back can equally push us forward.

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British Empire and Somalia. (2021, Oct 05). Retrieved from

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