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Colonial competitors: 1839-1897

European interest in Somalia develops after 1839, when the British begin to use Aden, on the south coast of Arabia, as a coaling station for ships on the route to India. The British garrison requires meat. The easiest local source is the Somali coast.

France and Italy, requiring similar coaling facilities for their own ships, establish stations in the northern Somali regions. The French develop Djibouti. The Italians are a little further up the coast at Aseb, in Eritrea. When the European scramble for Africa begins, in the 1880s, these are the three powers competing for Somali territory. Soon they are joined by a fourth rival, Ethiopia, where Menelik II becomes emperor in 1889.

France and Britain, after a brief risk of armed confrontation, agree in 1888 on a demarcation line between their relatively minor shares of the coast. The French region around Djibouti becomes formally known as the Côte Françcaise des Somalis (French Coast of the Somalis, commonly referred to in English as French Somaliland). This remains a French colony until becoming independent as the republic of Djibouti in 1977.

British influence in the coastal area around Zeila and Berbera is formalized during the 1880s in a series of treaties promising protection to the chieftains of various local Somali clans. The region becomes a protectorate under the title of British Somaliland.

Although France and Britain have thus acquired control over two valuable stretches of coastline (of increased commercial importance now that the Suez Canal has opened), by far the largest part of Somalia is disputed between Italy and Ethiopia.

Italy establishes protectorates along the coast eastwards beyond British Somaliland, and Italian companies acquire leases on parts of the east-facing Somali coast (where the landlord is the sultan of Zanzibar). Italy agrees spheres of influence amicably with Britain in 1884, placing the border between British Somaliland and Italian Somalia just west of Bender Cassim. At first Italy is also on congenial terms with Ethiopia – notably in the 1889 treaty of Uccialli concerning Eritrea.

But disagreement over the actual meaning of the Eritrean treaty rapidly sours relations between Italy and Ethiopia. By 1896 this results in outright war and in the crushing defeat of the Italians at Aduwa.

Although these events concern only Eritrea, the weakened Italian position has immediate repercussions in Somalia. There is a large Somali region, the Ogaden, which lies between Ethiopia and the coastal part of Somalia where the Italians are active. As yet neither imperial power controls this region, but after Aduwa the Italians are in no position to resist Ethiopian claims to it.

The result is a new settlement agreed between the powers in 1896-7. Ethiopia is granted the Ogaden and is ceded the southern strip of British Somaliland, a region known as the Haud. This arrangement (which brings many Somalis permanently within Ethiopia) holds good as a colonial compromise until the 1920s, when it is upset by the aggressive energies of fascist Italy.

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Image supplied by Frank Keillor under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

 

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