Situated in the horn of East Africa, Somalia’s economy was based upon the nomadic herding of animals though it has for thousands of years, been close to civilization and international trade. To the north of Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden, is Saba, the land of the legendary Queen of Sheba and the earliest part of Arabia to prosper. Jutting out into the India Ocean, Somalia’s harbours are natural ports of call for traders sailing to and from India. Therefore, the coastline of the region is much visited by foreigners, in particular Arabs and Persians. But in the interior, the Somali are left to their own devices.
European interest in Somalia developed after 1839, when the British begin to use Aden as a coaling station for ships on the route to India. The British garrison required supplies and the easiest local source was, of course, the Somali coast. France and Italy, requiring similar coaling facilities for their own ships, established stations in the northern Somali regions (the British station was in the South). Not to be left out, Italy joined the party by inhabiting Aseb, an area a little further up the coast in Eritrea. When the European scramble for Africa began in the 1880s, these were the three powers – Britain, France and Italy – competing for Somali territory. Soon however, they were joined by a fourth rival, Ethiopia (I explain why further down).
France and Britain, after a brief period of armed confrontation, agreed in 1888 to settle their differences by drawing a line between their relatively minor shares of the coast. This line demarcated ownership of their territories. The French region around Djiboutibecame formally known as the Côte Françcaise des Somalis (French Coast of the Somalis, commonly referred to in English as French Somaliland) while the British region became known as British Somaliland. French Somaliland remained a French colony until becoming independent as the republic of Djibouti in 1977.
Although France and Britain thus acquired control over two valuable stretches of coastline (of increased commercial importance now that the Suez Canal was opened), by far the largest part of Somalia was disputed between Italy and Ethiopia. Here is what happened – Italy and Ethiopia signed a treaty in 1928 stating that the border between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia was twenty-one leagues (a league is a unit of length commonly defined as three miles. It is no longer an official unit in any nation) parallel to the Benadir coast.
However, in 1930, Italy built a fort in Ogaden well beyond the twenty-one league limit. This led to a skirmish between the garrison of Somalis (who were in Italian service) and a force of armed Ethiopians. Neither side did anything to avoid confrontation; the Ethiopians repeatedly menaced the Italian garrison with the threat of an armed attack, and the Italians sent two planes over the Ethiopian camp with some machine-gun fire. The international community had to step in and the situation was finally resolved through a series of arbitration.
Between 1948 and 1950, the land ownership situation in Somalia reverted back to the colonial boundaries agreed in 1897. Then the year 1960 brought independence to both the British and Italian colonies, in June and July respectively and in a happy union, both ex-colonies decided to merge as the Somali Republic, more usually known as Somalia.
The story doesn’t end with this happy union as conflict has persisted in the country. Stay tuned as I share more next week.