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The Somali Community in the Port of London
Mogadoxa ( Mogadishu). © NMM
The Somalis are one of the oldest African communities in Britain. They have communities in the port cities of Cardiff, Liverpool, Hull, South Shields and London.
Despite their long association with Britain, very little is known or has been written about the Somali community in Britain.
Map of the Horn of Africa, showing Somali speaking regions. © NMM
The people who call themselves Somali only adopted the name in the 19th century. Prior to that time they preferred to use the name of their clan (Darood, Isaaq, Dir, Hawiye, Digil and Rahanweyn).
The name Somali comes from the word 'Soma', meaning to 'milk the animal' and it refers to their shared pastoral lifestyle. The Somali occupy a large part of the Horn of Africa, including the present day Republic of Somalia.
There are large numbers of Somalis in northeast Kenya, the Ogaden area of southeast Ethiopia and the Republic of Djibouti.
Frankincense and myrrh
The people of northern Somalia were influenced by the Sabean Kingdom of South Arabia. This is the same kingdom that the Bible links with the Queen of Sheba.
First century BC pottery from the Middle East, the Nile Valley and Mesopotamia has been found along the coast of northeast Somalia. This demonstrates the region's trading links.
Scrubland on the Kenya-Somalia border. © NMM
Before the rise of Islam the people of northern Somalia came under Persian and Arab cultural influence. They finally adopted Islam some time between 800 and 1000 AD along the east coast.
Somali legends talk about a migration of Arabs into northern Somalia around 1200 AD. They intermarried with the locals and gave rise to the Somali people. All Somali clans traditionally trace their ancestry to two brothers Samaal and Sab.
Over the next four centuries the Somalis moved east into Djibouti and Ethiopia and south into eastern Kenya. They conquered or absorbed the Galla and Bantu peoples in the course of their migration.
Pepper Vine, Kerela, India. © NMM
The Somali people are mostly a clan-based pastoral society. However, there are some exceptions to this. The people of Zeila in northern Somalia, who are known as Zelawi, are a people of mixed Arab, Somali and Ethiopian origin. They have a history of occupation by Persians and South Arabs.
The Zelawi also have a history of maritime trade with the Greeks, Romans and the people of South India. Roman glass has also been found in the northeast of Somalia.
The northeast of Somalia was known to the Romans as the Cape of Spices. This may be because Indian traders brought their spices here in exchange for Roman glass and olive oil.
Northern Somalia is a source of two commodities that were prized in the ancient world. These are:
With the rise of Christianity and Islam, the demand for incense decreased. By the early 14th century Zeila had become a source of meat and dried fish for ships trading between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The decline in the Arab Empire was marked by the arrival of the Turks at Zeila in 1500.
Berbera and Brava
Brava (Barowa). © NMM
There are few good natural anchorages along the coast of Somalia. The two exceptions are Berbera in the north and Brava in the south. Both offer protected anchorage during the monsoons.
Sailing on a dhow, Lamu, Kenya. © NMM
Berbera is probably the port mentioned in a 9th-century Chinese text as 'Po-pali, where the land produced ivory, ambergris and slaves. Though the reference suggests that the natives of 'Po-pali' were a pastoral people, there is no mention of Islam among them. However, the slave raiders are mentioned in the same text as being Arabs and Persians.
Berbera was also a major centre for the export of myrhh. The Chinese name for myrrh is 'moyao' and may be of Somali origin.
Mogadoxa ( Mogadishu). © NMM
Mogadishu , the capital city of Somalia, has no protection for ships at anchor during the monsoons. The Moroccan explorer Ibn Batuta mentioned that in the early 14th century the dhows from Arabia were met by smaller 'sumbuqs'.
Despite the lack of a good harbour Mogadishu was an important port during the 11th and 12th centuries. During that period it controlled the flow of gold from southeast Africa and ivory from east Africa.
In the 13th century Mogadishu lost much of her trading power to the better-protected Swahili ports of eastern Africa. Nevertheless, Mogadishu was a port of call for the Chinese Imperial fleets and it even sent an ambassador to China in 1416 and 1419.
The Kiswahili speakers
It is in the town of Brava that a group of merchants and sailors known as the Amarani originate. This community speaks a form of Kiswahili known as Chimbalazi or Chimini.
Portuguese sources and a Swahili document known as the Pate Chronicle suggest that in the mid-16th century some of the Kiswahili-speaking inhabitants of Brava were forced to sail to Pate Island in the Lamu Archipelago. This was perhaps due to the arrival of the Somali.
Indonesian outriggers, Bali, Indonesia. © NMM
Further south along the coast, near the border with Kenya and on the offshore islands, live the Bajuni. These people speak a Kiswahili dialect and have a settled culture with a strong fishing and seafaring tradition.
The Bajuni traded with Ming China (1368-1644) in tortoise shell, shark fins and sea cucumbers. This community has some cultural features that suggest links with Indonesia. These include:
Arrival of the Portuguese
A Portuguese carrack before the wind. © NMM
The Portuguese arrived from the south at the end of the 15th century. They were commanded by Vasco Da Gama. They embarked on a series of attacks along the Somali coast:
Despite these attacks Portuguese control was erratic and by the mid-16th century the Somali had reached the mainland opposite the Lamu Archipelago.
In the early 20th century there was an area within the city of Mogadishu that was inhabited by seamen and traders. Some of these traders claimed part Portuguese and part Indian ancestry.
The British Protectorate
The first British contact
Britain’s first contact with the Somali along the northern coast of Somalia began in the early 19th century. It was linked with the development of trade and transport between Europe and India via the Red Sea.
In 1827 the British signed a trade treaty with Berbera, and in 1839 they captured the port of Aden. This prompted the expeditions by Johnstone to Berbera in 1842 and Burton to Harar in 1854. In 1855 further treaties were signed between the British and the Somalis.
The creation of Somaliland
Aden, on the coast of Arabia, c. 1835. © NMM
In the second half of the 19th century the coast of northern Somalia fell under Egypt's control. However, following the Anglo-Egyptian war and the fall of Khartoum, the Egyptians left northern Somalia.
British detachments from the Aden garrison occupied the towns of Zeila and Berbera in 1884. From that time until January 1885 the British government entered into treaties with all of the Somali tribes under its protection. The area occupied by those tribes was called British Somaliland.
The British Consulate, Zanzibar. © NMM
The Benadir coast to the south had been under nominal control of the Sultan of Zanzibar since the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1881 the Imperial British East African Company (IBEAC) leased the Benadir coast from Zanzibar.
However, when the IBEAC collapsed the British government sub-let the Benadir coast north of the Juba river to Italy in 1889. This region became Italian Somaliland.
Revolt and independence
The area occupied by the Somali people was further divided in 1897 by treaties between Ethiopia, France, Italy and Britain. The complete division of territory - often across clan borders - among a people unified by language and religion fuelled a revolt. This took the form of a religious war or Jihad by Seyyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan in 1899. The British named the Hassan the 'Mad Mullah.'
Full British control of Somaliland was only achieved in 1920 after the defeat of Sayyid Hassan. On 26 June 1960 the Republic of Somalia became independent.
Firemen of the stokeholes
Dockhands and firemen
HMS 'Seagull'. © NMM
The setting up of Perim Island near Aden as a coaling station meant that workers were needed to unload British coal and transfer it to Royal Navy ships. Somalis were quickly recognized as being one of the few local communities willing to work as dockhands and as firemen on board Royal Navy vessels.
The employment of Somalis was also linked to the Royal Navy's anti-slavery campaign. This was run from Aden, the nearest British naval station to northern Somalia (or Somaliland) and a base for the Bombay Marine. By 1881 the Royal Navy employed Somalis as interpreters in the anti-slavery campaign in eastern Africa, serving on ships such as HMS Seagull.
P&O's London to India service
In the 1840s the Peninsula and Oriental (P&O) company launched a mail and passenger service from London to India via Egypt. The service involved:
The decline of sail and the increase in steam shipping had resulted in a considerable decline in manpower in the British merchant navy. Few Britons wanted to work in the hot and dirty 'stokeholes' of the steamships.
Somali men from British Somaliland were recruited in Aden by shipping companies and were very popular as firemen. Somalis were seen as one of the few ethnic groups who could stoke the fires of steam ships sailing through the heat of the Red Sea.
Growth in demand for Somali workers
In 1856, when the British Indian Steam Navigation Company (BINSC) made Calcutta the headquarters of their Indian Ocean operations, there was even greater demand for Somali firemen.
Somalis on quarterdeck of HMS Venus at Singapore. © NMM
In 1905 the Benadir Company was reconstructed and a monthly postal service of steamers started between Aden, the Benadir and Zanzibar. This offered opportunities for Somalis from the southern regions.
There were few maritime jobs in their home country and even by 1907 there were no dockyards or naval establishments in Somaliland. Nevertheless, Somalis hired in Aden served on Royal Navy ships in the First World War.
Somali ex-soldiers who had served with the British forces during the Second World War were often offered work on Royal Navy ships after the war.
Many Somalis looked for work with British merchant shipping companies, particularly those sailing in the Indian Ocean or to the Far East.
East End Somaal Town
Somalis in the London docks
According to an Act passed in 1894 Somalis could only take jobs in the seafaring industry. This meant that many Somalis who became stranded in London worked in the docks.
Some Somali seamen had settled around Cable Street. This is where they established their own boarding houses prior to the First World War. There was more settlement of Somalis in London after the war.
This settlement was mainly of seamen who looked for accommodation in Stepney, Poplar and at East and West Ham.
Life between the World Wars
Aden - A quayside in the port area, showing dhows laid up, refitting or under construction. © NMM
Life for the Somali men in London was often difficult. Few Somalis spoke much English and, like other black and Asian seamen, they were often attacked during the years of recession that followed the First World War.
In 1919 and again in 1930 there were riots and attacks on black and Asian seamen in many British ports. By this time there were probably also some Somali in Canning Town and around Customs House.
Cable Street , Shadwell. © NMM
In London the British Union of Fascists (BUF) under Sir Oswald Mosley were particularly active in the East End. In 1936 a mixed group of East Enders, including the Somali seamen and dockers, took to the streets in opposition to the BUF in an event that became known as the Battle of Cable Street. Though the event did not remove the BUF from the East End, it did limit its influence.
Somalis in the Second World War
Many Somali seamen joined the merchant navy in the Second World War, despite the hostilities they felt in the East End. They served on troop ships in southeast Asia and north Africa.
During the Second World War the British were pushed out of Somaliland by the Italians, who attacked from Italian Somaliland. British military administration was introduced into both the Italian and British areas in 1941, when both areas became a British Protectorate, following the defeat of the enemy.
The Fortune Men
Al-Huda Mosque and Cultural Centre, Bethnal Green. © NMM
The rise in Somali employment in the British merchant navy and the shortage of manpower in post-war Britain encouraged many Somali ex-seamen to work for a few years in Britain. London’s familiar East End attracted many of these men who were known at home as the 'Fortune Men'.
Because they intended to return to Africa, these Somalis were slow to organize themselves. However, a small community did develop around Lemen Street, with five restaurants catering to the Somali community.
By the 1950s the Brocklebank Line sailed from England through the Suez Canal and called at Berbera once a month between October and April. There was a weekly service from Berbera to Aden, which was now second only to New York as a world port. Apart from the Somali seamen arriving in London there were also a few students.
Independence and migration
On the 26 June 1960 the Republic of Somalia became independent. Migration from drought-ridden Somalia was a feature for much of the late 20th century. By the 1970s there were an estimated 20,000 Somalis living in Aden.
The first wave of refugees to arrive in London in the late 1980s were mainly from the Isaaq clan from the former British Somaliland. These people had arrived in England via refugee camps in Ethiopia and Djibouti. They tended to settle alongside clan members such as the former seamen of the East End.
By the 1990s there were an estimated 100,000 Somali refugees in and around Aden. They were fleeing from:
Many of the people in this second wave first sought refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya. They were from the Mijertein sub-clan of the Darood who had been persecuted by the government of Siad Barre (1919-). A large number of these refugees eventually settled in Italy and Canada.
Today there are an estimated 70,000 Somalis in London, with the largest group of over 10,000 in the borough of Tower Hamlets. Most of London’s Somali population is concentrated to the east and northeast of the City.
Along the Mile End Road between Whitechapel and Bethnal Green underground stations is an area sometimes called ' Somaal Town'. Along a small stretch of the road there is a mosque and cultural centre, and across the road are Somali-owned shops and restaurants.
An Internet cafe in ' Somaal Town' helps the Somali community in East London keep in touch with family and friends abroad. There is even a distinct Somali Bravanese community at Hackney with speakers of Chimini.
Somalis south of the Thames
There is a Somali community to the south of the Thames, based in Thamesmead, Plumstead, Woolwich and Erith. This community is served by a mosque and Islamic cultural centre at Plumstead.
The market and several Somali fast-food stores serve the community at Woolwich and Plumstead.
Source: Port Cities Organisation