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The Somali Land Birth

Issue 301
Front Page
Index
Headlines

Government Led “Coup D'état” against Shuro Net

President Rayale Holds Talks With Visiting French Embassy Officials

Planning & Coordination Minister Refutes UNDP Deportation

Somaliland cabinet meets to discuss the needs of Sool

Somaliland Attempting To Silence Human Rights Network

Somali Government Harassing Media

Zenawi Says Favorable To Keep Ethiopian Troops In Somalia

Opposition Political Party Formed In Somalia Parliament

France Looking For Way Out Of ‘Walled Meadow’ In Africa

Radio shut in Somalia amid escalating attacks on media

Two soldiers killed as gov't official survives assassination in Somalia

Regional Affairs

UN Hopes to Resume Food Aid in Somalia

Somalia: Situation Report - 26 Oct 2007

Editorial
Special Report

International News

Joaquim Chissano Wins The Largest Prize In The World

Biggest Discrimination In The World: Attacks On Somali Community In Bristol

Two Somalian Immigrants Honored For Service To Local Refugees

FEATURES & COMMENTARY

Abdirahman Aw Ali Farah - Coast to Coast Candidate

Letter From Djibouti

US Horn of Africa Policy at odds with the Declaration of Independence

The Somali Land Birthed?

Work starts on Axum obelisk

Food for thought

Opinions

Premier Gedi of Somalia cracks under political pressure

Somaliland Government: Hands-Off Human Rights Defenders

Somaliland vs. Puntland: More Terror Accusations, More Crying Wolf

Somaliland Doesn’t Need Advice From Mr. Gedi

Without A Doubt KULMIYE Party Is The Only Hope For Our Country And Its People

Somaliland: Wrong policy on the Ogaden

Rayale’s Hostages In Mandera

Proper Hiring And Justified Firing Of Employees


The original photograph of Sheikh Issaq’s tomb at Mait taken by the author and the issued stamp

By Christopher Claxton

Christopher Claxton recalls a vacation in Somaliland in 1957, when he took a photograph subsequently used for the 1s.30 stamp in the then current definitive set—and the work of his father, H W Claxton, in designing the King George VI definitives. Anyone who has traveled through desert wilderness, whether it be Somaliland's hot Guban or the icy glaciers of, say, Mont Blanc, will know just how beautifully awe inspiring they can be.

It can indeed be true of the whole of living. Likewise, if you drive down that seriously steep escarpment from the forests of Erigavo to the barren heat below, and then press on to the sea at Maid, there you will find a most important sight. It is the remote white dome of Sheikh Ishaaq's tomb.

Our memories are but signposts through the past. At the Secretariat offices in Hargeysa and then a maverick 19-year old 2nd Lieutenant in the Somaliland Scouts, I had in 1957 visited an official named Coghill to borrow some maps. ‘Is it true that you are planning an expedition to Erigavo', he had asked, ‘Please could you do us a favor. We need a photograph of Sheikh Ishaaq's tomb at Maid', then spelt and pronounced Mait, ‘for the next Somaliland stamp'. He drew a sketch of the scene that he thought best. There was only one answer to give.

It was the custom for young officers for their vacations sometimes to take two trucks, a section of Somali soldiers, various tents and several drums of petrol to explore the barren country. I had earlier ventured westwards from the high plateau at Borama and traversed down through the scrubland and across the dried river watercourse taking the long route to Zeila, and thence on to French Djibouti.

The expedition

Living can be so transitory. My co-subaltern explorer companion on the next expedition, Jeffrey Jewell, would become a tea planter and later worked in the drinks trade. But then as co-warriors in uniform, he and I set out, not westwards as before but eastwards. From Hargeysa our small convoy reached along the dirt road to Burao, next south and eastwards along the border, then rougher still to Las Anod, onwards again to the Mullah's high walled ruined fortifications at Taleh, and finally northwards up to an altitude of 2400 meters (7920 feet) where we found the deep green forests of Erigavo. It took only a few days and the journey was without mishap.

The pass down the 7920 feet to Maid is precipitous. John Harper Nelson, a major, who would some years on become a radio announcer, author and publisher in Australia, had engineered much of the 40-mile route. It had required large amounts of explosive to break rock, and large amounts of initiative to carve its winding route out of the escarpment.

But then Harper Nelson was an exceptional man. He had fought and importantly survived three serious wounds in the 1943–1944 battles, including the desperate battle at Monte Cassino, from the southern end of Italy to the north. In this politically correct age it is an easy mistake to forget the courageous and creative daring of those small numbers of Britons who, with dedication and care, managed such exploits with the minimum of supportive engineering expertise. It was of course for them also a rare privilege. And so it would be for Jeff and I to add in this modest way to the world's precious stamp collections.

Further, a little further', I called to my companion as he inched the truck forwards. ‘Fire!' The camera snapped its target. A new stamp was born that would have the value of 1 shilling 30 cents with Sheikh Ishaaq's white desert tomb encapsulated on 35mm celluloid in color. The tomb stood apart from the sleepy village, aloof as though upon its dignity.

‘As seen from our vantage point', I subsequently wrote, ‘a purple mountain formed a royal backcloth to the tomb's simple whiteness.

A mullah attended its splendid interior and ministered to pilgrims who came from far and wide. According to legend, as we were told, the Sheikh had come from the Yemen and landed at Maid somewhere between the tenth and 15th centuries, made alliances with the local tribes, and through his sons became ancestor of the chief tribes.

Pilgrims would give alms. You had to wait your turn to enter. Our ten-pound supply of sugar was never seen again'. Shortly afterwards Jeff went swimming in the shimmering blue ocean, until the dorsal fin of a shark catalyzed his hurried exit. Then we drove on, traversing through the torrid heat the length of the Guban to Berbera.

Not so many months later, Gibbons Stamp Monthly ran my piece in October 1958 on this minor drama. It was entitled ‘The Sheikh's Last Tribe'. If the Sheikh had been responsible for the four tribes of Somaliland, he had now posthumously given birth to a fifth, but this new tribe ‘two dimensional, rectangular and with perforated edges'. And to those who say they understand destiny, please read on. Its powerful forces seemed to have been at work.

My previous visit

This was not part of my first visit to the Horn of Africa but of my second. Those 19 years before, in 1937, I had been brought as a screaming recent born to the hot humid Gulf side port and administrative centre of Berbera. There my father, H W Claxton, had been promoted from Head of Customs to Treasurer and his beautiful young wife Isabel was his consort. The comforts of air-conditioning still lay many years ahead. Somaliland existed economically thanks to its sheep. The major export of this essential commodity passed through Berbera. The country's income came largely from export duties levied on sheep and their skins before they were carried in sailing Arab dhows across the Gulf for consumption in Aden and upon which Aden depended.

As Treasurer, Claxton Snr was therefore a most important official. He and his family inhabited a generous bungalow located not so many yards from the haven of colonial officialdom, the bar and tennis courts of the Club. For additional recreation it was customary for them to drive some weekends across the sands and up another several thousand foot escarpment, the precipitous Sheikh Pass, to the cool and dewy plateau village of Sheikh. There a second bungalow, which went with the job, gave welcome relief from the heat of the plains far below.

This is where the destiny comes in. There were only a tiny handful of British officials, officers and their wives in the country. Each had to use their multiple skills. The serving Governor, Sir Arthur Lawrence, was of the view that Somaliland should have pictorial stamps. He also considered that they should not go outside for their design but rely upon their own resources. Just as Coghill subsequently asked me, the Governor loftily asked Claxton Snr, ‘Can you not do something about this?'.

Original sketches by H W Claxton, the author’s father, for the three designs used on Somaliland’s King George VI definitives

He answered that he was no artist. He was too modest by far, for what followed was the real start of Somaliland's own postage stamps.

As Treasurer, Claxton Snr was therefore a most important official. He and his family inhabited a generous bungalow located not so many yards from the haven of colonial officialdom, the bar and tennis courts of the Club. For additional recreation it was customary for them to drive some weekends across the sands and up another several thousand foot escarpment, the precipitous Sheikh Pass, to the cool and dewy plateau village of Sheikh. There a second bungalow, which went with the job, gave welcome relief from the heat of the plains far below.

This is where the destiny comes in. There were only a tiny handful of British officials, officers and their wives in the country. Each had to use their multiple skills. The serving Governor, Sir Arthur Lawrence, was of the view that Somaliland should have pictorial stamps. He also considered that they should not go outside for their design but rely upon their own resources. Just as Coghill subsequently asked me, the Governor loftily asked Claxton Snr, ‘Can you not do something about this?'. He answered that he was no artist. He was too modest by far, for what followed was the real start of Somaliland's own postage stamps.

What to choose as subjects?

The first question that arose was, what to choose as subjects? ‘One obvious answer', my father wrote in the December 1954 edition of Gibbons Stamp Monthly, published four years before my contribution, ‘was the Berbera Blackhead sheep. No other country had, as far as (they) were aware, a sheep on its stamps', indeed which one would? Alternatives were the ubiquitous camel, or the Greater Kudu. Having no works of reference or even a stamp catalogue, Claxton Snr set to work. He drew in pencil a sheep and a Kudu, the borders on each side illustrated with spears, the sheep being, you will understand, no mere commonplace but the basis of the country's economic subsistence. He also drew a design for the rupee values that showed a map of the territory in order to tell the world where Somaliland was, for, apart from those who lived there, few then knew. These sketches were then turned by more expert draftsmen elsewhere into stamps in denominations from 1.2a. to 5r.

The issue came out in May 1938 and lasted a mere 34 months. The reason for this short time span was that in 1940 the Italians invaded in overwhelming strength. The heavily outnumbered British troops retreated and Berbera was occupied. The invaders blew the Treasury strong room open and its stock of ‘loose stamps and of sheets of them were scattered by the wind far and wide', ending up as far away as the street market in Addis Ababa. And when the British military reoccupied the territory in 1941 the military Government declared the issue demonetized. So ended that particular tribe. As all philatelists know, of course, the replacement issue, which appeared in April 1942, retained the same designs but the angle of the King's head was altered and he now looked straight at you. To this unimportant footnote to a world now long gone, I have to add this.

It grew as everyone knows out of the then economics, strategy and ethos of empire. All that has done its job and has rightly passed on. Today its former officers and their wives are either in heaven or in gardening retirement picking roses, many of the Somali governed correspondingly likewise. The peoples of Somaliland, of course, these many years later have their own Constitution, their own processes. They hold referendums, they organize their own affairs as does the rest of the world, struggling with the vicissitudes of living and enjoying the easy parts, well and mercifully without us.

A lovely sentiment

So what remains to say? Only this. A safe life creates little. An adventurous one brings turmoil as well as achievement and fulfillment. It was United States President Theodore Roosevelt who had observed that ‘it is not the critic who counts … the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again; who at the best knows … high achievement … and if he fails at the worst, … whilst daring greatly, … shall never be with those who (knew) neither defeat nor victory', a lovely sentiment. Somaliland has done all that and more.

I too am able to look back on these signposts through the past that are now but memories of where it all began. As for the stamps, they hold proper place only in reminiscence, in stamp albums and in the dusty folios of Gibbons Stamp Monthly. Christopher Claxton is an author and international businessman, who has traveled round the world nine times, worked in more than 40 countries, the first of them Somaliland, set up businesses in 109 countries and written six books. His father, H W Claxton OBE, died in 2002 at the age of 102.

Below: Collection of former British Somaliland stamps

 


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