Africa during the Scramble: Poetry in the Desert

By Gary Oswald


Statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia.

‘I have rejected the abundant wealth the colonizers were willing to offer me. By abandoning my religion for the colonizer’s wealth is just accepting to be placed in the hell which I will not do. Only dreadful result is inherited from collaborating with the colonizers.’


The English translation, I am assured, loses most of the poetry of the original Somali but the above is a quote from one of the last poems written by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, the man the British called the ‘Mad Mullah’, as part of his public refusal of a cushy retirement if he surrendered. In modern texts he is mostly known by an honorific rather than his name, such is his influence, I will refer to him simply as the Mullah, though the Sayyid is also commonly used.


Muhammad Abdullah Hassan fought the colonial powers with weapons, obviously, he warned one British governor that the difference between them was that the Mullah was looking forward to fighting and they were not. But he also, more than most anti-colonial African leaders of this time period, fought them with poems and words in his own propaganda war for hearts and minds. Even today many of his poems are still wildly read by Somali speakers. Arguably, much like Robert Emmet, he achieved more as a writer of defiance than as a soldier. He has more followers now than he did as a rebel when the majority of the Somali rejected him.


Poetry is a way of life for the Somali. There is an old Somali proverb that words can reach far further than rocks, and their history and politics are often told through that poetry. It’s certainly our most prominent primary sources from their point of view and I will try and refer to them in this article to try and show how the Somali poets viewed the conflicts I'll talk about. Both the Mullah himself and many of his comrades, such as Ali ‘Bu’ul, wrote poems about their wars against the three Christian Imperialist powers who hunted them, Italy, the UK and Ethiopia. The poems, often titled things like ‘Defeat of the Infidels’, ‘Bearing Victory’ and ‘In praise of my Horse’, were the voice of resistance during a time when the Somali people found their lands partitioned by treaties between the Christian Empires.


Somalia wasn’t really conquered. There were campaigns in it, the devastating Rinderpest Epizootic which led to the destruction of thousands of cattle herds and the depopulation of large areas of Ethiopia and Kenya, can be traced back to an Italian Army in Northern Somalia using Indian cattle as pack animals, but they were mostly shows of force, expansion was largely peaceful. The British, Italians and, in the small area around Djibouti, the French reached out to the leaders of either the costal sultanates or the rural nomadic tribes and agreed treaties of over lordship and protection. Those treaties banned slavery and saw European residents sent to each region, but from the Somali perspective they weren’t particularly onerous and in return weapons were sold, trade was opened up and third parties were around to offer adjudication on land rights. The cost in terms of limited freedoms wasn’t immediately obvious, the British in particular were absentee landlords who had no real desire to interfere so long as they could trade guns for meat there, they referred to it dismissively as 'Aden's Butcher Shop'. One of the largest tribes, the Dolbahanta, were in fact deliberately allowed to maintain their independence as a buffer zone between the different European backed Somali tribes to avoid Britain and Italy being dragged into a war in the area. The position of the Dolbahanta, as people who lived in land claimed by the British but who the British refused to acknowledge as subjects, would prove a legal landmine once many of their people joined an anti-British rebellion.


The trigger point of that rebellion was the City of Harar in the Ogaden. Harar had been one of the greatest of the Somali cities, the capital of the old Adal Sultanate. In 1875, the Egyptians had captured it in their wars of conquest under Khedive Ismael. In 1885, in the aftermath of the fall of Khartoum, the Egyptians abandoned it and the Somali clans of the Ogaden regained their independence. This was not to last. The 1884 treaty between Ethiopia and Egypt, in which the Ethiopians agreed to assist in the evacuation of the Egyptian garrisons cut off by the Mahdist revolt, also saw the Egyptians agree to hand over their territories in modern day Eritrea to Ethiopia. The British than backstabbed the Ethiopians by allowing the Italians to occupy that area instead, forcing the Ethiopians to look elsewhere for new land. In 1886 an Italian patrol in their Somali territories was wiped out, allegedly by the free Somali of Harar. The Negus of Shewa, who would later become Menelek II of Ethiopia and was at that point being armed and supported by the Italians as a friendly local noble who was not loyal to his Emperor, used this attack on his Italian allies to justify invading and sacking Harar, adding the Ogaden to his realm and building up his own power.


This was not entirely accepted by either the British or the French, both of whom viewed the Ethiopians as dangerous loose cannons, who were “addicted to strong drink, and ever ready to make use of firearms” as one missive between French and British governors put it. But for the later 1880s and early 1890s Ethiopia was seen as an Italian protectorate within their realm of influence. It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Battle of Adwa, wherein Ethiopia had proved once and for all that it was an independent state, that the matter could be resolved by direct negotiation between the Emperor and the Europeans. In an 1897 treaty Britain gave up all rights to the Ogaden and rejected any responsibilities to protect the clans there, even those who had previously signed treaties of protection with the UK. Menelik promised to treat his new subjects with fairness and good governance and that, as far as the British were concerned, was the end of that. The Somali were less sanguine about it, as far as they were concerned, they had been sold out and this proved their treaties of protection were not worth anything in terms of benefits. In 1899 the Mullah, who the British had previously viewed as a useful man to have around due to his working to end inter clan feuding, gathered a force of Somalis to take back Harar from the Ethiopians.


Town of Harar with Citywall. Photo taken by Giustino and shared under the CC BY 2.0 licence.

The Mullah is best described as a proto nationalist, it was his religion that he was fighting for rather than his country. He had come to age in the Yemen and had initially preached his version of Islam, inspired by the reactionary trends of Saudi Arabia and the Mahdist Sudan, in Aden. But it wasn’t until he returned to Somalia that he found fertile ground for his preaching. The Somali Sultans had pretty much all agreed submission to the Christian Empires and while they were rebellions, against Italy in particular, the Sultans generally seemed more interested in fighting each other than their overlords. And while the Mullah’s strand of faith was seen as heretic to the majority, he was a man willing to take the fight to the Ethiopians when no one else was and that alone gained him followers.


He was also ruthless. His first port of call when recruiting warriors was to the independent Dolbahanta Clan, the kinsmen of his mother, but their leader rebuffed him. The Mullah responded by assassinating him, a breach of etiquette that stunned the Somali generally and shattered the unity of that clan. The Dolbahanta became splintered into different smaller groups and in that power vacuum, several hundred young Dolbahanta man switched their allegiance to the Mullah. In his poem, 'Law and Hunger' the Mullah claimed that the men he recruited then were the best of Somalia and they became the core of his forces.


The Ethiopians claimed that they defeated the Mullah in a battle in 1899, and certainly they seemed to have maintained control over the city of Harar itself but their forces were isolated there and the poems of the Somali tell of many victories. Moreover many of the men of the Ogaden joined their army. From the British point of view it soon seemed that the Ogaden countryside was entirely controlled by the Rebel Somali such was the frequency of raids from Ethiopia into Somaliland. The targets were Somali clans who still kept faith with the British and who in turn began to demand a British response against the rebels. Menelik II seemed equally alarmed, three times he proposed a joint attack on the Mullah’s forces; the Ethiopians attacking from the North and the British from the South. Twice the British, still concentrating on winning the Second Boer War, refused. Finally in 1901 they agreed to launch a joint attack.


In the areas of Somalia under either British or Ethiopian control, ignoring that of the Italian or the French, there was in 1901 around half a million people and 130,000 Somali men under arms. At this point less than 15,000 of those men, primarily from the Ogaden, had committed to the rebel cause. What Menelik feared was that the longer the rebels kept winning, the more of those men would join them and the war would become unwinnable. He sent an Army 10,000 strong to reinforce Harar. The British sent 4,000 new reinforcements, the majority very deliberately Muslims from either India or elsewhere in Africa, to their stronghold of Hargesia. The plan was for the Ethiopian show of force to scare the Mullah into retreating south wherein the British Army could engage and destroy them, with the idea that a Muslim victory would not incite further rebellion the way an Ethiopian victory would.


Both sides innately understood that when fighting in the desert they key was controlling wells. The Mullah destroyed wells in the Ogaden and so forced the Ethiopians to send some of their Army back north because they couldn’t supply them all. The British meanwhile attempted to take and fortify the wells alongside the Ethiopian border so that the rebels must either attack them or die of dehydration. The plan initially seemed to work, the Ethiopians drove the rebels into British territory, where the British defeated them and kept from the wells. But there was a third Christian nation nearby who was not part of this alliance. The Rebels retreated into Italian Somaliland, where the British were unwilling to follow them lest they started a war, and found unguarded wells there.


Thus the first expedition had ended in failure for the British, the rebels had escaped and they’d lost a huge amount of their forces to the attrition of desert fighting. The Ethiopians however had gained back the Ogaden now the rebels had fled and celebrated by burning and looting the houses of suspected collaborators which quickly became anyone Muslim or Somali. This massacre of civilians was, it must be said, not the sort of thing conductive to building long term goodwill but in the short term it worked. The death toll and fear of further Ethiopian retaliation kept the Ogaden from rising again for another 19 years. It must also be said that there is every evidence that the civilian Ethiopian leadership was appalled by a lot of this and tried to mitigate the brutality, it was the soldiers who largely got out of control, but from the Somali point of view that made little difference. The Gubo series of poems written around 25 years later cover the Somali perspective of this harrying in the poem ‘Ali Dunah’s lament’ better known as ‘The Fools of the Ogaden’. It's a crude morality tale in which a visitor from the British Somaliland is rude and obnoxious about the poverty and suffering of his Ogaden hosts, but the fact the difference in wealth was already a stereotype shows both the damage done and the reputation the Ethiopians had earned as overlords.


With the Ethiopians newly secure in their position, the British continued their war against the Mullah alone but were unable to bring him to ground and often suffered brutal causalities when engaging his rear guard. For the Somali Clans who had not joined the rebels this war was far from welcome, on the one hand they were routinely raided and attacked by the rebels, on the other the Christian powers were increasingly invested in the region, deposing sultans who would not offer full cooperation to their own armies. The Yoke of European over lordship became more taxing. In 1903 the British returned to their original plans, only with newly acquired permission to cross into Italian lands. Ethiopia and the UK would once again attack as one and so force the surrounded rebels to stand and fight and be destroyed.


This also failed, two such campaigns were launched in which victories were won but in both the rebels were mobile enough to escape their disorganised foes. Italy allowed the other armies to cross into their areas but contributed nothing in the way of soldiers themselves. An Ethiopian victory in 1903 was squandered by a slow British follow up and a British victory in 1904 was equally squandered by Ethiopian disorganisation. The Mullah lost large amounts of men and livestock in those campaigns, but he himself always managed to get away alive and free if diminished. The British did take advantage of this temporary victory to set about arming and training the friendly tribes and setting up British forts in their lands so that he would be able to do little damage if he started raiding again, which he did soon afterwards. And once again he began to attract more followers, writing his poems as little acts of defiance and advertising.


As one of those poems put it ‘He who for the Holy War is crowned with flowers, who kills the English dogs unceasingly, who has a victory rich in songs and hymns. Oh, men, who is known by these virtues? Is he not perhaps a True Muslim?’ But behind this bluster there was the realisation that against a united Christian army his days were numbered. Luckily for him, his enemies weren't united. In 1905 the Mullah agreed a separate peace with the Italians and settled in their Northern Territory safe from his enemies.


In 1907, the Liberal MP Winston Churchill arrived in British Somaliland to report on its state. His conclusion was blunt, huge amounts of money were being spend there for little gain. The only sensible thing for the British to do was to retreat to the coast, refuse to honour their treaties of protection with the Clans of the interior and let the Mullah do as he would. The Italians, he had noted, had already done as much in their territory. The British Military objected to this and many furious letters were written by both sides but in 1909 Churchill won the argument and the British abandoned their inland forts. Within two years, the Somali clans within the area were at war with one another over what their rights were now the British weren’t enforcing them and any order had been shattered. The result of British rule had been that each clan had been armed and trained for warfare and then the power that had set itself as a neutral arbitrator for disputes between them had stopped being available to do so. Some sources indicate a death toll of nearly a third of the able men of British Somaliland during the next ten years as a result of this anarchy.


This was fortunate timing for the rebels because by 1908 the Mullah's relationship with Italy was breaking down. The Italians had been distracted by the ongoing revolt of the Bimali Clan which took years to put down. The Mullah openly refused to interfere but covertly sent arms and supplies to the rebels. This way he hoped to tie up the Italians without burning any bridges with them and the Italians for their part were content to fight one rebellion at a time, the Dervishes of the Mullah joining up with the Bimali was their worst nightmare. That relationship however only lasted for as long as the Bimali were still fighting, in 1908 the Italians won a series of breakthroughs. Guerrillas were still active for years later but the main towns were all back in Italian hands and Carletti, the governor of the region, was free to try and extend Italian power over the interior once again. In late 1908, at Carletti's request, the Somali chiefs within the Italian protectorate universally denounced the Mullah and declared his brand of Islam heretic.


The British withdrawal however, had now given him an obvious area to retreat to when the Italian attack did come. The next few years would increasingly see Italy as the more vigorous and effective actor in the war against the Mullah, with Britain and especially Ethiopia, concerned with the illness and death of their Emperor, being unable to take the offensive due to anarchy in their colonies where the rebels could find refuge. By 1912, the Mullah had been driven out of Italian land entirely, never to return, and concentrated instead in fortifying the land around the Taleh, in Ethiopian and British Territory from 1913 to 1920, where he created his own functioning 'Dervish State' while the world was distracted by the Great War.

Taleh, the Dervish capital. Photo taken by WIkimedia user 'Scoobycentric' and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

The general belief at this point, in London, Rome and Addis Ababa at least, was that the Somali problem was essentially that of this one man. He was the rebellion, wherever he was based he found followers, wherever he was not the Christian powers could reassert themselves. The Mullah found this assumption patronising and offensive, in his letters and poems he spoke of the organisation of his state, the laws and structures. They were not, he maintained, fighting a man but a nation. It was one of the few functioning nations to be created by rebels in Africa within a previously conquered area during this period, alongside the Republic of the Rif and Mahdist Sudan.


The British Assault on the Mullah’s headquarters had originally been planned for 1914 but events delayed that until 1920. This allowed it to involve two new military units, the Camel Corps and the Air Force. The campaign would become one of the first victories of the new RAF, though how crucial their contribution was is debateable, a lot of the British Army thought it was exaggerated for PR reasons. The Aircraft scouted out the area and bombed it, though, because the rebels could retreat into deep caves they don't seem to have done a huge amount of damage. The Camel corps followed up behind them and captured the Taleh Forts from, what the RAF insists, was a shaken and disorganised enemy. The Mullah however survived and retreated into the Ogaden where he once again raised up a new army before dying of the Spanish Flu in 1920.


It’s an anticlimactic end but it is difficult to think of what exactly the Mullah could have done had he lived longer. During WWI it seems like the Mullah put his hope in two things, either a) a German/Ottoman victory that would see the British and Italians swept out of the area by fellow Muslims or b) the restoration to the Throne of Ethiopia of Lih Iyasu, a rebel who had once been Emperor, was rumoured to be a secret Muslim and had made alliance with the Mullah upon being deposed. Both of these are incredibly slim hopes, an attack through Egypt and the Sudan was beyond Ottoman capabilities and even if Lih Iyasu did somehow win back his throne he'd be unlikely to go to war with the UK for the sake of gratitude to an ally during his time as a rebel. By 1920 that slim chance had become none, World War I had been over for two years and and Lih Iyasu was captured by the Ethiopians only a few months after the Mullah's death. .


The more remarkable thing was simply that it took more than 20 years of fighting before he died. He was unable at any point to genuinely gain popular support such as the Mahdi had in the Sudan, he could always find followers but they were always a minority. Very few clans ever threw in with him entirely, his strain of Islam was not accepted by most and his undoubted cruelty and fondness for torture put many off him. He was an intelligent, able tactician and strategist but his main quality was luck, in most timelines, you can’t help but think the rebellion would have been put down earlier. He has been far more effective as a dead poet and as a symbol of Somali unity and nationhood, a man who could attract followers from all of what is now Ethiopia, Somalia and Somaliland, then he ever was as a man.


In the aftermath of the defeat of the Dervish rebels, the British launched a crackdown against clan leaders they deemed to have been sympathetic to the rebel cause or who had took advantage of the break out of Civil War to cause the most havoc, an underlining of the way the absent landlordism of the pre WWI era was a thing of the past. The legal loophole protecting the Dolbahanta was closed and Mohamoud Ali Shire, Sultan of the Warsangali, was seen as responsible for raids on British shipping and so was particularly targeted. In 1920 he was exiled to the island of Mahé in modern day Seychelles. Here he would join an eclectic community of political prisoners from across the British Empire, which at various points included the Sultan of Perak, the Kings of Ashanti, Buganda and Bunyaro, the Prime Minister of Egypt, members of the Palestinian higher committee, the archbishop of Cyprus, and the Sultan of Zanzibar. It is the Exiles of Mahé that the next article in this series is about.

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