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The Majeerteen Sultanates

Farther east on the Majeerteen (Bari) coast, by the middle of the nineteenth century two tiny kingdoms emerged that would play a significant political role on the Somali Peninsula prior to colonization. These were the Majeerteen Sultanate of Boqor Ismaan Mahamuud, and that of his kinsman Sultan Yuusuf Ali Keenadiid of Hobyo (Obbia). The Majeerteen Sultanate originated in the mid eighteenth century, but only came into its own in the nineteenth century with the reign of the resourceful Boqor Ismaan Mahamuud.Ismaan Mahamuud's kingdom benefited from British subsidies (for protecting the British naval crews that were shipwrecked periodically on the Somali coast) and from a liberal trade policy that facilitated a flourishing commerce in livestock, ostrich feathers, and gum arabic. While acknowledging a vague vassalage to the British, the sultan kept his desert kingdom free until well after 1800.

Boqor Ismaan Mahamuud's sultanate was nearly destroyed in the middle of the nineteenth century by a power struggle between him and his young, ambitious cousin, Keenadiid. Nearly five years of destructive civil war passed before Boqor Ismaan Mahamuud managed to stave off the challenge of the young upstart, who was finally driven into exile in Arabia. A decade later, in the 1870s, Keenadiid returned from Arabia with a score of Hadhrami musketeers and a band of devoted lieutenants. With their help, he carved out the small kingdom of Hobyo after conquering the local Hawiye clans. Both kingdoms, however, were gradually absorbed by the extension into southern Somalia of Italian colonial rule in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.


The north-eastern sultanates of Majeerteen and Hobyo developed a very effective political organization with diversified measures of centralized authority over relatively large territories. Italy, Britain, Germany and France had been trying to solicit them into their sphere of influence since the early days of their competition for the Somali peninsula. In the closing decades of the 1880s Germany was the first colonial power to have built a special relationship with the Majeerteen. To the other colonial powers' surprise however, on 7 April 1889, it was Italy who concluded a treaty of protection with the Majeerteen sultanate, having only a few months before, in December 1888, signed a similar treaty with the Hobyo sultanate. The protectorate agreements were renewed by the Majeerteen on 7 April 1895 and on 11 April 1895 by the Hobyo.

The treaty terms clearly stipulated that Italy was not to interfere in the internal affairs of the sultanates, and in order to promote the Italian Government and the sultanates' interests, Italy agreed to send commissi­oners to both sultanates.

By accepting Italy's protection in December 1888, Sultan Yusuf Ali of Hobyo was planning to use Italy's support in his dispute with the Sultan of Zanzibar over the border region north of Warsheekh. He was also interested in using this support against Boqor Osman of the Majeerteen Sultanate with whom he contested control over the Nugaal Valley. As a countermove against Sultan Yusuf Ali, Boqor Osman Mahamud also accepted Italy's protection. They had both signed the protectorate agreements for their own expansionist objectives, and, by exploiting the conflicting interests among competing powers, to avoid direct occupation of their territories by force.

However, the relationship between Hobyo and Italy was complicated when Sultan Yusuf Ali refused the Italian proposal to sanction a British contingent of troops to disembark at Hobyo to pursue their battle with the Daraawiish (see above) in April 1903. Because of this controversy, Sultan Yusuf Ali and his son Yusuf Ali were eventually deposed by the Italians and deported to Assab in Eritrea.

Conflict of Interest

The sultanate of Majeerteen lay on the utmost tip of the Horn. To the north was the Red Sea, in the east there was the Indian Ocean. To the south of Majeerteenia stretched the Nugaal Valley. To the west British Somaliland.

To define their zone of influence, the Italian and British administrations signed the Anglo-Italian Treaty of 5 May 1894 which defined the Majeerteen Sultanate as being east of the 490 Meridian. The line fell to the east of Taleh and Baran. In 1906 Cavalier Pestalozza and General Swaine signed an agreement recognising Baran as under the Majeerteen sultanate. Among other things, the Anglo-Italian treaty stipulated that the Italian government be responsible for any act committed by the Majeerteen against the people under British protection.0 All these dealings were taking place behind the backs of the peoples concerned.

In March 1901, Boqor Osman extended his border by capturing two small towns in the Mudug region. The Mudug was an area regarded as Sultan Yusuf Ali's realm. As both sultans were under Italian protection, the contention prompted Giulio Pestalozza, the Italian Consul at Aden, to sail to Baargaal, the seat of the Majeerteen court, to press Boqor Osman to retreat and respect the treaties. Boqor Osman refused to give in.

The matter worried Italy and it reasoned that unless Boqor Osman was brought under their directive they feared they could not control the sultanate. Misunderstanding and distrust was in the making. The conflict of interest was leading to confrontation as each side began accusing the other.

Whilst the situation was still in confusion, the Italian Minister in Cairo intercepted a letter from Boqor Osman seeking Ottoman protection over what the latter termed the "Independent Majeerteen Somali". Furthermore, Italy learned about the sultanate's arms build-up. Before it was too late, Italy decided to breach the treaty and to bring Boqor Osman to his knees. The Volta ship bombarded the coastal villages of Bareeda and Bender Khassim (Boosaaso), crippling the sultanate's modest arms and ammunition warehouses. Boqor Osman fled to the interior, while Italian troops captured the sea towns of Alula, Bender Khassim, Bareeda and Muranyo. Boqor Osman had been taken by surprise, and had attempted unsuccessfully to counter the Italians in too many battlefields.

Things were further complicated by other developments in the region: the Italo-British arrangements for confining the Daraawiish to the Nugaal area was growing untenable. The British had failed to secure peace with the Daraawiish and were in retreat. The good relationships which in the past Boqor Osman had had with Sayid Mahamed ended after persistent Daraawiish scorched earth raids on Majeerteen settlements. Initially B­oqor Osman had repulsed invasions of his Sultanate by the Daraawiish. But armed confrontation with the Italians had made him vulnerable to the Daraawiish attacks. He turned to the Italians for an "honourable settlement".

Because of the Daraawiish threat to their Benaadir colony and the weakness of control afforded by the existing treaty with the Majeerteen, the Italians opted to open a dialogue with Boqor Osman. After long negotiations, in March 1910, they signed a renewal of the treaty but with a more rigid and effective protectorate powers and in their own interpretation.

From Sovereign to Subject: The Elimination of the North-Eastern Sultanates

The dawn of fascism in the early 1920s heralded a change of strategy for Italy as the north-eastern sultanates were soon to be forced within the boundaries of La Grande Somalia according to the plan of fascist Italy. With the arrival of Governor Cesare Maria De Vecchi on 15 December 1923 things began to change for that part of Somaliland. Italy had access to these parts under the successive protection treaties, but not direct rule. The fascist government had direct rule only over the Benaadir territory.

Given the defeat of the Daraawiish movement in the early 1920s and the rise of fascism in Europe, on 10 July 1925 Benito Mussolini gave the green light to De Vecchi to start the takeover of the north-eastern sultanates. Everything was to be changed and the treaties abrogated.

The real principles of colonialism meant possession and domination of the people, and the protection of the country from other greedy powers. Italy's interpretation of the treaties of protection with the north-eastern sultanates was comparable to her view of the Treaty of Uccialli with Abyssinia, and meant absolute control of the whole territory. Never mind that the subsequent tension between Abyssinia and Italy had culminated in 1896 in the battle of Adwa in which the Italians were overwhelmed and outmanoeuvred. The Italians had not learned their lesson, they were committing the same historical mistake.

Governor De Vecchi's first plan was to disarm the sultanates. But before the plan could be carried out there should be sufficient Italian troops in both sultanates. To make the enforcement of his plan more viable, he began to reconstitute the old Somali police corps, the Corpo Zaptié, as a colonial force.

Preparations for the Invasion

In preparation for the plan of invasion of the sultanates, the Alula Commissioner, E. Coronaro received orders in April 1924 to carry out a reconnaissance on the territories targeted for invasion. In spite of the forty year Italian relationship with the sultanates, Italy did not have adequate knowledge of the geography. During this time, the Stefanini-Puccioni geological survey was scheduled to take place, so it was a good opportunity for the expedition of Coronaro to join with this.

Coron­aro's survey concluded that the Majeerteen Sultanate depended on sea traffic, therefore, if this were blocked any resistance which could be mounted came after the invasion of the sultanate would be minimal. As the first stage of the invasion plan Governor De Vecchi ordered the two Sultanates to disarm. The reaction of both sultanates was to object, as they felt the policy was in breach of the protectorate agreements. The pressure engendered by the new developme­nt forced the two rival sultanates to settle their differences over Nugaal possession, and form a united front against their common enemy.

The First Casualty: Hobyo

The Sultanate of Hobyo was different from that of Majeerteen in terms of its geography and the pattern of the territory. It was founded by Yusuf Ali in the middle of the nineteenth century in central Somaliland. The jurisdiction of Hobyo stretched from El-Dheere through to Dusa-Mareeb in the south-west, from Galladi to Galkayo in the west, from Jerriiban to Garaad in the north-east, and the Indian Ocean in the east.

By 1st October, De Vecchi's plan was to go into action. The operation to invade Hobyo started in October 1925. Columns of the new Zaptié began to move towards the sultanate. H­obyo, El-Buur, Galkayo, and the territory between were completely overrun within a month. Hobyo was transformed from a sultanate into an administrat­ive region. Sultan Yusuf Ali surrendered. Nevertheless, soon suspicions were aroused as Trivulzio, the Hobyo commissioner, reported movement of armed men towards the borders of the sultanate before the takeover and after. Before the Italians could concentrate on the Majeerteen, they were diverted by new setbacks. On 9 November, the Italian fear was realised when a mutiny, led by one of the military chiefs of Sultan Ali Yusuf, Omar Samatar, recaptured El-Buur. Soon the rebellion expanded to the local population. The region went into revolt as El-Dheere also came under the control of Omar Samatar. The Italian forces tried to recapture El-Buur but they were repulsed. On 15 November the Italians retreated to Bud Bud and on the way they were ambushed and suffered heavy casualties.

While a third attempt was in the last stages of preparation, the operation commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Splendorelli, was ambushed between Bud Bud and Buula Barde. He and some of his staff were killed. As a consequence of the death of the commander of the operations and the effect of two failed operations intended to overcome the El-Buur mutiny, the spirit of Italian troops began to wane. The Governor took the situation seriously, and to prevent any more failure he requested two battalions from Eritrea to reinforce his troops, and assumed lead of the operations. Meanwhile, the rebellion was gaining sympathy across the country, and as far a field as Western Somaliland.

The fascist government was surprised by the setback in Hobyo. The whole policy of conquest was collapsing under its nose. The El-Buur episode drastically changed the strategy of Italy as it revived memories of the Adwa fiasco when Italy had been defeated by Abyssinia. Furthermore, in the Colonial Ministry in Rome, senior officials distrusted the Governor's ability to deal with the matter. Rome instructed De Vecchi that he was to receive the reinforcement from Eritrea, but that the commander of the two battalions was to temporarily assume the military command of the operations and De Vecchi was to stay in Muqdisho and confine himself to other colonial matters. In the case of any military development, the military commander was to report directly to the Chief of Staff in Rome.

While the situation remained perplexed, De Vecchi moved the deposed sultan to Muqdisho. Fascist Italy was poised to re-conquer the sultanate by whatever means. To manoeuvre the situation within Hobyo, they even contemplated the idea of reinstating Ali Yusuf. However, the idea was dropped after they became pessimistic about the results.

To undermine the resistance, however, and before the Eritrean reinforcement could arrive, De Vecchi began to instil distrust among the local people by buying the loyalty of some of them. In fact, these tactics had better results than had the military campaign, and the resistance began gradually to wear down. Given the anarchy which would follow, the new policy was a success.

On the military front, on 26 December 1925 Italian troops finally overran El-Buur, and the forces of Omar Samatar were compelled to retreat to Western Somaliland.

The Second Casualty: The Fall of the Majeerteen Sultanate

By neutralising Hobyo, the fascists could concentrate on the Majeerteen. In early October 1924, E. Coronaro, the new Alula commissioner, presented Boqor Osman with an ultimatum to disarm and surrender. Meanwhile, Italian troops began to pour into the sultanate in anticipation of this operation. While landing at Haafuun and Alula, the sultanate's troops opened fire on them. Fierce fighting ensued and to avoid escalating the conflict and to press the fascist government to revoke their policy, Boqor Osman tried to open a dialogue. However, he failed, and again fighting broke out between the two parties. Following this disturbance, on 7 October the Governor instructed Coronaro to order the Sultan to surrender; to intimidate the people he ordered the seizure of all merchant boats in the Alula area. At Haafuun, Arimondi bombarded and destroyed all the boats in the area.

On 13 October Coronaro was to meet Boqor Osman at Baargaal to press for his surrender. Under siege already, Boqor Osman was playing for time. However, on 23 October Boqor Osman sent an angry response to the Governor defying his order. Following this a full scale attack was ordered in November. Baargaal was bombarded and razed to the ground. This region was ethnically compact, and was out of range of direct action by the fascist government of Muqdisho. The attempt of the colonisers to suppress the region erupted into explosive confrontation. The Italians were meeting fierce resistance on many fronts. In December 1925, led by the charismatic leader Hersi Boqor, son of Boqor Osman, the sultanate forces drove the Italians out of Hurdia and Haafuun, two strategic coastal towns on the Indian Ocean. Another contingent attacked and destroyed an Italian communications centre at Cape Guardafui, on the tip of the Horn. In retaliation Bernica and other warships were called on to bombard all main coastal towns of the Majeerteen. After a violent confrontation Italian forces captured Ayl (Eil), which until then had remained in the hands of Hersi Boqor. In response to the unyielding situation, Italy called for reinforcements from their other colonies, notably, Eritrea. With their arrival at the closing of 1926, the Italians began to move into the interior where they had not been able to venture since their first seizure of the coastal towns. Their attempt to capture Dharoor Valley was resisted, and ended in failure.

De Vecchi had to reassess his plans as he was being humiliated on many fronts. After one year of exerting full force he could not yet manage to gain a result over the sultanate. In spite of the fact that the Italian navy sealed the sultanate's main coastal entrance, they could not succeed in stopping them from receiving arms and ammunition through it. It was only early 1927 when they finally succeeded in shutting the northern coast of the sultanate, thus cutting arms and ammunition supplies for the Majeerteen. By this time, the balance had tilted to the Italian's side, and in January 1927 they began to attack with a massive force, capturing Iskushuban, at the heart of the Majeerteen. Hersi Boqor unsuccessfully attacked and challenged the Italians at Iskushuban. To demoralise the resistance, ships were ordered to raze and bombard the sultanate's coastal towns and villages. In the interior the Italian troops confiscated livestock. By the end of the 1927 the Italians had nearly taken control of the sultanate. Defeated and humiliated, Hersi Boqor and his top staff were forced to retreat to Ethiopia in order to rebuild the forces. However, they had an epidemic of cholera which frustrated all attempts to recover his force.

After two years of devastating war in which thousands of civilians died and the entire economy of the sultanate was ruined, razing all coastal towns and villages, the Italian colonial administration could boast that it had broken the Majeerteen resistance and put an end to an era in Somaliland. Boqor Osman fled to the British Somaliland, but was handed back to the Italians. In November the formal act of surrender took place in Hurdia, and Boqor Osman dramatically consigned his sword to Governor De Vecchi. Later Boqor Osman was exiled to Muqdisho. With the elimination of the north-eastern sultanates and the breaking of the Benaadir resistance, from this period henceforth, Italian Somaliland was to become a reality. The partition of Somaliland was already shaping during this period and the fate of the Somalis was at the mercy of the colonial powers.

Issa-Salwe, Abdisalam M. (1996):
The Collapse of the Somali State: The Impact of the Colonial Legacy,
London: Haan Associates.



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