1902 Encyclopedia > Somali


SOMALI, SOMAL, a Hamitic people of east Central Africa, mainly confined to the eastern "horn" of the continent, which from them takes the name of Somâli Land, probably the Punt of the Egyptian records. Here they are conterminous towards the north-west with the kindred Afars (Dankali), and elsewhere with the more closely related Gallas, from whom they are separated on the south-west by the river Juba. Tajurra Bay, with the lower course of the Hawash, is usually given as the north-west frontier; but, according to the recent explorations of Abargues de Sostcn in eastern Abyssinia, there appears to be here an overlapping of the three peoples, the Isa Somâli encroaching on the Afar domain north of Tajurra Bay nearly to the parallel of Asab Bay (13° N), while the Dawari Gallas penetrate between this Somâli tribe and the lower Hawash eastwards to the coast at Obok (12° N). A line drawn from the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb through the Harrar district and the headwaters of the Haines river (Webbe-Shebeyli or " Leopard river") southwards to the equator at the mouth of the Juba will roughly define the landward frontier of the Somâli territory, which is else-where sea-girt,—by the Gulf of Aden on the north, by the Indian Ocean from Cape Guardafui to the equator.

Our first contact with the Somfdi people may be said to date from the English occupation of Aden in 1839. But, notwithstanding the early visits of Cruttenden, Ch. H. Johnston, Captain Burton, and one or two others, very little was known about them before the seizure of Berberah by the Egyptians in 1874. This event led to the establishment of permanent relations with the coast tribes, and was followed by several excursions into the interior, of which the most fruitful in results have been those of Sacconi, Revoil, E. L. James, Paulitschke, Von Hardegger, and Josef Menge, the last three bringing our information down to the year 1885. From the reports of these observers the true relations of the Somâli have been gradually determined, and we now know that they form a distinct branch of the eastern ("Ethiopic") Hamitic stock, of which the other chief members are the neighbouring Gallas and Afars, the Abyssinian Agau, and the Bejas (Bishari) of the steppe lands between the Nubian Nile and the Red Sea. Their close affinities both in physical type and in speech with the surrounding Gallas are obvious, and like them they are described as a fine race, [255-1 ] tall, active, and robust, with fairly regular features, but not free from an infusion of Negro blood, as shown both in their dark, often almost black complexion, and still more in their kinky and even woolly hair, sometimes short, sometimes long enough to be plaited in tresses hanging down to the shoulders. [255-2] Like the Gallas also they are still in the tribal state, broken up into an endless number of clans and septs, variously grouped by different writers. According to Captain Guillain [256-1] there are three main divisions—the Aji on the north and north-east coast, the Hawiya on the south-east coast, and the Rahhanwin in the interior. But these are reduced by James to two, Isak and Darode (apparently the Edur and Darrud of older observers), with several main branches as under :—

== TABLE ==

To these, however, must be added the powerful Gadabirsi west from Berberah and the Isa (Issa) of the Hawash basin, besides the three low-caste tribes dispersed amongst the others,—Tomal (ironworkers), Ebir (dealers in charms), and Midgan (ostrich breeders).

The Somâli, who are mainly Mohammedans of a somewhat fanatical type, are a fierce lawless people, impatient of control, and yielding a reluctant obedience even to their own rulers. Hence the tribal chiefs enjoy little more than a nominal authority, although some of the more powerful amongst them affect the title of sultan. At present the great Habr Gerhaji nation appears to be split into two sections, each under a chief claiming this rank. All go armed with spear, shield, and short sword, the latter exactly like that of the ancient Egyptians, whom the Somâli are otherwise said to resemble more than any other African people. The weapons are freely used in their disputes, although the tribal laws against homicide are severe, heavy fines of camels or other property being imposed, which must be paid either by the criminal or the community. They are great talkers, keenly sensitive to ridicule, and quick-tempered, although amenable to reason if they can be induced to argue the point. According to the character of the soil and climate they live a settled or nomad life, in some places breeding numerous herds of camels, goats, and fat-tailed sheep, in others growing large crops especially of durrah, or collecting the gums—frankincense and myrrh—for which the land has always been famous. The Marehan (properly Murreyhan) tribe is said to have given its name to the myrrh, which is obtained in the greatest perfection in their district, although the term seems too old to admit of this derivation, and is more probably connected with a Semitic root mar, mur = bitter. Through the ports of Berberah and Zeyla, a considerable export trade to Arabia, Egypt, and India is carried on with these articles and the other natural pro-duets of the country, such as hides, horns, ostrich feathers, coffee of a very fine quality, indigo, salt. But the natives take little part in this movement, which from remote times has been in the hands of the Indian banians settled at various points on the coast. In 1879-80 the total value of the exports was estimated at about £140,000.

Like many other Mohammedan peoples, the Somâli claim Arab descent, their progenitor having been a certain Sherif Ishak b. Ahmad, who crossed over from Hadramaut with forty followers about five hundred years ago. Other traditions go farther back, tracing their origin to the Himyaritic chiefs Sanhaj and Samamah, said to have been coeval with a King Afrikus, who is supposed to have conquered Africa about 400 A.D. These legends should perhaps be interpreted as pointing at a series of Arab immigrations, the last two of which are referred to the 13th and 15th centuries. But these intruders seem to have been successively absorbed in the Somâl stock; and it is remarkable that the Arabs never succeeded in establishing permanent settled or nomad communities in this region, as they have done in so many other parts of the continent. Their influence has been very slight even on the Somal language, whose structure and vocabulary are essentially Hamitic, with marked affinities to the Galla on the one hand and to the Dankali (Afar) on the other. Captain Hunter's Grammar, with exercises and vocabularies (Bombay, 1880), utilizing the materials published by General Rigby in the Proceedings of the Bombay Geographical Society (1849), is the only comprehensive treatise on the language, which appears to be spoken with great uniformity throughout the whole of Somâli Land. Hunter mentions an eastern and a western dialect, differing, however, but little from one another, which is the more remarkable that there is no written standard and little oral literature, beyond some proverbial sayings, short stories inculcating certain moral teachings, and some simple love-songs. Although the rhythm is defective, these chants are not lacking in poetical ideas, and often betray an unexpected refinement of feeling not inferior to that of similar compositions amongst more civilized peoples. (A. H. K.)


255-1 Captain Wharton, who has been recently surveying the Somâli seaboard, describes the coast tribes near the equator as " the handsomest race of men and women he had ever seen," black in colour, but with magnificent physique (Proc. Roy. Geog. Soc., Oct., 1885). Captain F. M. Hunter also describes them as a tall, fine-looking people, with oval face, high rounded forehead, full lips, strong regular teeth, bright restless eye, but lower limbs seldom well developed (A Grammar of the Somal Language, Bombay, 1880).

255-2 The occasional presence of " steatopyga" (Topinard) shows that all these features are undoubtedly due to Negro intermixture.

256-1 Documents sur l'histoire, &c., de I'Afrique Orientale, 1856-59.

The above article was written by: A. H. Keane, Professor of Hindustani, University College, London.

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