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Economic growth and social transformation in 19th century Somalia.
Desert caravans, coastal cities and population movements
During the 19th century, the social landscape of Southern Somalia was profoundly transformed as a result of East Africa’s integration into global trade, reversing the period of stagnation following the collapse of the Ajuran empire.
Camel caravans of enterprising Somali merchants begun trekking across the arid interior, linking the pastoral producers in the interior to the coastal cities, as settlements of migrant pastoralists and cultivators emerged in the fertile hinterlands of the coast. The combined caravan trade and agricultural boom greatly increased the region's prosperity, attracting more settlement and diversifying the region's ethnic mosaic.
This article outlines the social history of southern Somalia during the 19th century, exploring the organization of long-distance trade as well as the patterns of exchange and production in the hinterland of the coastal cities.
Map showing the caravan routes of Southern Somalia during the late 19th century1
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The roots of social and economic change in Southern Somalia: Between the fall of Ajuran and the rise of the Geledi kingdom.
Following the collapse of Ajuran empire during the 17th century, the intricate trade network which linked the agro-pastoral economy of the interior with the Indian ocean economies through the coastal cities, went into decline.
The continued movement of various Somali clan families and the appearance of Oromo-speaking groups altered the political landscape of the preceding era2, and the resulting wars necessitated a shift in social organization which led to the creation of 'multi-lingual' settlements. By the early 18th century, Rahanwiin clan-family had settled in the region between the Shebelle and Jubaa rivers, developing a close social and economic relationship with their Borana-Oromo neighbors. They established the trading town of Luuq along the Jubba river which was described as the ‘Timbuktu’ of the region, attracting merchants and diverse groups of settlers from Mogadishu, Brava and Merca. Somali traders in Luuq exchanged pastoral products and ivory acquired from the Borana for coastal goods.3
The most prominent among the Rahanwiin family was the Geledi clan whose elite Gobroon lineage had subsumed the Silcis (a successor state of Ajuran). Combining their military success with religious prestige, they established the Geledi kingdom in the late 18th century at their capital Afgooye.4
Geledi's political influence was initially minimal until the outbreak of the Baardheere clerical movement in the 1830s. The Baardheere drew from new forms of legitimacy that weren't readily accepted in the region. Its attacks on the trading towns such as Luuq, and its banning of ivory trade gave further leverage to the Geledi king Yusuf's attempts at mobilizing opposition forces from many clans that in 1843, defeated the Baardheere.5
Using this war-time alliance, and their religious prestige, Geledi's kings managed to create a loose confederation based on clans which accepted their authority nominally. Its authority extended upto Brava and the hinterland Mogadishu and controlled most of the trade routes terminating at its capital Afgooye. The Geledi kings were also closely associated with the Zanzibar sultan. But the cohesion of the Geledi state was threatened by opposition from the Biimaal clan which defeated Sultan Yusuf in 1848, and later defeated his successor Ahmed in 1878. Although this defeat eroded Geledi's political authority by the early 1880s, the kingdom presided over the apogee of economic growth in the region.6
Map showing the Baardheere movement in the 1830s and the Geledi advance in 1843
Economic currents from Southern Somalia’s coastal cities
At the coast, the ‘Benadir’ cities of Brava, Merca, and Mogadishu had settled into a pattern of regular -albeit modest- trade wish ships plying the maritime routes between the Swahili cities of Zanzibar and Lamu archipelago, southern Arabia and western India. The cities attracted the interest of foreign merchants as suppliers of cattle, ivory, cloth, aromatic woods, captives, and, agricultural commodities. External descriptions of the urban settlements of Benadir indicate that they were well past their heyday, with Mogadishu housing a population of about 3,000, but the gradual increase in trade from the mainland slowly revived their fortunes.7
Part of the commercial growth was derived from the expanded market at Zanzibar for the traditional pastoral products of the Somali mainland. Zanzibar, like Geledi, had a nominal political presence in Mogadishu.8 By the mid-19th century, the non-pastoral exports Benadir's exports to Zanzibar consisted of ivory (valued at nearly 2/3rds of total exports), as well as aromatic woods, gums, and myrhh. The local Benadir weaving industry sought new sources of raw cotton along the Shebelle river in response to the increased imports of foreign textiles.9
The concentration of commercial opportunities along the Benadir drew enterprising Somalis from other parts of the country toward the south and helped to further a process of territorial integration that had been going on for centuries. As coastal traders and urban Somali groups in the coastal cities became more involved in the emerging patterns of global commerce, their pastoral peers in the interior were exposed to new markets for their livestock products and to new opportunities in long-distance caravan trading.
The city of Merca
The Caravan trade of Southern Somalia in the 19th century
While long-distance trade between southern Somalia's hinterland and the coastal cities had been pioneered by the Ajuran state, it would be greatly reinvigorated by the rising external demand for African commodities during the 19th century. The initial impetus for the extension of caravan trading into the interior of southern Somalia was the expansion of the ivory frontier from the immediate hinterland of Benadir into the upper regions of the Shebelle and Jubba river valleys.
The southern Somali commercial system was segmented and decentralized circuit encompassing a region occupied by a vast mosaic of independent Somali lineages, clans, and confederations. Each required access to the major conduits of commercial exchange but also guarded its right to regulate its section of the caravan trade as much as it guarded its grazing areas and wells.10
Goods originating in the upper Jubba basin were brought to the Somali mainland towns such as Luuq and Bardera in caravans manned by traders from upcountry clans of Garre, Ajuraan, as well as the Borana Oromo. From the Jubba River towns, caravans manned by traders from the clans of Gasar Gudda, Eelay, and Garre, carried the goods to the towns of Baydhabo, Awdheegle and Afgooye. These market towns near the coast had relatively small fixed populations that also created their own demand, and this population significantly increased during trading seasons. It's at these towns that the caravans handed over their goods to coastal traders and local brokers to be exchanged for Indian ocean goods.11
The modern town of Luuq
The absence of large centralized state regulating long distance commerce on the mainland didn't impede the efficiency of caravan trade. The different merchant groups utilized several established institutions such as the use of a host/protector (abbaan). This was a prestigious member of a respected lineage within the clan controlling a section of the caravan route, and was based on a centuries old institution governing patron-client relations that Ibn battuta had witnessed in Mogadishu in 1331, and later visitors would describe in greater detail.12
The abbaan was charged with overseeing the transactions, security and accommodation of itinerant merchants, as well as negotiating customs duties expected by clan elders. Abbaans could also double as brokers (dillaal) who collected products and arranged for buyers in anticipation of the Caravan's arrival. Itinerant merchants left goods on consignment with a trusted abbaan and he was allowed to keep a share ranging from 5-25%. Over time, relations between mainland lineages and coastal merchants were developed through this institution, eg between the Afgooye's Abikerow lineage and the Shanshiiye of Mogadishu, between the Biimaal clan in Merca's hinterland and the town's merchants, and between the Tuuni clan in Brava's hinterland and the town's Hamarani merchants.13
Besides the Abbaan, the other institution that mediated relations between the segmented trade routes was religious specialists. The clerical Reer Mumin lineage, whose members were spread across the route from Mogadishu to Luuq were widely respected and allowed to travel across the region unencumbered. They gave religious sanction to caravans and adjudicated commercial disputes in exchange for fees. 14
All institutions involved in ensuring the efficiency of caravan trade obtained a share of the goods through charging duties, taxes, fees, gifts and other forms of tribute that merchants were expected to pay. This ensured that a significant proportion of the wealth was retained within the communities of the mainland, much like the closely related Swahili caravan trade to its south. But unlike Swahili caravans which used paid porters in tse-tse infested zones, the Somali long distance trade could utilize camels with each caravan possessing upto 15-20 camels.15 The lower end of the Shebelle river was also navigable, allowing merchants to offload their goods to ferrymen (bahar) who then rowed down to Afgooye before continuing to the coastal cities.16
Unlike the largely credit-fuelled expansion of trade from the east African coast into the mainland during the mid-19th century, which enabled coastal Arab and Swahili merchants to subsume the preexisting trade of the Nyamwezi, the caravan trade of southern Somalia remained in local hands. One consequence of this was that despite the ecological advantages, the volume of trade flowing into the Benadir cities was relatively less than that flowing into the Swahili cities, accounting for about 1/4 of Zanzibar's exports. Since caravans were smaller, wealth was more dispersed and no single merchant or 'trading class' could amass the kind of wealth and political influence attested along the Swahili caravan routes.17
The various tributes and expenses incurred by caravan traders along the trade routes meant that only high value commodities could be traded profitably. The main commodity that could meet this requirement was ivory, whose selling price at Mogadishu tripled between 1847 and 1890, and constituted half of Brava's exports during the 1840s. Most Somali caravaneers were themselves not involved in hunting but instead initiated complex exchanges with Oromo herdsmen in the upper Jubba basin for cattle, and used that cattle to pay hunters for ivory. They used similar exchanges to obtain commodities such as coffee, salt, aromatic woods, as well as captives, in exchange for coastal cloths and copper, but most were retained locally. By the last quarter of the 19th century, agricultural commodities from the lower Shebelle had become the main export of the mainland, rivaling ivory exports.18
Agricultural production in the Shebelle valley: Pastoral politics, Client-cultivators and Captives.
The Shebelle river runs parallel to the Benadir coast for 200 miles, creating a fertile river plain that could supply the coastal cities with agricultural surpluses. While the semi-arid mainland was primary occupied by Somali-speaking pastoralists, the fertile Shebelle valley was settled by mixed groups of sedentary agro-pastoralist groups speaking Cushitic-languages related to Somali, as well as Sabaki-languages of the Bantu subgroup19. The impetus of external trade attracted different nomadic Somali clans from the mainland such as the Biimaal and Geledi, who settled in the valley and became semi-sedentarised.20
Map of the lower Shebelle valley 1850-1910
The semi-sedentarised pastoral clans syncretized social institutions in this region to create a new political system. Clan elders were in charge of distributing land and defending it from external aggression, clan lineages divided the land and resolved disputes, and individual clansmen planted the land, working alongside clients groups. These client groups were typically pre-existing sedentary cultivators who acquired the status of dependents within the new pastoral political system. This client relationship was founded on a preexisting pastoral institution of sheegad where smaller clans were allowed to graze on lands of larger clans as dependents. But since the semi-sedentarised pastoral clans had little use for cultivation, the client cultivators retained significant autonomy by forming corporate arrangements with pastoral lineages to mediate disputes.21
This client relationship could sustain the modest agricultural trade of the mid-19th century in which cereal, cotton and cattle, that were sold to the Benadir cities from where they were exported into the western Indian ocean. In 1843-7, one visitor stated that the grain grown in the hinterland of the Benadir cities “supplies the whole coast of Hadramaut and Oman”. Estimating that 3,182 tones of millet were exported annually from Mogadishu to Zanzibar and southern Arabia, and over 50 tones of sesame seed were exported annually from the cities.22
The export of cattle and cow-hides in particular created a new type of exchange that would augment pre-existing patterns of agricultural production. The establishment of; the British colony of Aden in 1839; the French colonial settlements on the Mascarenes islands, and arrival of New England (American) leather traders on the east African coast, created demand for cattle products which the Benaadir cities supplied to a tune of 3,000 annually by the late 19th century.23
The coincidence of increasing demand for agro-pastoral products from southern Somalia, with the falling demand for captives in the western Indian ocean, compelled Benadir merchants to exchange the cattle and other pastoral products which they acquired from Somali caravaneers with captives from the Zanzibar based merchants.24 The volume of this trade in captives was relatively low at about 600 a year in the 1840s, rising in the 1860s before collapse by the late 1880s.25The importation of captives into the Shebelle valley was not isolated trade but involved a mixed variety of imports including cloth, yarn, and manufactures from the Indian ocean world, and the Somali cow-hides were inturn re-exported from Zanzibar to American buyers26.
However, the bulk of the servile population on the Somali mainland and coast remained local in origin, being derived from the clan conflicts and pastoral wars between the Somali clans and the neighboring Oromo groups. Some of these local captives were sent to the Benadir cities as domestic servants, and many were retained in the Shebelle valley among the population of client-cultivators. 27
Given the dispersed nature of the trade, individual merchants rarely retained many of the slaves; some were given to client cultivators to augment agricultural production, but most were exchanged in internal trade for cattle which remained the primary form of wealth among the pastoral clans. This internal exchange of slaves rather than concentration under individual owners was also determined by the restrictions on land acquisition by clan elders which constrained the capacity of wealthy merchants to set up large plantations.28
The enslaved population was therefore not confined to plantations and quickly formed free communities especially in the lower Jubba's Gosha region as early as the 1840s. These free communities chose their own rulers, and also engaged in agricultural production for subsistence and export.29 Both the freed and servile class of southern Somalia was therefore a diverse group, the majority of whom eventually spoke Somali dialects and adopted Somali clan identities despite their diverse origins30, and they shouldn't be conflated with the creation of very recent social constructs such as 'Somali Bantu'.31
The overall population increase in the cultivator population led to a significant boost in agricultural exports from the Shebelle valley with the cultivation of millet, sesame, and cotton. By 1896, more than 5,729.3 tons of millet were exported worth M.T. $125,512, and upto sesame seed occupying a distant second with exports of 368.4 tons of sesame seed worth M.T. $22,576.32
Re-exports of hides, rubber, and gum copal from Zanzibar to the US, UK, and Bombay, 1836–1900. notice that the trade in hides peaked in the 1880s.33
From economic prosperity to decline on the eve of colonialism
The prosperity of the Shebelle valley attracted more groups from the Somali mainland as well as the northern coast. Merchants from the northern cities of Hobyo and Majeerteenia came to Merca and to the new town of Kismaayo to engage in grain trade with southern Arabia. The Daarood clan families, especially the Haarti clan, also moved into the Shebelle valley, bringing with them more clients and captives derived from the regional wars of neighboring Oromo groups. The new trade routes to Kismaayo would later rival established caravan routes. 34
Indian financiers who had fueled the expansion of Swahili ivory trade also became active in Benadir cities during the late 19th century, setting up financial houses and extending credit to ivory caravans. The American traders who were concentrated on Zanzibar also expanded their activities to the Benadir cities.35 The Benadir cloth industry also underwent a period of rapid expansion; rather than relying solely on cotton from the valley, Benadir weavers begun importing yarn from Bombay, with upto 2.5 million pounds of yarn imported in 1894.36
The increased export of agricultural surpluses gave the pastoral clans more political influence over the Benadir cities which counteracted the expansionist policies of the Zanzibar sultan. While the cities of Merka, Mogadishu and Brava had allowed the construction of Zanzibari forts locally in 1860-1880s, the immediate hinterland remained out of Zanzibar Sultan's political orbit and the sultanate's presence in the cities was itself nominal. And just as foreign merchants had been restricted from moving inland, foreign agriculturalists were restricted from setting up plantations in the Benadir's immediate hinterland.37
By the late 19th century, foreign powers were increasingly interested in exploiting the agricultural potential of the Shebelle valley and the interior caravan trade. In the interior, competition between Italian and British officials to lure the caravan trade toward ports in their respective spheres of influence exacerbated inter-clan rivalries which made caravan routes insecure. And in the Shebelle river valley, the opening of alternative caravan routes through northern Kenya, and a severe rinderpest epidemic dealt a major blow to the cattle trade.38
The Benadir ports were "ceded" to Italy by the sultan of Zanzibar in 1892, although Italian forces did not move inland to occupy the Shebelle valley until 1908.39 The collapse of caravan trade, the increased importance of agriculture, and the creation of new social identities in the early colonial era would have a profound influence on the succeeding governments of the modern era.40
Mogadishu in the early 20th century
For nearly a century, the dynasty of an African king named Abraha controlled vast swathes of modern Saudi Arabia and Yemen ruling over a diverse Christian and Jewish population just before the emergence of Islam.
read about it here;
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this and other Maps in the article were made by Lee Cassanelli
Somali Sultanate: The Geledi City-state Over 150 Years by Virginia Luling pg 17
The Hadrami Diaspora: Community-Building on the Indian Ocean Rim By Leif Manger pg 89-90
Historical dictionary of Somalia by Mohamed Haji Mukhtar pg 28-29)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 137-140, Somali Sultanate: The Geledi City-state Over 150 Years by Virginia Luling pg 23-24
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli 187-189)
Muqdisho in the Nineteenth Century by EA Alpers pg 442-446)
Muqdisho in the Nineteenth Century by EA Alpers pg 446-448)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 150, 148)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 155)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 154)
Tradition to text: writing local somali history by Lee Cassanelli pg 62-63)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 157-158)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 159)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 156, 160
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 155)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 159-160)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli 153, 161)
Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery By Catherine Besteman pg 52-53
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 163)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 164-165)
Muqdisho in the Nineteenth Century by EA Alpers pg 449)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 178-9, Tradition to text: writing local somali history by Lee Cassanelli pg 59)
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 174,
Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery By Catherine Besteman pg 55, “Gendered Narratives,” History, and Identity by Francesca Declich pg 98-99)
Twilight of an Industry in East Africa by K Frederick pg 94
Translocal Connections Across the Indian Ocean by F Declich pg 93-110, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery By Catherine Besteman pg 57-58
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 173)
Two Centuries Along the Juba River among the Zigula and Shanbara Francesca Declic pg 95-96, The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 192-193)
Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery By Catherine Besteman pg 63-69
Translating Race across Time and Space: The Creation of Somali Bantu Ethnicity by Catherine Besteman
Muqdisho in the Nineteenth Century by EA Alpers pg 449)
Twilight of an Industry in East Africa by K Frederick pg 92
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 180-181)
Muqdisho in the Nineteenth Century by EA Alpers pg 453-454, Twilight of an Industry in East Africa by K Frederick pg 95
Twilight of an Industry in East Africa by K Frederick pg 226
The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 175-176)
The Hadrami Diaspora by Leif Manger pg 91-93. The Shaping of Somali Society by Lee V. Cassanelli pg 182, 191-193, Renewers of the Age by Scott Reese pg 106-7
The Scramble in the Horn of Africa by Mohamed Osman Omar pg 245-247)
Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery By Catherine Besteman pg 87-130