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The Somali Community in the Port of London

Frankincense and myrrh
The British Protectorate
Firemen of the stokeholes
East End Somaal Town
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Firemen of the stokeholes

Dockhands and firemen

HMS 'Seagull'.
View full size imageHMS 'Seagull'. © NMM
The setting up of Perim Island near Aden as a coaling station meant that workers were needed to unload British coal and transfer it to Royal Navy ships. Somalis were quickly recognized as being one of the few local communities willing to work as dockhands and as firemen on board Royal Navy vessels.

The employment of Somalis was also linked to the Royal Navy's anti-slavery campaign. This was run from Aden, the nearest British naval station to northern Somalia (or Somaliland) and a base for the Bombay Marine. By 1881 the Royal Navy employed Somalis as interpretors in the anti-slavery campaign in eastern Africa, serving on ships such as HMS Seagull.

P&O's London to India service

In the 1840s the Peninsula and Oriental (P&O) company launched a mail and passenger service from London to India via Egypt. The service involved:

  • an overland route from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea
  • sailing on the Hindostan or Bentick through the Red Sea to Aden
  • sailing from Aden across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
  • arrival in the P&O Indian terminus at Calcutta. 

The decline of sail and the increase in steam shipping had resulted in a considerable decline in manpower in the British merchant navy. Few Britons wanted to work in the hot and dirty 'stokeholes' of the steamships.

Somali men from British Somaliland were recruited in Aden by shipping companies and were very popular as firemen. Somalis were seen as one of the few ethnic groups who could stoke the fires of steam ships sailing through the heat of the Red Sea.

Growth in demand for Somali workers

In 1856, when the British Indian Steam Navigation Company (BINSC) made Calcutta the headquarters of their Indian Ocean operations, there was even greater demand for Somali firemen.
When the Suez Canal opened in 1869 the number of steam ships sailing through the Red Sea increased. Many other shipping companies started to employ Somali firemen. Somalis were hired on 'coolie' wages, which were often 25% below that of the pay of standard British seamen. 

New opportunities

Somalis on quaterdeck HMS 'Venus' at Singapore.
View full size imageSomalis on quarterdeck of HMS Venus at Singapore. © NMM
In 1905 the Benadir Company was reconstructed and a monthly postal service of steamers started between Aden, the Benadir and Zanzibar. This offered opportunities for Somalis from the southern regions.

There were few maritime jobs in their home country and even by 1907 there were no dockyards or naval establishments in Somaliland. Nevertheless, Somalis hired in Aden served on Royal Navy ships in the First World War.

Somali ex-soldiers who had served with the British forces during the Second World War were often offered work on Royal Navy ships after the war.

Many Somalis looked for work with British merchant shipping companies, particularly those sailing in the Indian Ocean or to the Far East.


Related Resources
Related Images2 Images
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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