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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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Frankincense and myrrh

Trading links

The people of northern Somalia were influenced by the Sabean Kingdom of South Arabia. This is the same kingdom that the Bible links with the Queen of Sheba.

First century BC pottery from the Middle East, the Nile Valley and Mesopotamia has been found along the coast of northeast Somalia. This demonstrates the region's trading links. 

Early influences

Scrubland on the Kenya-Somalia border.
View full size imageScrubland on the Kenya-Somalia border. © NMM
Before the rise of Islam the people of northern Somalia came under Persian and Arab cultural influence. They finally adopted Islam some time between 800 and 1000 AD along the east coast.

Somali legends talk about a migration of Arabs into northern Somalia around 1200 AD. They intermarried with the locals and gave rise to the Somali people. All Somali clans traditionally trace their ancestry to two brothers Samaal and Sab.

Over the next four centuries the Somalis moved east into Djibouti and Ethiopia and south into eastern Kenya. They conquered or absorbed the Galla and Bantu peoples in the course of their migration.  

The Zelawi

Pepper Vine, Kerela, India.
View full size imagePepper Vine, Kerela, India. © NMM
The Somali people are mostly a clan-based pastoral society. However, there are some exceptions to this. The people of Zeila in northern Somalia, who are known as Zelawi, are a people of mixed Arab, Somali and Ethiopian origin. They have a history of occupation by Persians and South Arabs.

The Zelawi also have a history of maritime trade with the Greeks, Romans and the people of South India. Roman glass has also been found in the northeast of Somalia.

The northeast of Somalia was known to the Romans as the Cape of Spices. This may be because Indian traders brought their spices here in exchange for Roman glass and olive oil.

Prized commodities

Northern Somalia is a source of two commodities that were prized in the ancient world. These are:

  • 'maidi' - a resin from a type of frankincense tree (Boswellia somali), known as 'yagar' in Somali
  • 'molmol' - a resin from a tree called 'didin' in Somali. This is a variety of myrrh (Commiphora myrrha).

With the rise of Christianity and Islam, the demand for incense decreased. By the early 14th century Zeila had become a source of meat and dried fish for ships trading between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The decline in the Arab Empire was marked by the arrival of the Turks at Zeila in 1500.

Berbera and Brava

Brava (Barowa).
View full size imageBrava (Barowa). © NMM
There are few good natural anchorages along the coast of Somalia. The two exceptions are Berbera in the north and Brava in the south. Both offer protected anchorage during the monsoons.

Sailing on a dhow, Lamu, Kenya.
View full size imageSailing on a dhow, Lamu, Kenya. © NMM
Berbera is probably the port mentioned in a 9th-century Chinese text as 'Po-pali, where the land produced ivory, ambergris and slaves. Though the reference suggests that the natives of 'Po-pali' were a pastoral people, there is no mention of Islam among them. However, the slave raiders are mentioned in the same text as being Arabs and Persians.

Berbera was also a major centre for the export of myrhh. The Chinese name for myrrh is 'moyao' and may be of Somali origin. 


Mogadoxa (Mogadishu).
View full size imageMogadoxa (Mogadishu). © NMM
Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, has no protection for ships at anchor during the monsoons. The Moroccan explorer Ibn Batuta mentioned that in the early 14th century the dhows from Arabia were met by smaller 'sumbuqs'.

Despite the lack of a good harbour Mogadishu was an important port during the 11th and 12th centuries. During that period it controlled the flow of gold from southeast Africa and ivory from east Africa.

In the 13th century Mogadishu lost much of her trading power to the better-protected Swahili ports of eastern Africa. Nevertheless, Mogadishu was a port of call for the Chinese Imperial fleets and it even sent an ambassador to China in 1416 and 1419.

The Kiswahili speakers

It is in the town of Brava that a group of merchants and sailors known as the Amarani originate. This community speaks a form of Kiswahili known as Chimbalazi or Chimini.

Portuguese sources and a Swahili document known as the Pate Chronicle suggest that in the mid-16th century some of the Kiswahili-speaking inhabitants of Brava were forced to sail to Pate Island in the Lamu Archipelago. This was perhaps due to the arrival of the Somali.

Indonesian outriggers, Bali, Indonesia.
View full size imageIndonesian outriggers, Bali, Indonesia. © NMM

Further south along the coast, near the border with Kenya and on the offshore islands, live the Bajuni. These people speak a Kiswahili dialect and have a settled culture with a strong fishing and seafaring tradition.

The Bajuni traded with Ming China (1368-1644) in tortoise shell, shark fins and sea cucumbers. This community has some cultural features that suggest links with Indonesia. These include:

  • coconut and banana cultivation
  • the Malay-Polynesian outrigger canoe
  • methods of frond weaving.  

Arrival of the Portuguese

A Portuguese Carrack before the wind.
View full size imageA Portuguese carrack before the wind. © NMM
The Portuguese arrived from the south at the end of the 15th century. They were commanded by Vasco Da Gama. They embarked on a series of attacks along the Somali coast:

  • bombarding Mogadishu in 1499
  • placing Brava under Portuguese protection in 1503
  • burning Zeila in 1516
  • sacking Berbera in 1518.

Despite these attacks Portuguese control was erratic and by the mid-16th century the Somali had reached the mainland opposite the Lamu Archipelago.

In the early 20th century there was an area within the city of Mogadishu that was inhabited by seamen and traders. Some of these traders claimed part Portuguese and part Indian ancestry.

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