Professor I M Lewis' Somali History is a remarkable book for it remains after four
editions - 1965, 1980, 1998 and 2002 - essential introductory reading for all who
would learn of the Horn of Africa. However, it is uneven perhaps because it started life
as a modern history concentrating mainly on the former British Protectorate. The
publishers claim on the cover that it is 'Revised, Updated & Expanded but the extent to
which the author was allowed to update rather than add to previous editions is not clear.
The odd typo has been picked up but the page numbers of chapters one to eight are
unchanged and research cited as dating from 1964 and even 1957 is still termed 'recent'.
An example, picked up by reviewers of earlier editions, is that the 'Galla' peoples never
so described themselves, regarding that word as derogatory and calling themselves
'Oromo'. Lewis recognizes this in a footnote but the text remains confusing since he still
uses both terms - sometimes in the same paragraph. Also Somalis refer to the lefthanded
Imam Ahmed Ibrahim al-Ghazi as Guray rather than use the Abyssinian Gran.
Many readers of the Overseas Pensioner with experience in Eastern Africa will recall
that after the second world war, former British administrators repeatedly ordered migrant
Somalis back north-east across an arbitrary line in the former Northern Frontier District
of Kenya. This, coupled with the Somalis' own insistence on the literal validity of
lineages tracing their origin back to Arabia, made it easy to conclude, as Lewis has done at the beginning of chapter two, that "Until the late nineteenth century the history of the
eastern Horn of Africa is dominated by the protracted Somali expansion from the
north However breaks-through in the fields of archaeology, linguistics and
molecular genetics (DNA sequences) suggest that the homeland of the Somali and the
Oromo was the lakes region of Ethiopia. Thus much of the first two chapters is dated and
no longer reflects current scholarship.
Perhaps the reader should begin this book on page 30, for thereafter Lewis' analytical
and very readable chapters are likely to be of great interest to Overseas Pensioner
readers. There follows a masterly survey of the colonial partition; penetration inland by
French, British, Italian and Abyssinian Christians and Somali resistance thereto led by
Sayyid Muhammad Abdille Hassan - the so-called 'Mad Mullah' - and his 'Dervishes';
unification under the short-lived Afrique Orientate Italiana; the path to independence
and the early problems experienced thereafter. This reviewer would only quibble over
Filonardi, the important consul in Zanzibar to whom the Italian Government had
"entrusted the management of its Benadir holding". Lewis states he " ... had deserted
his consular post to form the commercial enterprise of V Vilonardi e Co". In fact he was
a very prominent clove merchant well before being appointed consul and in resigning
was responding to a direct written order to do so from the minister in Rome.
It was to be under the Italians and then the British that the majority of the Somalis
first experienced union, albeit briefly. In the aftermath of the second world war,
however, Ethiopia was seen particularly by the United States as a strategic ally and a
victim to be rewarded. This had to be at the cost of the whole Horn of Africa. Discussing
the key 1942 and 1944 Anglo-Ethiopian Agreements, Lewis does not shrink from
observing that their eventual application was "despite the known strength of Somali
feeling ... and the natural repugnance of the British officials on the spot to participate in
what many regarded as a betrayal of Somali interests."
Later editions have added the Mogadishu 'Revolution' of 21 October 1969; the
growth, extent and collapse of Soviet influence and the superficiality of Siad Barre's
'scientific socialism'; the attempt to 'liberate' the Ogaden and the problem of the
subsequent mass movements of refugees. The fourth edition under review includes not
only discussion of Somali opposition movements and the collapse of central authority but
political developments in the north and north-east and the failure to date of international
intervention. 'Warlords' are identified but so also is another emergent group which Lewis
perceptively dubs ' the scrap merchants'. Even the former British Protectorate's current
claims to international recognition as the Republic of Somaliland are hesitantly projected.
These additional chapters are all original and they vividly portray more recent events
against a background of the remarkable resilience of Somali cultural values. To Lewis,
"the general (chaotic) situation vividly recalls the descriptions of Burton and other
nineteenth century European explorers; a land of clan (and clan-segment) republics ...".
And if this and some of Lewis' contemporary interpretations might be felt overemphasized
and rather rigid by some Somali and other scholars (who get short shrift in
the footnotes!), the facts are well marshalled and the reader is left in no doubt that in
their interpretation the author draws heavily on an unequalled lifetime of anthropological
and political analyses of the structure of traditional Somali life and society. This is
certainly a book to read as it is likely to be influential.